Kim Stanley Robinson’s prolific track record includes three excellent science fiction trilogies: Three Californias, the Mars trilogy, and the Science in the Capitol series.Those works alone probably make him a good bet to be a SFWA Grand Master some day, and I suspect his recent Nebula-winner 2312 (2012) is more evidence for the jury. This sprawling, epic tale is a stunning display of future world-building, and while it often feels padded and rambly, it’s ultimately a compelling tour de force.
Three hundred years from now, the solar system has been colonized by the long-lived descendants of humanity, from the unforgiving heat and radiation of Mercury to the remote colds of Pluto. Swan, a fiery artist, is swept into interplanetary intrigue when a relative, Alex, dies unexpectedly. Not only was Alex part of a clandestine, system-spanning network of individuals secretly working on a pressing problem, but upon her death she expects Swan to carry on in her stead. Reluctantly at first, Swan gets involved, travelling the solar system and veering into and out of the orbit of a reserved Saturnine named Wahram. During their journeys, she becomes ever more involved in unravelling a chilling, system-wide conspiracy, and undergoes a gradual, unexpected personal transformation.
2312 has something for every science fiction fan, if at times too much of some of those things. My one complaint is that Robinson detours, frequently and at length, from the course he sets for himself. His tangents are dense and often fascinating, and in the end many of them do inform the story. But the urgency of the plot is often lost. (Well, there is a second complaint: evidently 300 years has produced no new music. All the characters still listen to classical, and the most recent reference is from the late 1960s. This isn’t an uncommon blind spot for future-based SF, but it bothers me whenever I see it.)
But what vivid description it is, and the world-building here is first rate, full of thoughtfully spun ideas and memorable eyeball kicks. The plot propels the characters divertingly across the solar system, from the rolling track-city of Mars to the mid-terraformation of Venus, from the chaotic post-climate disaster of Earth to the varied and stunning moons of Saturn. This one should resonate with science fiction readers from multiple eras. I sensed splashes of Alfred Bester, John Varley, Charles Stross, and Hannu Rajaniemi in the mix, and it services the fans of all those authors’ respective eras, in different ways. But underneath its surface sense of wonder are Robinson hallmarks, in particular his passionate environmentalism, boundless enthusiasm for science, and refreshing optimism for the future. It’s perhaps over-long, perhaps too unmitigated, but ultimately it’s a rewarding and impressive read.
Stan was here in Champaign, just a couple of weeks ago—and by odd coincidence, touched on exactly that subject: Music in sf.
The theme of the conference that had brought him in was art in sf, and his keynote talk was on the topic of art in sf (and sf as art). It was wide ranging, but he had a story about music in sf.
Early in his career had struggled with a story project that tried to envision music in the future. It was a disaster. He spent years, off an on, working on that story, without ever being really satisfied. Eventually, he decided that it impossible. Except for the particular instance that musicians are always “inventing” new music, it is, he decided, impossible.
He pretty much said that he gave up on creating new music for stories after that experience.
Interesting! And I understand that music is one of the hardest things to describe. But I still think, if an SF story references music (particularly as often as Robinson does in 2312) some sort of effort should be made to envision music beyond our time. So many other things have changed — why do these characters still remember Doors lyrics? (On the other hand, most SF doesn’t mention music at all; I do appreciate that there is a passion for music in his work.)