Science Fiction comes in a lot of flavors. However, you can usually break it down into two main categories: space opera and hard science fiction. Having trouble telling the difference between the two? Here’s a simple test. Is the book several hundred pages longer than it needs to be? If so, it was probably written by Tad Williams (don’t think you’re getting away clean Peter F. Hamilton). That aside, it’s probably also hard sci-fi. And if anyone calls it speculative fiction, we’re going to have a little throw-down. Honestly, isn’t all fiction speculative?
Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 falls into the hard science fiction category. 2312 is a near-future look at a possible direction the human race will take to deal with the encroaching problems of over-population and drastic climate change. A natural answer to those problems is immigration into space. But, where a lot of authors see the human race moving into the unknown reaches of our galaxy, Mr. Robinson views the future strictly through mankind’s expansion into our immediate solar system.
Swan is a visual artist and free spirit. At well over 100-years old, she has spent much of her life designing habitable terrariums inside hollowed-out asteroids. In her free time she explores discoveries in the solar system, from ingesting alien microbes found on the moons of other planets, to surfing the rings of Saturn. She now lives on Mercury, in the domed city of Terminator, which continuously migrates on rails across the surface of the planet in order to stay on the night-side. She spends her days with her grandparents or with the thrill-seeking sunwalkers.
Unexpectedly, her grandmother dies. It’s an event made worse when Swan finds out that her grandmother was working on a secret project with leaders from several planets and moon colonies. Unfortunately, Swan has no idea what the project is, but she finds herself suddenly thrown into the middle of it. She soon learns that the balance of power is shifting in the solar system, and there are those that mean to make sure they control it.
2312 is an old-fashioned piece of science fiction. It’s a novel of ideas, of philosophies. It’s world building on a massive scale. The plot is, ultimately, thin, the action an excuse to take the reader on a whirlwind tour of the social, economic, and political landscape of the author’s future vision. Instead of starships, most people travel in asteroids that sling around the solar system. Mars has been terraformed. Planetary moons dismantled for their resources. China wields influence across the system. Mankind has pushed forward its own physical evolution. The strength of the author’s narrative lies in this wealth of ideas that he brings to table.
The brief author biography at the back mentions that in 2008 the author was named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine. It’s an insight into the author that translates into his work. His construction of Earth itself a few centuries from now is largely from an environmental standpoint. There is a sequence late in the book where extinct species are reintroduced to their old habitats. It’s a fascinating and expertly written experience. And the solar system as a whole in 2312 isn’t merely a collection of ideas or what-ifs that any number of previous authors have pursued. It’s visualized as an entire ecosystem, from the Oort Cloud all the way in to Sol. An ecosystem that must work in harmony to survive. When a butterfly flaps its wings on Saturn, it’s felt on Mercury.
There is a downside to a novel such as this, though, where the plot feels like a secondary element. There are long passages meant to develop characters that become monotonous, almost tedious. In an effort to flesh out the interconnecting facets of the solar system, the main character embarks on several journeys that don’t move the story along or the character, or they do so only marginally. They are interesting, thought-provoking moments to be sure, but they probably could have been pared down without losing anything.
Kim Stanley Robinson has some deep thoughts on the future of the species, the evolution of technology, and our place in a solar system with increasing shrinking resources for a growing number of people. He wonders what we’ll do. He leaves it up to you to decide if it’s right or not.