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2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (2012) 561 p.

One of the many things I find frustrating about our society is a direct result of how myopic we are – namely, that space colonisation is seen as nothing more than a sci-fi fantasy. Yet the mathematics are clear. Even the most right-wing climate-skeptic status-quo-loving Wall Street Journal economist cannot deny that infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet. That is not a long-haired hippie’s manifesto for a sustainable world; it’s a fact, and one which should be of interest to everyone alive. Capitalism, after all, does not have a monopoly on “growth.”

If we want to continue with our technologically-advanced lifestyles (and I certainly do) we have to leave the planet and start plundering other worlds. That’s literally it. We either use of all of Earth’s raw materials, go into decline and start fighting with each other of what’s left; or we colonise space and utilise the resources currently floating above our heads. I know which one I want. (Added bonus: securing the survival of the human race by not putting all our eggs in one basket).

I mention this because Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2312, while certainly flawed in many areas, is one of those wonderful science fiction novels that makes you realise what’s frustratingly possible for the human race to achieve, if only we could show a bit of gumption and look beyond our own lifetimes. (Quotidian example: Melbourne recently replaced its 100-year old sewage system with one designed to last… another 100 years. Surely we can do better than that?) Set, as you might guess, in the year 2312, 2312 explores a possible future of the human race. Humanity has slipped free of Earth and is busy terraforming worlds and hollowing out asteroids, creating earth-like environments from scratch, cloning animals, building cities, and generally looking forward to a bright new future. At least, some of humanity has – 90% of the species is still trapped on Earth, many of them mired in poverty, the planet ecologically devastated, a “development sink” threatening to drag the rest of the system down with its problems. 2312 draws on many concepts from Robinson’s previous novels, A Memory of Whiteness and the Mars trilogy (and doubtless more that I haven’t read), but clearly takes place in a slightly different universe. (For a start, the Mars trilogy had humanity settling Mars sometime around the 2030s, if memory serves; Robinson now has a more realistic outlook on the timeframe, with the period 2000-2060 dubbed “the Dithering.”)

Robinson has developed on some of his ideas since the Mars trilogy, particularly the role that Mars itself plays. In 2312, the rest of the system views it as something of a bully, an isolationist superpower that presents itself to Earth as the face of humanity in space. Interesting, too, how dependant science fiction is on short term future predictions. The Mars trilogy, written in the early 90s, saw Japan as a big player in the future, and barely mentioned China; in 2312, of course, the opposite is true. 300 years ago, the world’s current superpower was a string of British colonies facing down an enormous wilderness. For all we know, the most important country in the world 300 years from now might be Argentina or Canada or a unified Africa. (Although Robinson presents the interesting theory that, apart from a period of European subjugation, the status quo for human history has always been Chinese domination.)

A better author than many other hard science fiction writers I could name, Robinson is about equally as interested in hard science as he is in human foibles, but can still get carried away with infodumps about biology or physics, where my eyes tended to glaze over. 2312 has an aspect which is partly an interesting storytelling choice and partly a cop out: chapters are broken by “lists” or “extracts,” pieces of information flowing out in an almost poetic form. On the one hand it provides a brief and interesting chapter break; on the other hand, I have no doubt they were lifted raw from his worldbuilding notes. How tolerant you are of them depends on how interesting you find them. I was quite happy to read about eras of human history or a list of some of the more important asteroid biomes, but a list of spaceship engines or human psychiatric disorders? Not so much.

Robinson is not blind to the problems humanity will face, but his predictions always lean towards utopian optimism, sometimes naively so. I noticed that, much as in the Mars trilogy, everybody in Robinson’s futuristic world is highly cultured and intelligent and loves nothing more than listening to classical operas or creating artworks or debating the finer points of philosophy. Most people, in real life, aren’t like this at all; most people are simple and ignorant and have no intellectual curiosity, and are even mistrustful of intellectual curiosity. Robinson has an almost autistic attitude to these things, assuming that everybody else is as interested in high culture and big ideas as he is; it genuinely doesn’t seem to occur to him that most people would prefer to watch the X-Factor over a Beethoven concert, and that this will be just as true in the future as it is now. This was somewhat excusable in the Mars trilogy, where nearly everyone is a scientist or descended from scientist stock, but 2312 pushes it a bit. There’s one particularly vexing scene (in a bar in Ottowa, of all places), where the protagonist convinces a bunch of Russian immigrant farmers that the return of wildlife to Earth is good for them, because animals are our “horizontal brothers and sisters.” In real life that would get you a glassing. Or consider the space elevators, which entertain passengers with long renditions of Philip Glass orchestras – imagine trying that as the inflight entertainment on the Friday evening Tiger flight to Bali.

Criticising Robinson for his utopian vision, though, is a bit like kicking a puppy, and it’s hard not to get swept up in his grand and beautiful proclamation of what could potentially be our future – after all, it’s so much more tantalising than anything currently in the cards for the human race. 2312 is a novel that only Kim Stanley Robinson could have written. It’s not a great novel, or even a great science fiction novel, but it’s an important vision of what humanity could be capable of. It’s worth reading if you found the Mars trilogy worth reading, and your appreciation of it will probably be on the same level, whatever that may have been.

The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes (1987) 688 p.

fatal shore

A few years ago I was visiting Bath Abbey and fell into conversation with one of the priests. When he found out I was from Australia, he mentioned there was a bridge nearby which still, to this day, has a worn and faded sign warning people that if they vandalise or steal from the bridge they may be “subject to transportation” to New Holland. “Perhaps,” he said jocularly, “one of your ancestors vandalised that bridge!”

“Nah,” I said casually, and with some relish. “He killed a guy.”

The story, as I understand it, is that he and his brothers were poaching deer on a lord’s estate. The gamekeeper caught them in the act, and in the ensuing fight they accidentally killed him. One was hung, one was imprisoned, and one was transported to Australia.

Like most Australians, I consider my convict ancestry to be nothing more than an interesting anecdote, one you can use to discomfit reverends in Somerset. Apparently it was not always so. Although the transportation system was winding down by the 1840s, and the very last convict ship landed in 1868, and more free settlers arrived in the gold rush years (in 1852 alone, more than twice as many free settlers arrived than the total number of convicts ever transported), Australians were for many years ashamed and embarrassed about what they considered “the convict stain.” The ludicrous concept that criminal behaviour is genetically hereditary evidently took a long time to die.

In more recent years – prompted, in part, by reasonable historical examinations like Hughes’ – Australians have grown less reticent about recognising their past. I only vaguely remember hearing a small amount of convict history, only in primary school, and mostly about the First Fleet. Specifically – and this is a common thread when I ask people of my age – I remember being taught something along the lines of, “The first settlers in Australia were English convicts, but that’s OK, because back then you could be sent to jail for stealing a loaf of bread.” (It’s always a loaf of bread). It seemed to me that my Australian history education could do with some fleshing out, and The Fatal Shore is commonly regarded as one of the best histories on colonial Australia.

I expected to find this book quite difficult, and it did take me several weeks to read, but it was far easier than I thought. Hughes tells history in a narrative fashion, and has a strong talent for prose; some of his decriptions are wonderful. Here, he describes the sight that awaited convicts sent to the ultra-harsh gulag of Macquarie Harbour:

Past the entrance, past another rust-streaked rock named Bonnet Island, the harbour opens to view. It is so long that its far end is lost in the greyness. The water is tobacco-brown with a urinous froth, dyed by the peat and bark washed into it by Australia’s last wild river, the Gordon, which flows into the eastern end of the harbour. The sky is grey, the headlands grey, receding one behind the other like flat paper cut-outs. It is an utterly primordial landscape of unceasing interchange, shafts of pallid light reaching down from the low sky, scarves of mist streaming up from impenetrable valleys, water sifting forever down and fuming perpetually back. Macquarie Harbour is the wettest place in Australia, receiving 80 inches of rain a year.

(He claims, though, that “no-one has ever lived there or ever will,” which isn’t true – I’ve met the caretaker.)

Hughes has a keen eye for detail, selecting interesting journal entries and letters and ship’s logs, and and amid the vast sweep of history there are dozens of fascinating individual stories. I particularly liked that of James Porter, a convict who escaped from Van Diemen’s Land with several compatriots by comandeering a naval ship they had been building, sailing across the Pacific to Chile, convincing the locals they were British aristocracy and living happily there for several years until the Royal Navy finally tracked them down. Hauled back to Australia to face trial, Porter knew that he would be hanged, because the British took their navy very seriously and piracy was one of the worst crimes that could be committed. He escaped execution with one of the most awesome legal defences ever: because he’d stolen the ship before it was officially launched, he had not in fact stolen a ship at all, legally speaking – merely a collection of wood and sailcloth in the shape of a ship. The tales of Mary Bryant, Alexander Pearce, and Michael Howe were equally fascinating.

This is, of course, still a history book, and about halfway through I was getting a little weary of being buried under statistics. But there is far more of an emphasis on social attitudes and cause and effect, rather than dates and figures, which is of course the most important aspect of history. Hughes begins his story in England, examining why there was such a crime wave in England in the mid-19th century (the Industrial Revolution caused widespread unemployment among tradesmen, coupled with an unprecedented population boom, which drove people into cities and plunged them into poverty), why transportation was seen as the solution (because of Victorian attitudes of a “criminal class,” which could not be reformed, only purged), and why it was Australia that was chosen (the American colonies were gone, Australia was satisfyingly remote, and its natives were passive and easy to deal with).

The thing about The Fatal Shore is that it’s not a comprehensive history of early Australia. It’s a comprehensive history of the convict system, which comprises about 80% of early Australia’s history, but not all of it. Virtually the entire book is focused on New South Wales and Tasmania, because that was where the bulk of the convicts were transported. Queensland gets only a brief chapter, and only relating to Brisbane. Victoria is mentioned only in the last 50 pages, and Western Australia only in the last 30. South Australia, the only state that never received convicts, is not mentioned at all. There is only one chapter on the Aborigines, and while it’s more sympathetic to them than a book of that time might otherwise be (yes, it was written in 1987; yes, Australia really is that backward) it still gives short shrift to Australia’s first people. Virtually nothing is mentioned of the Rum Rebellion, and Hughes is utterly silent about New Zealand – a different country, yes, but one in such close proximity to New South Wales, in such a distant part of the world, that surely it must have figured prominently in Australian society in the 19th century. The gold rush is discussed, but only in relation to how it was a factor in the end of the transportation system. One should be clear, when embarking upon this book, that it’s not a history of colonial Australia but rather a history of the British convict transportation system.

Apart from that misunderstanding (which was my problem, not Hughes’) I also felt that sometimes Hughes was stuck in an awkward place between being a dry textbook and being a historical narrative; his timeline jumps awkwardly, the book divided into chapters examining different aspects of the convict system (women, bushrangers, free settlers etc) rather than flowing chronologically. There’s also quite a bit of repetition; I certainly read far more about convicts getting flogged on Norfolk Island than I ever needed to.

The Fatal Shore is thus not a perfect book, but still a good one. I have a much better understanding of Australian convict history now than I did from school (in particular, the fact that it’s a very small part of our history; that fact about the gold rush settlers in 1852 really surprised me). It’s not the last book you’d ever want to read to understand Australian history, but it’s certainly a good place to start – and an enjoyable one, too.

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July 2012