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.