At one level, Kim Stanley Robinson’s “2312” can be tagged as a “space opera,” for it has a string of riveting adventures and a dose of romance thrown in. But that doesn’t do it justice because when speaking of science-fiction, opera becomes a shorthand for pulpy plots, mushy love and poor science. Moreover, they’re set in far-flung, exotic worlds that are beyond our logic (think: “Blake’s 7,” a British TV series that ran between 1978 and 1981.)
“2312” takes place about 300 years in the future, in, well, 2312. And not in a galaxy, far, far away, but in our very own. That too, close to home. Well, what could be novel about that? Everything, as it turns out. The Sun and its family provide strange enough a playground for oneiric landscapes, wiles, stratagems, sabotage and solid astronomy.
By the 24th century, Earth is no longer our only abode. Neoteric technology has made it possible for humankind to migrate to space. The novel opens on scorched Mercury. Swan Er Hong, a mercurial landscape painter, more than 130 years old, loses her grandmother, a Mercurial stateswoman. Soon after, her city too, is destroyed by a “pebble mob.”
Inspector Jean Genette, head of the interplanetary police agency, begins an investigation into the incident. Together with Fitz Wahram, an ancient Saturnian diplomat, they make trips from one quadrant of the solar system to the other, making stops on Venus, Pluto and in between.
Earth, now Balkanized into 457 countries, is in a sad state, wrecked by climate-change, overpopulation and political jujitsu. One cruised through the streets of New York in vaparettos these days. Most of Manhattan was drowned, “the old streets now canals, the city an elongated Venice, a skyscraper Venice, a super Venice—which was a very beautiful thing to be.”
The entire state of Florida is “a dark reef under a shallow sea.” To cool the planet, all construction, post-2160, had white roof tiles, covered by solar panels. Measures to bioengineer Earth are too risky, its ecosystem, too fragile to be tinkered with.
By contrast, things are looking bright in space. Venus’ Cleopatra crater has been turned into an enclosed settlement. Io, a yellow world, puckered by volcanoes and sizzled by Jupiter’s strong radiation, has an outpost. Iapetus, Saturn’s walnut-shaped moon, has a stunning conchological burg, atop an equatorial ridge that goes all the way around it, its buildings like “great seashells stacked on the next.”
Interplanetary governance is the provenance of quantum computers (“qubes”), which run the affairs of diplomacy, economy and trade on algorithms, free from the manacles of nepotism, corruption and emotion until it appears that they’re on the brink of developing consciousness and capable of making decisions by themselves.
The XX (female) and XY (male) dichotomy still existed, but there was an efflorescence of gender and sexual orientation—23 in all. Those fortunate to be born off-Earth—the “spacers”—led very long lives, peaceful and chaos-free. The onus to save distressed Earth is on them.
Robinson recounts many mind-blowing concepts in the book.
Venus is a hellish place. Temperature: 860 Fahrenheit. To make it ready for biological occupation, the space diaspora has built an enormous round sunshield and placed it in its orbital plane—at the L1 point—where it’d shadow Venus completely.
The structure, weighing 6.6 × 1013 pounds, was the largest ever built by humans. Deprived of solar radiation, the planet cooled at the rate of about minus 450 Fahrenheit a year for 140 years. The carbon dioxide in the atmosphere then froze and fell as a thick layer of dry ice on its two continents, Ishtar and Aphrodite.
Terminator (meaning: a liminal zone that separates the lit and the dark side of a planet), a domed town on Mercury, is always on the move, always gliding west, staying ahead of a Sun, “always about to burst over the horizon and torch everything.”
It rolls around Mercury at about 3 m.p.h. over 20 gigantic elevated tracks, which run around that world like a “narrow wedding band.” [It’s as if] the “town were a ship, sailing over a black ocean with waves … The city, sliding at its stately pace, completes a revolution every 177 days.”
In the late 21st century, a string of asteroids was discovered in the orbit between Mercury and the Sun, spinning at a distance of a mere 9 million miles from the star. Still, people lived inside them, their hollowed out interiors turning them into dry, hot caves.
With the excavated material, they’d manufactured an array of “solettas,” which exported photons, a.k.a. redirected sunlight, to the outer solar system, where it blazed “like god’s own streetlights in the skies of Triton and Ganymede.”
The bulk of the traffic between Earth and space is handled by 37 space elevators, their cars making the journey each way in five days.