Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, “2312,” can, at a level, be tagged as a “space opera” as 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, the term, “opera,” becomes 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 science-fiction TV series that ran between 1978 and 1981.)
“2312” takes place about 300 years in the future, in 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, of course, 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 137-year-old mercurial, Mercurial, landscape artist, loses her grandmother, Alex, a politician and the “Lion of Mercury.” Soon after, her city, too, is suddenly, destroyed by a “pebble mob.”
Inspector Jean Genette, head of the interplanetary police agency, begins an investigation into the incident. Together, with 111-year-old Fitz Wahram, a 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, has had white roof tiles, covered by transparent photovoltaic panels. Measures to bioengineer it are too risky, its ecosystem, too fragile to be tinkered with.
By contrast, things are looking brighter 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. It’s “covered by a long gallery tent,” placed over buildings that looked 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.
Those fortunate to be born off-Earth—the “spacers”—lead very long lives, peaceful, and chaos-free, for the most part. The onus to save distressed Earth is on them.
Some mind-blowing concepts Robinson recounts in this book are the terraforming of Venus; the export of photons; the import of food from space; efflorescence of gender; a town that moves.
Venus is a hellish place. Temperature: 860 degrees Fahrenheit. To make it ready for biological occupation, the space diaspora has built a round sunshield—a Cyclopean construction that looked like a circular Venetian blind—and placed it in its orbital plane (at the L1 point), where it’d shadow Venus completely.
The structure, made of concentric strips of very light lunatic aluminum, weighing 6.6 × 1013 pounds, was the largest ever built by humans. Deprived of solar radiation, the planet cooled at a rate of about minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit a year, for 140 years. After that, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere froze, and fell as a layer of dry ice on its two continents, Ishtar and Aphrodite.
A domed town on Mercury, aptly named, “Terminator” (a liminal zone that separates the lit and the dark side of a planet), 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 that gray world, at about 3 m.p.h., synchronous with the speed of the planet’s rotation, moving over 20 gigantic elevated tracks, which run around Mercury like a “narrow wedding band, keeping near the forty-fifth latitude south.”
[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 necklace of asteroids was discovered in the orbit between Mercury and the Sun, spinning at a distance of only 9 million miles from the star.
Still, people lived in them, despite their being 1,340 degrees Fahrenheit on their sunward sides. They’d hollowed out their interiors, turning them into hot, arid, caves. With the excavated material, they’d manufactured an array of “immense, circular light-catching solettas” (solar sail-style mirrors), which exported photons. They “redirected sunlight in lased beams at receiver solettas in the outer solar system, now blazing like god’s own streetlights, in the skies of Triton and Ganymede.”
The bulk of the Earth-space traffic is handled by 37 space elevators, the cars making the journey, both up and down, in five days each way.
Going down in the cars were food (a crucial percentage of the total needed), metals, manufactured goods, gases, and people. Going up were people, manufactured goods, the substances common on Earth, but rare in space—these were many , including things animal, vegetable, and mineral, but chiefly (by bulk) rare earths, wood, oil, and soil.
The XX (female) and XY (male) dichotomy still existed, but (due to the sophistication in hormonal and surgical treatments in utero, puberty, and adulthood) there was an efflorescence of gender, and sexual orientation: (1) feminine, (2) masculine, (3) androgynous, (4) gynandromorphous, (5) hermaphroditic, (6) ambisexual, (7) bisexual, (8) intersex, (9) neuter, (10) eunuch, (11) nonsexual, (12) undifferentiated, (13) gay, (14) lesbian, (15) queer, (16) invert, (17) homosexual, (18) polymorphous, (19) poly, (20) labile, (21) berdache, (22) hijra, (23) two-spirit.