And so I have finally finished a book! Limping past the grand stand, far behind my fellow horses. But after six busy days, my 560-page tome has moved from the “read these books” stack to the “read these books” stack (homonyms, deal with it visual brains!).
Kim Stanley Robinson’s space epic 2312 (which I always found myself pronouncing as Two Three One Two for some reason, never as Twenty-three Twelve, which I’m sure was the intended title) took me from the slopes of Olympus Mons on Mars to the beautiful canals of New York (think Venice, but four storeys up the side of the Chrysler building), from surfing on the ice rings of Saturn to fleeing the murderous sun at Mercury’s terminator, and through countless terraria (asteroids which have been hollowed out and filled with every conceivable biome, as arks for the extinguished wildlife of Earth—the Planet of Sadness—which now has 11 billion inhabitants). Like every visionary sci-fi epic, 2312 devotes most of its time to world-building, but this is not to the novel’s detriment. The novel is full of clever references (performance art pieces are called “abramovics” and when you’re shrewdly forming deductions you are “mycrofting”), beautiful descriptions of the solar system, fascinating speculations on cultural changes and future technology, and tons of throwaway mentions of in-universe practices and artifacts (longevity treatments! double-locking penises and vaginas because everyone in space is polygender! bird and cat brain cells implanted in humans so they can trill and purr!) that could easily form entire books of their own.
Our focal character is Swan Er Hong, a terrarium-designer turned performance artist whose city, Terminator, is destroyed in a mysterious attack at the novel’s outset. Swan is a 135 year-old gynandromorph (has both boy parts and girl parts, and has both mothered and fathered children) with a qube (quantum computer) named Pauline implanted behind her ear and a tendency to do irrational things to shock the otherwise dull characters.
The only real clunker in this book is the plot, which sets itself up as a high-stakes mystery (who destroyed Terminator? why?) then stumbles through a long middle section where everyone seems to stop caring about this issue (including an appropriately gruelling segment where Swan and her boo Wahram slowly fall for each other as they walk in a maintenance tunnel underneath Mercury’s surface halfway around the planet, oh and did I mention they’re dying of radiation poisoning?). The mystery gets neatly wrapped up in the last 100 pages, and the feeling of possibly world-ending stakes that loom in the initial threat never really comes back, mostly because after the first shock, the characters don’t ever seem to convey any kind of fear or worry or rage or terror about the problem—they know that it will be solved by the end of the book. Maybe it’s a consequence of all living in their second centuries, but none of the characters seem in a hurry to get anywhere, and neither does the book. Swan and company wander around the solar system, pursuing leads, but they spend weeks at a time lawn bowling and following wolves inside the travelling terraria, and no sense of haste or suspense is allowed to build.
Aside from the excellent world-building and mediocre plot and pacing, the book deals (as all good sci-fi epics must) with engaging philosophical discussions of humanity, transhumanism, gender, history, environmentalism and terraforming, and the experience of life in a vast universe. The thing I find myself repeating the most when I talk about this book to my friends and family is Wahram’s ponderings on the pseudoiterative, the phenomenon that life repeats itself day after day in identical iterations of a single theme (especially if you’re 113), but that it is “pseudo” because true replicability is false. Except when you’re in a concrete tunnel underneath the surface of a planet made of grey, featureless rock and literally walking around to the other side to escape the sun, which will vapourize you instantly if you go to the surface. Then it’s pretty iterative.
Altogether, Two Three One Two (I’m sticking with my pronunciation, no matter what anyone says) was a good read and well worth my time. What it lacked in identifiable characters and emotional plot twists, it made up for in awesome and cool setting and speculative technology and society and existential questions. This was a book that made my brain give a satisfying burp but left my heart starving to death. Next another sci-fi book which is sure to do the same, but so far it sounds like it was written for 12 year-olds so it will breeze by (watch my post my next blog a week from now). James Bond Will Return in: The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold.