[Editor’s note: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 was the finest science fiction novel published in 2012. However, the disturbed mind of Harry Tortilla sees Omnicorp and its evils everywhere, whether it’s replacing Neal Stephenson with a robot to write Reamde, or, as Harry sees here, making sure utopias are just unrealistic enough before allowing them to be published. And a warning: there be some spoilers afoot, though nothing ruinous to enjoying the novel.]
By Harry Tortilla:
Since my Displacement in the last moments of Earth 23-A’s destruction, I have travelled through more dimensions, time streams, reality mattrixes and planes of existence than I can count. And after all those travels, I can attest to one thing with total certainty: the high-tech Utopias are few and far between. They usually occur in the Earths that have suffered a nearly total cataclysm in the past century or so. Something that wipes out Omnicorp and all of its mind manipulation tech (in this dimension you know it as the Internet), something that humbles the survivors and sends them back to the basics of agrarian communal life but still leaves them with clean electricity, solar powered vehicles, decent stereo systems and an appreciation for the sheer miraculousness of existence.
The one problem with the few Utopias I’ve visited is that they tend to be dull as bricks. Not conformist or stultifying like 1950’s suburbia, but still: nothing much happens there. There’s a certain vitality lacking. Their movies tend to be sort of flat. The rock bands are pretty good, but never AMAZING. It’s nice to visit for a while, but man, you wouldn’t want to live there.
Of course the only place true utopias can exist is in literature. Science fiction specifically: A Utopian setting for a story could never be anything else, the present time in this Dimension being what it is. But, just like out here in the real multi-dimensional omniverse, there are very few Utopian SF novels. And it’s not simply because sci-fi authors tend to be cynical bastards or hard-bitten realists (they don’t). It’s mainly because of the boring factor. If you posit a society in which all of the big problems have been solved, where’s the drama? What the hell is supposed to happen? Case is much more compelling and fun to read about in his dystopic bar in Chiba City, his neurons burnt to a crisp, his spirit a dull gray lump, than a happy well fed Utopian worrying about—what, exactly?
So you have to admire someone like Kim Stanley Robinson, whose entire ouevre orbits Utopian idealism, hot and close, the way Mercury orbits the Sun. His Three Californias trilogy concludes with a Utopian volume, as does (arguably) his Mars trilogy. He obviously believes deeply in the redeemabilty and basic goodness of humanity, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Utopianism or at least optimism is all well and good (and this particular corner of the Time-Probability-Dimensional Continuum could certainly do with a bit more of it) except that it bumps up against this one plain and unyielding reality: Omnicorp. Omnicorp definitely does not want people looking up from the decadent, self-centered, nothing-new-under-the-sun, violent-sex-snuff-film-with-no-way-out version of human culture they’ve been distilling down to it’s very essence (Honey- boo-boo chile and the films of Zach Snyder spring immediately to mind.) They need people to believe that no better world is possible, or else they’ll expect something Omnicorp simply can’t provide. So I’m a little surprised that Omnicorp’s publishing wing let this book slip out. Perhaps it figured the book was mediocre and unfocused enough to not rouse anyone to think about how crummy our little Space Plantation is getting down here and how there is literally a universe full of better possibilities out there.
The biggest flaw with this novel, and the source of its mediocrity is the protagonists, Swan and Wahram. They spend the entirety of the novel circling each other lazily, like two asteroids stuck in each other’s tidal orbit. Eventually they’ll crash into each other, but is it going to be spectacular enough to make the 500 page slog worthwhile?
I understand that each character is meant to embody the attributes of their home world, Mercurial or Saturnine. But they only seem to embody the worst and least interesting characteristics associated with their two spheres.
Swan is all over the place, sure, but despite her changeable interests and emotions, her interest in the arts and science, she lacks the brilliance, the sliver tongue and shrewdness also usually associated with Mercury. Without these qualities in evidence anywhere in the book, she just comes off as a jerk. She’s flitting all over the solar system, no goal in sight, sneering at other people’s attempts to make terrarium spaceships, shunning the company of others. She seems desperately confused and unhappy. The thought of someone nearly two hundred years old behaving this way is profoundly depressing.
And her long-suffering suitor, Wahram fares no better. He’s slow, methodical, taciturn, and a total bore. If Saturn is traditionally a dark, gloomy influence on people’s character, why can’t he have a dark side? Perhaps he could revel in the steaming piles of dogshit that Swan serves him throughout the novel, rather than just accepting it with dull good humor. Perhaps his Saturnine nature could lead him to do things that most of us would find disturbing, but he finds some dark joy in. Or at the very least give him a black sense of humor. But, no. He just kind of shows up now and then, hoping to hang out with Swan, game for whatever business she’s into at the time, be it trooping through the wilderness of Canada or surfing (?!) the rings of Saturn.
And so we realize some 350 pages in (about 200 pages after we first started wondering) what the heck this whole thing is going to be about. Swan and Wahram falling in love. The problem is: it doesn’t add up. The relationship between the two characters doesn’t work. What could Swan possibly see in this fat, frog-like lump? He’s not fun, active or sexy. What does she like about this guy besides the fact that he shows up and will put up with her shenanigans? Is she so full of self-loathing that she’ll settle for basically anyone who’ll haveher? And what could he see in her? She’s never around. When she is, she’s a self-centered complainer. They don’t appear to have any sexual chemistry despite their polyandry or bisexuality or whatever it is. Never once do either of them look at the other and think, “Oh, yeah.”
But worse than this cosmic mismatch is the fact that there appears to be another, better, more interesting novel going on just outside the pages of the one we’re reading. There’s a terrorist attack that destroys a city on Mercury, and some weird business with some possibly sentient quantum computers, but all the investigating and adventuring happens offstage. We are offered summaries of these goings on every few hundred pages, only because Swan and Wahram happen to know Inspector Jean Gennete.
How frustrating for us, the readers! I don’t want to read the story of these two interplanetary misfits wandering around the solar system, taking forever to get together while only tangentially involved in all these grand doings. I want to read about Inspector Gennete and his careful investigation and eventual capture of the terrorist attack plotting quantum computer androids. Now that’s a fuckin’ sci-fi story! It could be like a new take on Blade Runner. There would be intrigue, action, thrills and scares. Don’t tease me! It only makes this novel look dull by comparison. Either give me a slice of life character study about romance and daily life in the future, or give me a fun, rollicking adventure through the solar system, but don’t try to give me half of both.
The slice of life approach might have worked if it had been done well. I like reading about how different space colonies work, and about the different physical environments on different moons and planets. Humans are infinitely adaptable and it’s neat to think about ways we might adapt. But as we’ve noted, these characters are too dull or dimly sketched to make any of that description worthwhile. They’re flawed characters, sure, but their flaws don’t give them clear motivations or interesting arcs. They just make them irritating to spend time with.
They seem to just amble along, doing nothing much in a completely low-stakes universe for a very long time. The Solar System has been colonized so successfully that a journey between Mercury and Pluto is like a week-long stay in a luxury resort, complete with orgies and beautiful gardens. Late in the book, Swan gets stuck in a muddy crater with a live wolf, and you think for a second that it might be a thing. Maybe she’ll have a hard time getting out of this, or she’ll be wounded or eaten. But no! Wahram shows up in a helicopter within a couple of pages. A terrorist attack (with pebbles!) that destroys an entire city on a planet as harsh and unforgiving as Mercury results in … almost no casualties! Swan and Wahram are ejected into the freezing depths of space from a speeding space ship, and it’s like no big deal. They’re rescued in a matter of 48 hours.
It’s like Robinson is afraid to contemplate terrible things happening, or at least not in detail. How about this, Kim: Terminator is destroyed, and there’s not time to get everyone out safely. Thousands are burned alive by the massive, white hot sun and Swan swears vengeance! She will stop at nothing to find the perpetrators of this atrocity. Or: Swan is stuck with the wolf and she has to kill the thing with her bare hands, a fight that leaves her bleeding almost to death in the muddy water. Or: Swan and Wahram are ejected in to space and they float there for weeks, until one of them decides finally to give the other their remaining air, water and food. Then the remaining one floats on for another few days, clinging to the frozen corpsicle of their dead lover until their food and water runs out. Then they wait three more starving days after that. That would get me turning pages.
I wouldn’t even think of these things if 2312 were just a slice of life novel that describes the development of a relationship. I would be focusing on who the two characters are and where their relationship is going. But there’s this half-hearted attempt to make a classic SF-adventure plot. It goes nowhere! It leaves the reader feeling cheated! And to make matters worse, Robinson makes this whole problem explicitly obvious when, on page 79, at the end of a brief chapter describing the changes that had taken place in human culture as a result of the colonization of space, he says:
possibly smarter therefore as a species than as individuals, but prone to insanity either way, and in any case stuck in the moment—a moment now lost to us—when people lived in the almost-forgotten technology and culture of the Balkanization, the years just before 2312—
except wait: that is yet to tell
This suggests to the reader that after 2312 everything is somehow different, and that he is about to tell us an interesting tale about that great Solar System-wide change. Look: If you’re writing a novel, and you feel the need (nearly a hundred pages in) to promise your readers that something’s going to happen one of these days, you need to seriously rethink the thing. That means that nothing much of interest has happened so far, and most readers won’t stick around to find out.
But it never happens. We keep waiting for some dramatic event, but even after the “Reanimation” of Earth, the terraforming of Venus, the destruction and reconstruction of Terminator and the saving of Venus’s sun shield Robinson has the nerve to write (461 pages later!):
although the events right before 2312 were important and signaled changes latent in the situation at the time, nothing tipped decisively then, there was no portal they passed through saying, ‘This is the new period, this is a new age.’
Then well then what the hell have I been reading about for the past month of my life? After all of that, just — never mind? Don’t promise me that you have some wild, society changing narrative to tell me about and then never deliver it. My time here is precious. At any moment Omnicorp could unleash one of their terminal fuck-ups and the human adventure in this dimension would be just another sad little asterisk. I’d be shuttled off to a new time stream to give the same unheeded warnings to another bunch of unsuspecting mouth-breathing neanderthal, and what would I have gained from Robinson’s tree-killer?
And that’s another problem with this book. Earth is this terminal problem child in the solar system, a horrible ant-farm of terror, repression and poverty, but Robinson never once mentions Omnicorp. Or whatever you people know it as in this time-dimension. Plutocracy? Corporatocracy? The Black Iron Prison? I believe your Church of the SubGenius has helpfully called it “the Conspiracy.” He mentions all the symptoms of problem-Earth, but never diagnoses the disease, the underlying cause. Why is Earth so fucked up? Who is making it that way? It’s not a condition of the weather, or the gravity. It’s something with the people down here. Is it the limited resources, and all the subconscious assumptions that stem from that? Is it a cruel and unjust economic game that makes a tiny few unimaginably wealthy and beggars everyone else? Swan spends a chapter quizzing her brain implant about why things can’t ever get better on Earth, but the brain implant has no light to shed on the subject. Why was capitalism, injustice and human shittiness not exported to every space colony? Is it just that these things are impossible to enforce in the resource abundance of outer space?
The closest Robinson gets in the whole book occurs early on, during one of his info-dumps on future human history:
the space diaspora occurred as late capitalism writhed in its internal decision concerning whether to destroy the Earth’s biosphere or change its rules. Many argued for the destruction of the biosphere, as being the lesser of two evils
What a perfect distillation and indictment of our current batch of oligarch’s basic worldview! See, Kim? You do understand what’s going on down here! But answer this: How in the hell could the planet stumble on in this condition for three hundred years, space diaspora or no? What would be left of the biosphere? What would be left of democracy or freedom?
Which brings me to my final and ultimate point of contention with the novel. For some reason, in this book, the inhabitants of the Solar System are required to spend some time on Earth now and then in order to maintain their longevity. And they seem to be able to come and go on Earth however and whenever they please. Swan drops in several times to engage in social and environmental engineering projects, seemingly with the permission of no government or authority whatsoever. How in the world would this ever be allowed? One thing you can say with certainty is that if Earth is a “problem” planet that there would be some authority, be it tribal, corporate, military, governmental, corporation-co-opted-government or just some asshole with a rocket launcher claiming to enforce the rules around here. That’s the case now. And KSR paints Earth as the same-but-more-so. So how is Swan able to just hop onto a space elevator anytime she pleases? Especially if it’s required to keep her long-lived and healthy? The powers that be on Earth would charge such a stupendous premium to set foot on terra firma that only the absolutely wealthy would be able to do so. And that right there would demolish the interplanetary Socialist Utopia that KSR is so hot to portray in this novel. Because now people would have a powerful motivation to pile up wealth at the expense of their fellow “spacers.”
How impractical would this be for the residents, let alone the owners of planet Earth? What’s the population of the Solar System at this point, especially if people are living hundreds of years? With terraformed or inhabited Mars, Venus, Titan, Mercury, and God knows how many terrariumed asteroids out there? Ten trillion? Can you imagine how much a vacation on Earth would cost when demand is that high and space is that limited?
Earth would be demanding (and getting!) ownership or at least access and control of every resource in the Solar System. It would actually be the worst kind of Dystopia. The kind that’s the dark twin to the few Utopias I’ve encountered: the one where Earth’s Feudal, Corporate hell is exported to everyplace in the Universe. This one implausible story detail actually negates the entire Utopian future that KSR’s trying so hard to establish and make believable. Omnicorp would have absolute control over the Space Elevators, as well as a Reagan-Star-Wars sattelite set-up to blast anyone trying to sneak in to kingdom-come.
The “Re-Animation” that occurs about three-quarters of the way through the novel would be a turkey shoot. Why would the rulers of Earth allow this to happen? And how would the act of repopulating the planet with wild animals change anything about human society? We’ve slaughtered them all once already. Why wouldn’t we just do it again? Especially if the world is so densely populated and so many of the reintroduced animals are such nuisances? Even if the residents of space were able to pull this feat off, why wouldn’t the inhabitants of Earth simply say: “Thanks for all the free protein,” and start shooting?
And that’s really the crux here. The Utopia that KSR tries to paint so realistically is totally implausible. And that’s why Omnicorp felt it was safe to publish. The book is both too wild and unrealistic and too boring to cause anyone stuck on planet Earth in 2012 to say, “Hey, wait a minute. We could be…”