Editor’s note: Joel is reading his way through the finalists for the 2012 Nebula Award for best sci-fi/fantasy novel. Read his introduction here.
Geeks have been known to get into heated debates about what constitutes “real” science-fiction. Call Star Wars sci-fi in the wrong room, and you are opening yourself up to a pedantic lecture (or at the very least, a withering glare). For some purists, the only real sci-fi is “hard” sci-fi, concerned with extrapolating what our future will be like based on where we are today, maybe with more robots thrown in. These hardliners will no doubt fawn over Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, a beast of a novel that is as much a sci-fi thriller as an attempt to cram the entire 24th century—technology, politics, and culture—between two covers.
Robinson has taken this kind of ultra-detailed look forward before—he wrote an entire trilogy about the terraforming of Mars (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) that would probably occupy the majority of your reading time during an actual trip to Mars. 2312 might be set in the same future (but, er, more so): Mars is now a self-sufficient, independent world, and human colonies have also sprung up on Venus and Mercury and the moons of Jupiter, not to mention within a bunch of hollowed-out asteroids that have been transformed into biodomes that replicate Earth environments long since destroyed by global warming. Technological and genetic advances have extended human lifespans to hundreds of years and erased the concept of binary genders, and quantum computing has created artificial intelligences so advanced, many people have the good sense not to trust them.
Our protagonist, Swan Er Hong, is a product of this “post-scarcity” society: a citizen of Terminator, a city on rails that travels the surface of Mercury, she has sampled all the wonders the future has to offer in her 134 years: she’s designed asteroid habitats, given birth to one child, fathered another, ingested alien bacteria, and had an artificial intelligence named Pauline implanted in the base of her skull. As the novel opens, her grandmother, an influential politician known as the Lion of Mercury, has just died under mysterious circumstances, and has posthumously tasked her granddaughter with delivering a secret message to one of her colleagues. As you might expect, this pulls Swan into a conspiracy that will come to involve A.I.s, political tensions between Earth and Mars, the destruction of entire cities, more than one tense chase sequence, and animals floating down from space wrapped in futuristic bubble wrap. Just go with me on that last one.
The “plot” is admittedly the weakest element of 2312, but I don’t mean that as the criticism it may seem. After all, Robinson would likely admit that he’s just using the murder mystery structure as a framework upon which to hang a vision of the future, one he’s considered so minutely that he doesn’t just work details into the narrative—he actually pauses every chapter or so to provide excerpts from the Wikipedia of the future that expound upon technology, astronomy, robotics, and popular culture 300 years hence. It’s all deeply nerdy stuff, and some people will find the style dull or infuriating, but I could have read a few hundred more pages. But then, I regularly read Wikipedia for fun. And don’t get me wrong, the plot is a good one, managing a Grand Tour around the solar system as Swan investigates the conspiracy, several tense action sequences (including the destruction of an entire city by meteorites), and a genuinely affecting romance.
And if Swan is a somewhat unlikeable character (a charge that could be leveled against most of the cast), it’s only because Robinson’s goal is not an idealized vision of the future, but a warts-and-all picture of what it might actually be like. Even with enough technology to cure hunger and make life better for everyone, it’s still going to suck for a lot of people because, on the whole, people kind of suck. Earth is screwed, environmentally-speaking, and most of the planet is out of work, but nothing is being done to combat the fallout from global warming because the rich people like the new version of New York, which is pretty much Venice with taller buildings. People live forever, but that just gives them more time to think up ways to exploit each other. And yet, it’s not all bad: there is beauty in these worlds as well. On Mercury, nomadic “sun walkers” hike the dark side of the planet, staying a step ahead of the (lethal) sunrise, and Swan has been genetically modified with birdsong genes, which means, at least, there will always be music.
Why was it nominated? At first glance, the nomination sees like a gimme: Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels have been winning awards (some of them Nebulas) for the past 30 years, so of course his new one makes the cut. But that assumption belies its quality—judged solely on an idea-to-page ratio, 2312 is one of the most ambitious and thought-provoking sci-fi novels in a decade. And the story and writing are pretty good too.
Does it have a shot at the Nebula? More than that—I think it will win, and not just because it is the only sci-fi book in the running. Having just finished reading and reviewing all six of the nominees, I can unequivocally state that this is the one I most want to see walk away with the prize (though The Drowning Girl is, in some ways, a more impressive work). It has everything I look for in speculative fiction: a fully-realized world, compelling characters, an interesting plot, writing that goes beyond workmanship to display real craft, and at least one scene that really sticks with me (2312 has at least three). The fact that it has also been nominated for virtually every other major genre award, from the Hugo to the Locus, suggests that I’m not the only one who feels this way.