Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy was the first fiction I read as I emerged from the other side of writing my Master’s thesis, an act that kindled an old flame discovered years ago when I read his novel 2312. I returned to 2312 to find it undiminished by time and distance and as spectacular and educative as ever. The book is a sweeping portrait of the future that sees humans settling the farthest reaches of the solar system, terraforming whole planets and transforming their bodies, venturing into the complexity and contradiction of quantum computing, and wielding their technology as gods to extend their lives and health and to change the ecology of the entire solar system. The plot, which is part murder mystery and part revolutionary saga, is sometimes merely a mechanism for taking the reader on a tour of this fantastic future. The solar system is teeming with planets dotted with tented cities, hollowed out asteroids filled with artificial oceans or great plains of grain and vegetables, and superfast spaceships and solar mirrors. The rich environment that Robinson describes is peopled by a vastly diverse population of ‘spacers’ who have embraced and cultivated every kind of difference imaginable. 2312 contains some of the most spectacular scenes I’ve ever read, including surfers who ride gravity waves in the rings of Saturn and sunwalkers who cheat death to glimpse the searing dawn on Mercury. But it is also a powerful meditation on privilege and difference, activism and social responsibility, and a masterclass in writing complex, engaging women characters.
Different sections of the novel are narrated by different characters, but the majority of the story follows Swan Er Hong, an artist who is more than one hundred years old, thanks to longevity treatments. Swan is, first and foremost, a well-written protagonist. She is capable and smart, having designed whole ecosystems for asteroid terraria in her youth, but she is also frustratingly stubborn and impulsive. A Chinese woman living on Mercury, Swan has a fluid sexuality, and hers are the social utopian politics typical of ‘spacers’. Swan has made many modifications to her body and brain, including ingesting some of the alien life that was discovered under the ice of Enceladus, having parts of animal brains implanted in her head so that she could purr like a cat or whistle like a songbird, implanting her personal quantum computer named Pauline in her head, and modifying her reproductive organs so that she could both mother and father children. Swan is, like most spacers in the 2312 universe, engaged in an on-going utopian transhumanist body project that has important consequences for the social structures of spacer society. Swan’s companion Wahram, for instance, has also modified his body in order to bear children. He was married into a creche of multiple partners with whom he raised children, some of whom he fathered and the others he mothered. Early on, Wahram has occasion to discover Swan’s reproductive modification: “Even with his eyes averted he could not help seeing in the tangle of her pubic hair a small penis and testicles, about where her clitoris might have been, or just above. A gynandromorph; it did not surprise him.” And why should it? In the universe of 2312, what is the alteration of one person’s body compared to the terraforming of whole worlds?
Robinson uses the nearly limitless possibilities of his construction of the year 2312 to establish social and cultural structures that do not seem possible for the reader’s present. Life in space for Swan and other spacers is a privileged space of total autonomy and freedom from oppressive social structures and cultural traditions. Spacers lives are governed by a variety of utopian systems that rely on the various economies of gift, minerals and volatiles, and even light. Most types of social utopian schemes have been tested and refined, and Mars has attained the first true social democracy in human history. Gendered systems of power, class systems, racial hierarchy, and most social injustices have been exorcised from life in space. Despite their utopian circumstances, a series of strange events forces the spacers to deal with the last intractable problem in the solar system-- a damaged and diseased Earth that threatens to crush them in its death throes.
On Earth, a catastrophic climate event has raised the sea level many meters and drowned the coasts and has caused massive shifts in the locations of Earth’s biomes resulting in mass extinction. Much of Earth’s art, culture, and biosphere has been relocated to settlements in the solar system and inside asteroid terraria. Much of Earth’s food and volatiles come from space. Many people on Earth do not have access to the longevity treatments, to space travel, or even to basic necessities. Large corporate power structures have Earth in a political and social gridlock. After tramping through the glittering solar system with Swan, the description of Earth seems even more familiar and all the more grim.
I am particularly attracted to 2312, and Robinson’s work more generally, because of his consistently stellar handling of women characters and his fearlessness when tackling the task of reimagining the future of gender and sexuality. Even more importantly, these components of his writing are not merely to service a perceived political need for difference in storytelling, and they are not set dressing or background. Swan Er Hong is a great case study in the ways in which writing diverse characters improves storytelling and opens new opportunities for the narrative exploration of alternatives and solutions to current, pressing social and cultural problems.
At an abstract level, Swan and the other spacers are able to see more clearly the systemic injustices of Earth because they are themselves living free of such oppressive structures, and thus the reader is able to look through spacer eyes at an Earth that is much like our own. But Swan’s difference operates at a much more granular and personal level as well. She draws on her experiences both as a Mercurial woman and as a Chinese woman to understand the complex politics of Earth. Her fluid sexuality and her physical modifications heighten her awareness to the ways in which gendered, patriarchal structures of power are holding Earth in a gridlock that the spacers have escaped. Her experience and expertise as a terrarium designer and ecologist are central to her efforts to foment revolution on Earth and to repair its devastated biosphere.
Science fiction at its best is never really about the future. It is a way to gain the perspective of difference and an effort to formulate ways that perspective can be used to change our present. The novel closes with the successful instigation of revolution on Earth in the hope that everyone in the solar system can live freely and autonomously as the spacers do. Importantly, it is Swan’s recognition of her responsibility as a privileged actor that spurs her to revolutionary action, and it is the richness of her difference that gives her the tools to be effective. Ultimately, we are not meant to hope for a future in which individuals like Swan and Wahram are possible, we are meant to recognize their individual characteristics and their value in the diversity of our current society.