by Kim Stanley Robinson
Review by Ernest Lilley
Orbit Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0316098124
Date: 22 May 2012 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
It's two hundred years from now and the solar system is humanity's playground. From one end to another people have built habitats by hollowing out asteroids (30 km or larger preferred), building orbital stations, terraforming whole planets (whether this book is in the same universe as the author's Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars trilogy isn't made clear, but it fits in quite well) and the occasional domed city on particularly hostile worlds. Each is a wonderland of biological diversity and human accomplishment.
Except for Earth, anyway.
I've always contended that the lure of space isn't so much to find strange/brave new worlds, but to get away from the people on this one. In 2312 we find the home planet much as it ever was, if worse for wear. Yes, the waters have risen, and there's precious little ice left anywhere, but we've adapted. New York City's streets are canals, but that may have been an improvement, and the coastline has moved inward all over the planet, but humanity adapts. Unfortunately, though the spacers live in an economy of post-scarcity luxury, the same ration of squalor to success holds on Earth as it ever has, the impediment not being the ability to provide for everyone, but the ability to get along, give up political power and personal freedom.
Spacers, all descendants of rational, highly educated types, even the hordes China has sent to Venus to terraform that world, are all reasonable folks who get along with a minimum of government and friction.
Fortunately for the plot, that's only the way it looks on the surface, beneath which something very ugly is brewing.
The story opens on Mercury, where we meet Swan Er Hong, grieving for the sudden (and possibly mysterious) death of a friend by daring the sunrise on the planet's surface, waiting until the last possible minute to dash pell mell back to the gate (airlock) of Mercury's moving city, which stays perpetually just ahead of the dawn. She nearly gets herself cooked, which is nothing new for Swan. She's an artist, whose worked in mediums as large as thirty km habitats, and frequently as small as her body, subjecting it to a remarkable range of insults for the experience.
Swan soon runs into the story's other main character, Wahram of Saturn (Titan, anyway), who is Swan's polar opposite; calm, pragmatic, cautious, deliberate, even tempered...and more than a little afraid of the sun. He's not at all comfortable on Mercury, where he'd come to attend a conference held by Swan's mentor, Alex, but they'd been working on a rather important project together and he just wonders if perhaps some sort of note was left for him? In fact, a number of people seem to be asking that question, and it annoys her. Of course, she's easily annoyed, which against his better judgement, Wahram finds engaging. Swan, naturally finds Wahram exasperating, and they wind up as great foils for each other, mercurial and saturnine archetypes, delightfully orbiting around each other as the book progresses, sometimes at perigee sometimes at apogee, but always fun to watch.
Alex had rigorously avoided keeping information in digital form, partly because she believed that humans ought to get out and talk to each other face to face and partly because she was worried that the "qubes," nearly sentient quantum computers people used for digital assistants and other tasks, were acting oddly, outside their programming, and could not be trusted.
Swan herself has a qube, Pauline, embedded in her brain, with which she maintains a fairly pissy dialog, occasionally out loud.
Ultimately, it does turn out that Alex left Swan a message, several in fact, including one for Pauline, to be shared with another qube at the other end of the solar system on Io.
And we're off and running for a tour to the end of the solar system and back again, traveling on terraformed asteroids and other well researched modes of transport, while the author displays the landscape of the "post-accelrando" future and slowly reveals the menace stalking humanity and the secret society that's preparing itself to defend it. Swan is at the center of the action much of the time, but she only gets told about the bigger picture in little bits, her excitable nature and onboard qube both being sources of concern for the project, so the reveal is drawn out a bit, but that's not a problem for the reader, because between the grand tour and the development of the characters and their relationships, 2312 is very good read, certainly the best thing Kim Stanley Robinson has done since his Mars trilogy, if not his best work to date.