Saturday, July 13, 2013

Reading Notes: 2312

This post is part of my commitment to read and review as many nominated works in the Hugo Awards (Science Fiction Awards) as possible before the prize announcements in early September.   Today I am looking at the second of the five nominated novels: Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312.

Kim Stanley Robinson is, in my opinion, one of the most literary of all science fiction writers, contemporary or otherwise. His work deals with politics, humanism, technology and futurism in ways that are complex, intellectual and often quite demanding.  His written style, while not impenetrable, is fairly dense; it's not unfair to consider it highbrow, in the same way that literary fiction is highbrow.  2312, his latest work, is, if anything, the most advanced exemplar of this literariness that I've encountered in his work, and I have read several of his previous books (most notably his justly renowned Mars trilogy, which are, in fact, prequel to the world that 2312 explores).

I make this observation at the outset partly in admiration, and partly as a cautionary note.  I found 2312 quite a slog, much more so in fact than the Mars books, and this is at least in part due to the very descriptive, very technical, and very meta style that Robinson employs. Some of his devices are equal parts intriguing and offputting - the interspersion of stream of consciousness "lists", for example. The overall effect of the book, to me, is cool - detatched - impersonal, which is odd given the passion that Robinson clearly wants us to feel from and for some of the central protagonists.

Indeed, it is the key characters themselves that failed to sit well for me, and this is the most important reason that I found this book less attractive than the Mars books. In the Mars trilogy, vibrant, interesting characters abounded, both ones with whom readers could identify and bond (such as my own favourites, Arkady, Nadia and Sax) and excellently nuanced irritants and villains (such as Phyllis, to a lesser extent Maya, and for some people, Frank).

In 2312, the action, such as it is, focuses around Swan Er Hong, a native of the human settlement on Mercury (in the rolling city of Terminator), and Fitz Wahram, "the Frog", a native of Titan who Swan works with to uncover a conspiracy that was suspected by her deceased grandmother Alex, the director / boss of Terminator. I think - I'm pretty sure - that Robinson wanted Swan to be a flawed but ultimately relatable hero, but to me, she isn't at all. Perhaps it's just my reading, but, despite Robinson's interest in and exploration of sexual dimorphism, Swan exhibits a lot of classic "over emotional / hysterical woman" tropes. The ways the other characters deal with her is very much in terms of controlling her erratic reactions and hosing down her ladyfeels. The fact that she is a gynomorph doesn't impact for a second the fact that she is written, and read, as "She", and all that seems to be shorthand for.

Even putting aside the typecasting, Swan is just not a great character, in my view. She's petulant, selfish, immature (no mean feat, and not particularly believable, in a woman over 150 years old), and not always overly bright in her assumptions and interactions, which is inconsistent with what we are constantly told about her brilliance. This would all be fine if counterbalanced by other factors, but I didn't feel that it was. I get that part of Swan's failings were meant to be down to Pauline (no spoilers, read the book to find out what Pauline is!) but I still didn't find her a successful character in any way.

Ultimately, I felt Robinson's valiant and largely successful attempt to craft a vast, scientifically complicated interplanetary world in the solar system is not well supported with characters of sufficient verve and presence, or a plot that was organic enough to the environment, to create a compelling, readable story. I feel like a Philistine for writing this, but when it comes to any fiction - but perhaps especially speculative fiction - there is such a thing as being *too* clever. When unpicking an impossible knot of social / scientific / political complexity becomes more focal than actually making people or having stuff happen, a lot of readers get left behind. And while I did finish this book, and remain admiring of it as an achievement, I didn't love it - I didn't always even like it - and I'm certain I'd not read it twice.

Novellas are done. Three novels to go, plus all the novelettes! Next up will be the novelettes as a set - all 5 if I can get hold of the last one, or the 4 I have found if the elusive "Rat-Catcher" remains unobtainable.

With the remaining novels, Blackout will be next, sometime next week, followed by Captain Vortpatril's Alliance, which I'm reading now. I'm undecided what to do about Throne of the Crescent Moon, because I really don't like it and don't want to finish it, but then should I review it? Not sure. We'll see.

Other Hugo reviews can be found here:
Short stories (all)
On a Red Station, Drifting (novella)
After the Fall, During the Fall, Before the Fall (novella)
The Emperor's New Soul (novella)
Redshirts: A Novel and Three Codas (novel)  

San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats (novella) 
The Stars Do Not Lie (novella)

1 comment:

  1. Whenever I'm reading my favorite kind of sci-fi - hard and set in the solar system in the near future - I'm ready to simply sit back and enjoy. This time I did not enjoy. This book is like a sci-fi version of F. Scott Fitzgerald: all description and no story worth telling, and that barely told. I like KSR's book Mars far better. 2312 is more like a self-indulgent catalog of every science fiction space colonization fantasy, all tossed into a single salad. Highly disappointing and not recommended for those who like a real story in their fiction.

    Marlene Detierro (Colorado Springs Boiler Repair)