On Mercury, close to a half million people live in a mobile city that stays just in the shadow of the sun. How? It rolls on tracks around the planet.
On Venus, a shield in space blocks the sun’s energy, freezes out the atmosphere and enables China’s colony there to shovel frozen carbon dioxide around into piles so new continents can be built up by depositing rock on top of the dry ice.
On Earth, the globe has warmed, the ice caps have melted, and Manhattan is the new Venice.
On Mars, maybe there are artificial intelligences walking around in human bodies. But nobody seems to like the Martians much anyway. Decades ago they raided Saturn’s moon Titan for half its nitrogen.
You get the ideas. It’s only three-hundred years in the future and Earth’s thirty-seven space elevators have made interplanetary travel fun and accessible and full of wonders for everybody. Except the 47%. Or maybe the 99%. People book flights between Mercury and Saturn and places in between without a hint of a charge card or a satchel of gold-pressed latinum. And I wonder why the lower class in half-swamped New Jersey can’t do the same–order up a ticket to Jupiter. This is a futuristic culture seemingly without money. But there’s money afoot–make no mistake. Some people have it. Others don’t–including a young Jersey hood who makes it into space as a favor for saving the main character’s butt when she wanders off into dangerous territory for an evening stroll.
I thought Robinson did a fantastic job with Red Mars and its two sequels. An ensemble cast of complicated characters struggle to colonize Mars, then turn it into a paradise. The key there was the characterization of a handful of interesting people and how they interacted over decades. The Mars trilogy had great ideas, too. Most of the ideas have been tried elsewhere in science fiction. What made these books exceptional was that they were fine novels. The future science was just part of the background scenery.
2312 suffers from too many ideas and not enough people. Robinson has enough material and imagination to distill a dozen novels from this one book. I would have preferred a story about the people colonizing Mercury, And the people who hollow out an asteroid and turn it into a park. Or how the Chinese developed the chutzpah and technology to steal one of Saturn’s moons. Then let the characters fly out of one of those tales.
Instead, we get a somewhat pedestrian murder mystery set in the early 24th century. The mystery itself could have been rendered in a book one-fourth the size of these 550-some pages.
Robinson gets a lot of credit for great ideas. But not all of them are original to this book. He himself has done the sun shield/magnifier in the Mars trilogy. Space elevators–that too. Hollowed-out asteroids? I read about those in Roger MacBride Allen in the 80′s. The narrative is interrupted a few dozen times so the author can trot out a list or a piece of “future” history. A better writer could have woven that into the narrative and left the rest on the cutting room floor. Or, if you want to imitate Tolkien, put it into an appendix with some family trees.
Here and there Robinson’s science is a bit of a clunker. A high-speed interplanetary voyage using Mars for a gravity assist? With people traversing the inner solar system in a few weeks, that’s just bad physics. The faster a spacecraft travels, the less relevant a gravity assist can be. Later in the novel, Robinson describes a ship that just powers its way from planet to planet in just days. Just go with that.
I suspect most of what the author describes in this novel will happen. But three centuries is way too soon.
The other moment of disconnect was in the writing of one-hundred thirtysomething Swan Er Hong as a spoiled and arrogant little princess. Her 200-year-old grandfather comes off as a wisdom figure. One would think that thirteen decades of life would inspire an end to adolescence at some point. And Swan does develop as the pages turn. Otherwise, she is not a very likeable character. I enjoyed the romance that changes her in good ways. There’s no point in writing Swan as an indulgent and immature soul in a rejuvenated, but old body. Another good novel would be what humanlife and relationships are like when one lives for two centuries.
So, should you read this book? I would read the interludes that describe asteroid development. Skip the lists. The rest? If you like KSR, you will possibly like this book. For me, it felt a bit off. If you’ve never read him, tackle the Mars books instead: red, green, and blue.