2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson

This novel defies easy categorization.

I thought, at some points: it’s like an epic. It’s certainly large, even sprawling enough.  The entire Solar System is its setting, and it takes in centuries all told. In that sense, it works on as large a canvas as the Iliad and the Odyssey.

At others points, I felt it was more an anti-epic. That enormous canvas comes to us in fragmented form, in bits and pieces. Some chapters consist of “lists” or “excerpts,” which both clarify details in the main story arc and obscure any sense of a singular or central narrative arc. There is no clear “hero” here; no one larger than life. The two main characters are as small and fractured and fragile as humans (“spacers”) living out in a bubble in space can be.

For me, the human component of the novel was its redeeming virtue. But that human component was carried forward by an Asimov-like criminal investigation involving — naturally — robots (updated to take in quantum computers). (The novel struck me as self-consciously genred in that way, too; there were many allusions to famous SF novels and even films.) I’m not sure I would have endured to the end of those 560 pages had there not been some feeling that we were — Robinson and I — engaging in the usual cat-and-mouse game of following out a kind of a plot. In true Asimovian fashion, there is a reveal near the finale of the novel that allows the reader to see pieces clicking into place. But that final puzzle piece did not bring the relief — or joy — I remember from an Asimov novel. 2312 took me instead into the unstable, fragmented terrain of the human person, imagined forward into a universe where gender and body and death and disease have been altered. Leading, in this instance, not to a utopian closure, but the fragile attempt at a new kind of survival and love.

Two critical passages in the novel brought this home to me. The one concerned an almost endless walk down a corridor beneath the surface of Mercury. And the other, an indeterminate period of floating, stranded in space. The first was longer, the second more breathtaking. Both moved me, more in fact than the cat-and-mouse Asimovian game. Both were, in a sense, the novel’s soul or consciousness, suspended within the architecture of a fragmented epic.

So that, in the end, this novel for me was neither epic nor anti-epic, but something smaller and more intimate.

Which, in a word, is a remarkable thing.

I should add that the novel has countless passages of breathtaking prose, gorgeous descriptions of otherworldly settings, conditions so extreme they make the arctic seem tame. Lots to savor here.

If you read it, what did you think? If not, do you plan to?

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