Sunday, January 19, 2014

Exploring the Nebulas: 2013 winner Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312

Welcome to the first edition of Exploring the Nebulas, a new ongoing series from WGTB. In this series we will briefly review novels that have won the Nebula Award, the prize awarded by the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as the best novel of that genre each year. The scale used to rate each book is one of three: Good, Great or Legendary and the first winner to be reviewed is also the most recent; 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson.

2312, Kim Stanley Robinson, Orbit, 2012, pp. 576, C$ 29.00
2312 is Kim Stanley Robinson’s second Nebula win for Best Novel (his previous being Red Mars in 1993) and continues in a similar vein as a more 'high' or even literary science-fictional work. The book is set in the eponymous year and envisions the Solar System as a place where humans have moved to almost every major planet or planetoid available including Mercury, the home of our protagonist Swan Er Hong. Space travel is achieved through massive hollowed-out asteroid-ships called Terrariums that also serve as giant nature reservations or specialised theme parks. Other technological and societal advancements include space elevators on Earth and Mars; a moving city on Mercury; a free and independent Martian republic; a massive Venetian blind-like heat shield above Venus; the insertion of animal genetic material into human beings; as well as changes to human sexual organs. Despite all these amazing achievements, perhaps the most significant advancement is artificial intelligence that has both augmented the human brain and is on the verge of becoming its own political force. The Earth of 2312 is much less amazing and has become the "sad planet" with years of abuse and environmental degradation having left it a poverty stricken mess. Indeed, the damage caused by humanity has led to near extinction for many of its species and this is a major theme of the story. 

For the most part this Nebula winner is good, but is not without its problems. The book is interspersed with quasi-scientific "Excerpts” and “Lists” that provide insight into our future and at times are very interesting. But I also found that they could be distracting and towards the end of the story found them to disrupt the flow of the story which made the book feel longer than it needed to be. In 2312 Robinson also doesn't hide his politics and heartfelt belief that the prevailing economic system that we know, namely "capitalism", needs to be eliminated and the story has an economy of 2312 effectively extinquishing it by use of powerful computers. Personally, I'm highly skeptical that the future will confine capitalism to the domain of hobbyists and collectors as Robinson has, but the author is entitled to his opinion and while having a significant political aspect to it 2312 can be enjoyed by someone who doesn't agree with the author's politics.

The biggest problem I have with the book is that while it was very long, the ending was too Deus ex machina for my taste and appeared (paradoxically) rushed. I don't want to spoil the story for those who have not read it, but it's essentially a "who did it" caper, yet ends so abruptly and easily that it gnaws away at the suspension of disbelief every reader carries. Of course, it's likely that the intention of the book was that the journey was to be its own reward, and to this end it was speculative science-fiction done well. Not great, and by the final hundred pages I was ready to move on, but good. As such, it gets that exact rating: 2312 is a Good Nebula winner.   

*At the time of posting 2312 was the most recent recent Nebula Award winner for best novel. The ceremonies for the 2013 books take place in San Jose, at the San Jose Marriott, May 15-18, 2014.  

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