Cover by Kirk Benshoff
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON
Published: 24 May 2012
On the cover:
The year is 2312. Scientific advances have opened gateways to an extraordinary future. Earth is no longer our only home; new habitats have been created throughout the solar system, on moons, planets and in between. But in 2312, a sequence of events will force humanity to confront our past, present and future.
The first event takes place on Mercury, in the city of Terminator, itself a miracle of engineering on an unprecedented scale. For Swan Er Hong, it will change her life. Once a designer of worlds, now Swan will be led into a plot to destroy them.
Having previously read Robinson's Mars Trilogy you will pretty much know what you can expect when it comes to the level of Science Fiction in this novel. I haven't checked if it is actually set in the same world as the Mars Trilogy, but there's nothing that immediately says to me that it isn't. In any event, it does fit in with the society and space exploration we encounter in the previous trilogy.
That being said, there is absolutely no need to read the Mars Trilogy before reading this. This is a novel that stands one hundred percent on its own as a story, and in worldbuilding for that matter.
Worldbuilding is an important aspect of this novel, I would even go so far as to say it is the important aspect of the novel. I like solid worldbuilding in my SFF, and there's certainly a lot of that here. Robinson makes the world of our solar system in 2312 come vividly to life. And he does it in such a way that it seems like a very natural development from our time.
However, here the worldbuilding overshadows the story completely at times. Sometimes you feel that the story is just an afterthought, something put there in the last minute. There's quite a bit of the story here that doesn't go anywhere plot-wise, but does go the places it needs to show off what humanity has done in the solar system.
There's small interspersed chapters with additional worldbuilding, and they are very interesting, and add a lot to the understanding of what has happened in the coming three centuries. Despite these chapters being somewhat disruptive to the flow of the main narrative, I felt they were justified. They do a lot for what is happening that would be lost if they were relegated to an appendix.
There's a very interesting story here, one of politics and power. Of the future of humanity, and of the problems that can crop up with progress. This is very well done, Robinson creates a lot of mystery, and the revealing of them makes for some interesting reading.
But there are some huge problems. One of them is that we aren't really involved in what is going on. The story mostly happens on the very outskirts of the investigation surrounding the mystery. There's an almost complete lack of suspense due to the solutions being presented "out of the blue". There's very little previous build up, and sometime they come from completely new information.
And even when we are at the centre of events we don't get much information. Instead the story is centred around a character that not only is kept apart from what is happening, but who mostly doesn't care about it at all.
There's two main characters, Swan Er Hong and Fitz Wahram. Swan is the one who is the main focus, and she's not really a good point of view character. I found her to very unsympathetic, even annoying. It certainly is a daring choice to have a main character that is this self-centred, but I don't think it paid off here.
Adding to the problem with Swan is that she is not really central to what is going on. When she is placed at the centre of events, after an initial event that it's natural she's present for, it feels artificial. The story at times feels weaker by her having a place in it.
Wahram is more central to what is going on, and should have served as a better narrator to the greater events. Unfortunately he is defined almost solely by his relationship with Swan. Something that I felt made him much less sympathetic.
Considering these flaws, this is still a good novel. The world building is simply excellent and very interesting. But the contrast to a weak story, that feels like it is there to show the worldbuilding, is very striking. That this is in many ways Swan's personal story didn't work for me. It clashed with the worldbuilding and the greater events. I'd have preferred this as a "History book" instead. The storyline pulls the whole down here.
It's still very much a good Science Fiction story. Yes, it has massive flaws, but the future we see here still makes for interesting reading. Individual parts of the story are very good. Mostly when they focus more on the worldbuilding aspects, and not on Swan personally.
If you need a really good story to go with your Science Fiction, I wouldn't say that this is a good choice. If you want an interesting look at the future of humanity however, this is a great choice. If you like solid worldbuilding this is excellent.
I'm also sure that many will have quite a different reaction to Swan than I did. And since she's so central to the story , how you get along with her will decide how you feel about it.
This is very good Science Fiction, that suffer from a story, and a main character, that just don't manage to feel significant next to the excellent worldbuilding.