2312: The Unknowability of the Other

2312 coverAfter reading something (relatively) old, I moved on to something (relatively) new: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2012 novel 2312, which was nominated for the 2013 Hugo and won the 2013 Nebula. It was also honored listed for the 2012 James Tiptree, Jr. Award, given to works that explore and expand our understandings of gender.

The Plot: 2312 opens shortly after the death of the apparent political leader of Mercury, Alex, and introduces us to Alex’s granddaughter Swan Er Hong, first described as “a person most inclined than most to try things just to see.” As Alex’s colleague from across the Solar System arrive on Mercury to pay their respects – and search for hidden messages – Swan, currently working as an artist, is caught up in political intrigue. And while this political intrigue, which features class warfare on Earth and AIs being given sentience and human-like bodies, moves along most of the action of the novel, at its core, 2312 is a romance, as Swan finds herself falling in love with Wahram of Saturn, a man who could not be more opposite herself.

The World: Like much of Robinson’s work, the plot of 2312 is more of a conveyance for ideas and characters than anything else, and the world of 2312 is rich with both. For instance, one of the most interesting thing for me reading this book was watching myself try to wrap my mind around a post-capitalist society, which was featured most prominently in the character’s ability to travel at will – no one has to worry about paying for transport, or what they’ll do for food or lodging when they get there. No one seems to ever have much luggage to carry with them; in fact, the only personal property anyone seems to have is their qubes, which work much as modern-day smart phones do, but with built-in AIs. Without the incentive of money, people are able to do whatever work they choose – Swan once designed terraria, but has since become an artist primarily working in abramovics and goldsworthies. There do seem to be certain social prescriptions on this, as Wahram mentions that all Jovians do some time in civil services (and he found he was good at it, so he kept doing it). These social constraints remind readers that while Mercurial Swan and Jovian Wahram, as spacers, have more in common with each other than they do with the people still on Earth, we are still looking at two different cultures that have grown out of two different material realities. Jovian custom, for instance, is for children to be conceived and raised in creches of six adults for greater stability, while Mercurials have no problem with pairs.

And how children are conceived is another interesting point, as spacers have come to identify something like eight genders rather than two, as scientific and technological advancements have allowed them to bring out testes and small penises in individuals designated female at birth (the resultant individual being a “gyandromorph”) and vaginas and wombs in individuals designated male at birth (“androgyns” or “wombmen”). Additionally, adaptations can be made in utero for “bisexuals,” who have female breasts and male and female genitalia, among other kinds of gender manifestation and identification. These physiological changes were initially prompted by the longevity treatments that have extended spacers’ lives (Swan is in her 130s and Wahram in his 110s, both considered to be in their prime) – yet another contributing factor in the social shifts we see in spacer cultures. Swan can trade off a career as a terraria designer for a career as an artist because she has time to train in a new field and no economic incentives to continue to specialize in just one. We also see looser family structures as parents fall out of touch with children over time, and long term friendships (like that between Swan and Zasha, who parented a child together) are characterized by individuals suddenly dipping in and out of each other’s lives.

In fact, the novel is designed to place primacy on face-to-face communication; with renegade qubes about monitoring digital channels of communication, the only way for Swan and Wahram’s group to plan actions in secrecy it to collect themselves from the various reaches of the solar system. And yet the face-to-face, with all the nuances of body language and non-verbal cues is not enough – the central theme of 2312 is how unknowable another mind is and will always remain. This becomes clear with the discussion among Swan’s group about whether or not they can be sure that some qubes have attained sentience and whether or not these qubes are anything but the AI-equivalent of sociopaths. But while that conversation focuses on the organic/artificial divide, the story moves on after the qubes are safely quarantined – as I said before, this is primarily a love story. As Swan debates marrying Wahram (a daunting notion for someone as driven by her whims as Swan is), she considers the follow:

Maybe to say that someone was “like this” or “like that” was just an attempt to stick a memory to a board where you organized memories like butterflies in a lepidopterist’s collection. Not really the generalization it seemed, but just a stab at understanding. Was Wahram anything like what she might say about him, if she tried to say something? He was like this, he was like that – she didn’t really know. One had impression of other people, nothing more. Never to hear them think, only to hear what they said; it was a drop in an ocean, a touch across the abyss. A hand holding your hand as you float in the black of space. It wasn’t much. They couldn’t really know each other very well. So they said he is like this, or she is like that, and called that the person. Presumed to make a judgement. It was such a guess. You would have to talk with someone for years to give the guess any kind of validity. And even then you wouldn’t know. (571)

Swan ultimately seems to accept Wahram’s proposal as a kind of challenge – while she may have once imagined a life with Wahram as boring (as he loves his routines), this mystery of his mind entices her.

Among the many things it is, 2312 is a study in personalities, and I wonder about which characters other readers were drawn to. I personally found Swan off-putting – she’s impulsive, moody, and risk-prone. She struggles to see and understand the resentment that Earthlings feel toward spacers; she’s slow to grasp larger political repercussions beyond her gut feelings. Meanwhile, in Wahram, I found a kindred spirit, especially in the care he takes in his routines and how his careful observations of others. Of course, this reading is deeply personal; my own personality falls somewhere between these two, and it is Wahram’s characteristics I wish to cultivate while Swan’s moodiness is too like my own for comfort. But, political action seems to require both: while Wahram seems to have a better sense of what the people of Earth want, their values and motivations, Swan is the force that pushes everything forward.

And no doubt about it, this is a political book. Intermixed with the narrative are lists and excerpts from the scholarly works of the future that contain cutting commentary on Earth’s current state, economically and environmentally. And if there are rhetorical lessons put forward here, it’s that while individuals may remain largely unknowable to use, the collective is easier to gauge. For a time, while Swan tries to force an improved material realities on an impoverished area of Africa, Wahram works with a group aiming to recover the land that was once Florida by moving dirt from other parts of North America to the now-submerged coasts of the peninsula and spends his time reflecting on the wide-spread sense that this is good work, work worth doing, because it was organized by the Earthlings of the area and is happening according to their own needs and desires. After this experience, when Swan is burnt out by the setbacks and sabotages she’s come up against in her own project, Wahram suggests releasing the animals back on Earth, a proposal that Alex’s group had been planning for years, because the return of the animals would allow Earthlings to adapt on their own terms, in their own locations, and with a sense of nostalgia for what once was – a point with important implications during this present moment of environmental crisis for readers.

Final Thoughts: 2312 is a rich novel with the kind of multivocality I’ve come to expect from Robinson (you can read him talking about Bakhtin’s heteroglossia in this interview), but it’s not terribly often that I want to talk with other people about a novel as much as I’ve wanted to talk with others about 2312, and the reason is that it moved me deeply, and like Tom Haverford of Parks and Rec having an emotional experience with a piece of art,

Tom Haverford Art

I keep reflecting on the experience and wondering at all the different elements that came together to provoke this sense of wonder in me.