Review: 2312

You may remember that a while back I was excited to start reading 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) the moment it came out. I started it on May 22nd, and finished it on July 6th. One-and-a-half months. I do not take that long to read books, but with 2312 I had to put it down a little over halfway through because I was just not that into it.

“It’s not you, it’s me,” I told the book before letting it languish in the recesses of my Kindle, but like most everyone who uses that line, it was a half-truth at best.

You see, 2312 starts off well enough, with the Mercurian artist Swan er Hong dealing with the death of her beloved grandmother, Alex. As it turns out, Alex was a leader in the politics of the solar system, and her death may not have been natural. Enter inspector Jean Genette, a pint-sized human known as a ‘small,’ and Fitz Wahram, a roundish, toad-like human from Titan, who both are curious to know if Alex left Swan any information to pass along to them. Alex would not have used the network of artificial intelligences, or qubes, to pass along the information, because she and others are not sure anymore if they can trust that the qubes are working for humanity or for their own purposes.

I had high hopes for the book based on that premise, and back on 5/25/12, when I was about 10% in, I wrote, “I have trouble getting my head around some of the science, but it is balanced with interesting characters and a mystery to pull me past the parts that make my brain melt.” Unfortunately, the book turned up the power on the brain-melt ray after that and the plot became lost amidst a travelogue of the solar system. In the year 2312, we find, humans have spread throughout the system and genetically modified themselves as needed to fit each area’s niche (or just for the sake of it, I guess). You have the aforementioned smalls, who are about a third the size of a “normal” human, toad-like beings who live near Saturn, and relatively Earth-normal humans like Swan who nevertheless are both male and female and may have several genetic modifications made to their bodies for adaptive or cosmetic reasons.

There are also many wondrous settings to explore: hollowed-out asteroids that float between the planets, a flooded Manhattan, space elevators, and a rolling city that circumnavigates Mercury, to name a few. But as KSR geeks out on all the neat things we’ll be able to do to our bodies and environment in the future, he neglects to move the plot along for large swaths of the novel. I needed a lot less observations on how people live in crafted worlds and have sex in endless variations and more focus on characters and plot.

For much of the book, though, we only touch on moments in the lives of Swan, Wahram, and Genette, moving the plot forward minutely, while the large chunks of the book around each of these moments are as drowned in poetic language and techno-speak as future Manhattan is in water. I also found it too convenient that, while on Earth, Swan befriends an Earth native named Kiran who she rescues from poverty on Earth and deposits with friends on Venus, where he ends up discovering crucial information to move the plot along.

Add to all this a series of connective chapters that are “Extracts” and “Lists” that felt like a chore to read and which I only skimmed through past a certain point, and it slowed my reading speed down considerably, as nothing was pulling me forward. This would be when I stopped reading 2312 for an entire month, at about the 60% point of the book.

A couple of days ago, I picked 2312 back up to see if I could get through the rest; I hate leaving books unfinished. Lo and behold, the last third (roughly) of the book was much more plot- and character-focused. While it still didn’t have the satisfying thrill and pull of, say, KSR’s Mars trilogy, it moved a lot faster and at least provided an answer to the main mystery in the book and some character growth.

Maybe I am judging 2312 unfairly against some idealized memory of the Mars Trilogy, but in my mind at least, the Mars books were full of characters I cared about (whether I was rooting for or against them), with exciting and relatable science and politics thrown in. With 2312, even if I began to care about Swan or Wahram, the focus jumped around so much, and the places were given just as much emphasis as the characters (or more, usually), that I couldn’t nestle into the character’s minds and get to know them enough to care what happened to them next.

I feel like KSR wanted this book to be a piece of art more than one of fiction. He paints the world of 2312 vividly and in great detail, but there was not enough story woven through that world for me to want to explore it. It ended up being a bigger disappointment for being so highly anticipated.

Oh well, we’ll always have Mars.

Book Review: vN

So, I haven’t blogged in a while as I have been busy on other writing projects. However, I have some time, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on a book I enjoyed recently, vN by Madeline Ashby.

vN refers to “von Neumann-type humanoids,” but it might be easier to think of them as replicants (if you are at all familiar with Blade Runner, that is). vN is the story of one such replicant, Amy, who is thrust from childhood to adulthood in an instant (and oh what an instant!) and whose adventures in the great wide world make up the majority of the book.

Let me back up, though. The book’s prologue begins with a focus on her human “father,” Jack, and her mother, Charlotte. It was a little difficult for me to get into, with lots of information to digest about vNs and the near-future world that vN is set in. To summarize: Amy is a clone, or iteration, of Charlotte. She will eventually be an exact physical copy, but her parents are keeping her diet controlled to keep her growing at the same rate as a normal human child, which is a controversial decision. If Amy is given enough food, she would grow into her adult form almost immediately; to keep her child-like, her parents are sort of starving her.

So where did vNs come from in this world? The answer is kind of messed up. A religious zealot created them to remain on Earth after the rapture to serve the remaining humans and make their life easier. And “serve” is true in every sense. As one character explains to Amy later in the book: “That’s why you’ve got all the right holes and such. So people can indulge themselves without sin.” To ensure that vNs serve properly, they have a failsafe built in: if they see a human get hurt, they literally lose their mind and shut down. Not only that, this means that they have a built-in need to love humans and make them happy.

Yes, it is a bit sick and twisted, and much as in Blade Runner, this sets up vNs as second-class citizens, to be used and discarded as needed. Indeed, there are questions of whether or not vNs are even truly sentient, i.e., would they pass a Turing test? Jack is sure they would, but his vN wife Charlotte sometimes doubts that he is. Or is she programmed to express doubt to appear more sentient? Not even the vNs themselves are sure.

Once I got my head around the happenings in the prologue, I was able to read through the rest of the book much faster. The story is like the flip side of Blade Runner. Instead of being told from the bounty hunter’s point of view, we see the world through Amy’s eyes as she flees her hunters. Why is she being hunted? Well, it has to do with her grandmother, who is able to commit violent acts against humans. This means the built-in failsafe is not working for her, and if not for her, it might not be working for Amy either, since Amy belongs to the same clade as her grandmother. Understandably, the thought of a super-strong vN who can freely do violence to humans is something the human ruling class is fearful of, especially given the way vNs are treated.

vN is full of fantastic ideas and philosophical questions, which I enjoyed, but it is the plight of the all-too-human Amy which kept me reading in order to find out what would happen next. While vN is only Book One in The Machine Dynasty, I was satisfied with the book as a stand-alone novel (although I will definitely read any sequels). There were a few odd jumps from one scene to another in the book, but nothing I couldn’t figure out. If you like stories about artificial intelligence and  the question of what it means to be a person and a human, check out vN when it is released on 7/31/12.

Note: I received vN as an e-book Advanced Reading Copy from the publisher, Angry Robot Books. Why did I get an eARC? Long story short, after reading and enjoying a couple of other Angry Robot releases (Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds and Matt Forbeck’s Vegas Knights), I was exploring the Angry Robot website and found out about their Angry Robot Army, signed up, and was accepted. So here we are. Yes, I got the book for free. No, that doesn’t mean I am going to say I loved it if I didn’t, but in this case I actually liked vN a lot.