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.

Future History: DreamTV

The year is 2034. Scripted television is a thing of the past. Reality TV has played itself out. The final niche documentary show—Ozark Raccoon Celebrity Matchmakers, which detailed the love lives of a small group of genetically engineered, intelligent raccoons—was canceled by Animal PlanE!t in 2031 after five strong seasons. Once that show went off the air, there were no further demographics left that had not already been documented by a reality TV show.

Reality competition shows had ended when the extended family of contestants from MTV’s Real World/Road Rules franchise had taken each other out in a true Last Man Standing event, with the final contestant dying of liver failure soon thereafter. The resulting lawsuits from family members and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Game Show Contestants had such a chilling effect on other competition shows that they all closed up shop en masse, stranding some contestants on deserted islands or in foreign countries.

Luckily, Dream TV stepped in to fill the gaping hole in the TV landscape left by the dissolution of every single other form of entertainment. Born out of technology that took its first crude steps into dreamland in the early 21st century, DreamTV allows viewers intimate access into the dreams of the rich, famous, imaginative, and depraved.

 Excerpt from a DreamTV advertisement: “Let’s face it, you don’t remember your dreams, do you? Or if you do, it’s that one where you’re walking around the office naked, or you’re taking a surprise math quiz even though it’s been years since you’ve been in school. Why suffer your own petty, shallow dreams and nightmares when you can watch the creation of professional dreamers, with fresh content provided daily on thousands of channels? With DreamTV, only the best dreamers are chosen to take you into exotic landscapes of the mind where action, adventure, exploration, romance, and a mixed bag of fascinating neuroses await! Each Dream Creator lives a life of luxury by day, and spends each night hooked up to a Quantum Imager that translates detailed scans of their brains into audio-visual extravaganzas for your viewing pleasure.”

 Excerpt from the paper ’zine Hide Your Dreams: “Is everything copacetic in Dreamland? There are rumors that the so-called Dream Creators are actually unwilling prisoners subjected to an endless regimen of bizarre stimuli, images, music, and hallucinogenic drugs in order to, in effect, program the dreams that DreamTV writers have written for them. So are you watching real dreams or has the Writer’s Guild of Earth simply found a new way to write and produce new fiction shows with a cast and crew of one? Are the supposedly spontaneous and free-form stories that each Dream Creator shares each night actually programmed in ahead of time?”

 Clip from 20/20/24/7 News:

DreamTV spokesman John Shale : “We strenuously deny these vile rumors that have no basis whatsoever in fact. Our dreams and nightmares are 100% created in the subconscious minds of our Dream Creators. Have you watched these dreams? To suggest that they are the purposeful work of a group of writers is ridiculous.”

20/20/24/7 Correspondent Alicia Wilde: “Still, the rumors persist, as do those that the United Nations Security Division is extracting information from dissidents not through torture, but simply by recording dreams and sifting through them for nuggets of fact. If our dreams are no longer our own, sacred playgrounds, a place where we can work out our imagination and explore our hopes, fears, and anxieties without worrying what someone else will think about us, if they can be visited by government spooks or by anyone who owns a TV set, what refuge is left to us, dear viewers?”

The year is 2036. DreamTV ended in scandal when it was revealed that the rumors had been true. Entire prison complexes of forced dreamers were found and most of the so-called Dream Creators were insane beyond the point of rehabilitation by the time their plight was confirmed. The head of the UNSD stepped down amidst the revelations that he was personally responsible for funding the program, which provided the “Dream Creators” to DreamTV after the UNSD was down strip-mining their dreams for intelligence.

Luckily, by the time DreamTV collapsed, the children of the original Real World/Road Rules contestants had come of age. As part of their winning lawsuit against MTV, they received the right to have a competition show of their own. The age of reality TV was born again.

[I was working on an unrelated short story all day Saturday and it wasn’t until the end of the night that I realized I had no Sunday blog post ready. I had been thinking of writing about current technologies that could one day lead to the ability to view one’s dreams, perhaps using some improved form of functional magnetic resonance imagining. The post I started to write was kind of dry and bland, so I figured, hey, only one or two people at the most (Hi Mom, Hi Jeff!) will read this anyway, so I might as well have fun with it. It is meant to be silly but contain some real questions about where such technology might be problematic.]