A novel that makes terraforming awesome again

Too often, we associate complexity and thoughtfulness with pessimism. But in Kim Stanley Robinson's gorgeous new space opera, 2312, the renowned author demonstrates that hopeful futures can be as complicated as any dystopia. Part eco-thriller, part detective story, this novel rockets us across the solar system inside hollowed-out asteroids full of weird terrariums — and onto the surfaces of planets in the process of being spectacularly terraformed.

A motley assortment of GMO humans and AIs are racing against time to figure out who blew up a city on Mercury. Can they catch the bad guys before they hit another target? If you're looking for a mind-blowing, disturbing, but ultimately optimistic epic to finish out your summer, this is it.

2312 takes place exactly 300 years in the future, at a time when humans are starting to get comfortable with the idea that we've colonized the solar system. Humanity has gone through centuries of exploration, developing the science that allows them to change the atmospheres of Mars and Venus — and to change their own bodies so that they're better suited to space travel or life on a moon of Saturn. Having done that, however, humans begin to revert to balkanism again. Planets start to become more like nations in conflict, and the camaraderie of colonization morphs into the opening acts of a war. Plus, Earth continues to be a cesspit of pollution and poverty.

The book is packed with incredible hard science fiction details about terraforming and geology, but also shot through with poetic moments of magic realism. And that magic realism most resides in the novel's main character, an artist named Swan, whose grandmother has been secretly leading a group of insurrectionaries who want to even out the balance of power in the solar system and make a more democratic system. When Swan's grandmother dies, it falls upon Swan to help the group continue their work. Moody, packed with alien microbes and implanted with an ornery AI plus bird DNA that allows her to whistle preternaturally, Swan is hardly cut out for the role of heroic revolutionary. She's basically a performance artist who is really into body modification.

But Swan's political conscience emerges as she grows closer to Wahram, a GMO man from Titan, while the two of them work alongside a GMO detective to figure out who destroyed Swan's home city on Mercury. Eventually, they become part of a group of scientist-subversives who are bent on sharing resources equally between the planets. Along the way, they come up with a way to bring more solar power to the outer planets, repair some of Earth's damaged ecosystems, and investigate organized crime on Venus.

A novel that makes terraforming awesome again

Oh, and also? Swan and Wahram have one of the most futuristic romances you've ever experienced. Robinson offers us a glimpse of genders (and genitals) of tomorrow, as well as family structures so unlike ours that they really could be the subject of their own separate novel.

If this novel sounds like your typical post-human epic, however, it isn't. Absolutely it has space battles and AI orgies and moons being chopped up and hurled at planets. But it's also full of strange prose-poems about science and consciousness. And every few chapters, Robinson gives us a history lesson in fragments of text that hint at all the ways humanity has changed over the 300 hundred years between now and the year when the story takes place. In this way, 2312 is able to be more than just a simple story. It's a future history, a dream of all the complicated ways we might muddle through as a species, spreading out into space without ever really fixing all the old problems that have nearly extinguished us again and again.

Perhaps what makes 2312 such a hopeful book is that it doesn't promise us Utopia. In fact, the fragments of history that adorn the novel hint that humans are constantly cycling through phases of exploration (what Robinson calls "the accelerando") and warfare (balkanization). Our science may improve us, and may allow us to move beyond the confines of Earth, but we still remain fundamentally human. Conflict and ambivalence are what define us. Still, as 2312 suggests, that doesn't mean we won't figure out ways to solve some of our worst problems. It just means we'll always be finding new problems — and new solutions — stretching before us like an endlessly receeding temporal horizon.

Pick up a copy of 2312.

Related: Kim Stanley Robinson talks to us about 2312 on the io9 show.