Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Ecocatastrophe and the final frontier: 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson

I haven't read it yet, but one of my top items for scheduled summer reading is the new science fiction novel 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson is best known for the novels of his Mars trilogy, which trace human settlement of the Red Planet through the early twenty third century.

Thinking about today's global ecological crisis, my working assumption has been that climate change and resource depletion will put a permanent end to space travel sometime in the next few centuries, and possibly in this one. It's hard for me to imagine how the coming permanent exhaustion of fossil fuels and strategic minerals would permit future societies to build the massive, energy-intensive, raw-material-hogging infrastructure necessary to launch and sustain human colonization of the solar system. The virtual inevitability of runaway climate change and ecosystem collapse, it seems to me, seal the coffin even more tightly on dreams of future space colonization. Thus, over the last decade I came to believe that the future Robinson described in his Mars books was just about as feasible as traveling to Middle Earth.

2312, apparently, stands for the proposition that I'm wrong. Which, frankly, would make me very happy. From perusing various reviews, I can tell that Robinson's book postulates a near-collapse of civilization in the twenty first century, thanks to the various eco-horrors I just referenced. But in KSR's future, space colonization gets underway even so. By the early twenty fourth century, human societies are well-established throughout the Solar System, from Mercury to the asteroid belt and outer planets. From what I can tell, Earth itself remains a broiling, desert-wrapped hell hole of super-storms and rising oceans, embroiled in its ancient plagues of racism, hierarchy, and violence. But humans on other worlds flourish, branching out into new pathways of cultural experimentation -- and technology-enhanced biological and cybernetic evolution.

That's a long winded way to say I'm going to buy this book and scrutinize the underlying assumptions about how its imagined future polities and cultures came to be and how space travel enabled humanity to transcend the ecological devastation of its home planet. This intention of mine creates some personal irony, because the author once told me (in a face-to-face interview that I incompetently and unforgivably never managed to publish) that he did not intend his books to be read in this fashion. In so many words, he said that the technological and social speculation in his novels are simply stagecraft, not to be taken as academic commentary, serving strictly dramatic purposes. They are not the point of his books. They simply enable him to tell stories about interesting characters. And so they do, and so the characters are. But I can't help but read his books for my own purposes, even so.

My purpose is to imagine the future not of individual, imaginary characters but of our species as a whole. For some reason, it is emotionally important to me to imagine that the possible future histories of humanity that might unfold after my death are not uniformly apocalyptic. A human future out among the stars has always been part of those dreams. It's my own personal religion, and I seem to need it (not by bread alone). Perhaps especially now. One year of law school has left me, to be frank, desolate. Emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and in all other ways empty. I've been to that place many times, in a lifelong cycle between hope and despondency. Somehow my esoteric personal religion always helps the cycle return to hope, along the trails through imaginary worlds and all the wonders that could be.

One more time.

* * * * *

Early reviews of KSR's book are positive, hinting at greatness. One of my favorites is here.

1 comment:

  1. Normally I'm not a fan of novels without plot unless the characters are so engaging I just love spending time with them. I can't say I loved Swan. I like Wahram a little more, but ultimately it was getting to hang out in the local system that made the read worthwhile.