There’s the gender aspects. Robinson goes beyond gender-bending and into gender-thwarting. I first really realised something was going on when a new character was introduced and for the entire interaction, there were no pronouns used. And it’s a gender-neutral name. So… no clue as to whether biologically or otherwise male or female, and it didn’t matter in the slightest; and nor did it matter for the many other characters for whom this was also true. The gender aspect is one where Robinson’s sly use of language and meta-references comes in: there’s a comment somewhere (I wish I had bookmarked it!) where the difficulty in determining sex or gender is remarked on, and the fact that humanity could now be called “ursuline” – because of the notorious difficulty in sexing bears, is the commenter’s note. But I see what you did there, Robinson, and since le Guin is one of my favourite authors, I quite literally laughed and crowed aloud. This society has what ours would regard as the “normal” genders (with “outrageous” (p431) macho and fem behaviours as something of an art form), as well androgyns, wombmen, hermaphrodites, gynandromorphs, eunuchs, and the gender-indeterminate. There are people who have fathered and mothered children at different times, people who never disclose their gender to anyone, and… really the broadest range of sexual and gender identity that I can imagine (actually, broader than I had previously imagined). So, that aspect is a lot of fun – and it’s presented as normal and as a full expression of humanity.
The political aspect comprehensively wooed and won me. It’s common enough – perhaps not so much today, but still sometimes – in science fiction and fantasy to have a monarchy, or an authoritarian regime of some flavour to work within/against, or at any rate a government that can be seen as leaning to the right. And the characters often either agree with it or are actively rebelling against it. Robinson’s solar system is far more complex and interesting. For a start the Earth isn’t given a single governing body; it actually has more countries here, 300 years in the future, than it does today. The other planets and moons often have one controlling authority, but they are disparate in their aims and desires. In fact much of the inner solar system is held together as part of the Mondragon (based on the idea of a Basque town, see here). A non-profit, cooperative-based, economic model aiming at mutual support. Yes please. This is contrasted with Earth, and again I will admit to laughing out loud at this description: “late capitalism writhed in its internal decision concerning whether to destroy Earth’s biosphere or change its rules. Many argued for the destruction of the biosphere, as being the lesser of two evil” (p125). I laughed, and then I wept. Also this: “confining capitalism to the margin was the great Martian achievement, like defeating the mob or any other protection racket” (p127). A system where, overall, I feel encouraged by the politics and economic aims? Not utopian but aiming high and nobly? That makes me pretty happy.
These aspects combined make this an optimistic novel about the future, which also makes me happy. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a glorious love-in where nothing bad happens, where there’s sunshine and rainbows and cookies for all. Life on Earth is hard – climate change has had a serous impact, especially if you lived anywhere near the coast (or where the coast used to be…); life on Mercury and the moons involves great difficulties; there is crime and anger and wanton destruction of life. But those things exist today, too. What makes this optimistic is the attitude taken by both Robinson and many of his characters that there is something that even insignificant people can do about it all. Maybe it won’t make a change immediately, and that will be annoying, but long term changes can be worked towards – they’re worth working towards, and enduring the setbacks, because people and institutions can change.
Of course, all of these things are well and good. The story is happy-making too. It’s told largely though the lens of Swan Er Hong, resident of Mercury and restless spirit. Several other characters become important over time, and Robinson cleverly uses chapter titles to indicate which character will dominate (“Swan and Wang” = Swan is most important, Wang will loom large too).
Speaking of chapters, there are sets of Extracts and sets of Lists scattered at different points throughout, too. Extracts are a form of info-dump, with sections of texts literally like they are extracts from news reports, histories, or scientific papers. This is a neat trick and one that felt immersive – because it could easily be Swan or another character skimming books or websites – rather than throwing the reader out by being too info-heavy. And the Lists often feel whimsical, but they certainly add depth; my favourite, in a melancholy way, is a list of words beginning with boredom and escalating to death wish; it captures quite nicely the sentiments of at least one character at the time. (There’s also a wonderful list of women honoured by having a crater named after them, from Annie Oakley to Emily Dickinson by way of Sappho and Xantippe.)
But back to the story: it’s a curious one really. For much of the novel, it feels like the story is happening around the characters, but they’re not often directly involved – at least, not in the big events: destruction of a city? Not there at the time. These big things have a big impact on our protagonists, but – much like we normal mortals experience events – those events act on them, rather than (mostly) being caused by them. For this reason Swan, for all she has important connections and is moderately famous, feels remarkably like a normal person. The narrative itself is basically a whodunit that gets bigger than expected: Swan’s grandparent has died and left a somewhat unexpected inheritance, and then soon after her home, the city of Terminator on Mercury, is destroyed, leaving Swan determined to help find the culprit. This leads her all over the solar system (up to and including the moons of Saturn have been comprehensively colonised), interacting with people of all shapes and sizes (literally; being a tall or a small is more of a division in this society than gender). There’s intrigue, and dismay, and maybe-love, and some wild ideas for how people in three centuries might get their kicks, from tampering with one’s physiology to some rather extreme sports. Swan and friends do end up having an influence on events, but the manner and the outcome are far from predictable.
Swan herself, as I said, is a fairly normal-seeming person. She gets cranky and has wild ideas and is frequently hard to please; she is contrary and independent and determined and wants the best for the universe (mostly), so who can’t people just agree with her when she’s clearly right, dammit? The supporting cast – Wahrum and Wang and Genette and others – are varied, from police to scientists to politicians, with a variety of sexual orientations (when it’s even specified), and a plethora of priorities and ambitions of their own. The society as a whole is gloriously well realised and complex, but familiar as human nonetheless.
In sum, then, this is a realistic (non-utopian), largely optimistic, enthusiastic look 300 years into the future, with complex and occasionally frustrating characters who may well remind you of people you know. This is what I would like science fiction to be like a lot more frequently.