The Ministry for the Future
Kim Stanley Robinson continues to be one of the great voices of climate change fiction – particularly, the consequences of, and how humans might mitigate them (since no way are we avoiding).
The Ministry of the title is the use-name for a small international organisation set up under the auspices of the Paris Climate Agreement, kind of but not entirely associated with the UN and based in Zurich. Their remit is to basically to represent future generations, who currently don’t get a say in what they will inherit, and therefore to advocate for policies that will be good for those future people. It’s a clever way of showing that current decisions have downstream consequences, and of having people whose job it is to focus on that.
Part of the book, therefore, focuses on the Ministry: policy and the struggles of international collaboration. Another large part isn’t even really narrative so much as a series of vignettes from individuals who are either directly affected by some aspect of climate change – like the devastating heat wave that opens the novel – or by people who are involved in climate change mitigation, like farmers in Kerala who are doing awesome things with agriculture. The scope of the book is a couple of decades, thus showcasing the problems as they develop as well as the myriad and varied attempts to deal with the issues.
It’s not a standard linear narrative, therefore; but it is recognisably a Kim Stanley Robinson. For example, New York 2140 had several characters to follow and a few clear narrative threads, which sometimes intertwined, plus the narrator who dumped info on you. This is more experimental, I think, but feels like an extension of what was going on in 2140. I guess there are two main characters, although they probably don’t get quite enough space to really legitimate the title: the head of the Ministry, a middle-aged Irish woman who is awesome; and an American aid worker caught in the Indian heatwave who continues to suffer the repercussions of that for years. If it’s anyone’s story, it’s theirs; although having said that really it’s the planet’s story, and that of the entire population. Which feels so right for a book like this. It makes sense to hear from farmers in India and glaciologists in Antarctica! Less so the bits from the sun, and a carbon atom; but I’m prepared to indulge Robinson’s whims.
I trust Robinson to generally have his science right, if slightly on the outlandish side – that is, his suggestions probably match known science, but they may require more time / other resources than is considered feasible… although actually, this is something that he addresses in the book – that what seems like a large amount of money kinda isn’t when you set it in context. I do wonder whether a copy of this should be sent to people at the UN, and glaciologists, and agriculture people…
This book won’t work for everyone. The structure will annoy some, for sure, because it decentres characters and because it doesn’t really have much of a narrative. It just… covers a period of time, and what happens to the world in that time. So if you like a neat open and close, this probably isn’t for you; if you like really strong characters driving the story, likewise. But I really do recommend this as an exploration of the next few decades on our planet… it’s both optimistic on some levels but also devastating.
I remember when the the Science in the Capital books came out; I was unconvinced about whether I could face a near-future story about climate change. So I did nothing about reading them. Then I recently discovered that the books had been released as an omnibus edition, and I figured – why not. And the introduction to this edition reveals that it’s a director’s cut – and not in the way that Raymond E Feist did his version of Magician: in this case Robinson has actually cut extraneous material, for a variety of reasons, and I’m quite impressed by that whole process.
So anyway, now I have read the trilogy-that’s-really-one-long-book. And it must be said that it’s rare for me to finish a book where I kinda loathe the main character.
The book opens in a style that suggests the story will be told through a variety of voices. Each chapter opens with some extended comment on science or politics or global events, and then the chapter proceeds with different characters going about their everyday lives – which frequently interact with each other, and with making science- and climate-related decisions. There’s Anna, a scientist at the National Science Foundation; Frank, a visiting scientist at the NSF; Charlie, Anna’s husband and advisor to a senator, who works from home and is mostly caring for his youngest son; Leo, a scientist in a small biotech startup lab; and a couple of others. As it went on, though, there was somewhat less of this multi-focused approach.
It was intriguing to read a book that paired the domestic, sometimes banal, frequently humdrum lives of its characters – in the office, or the home, or the lab – with important scientific discoveries or crucial policy decisions. Like in real life. The conversations often looked really odd on paper… until I listened to them properly in my head, and then they sounded like just normal conversations. Zagging in odd directions, incomplete sentences, and so on. Robinson has often captured actual life with true verisimilitude, and I mostly enjoyed it.
However, the character that I initially liked the least is the one who ends up having most of the narrative. This is Frank. He has what I regard as a poor attitude to science, and an even worse one towards women. If I had realised that this was going to be largely Frank’s narrative, I may not have kept going. In fact it’s possible that if I had been reading this as three separate books, I would not have picked up the second after the first.
Now, I have little objection to abandoning a book – I mean I hate doing it, but I will, because life is too short to read crap books. So why didn’t I abandon this book? Because I did want to know what would happen to the other characters. And because I was truly interested in where Robinson would go both in destroying the world through climate change, and suggesting possible ways of dealing with it.
Was it worth it? I still didn’t like Frank. In fact I got really impatient with him, and his whole personal storyline seemed pretty weird and actually beside the point for the overall story… and this sense is growing the more I think about it. However, as a way of thinking about how science might help the world deal with the repercussions of climate change, it’s certainly an intriguing novel. And like many of Robinson’s books, ultimately hopeful. (Perhaps too hopeful?) So I don’t regret reading it. For a reader who is interested in both politics and science, I expect this would hit a lot of buttons (unless you’re very over the ‘America saves the world’ narrative, which this leans into pretty heavily, so be warned).
Sadly, Robinson made yet another odd statement about an Australian animal (he implied there’s not that many black swans in Red Moon). This time, a character comes across an animal dead in the snow: it’s a wombat, and then there’s mention of warm-weather critters needing to be looked after.
From here; I’ve seen wombats in the snow a lot, so… nah. Not so much.
As a rule, I am excited about new Kim Stanley Robinson. I mostly enjoyed Aurora, and utterly adored New York 2140 and 2312. I know that not everyone loved those last two as much as I did… and I think a lot of people enjoyed Aurora more than me. Which tells you that Robinson meets different readers in different places, and that’s ok.
For me, Red Moon is closer to being like Aurora. I mostly enjoyed it, and it’s certainly exploring some interesting ideas, but I did not get giddy with joy in reading it. I have no hesitation in recommending it to other people who enjoy near-future SF, and for those who got bored by 2312 etc then this is likely to be more up their alley. Which is great! Cater to a range of preferences!
It’s also a bit hilarious to me that I read this so soon after finishing Ian McDonald’s Luna trilogy, given a few similarities but mostly differences.
Red Moon is set three decades into the future. Our moon has a lot of people living on it, mostly Chinese. Which, given the current state of the Chinese space programme and their lunar intentions, is not ridiculous. Other nations are represented there, too, but the bulk of the mining and such are being undertaken at a Chinese installation at the southern pole. The book is largely focused on Chinese characters, too, so it’s important to point out right now that I’m Anglo-Australian, and have no sense of whether Robinson has made any cultural missteps. It doesn’t feel like he has, to me, but it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed some offensive things. There are a couple of points where one of the main characters rails against some Chinese stereotypes, which gives me hope that Robinson is really aware of what he’s doing; but there’s also a point at which he says black swans are more rare than rhinos, and… (from here, of all places)
Yeh, we have a lot of black swans in Australia.
Anyway. Fred goes to the moon to deliver a quantum phone, and the person he is to meet dies when they meet. It’s clear to the reader that Fred isn’t responsible, but not to everyone around him. Fred then basically ends up being shuttled around the place, and sometimes used a political football. He ends up, through odd circumstances, traveling with Chan Qi: a young woman, daughter of a very senior politician in the Chinese Communist Party, vocal in a social change movement, and herself being sought by a variety of groups for their own political purposes. While Fred often seems to have little volition, and is tossed by the vagaries of those around him, and isn’t sure what to do in those circumstances, Qi rails against the structures around her – even when she too is able to do little about the problems that beset her. Qi definitely seems to be be the more active, in all ways, of the two; their companionship is an interesting comparison. Also interesting therefore is that while Fred is frequently a narrator throughout the novel, we rarely get any insight into Qi’s mindset.
Along with the novel being about Fred’s attempts to not get done for a murder he didn’t commit, Robinson is exploring a bunch of other ideas. China seems to be in a place ready for political turmoil, which Qi is contributing to; Robinson explores some of the reasons that might create this situation – most of which exist today – and some possible solutions. So it’s political, and social, and economic commentary; I’d be fascinated to know what Americans think, since it doesn’t paint the US in the best of capitalist lights; China also isn’t a utopia, but it’s also not a nightmarish dystopia.
And then there’s an AI, learning to learn and utilising surveillance systems, and the analyst enabling that; and Ta Shu, celebrity traveller and documentary maker, who gets dragged into the Fred/Qi mess, who is much older than them and has greater historical context and spends a lot of time reflecting on his own and China’s history. Also, an American Secret Service agent (female) on the moon, with a very annoying superior.
There’s a lot going on in this novel, and as a way of thinking about how people might live on the moon and struggle with the social changes of the coming decades, and what China might achieve as an increasingly dominant superpower, and how individuals act when constrained – it’s a very good way of exploring issues. As with Aurora, my main issue is actually with the ending. It was unexpected, and while I think I understand the reason for it, I found it unsatisfying. However, your mileage may vary! I still have no hesitation in recommending it.
Galactic Suburbia 184
In which we care about Hugo Awards, Aussie SFF awards, harassment at conventions and tea-brewing spaceships all at the same time. You can get us at iTunes or Galactic Suburbia.
WHAT DO WE CARE ABOUT THIS WEEK?
Survey on Harassment in Aussie SF conventions
Tansy: The Teamaster & the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events S2, Runaways (TV)
Alisa: Annihilation; Planetfall, Emma Newman; 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson; Santa Clarita Diet S2; Rise
Alex: Echoes of Understorey, Thoraiya Dyer; Till We Have Faces and The Cosmic Trilogy, CS Lewis; The Craft Sequence, Max Gladstone
Please send feedback to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook, support us at Patreon – which now includes access to the ever so exclusive GS Slack – and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!
In which Galactic Suburbia becomes a five-time Hugo nominated podcast… you can get us from itunes or at Galactic Suburbia
WHAT’S NEW ON THE INTERNET?
Also the Nommo shortlist (from the African Speculative Fiction Society)
Alisa: The 45th; S-Town; Sea Swept, Nora Roberts
Tansy: Lotus Blue, Cat Sparks; Buffy rewatch
Alex: New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson; the Ancillary series, Ann Leckie; season 2 and most of 3 of Person of Interest; Last Cab to Darwin
Please send feedback to us at email@example.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook, support us at Patreon and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!
New York 2140
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now; RRP $29.99 (480 pages).
I adored Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 and after reading this I have an overwhelming itch to go read it again. Partly because this reminded of that earlier work, and partly because it reminded me just how very good Robinson can be (as I thought of 2312).
As the name suggests, the book opens in 2140, and is set almost entirely in New York. There’s been catastrophic sea level rise, due to melting polar ice mostly, and of course this has had a huge impact on coastal towns. While Manhattan isn’t quite an exemplar for all coastal cities, it does provide an intriguing setting for such a book – and of course New York is, as the narrative acknowledges, a very particular and, perhaps, unique city in terms of how inhabitants and others around the world relate to it. Sydney probably wouldn’t get you quite such a response.
Things I loved about this book:
- The different narrative points of view. Each one is clearly different from the others, with a unique voice and style: told from the first or third person; mostly through dialogue or action; individuals or pairs. I love this as a method of conveying a multitude of perspectives, both moving the narrative forward and allowing the reader to meet, identify with, and consider different sorts of people.
- Speaking of, I adore “that citizen”. That citizen gets their own chapter in each section and is basically there to explain the history of the world up to this point, and how New York and the USA work, and comment on aspects of New York’s social and cultural history. They are deeply knowledgeable and deeply cynical and deeply aware of the narrative they are a part of. To whit:
People sometimes say no one saw it coming, but no, wrong: they did. Paleoclimatologists looked at the modern situation and saw CO2 levels screaming up… and they searched the geological record for the best analogs to this unprecedented event, and they said, Whoa. They said, Holy shit. People! they said. Sea level rise! … They put it in bumper sticker terms: massive sea level rise sure to follow our unprecedented release of CO2! They published their papers… a few canny and deeply thoughtful sci-fi writers wrote up lurid accounts of such an eventuality, and the rest of civilisation went on torching the planet like a Burning Man pyromasterpiece. (p140)
Seriously. I alternately giggled and sighed reading a lot of that citizen‘s accounts. They also make snarky comments about surveillance states, growing throughout the 21st century, when being called “a police state… would have been aspirational” (p207) and the capabilities of industry to make drastic adjustments when it’s financially necessary. They are also deeply unimpressed by people who dismiss “info-dumps” in narratives while, of course, demonstrating exactly how to do them in splendid, self-aware, and necessary ways.
- Speaking of being self-aware, and something else that made me recall 2312, is what I guess might be Tuckerisation. One of the characers is Inspector Gen Octaviasdottir. Which I thought was nice, until I got to this description: “Tall black woman, as tall as he was, rather massive, with a sharp look and a reserved manner” (p29) – and then I realised who Robinson was tipping the hat too, and … I was moved. I know some don’t love this, but when it’s done in such a way that both people who get the reference appreciate it and it doesn’t prevent those who don’t see it from appreciating the story… well. I enjoy it. Robinson also has “delanydens” – places where there was lots of “intergender” and “indeterminate gender” and where “it was best not to look too closely at what was happening in the corners” (p183) – so again, don’t know who Delany is? doesn’t really impact on your understanding of the context. And another of my favourites: “russrage” – “at the ugly cynicism of whoever or whatever it was doing” the things that made people unsafe (p273). Of course I’m lucky to get these; I haven’t read any Calvino so “calvinocity” doesn’t have that extra layer for me.
- While the background of the narrative is the massive changes that have happened in New York and indeed continue to happen in the novel, a lot of the story is actually pretty small scale… dare I say, domestic. It felt like there was as much attention given to the antics of two young boys and their friendship with an old man, and the beginnings and difficulties of love, as to the possible relocation of polar bears and massive system defrauding. I really, really like this. Robinson suggests that even as places change around us, humanity adapts and remains fundamentally the same.
- It’s remarkably optimistic: that humanity can adapt and cope with the difficulties we face – yes they’re our fault, as a species, but we can keep going and maybe, maybe, make things better. Or at least not worse. And individuals can still have worthwhile lives amidst the problems. That’s pretty important.
- I just love the writing. It’s smooth and elegant and… readable. I really, really, really enjoyed this book. Yes, it has gone on my “Possible Hugos 2018” list.
Galactic Suburbia 122
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Continuum 11 debrief: panels and programme stuff we loved.
Tansy’s Guest of Honour speech: Fantasy, Female Authors & the Politics of Influence.
FictionMachine announcement: Something New Can Come Into This World, a book of film essays by Grant Watson.
Discussion piece: “Stop Asking Is This Feminist” at the Mary Sue.
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Prep for the Alice Sheldon’s 100th Birthday Spoilerific episode in August: James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon, Julie Phillips; Tiptree’s short stories – read “Houston, Houston Do You Read?”, “Your Faces, O my Sisters, your Faces filled of Light!”; Call the Midwife S1 -3
Alex: All Men of Genius, Lev AC Rosen; Prudence, Gail Carriger; Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson; Jurassic World
Tansy: Lois Lane: Fallout, by Gwenda Bond; Uprooted, by Naomi Novik, “Waters of Versailles” by Kelly Robson, illustrated by Kathleen Jennings; Once Upon A Time Seasons 1 & 2
Alex is reading fiction for Hugo voting next episode!
Please send feedback to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook, support us at Patreon (http://www.patreon.com/galacticsuburbia) and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!
Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson
New science fiction from Kim Stanley Robinson! HOORAY.
(This book was provided to me by the publisher. You can get it from Fishpond.)
PRETTY excited to get this book. Enough that I actually started reading it the day it arrived – and would have finished it that day too had I not decided to Be An Adult and stop reading at a somewhat sensible hour in order to sleep. And overall I was very happy with it – some nice big ideas, characters fairly good, some action and good plot twists. My delight is not unalloyed, but the issues I had are not enough to stop me from being happy about Aurora‘s existence.
The non-spoilers should-you-read-it: did you like Robinson’s 2312? Do you like Alastair Reynolds books? Then probably yes: don’t read more here, just go get it.
Slightly more detail: the book opens with Freya and her family living what appears to be a normal life. Her mother, Devi, is kept very busy dealing with issues of algae and salt and oxygen, because they live on a generation ship that is heading to what they hope will be a habitable world. I love a good generation ship story: Elizabeth Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder series was awesome, I enjoyed much of Beth Revis‘ Across the Universe stories (although the relationships were wearing by the end), and Stephen Baxter’s had a go at it too (plot taking precedence over character, usually). So this is already a good premise for me.
We join the crew within years of arriving at Aurora – of course, because it’s hard to do a good story about the middle of the journey, unless something is going drastically wrong. Anyway, they do eventually get to Aurora, and Things Happen (it’s approaching 500 pages in trade paperback; you didn’t think it was going to be all sunshine and roses, did you?). The Things That Happen are logical and consistent with the characters as revealed; they also give insights into how Robinson views humanity which, while not earth-shattering revelations, are nonetheless poignant and worthy of consideration. How do humans cope with setbacks? How do humans cope with disagreement? What price progress?
For a ship of 2000-odd, the cast of central characters is relatively small. Freya is the central human character, so there’s an element of the coming-of-age story – she’s becoming an adult as the ship completes its quest, there’s dissension within the family, and so on. I wasn’t entirely happy with Robinson’s description of Freya at some points; he suggests things about her nature and then never builds on it or challenges it. Nonetheless I found her a useful focus for the narrative; being young she’s out and about learning and meeting people, rather than stuck in a job. And given that the novel covers a fair amount of time, Freya gets to age and I think that’s often a really great thing in a character.
Interestingly, the other point of view character is the ship’s AI, thus allowing Robinson to have intimate knowledge of humanity and show the broader sweep of actions, decisions, and ramifications. I liked, too, that the AI developed and changed. There’s a little section that tickled the Arts student in me pink: the computer learning about how to construct a narrative. So meta, very wonderful.
However… issues. I had a couple.
Firstly, it surprised me that a book set in the 26th century would talk about the Old and New Worlds. Really? Maybe this is an American thing because it’s not something we in Australia say – and surely in 500 years that will be even less relevant? If the builders of the ship (who lived around Saturn, making this demarcation even weirder) insisted on some Earth-analogue in splitting up the two Rings, why not make it Northern and Southern Hemisphere? It does at least have some basis in geography, rather than an old and surely irrelevant socio-political perspective.
Secondly, the ending. SPOILERS. (Other spoilers follow, too.)
WHY? I presume Robinson is trying to say something about physicality and Earth being the right place to be? I dunno. To me it came across as ‘if you don’t surf you don’t understand the world.’ It felt out of place in the story overall and disappointed me given how much I liked the rest of it. I would have liked a bit more from Freya’s arc.
Thirdly – and something that I’m not sure, overall, whether I’m entirely on board with – the decision to go back to Earth. It’s only feasible, in the end, because they get the hibernation thing worked out, although I guess when they leave Aurora the situation didn’t look so dire. But… it’s been seven generations. Most people haven’t been paying attention to any of the news feeds from Earth for years, if ever. Would they really feel such a deep call to go back, when Aurora is a failure? I guess most of them would just have been thinking they’d be staying on the ship (all they’d ever known), and their children’s children etc would be the ones to arrive in the home solar system… but still. I’m really not sure. It feels like Robinson is suggesting there’s a deep feeling of attachment to this ball of mud that doesn’t just rely on personal experience.
Galactic Suburbia 57: now with extra Hugo nominations
In which this Hugo nominated podcast is Hugo nominated and discusses the Hugo nominations while being Hugo nominated. Also, the internet is full of things. Some of those things discuss gender, feminism and equality, some have wide ranging implications for the future of SF awards, and some of them are nominated for Hugos. You can download us from iTunes or get us from Galactic Suburbia.
Hunger Games: Build up to make a hit
The reviews are in:
“But in the real world, the character Katniss Everdeen faces an even greater challenge: Proving that pop culture will embrace a heroine capable of holding her own with the big boys. It’s a battle fought on two fronts. First, The Hunger Games must bring in the kind of box office numbers that prove to Hollywood that a film led by a young female heroine who’s not cast as a sex symbol can bring in audiences. And second, for Katniss to truly triumph, she must embody the type of female heroine — smart, tough, compassionate — that has been sorely lacking in the popular culture landscape for so very long.”
The Clarke Award Shortlist:
Christopher Priest’s original post
Cat Valente responds:
“Because let’s be honest, I couldn’t get away with it. If I posted that shit? I’d never hear the end of what a bitch I am”; and further response
Outer Alliance discussion on Gay YA Dystopia & Paolo Bacigalupi
Qld Premier cancels Premiers Literary Award
“Before the election, the LNP pledged to cut government “waste” as part of its efforts to offer cost-of-living relief to Queenslanders.”
Response of Queensland Writers Centre
The Fake Geek Girl at the Mary Sue
Kate Elliott on the portrayal of women in pain & fear
Ashley Judd on the media’s attitude to women and their bodies
Valente on the war against women in the real world
Tehani on Aurealis Awards stats, gender
BSFA stuff – Actual winners
The first post that raised the problems with the ceremony.
A response (there for historical sake, though I think since at least partly recanted)
how the Tweets saw it
**The BSFA issued an apology right about when we were recording**
Jim Hines works through his privileged dumbassery
Kirstyn McDermott works through whether her feminism is good enough
Vote for Sean the Blogonaut for NAFF
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alex: Monstrous Regiment, Terry Pratchett; Showtime, Narrelle M Harris, Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy; 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson; The State of the Art, Iain M Banks
Tansy: So Silver Bright, Lisa Mantchev; Kat, Incorrigible, by Stephanie Burgis; Cold Magic, Kate Elliott
Alisa: The Hunger Games (movie and books), The Readers (podcast)
Please send feedback to us at email@example.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs,, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!
2312 promises to be an interesting year
This book just made me happy. Wonderfully, giddily happy. That’s the TL;DR version.
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.