As an avid reader of science fiction, I feel like Kim Stanley Robinson is an author that I need to be way more familiar with than I am currently. He’s had a very successful and prolific career, having won multiple awards over the years, along the way earning praise like “the gold-standard of realistic, and highly literary, science-fiction writing” from The Atlantic and a “Hero of the Environment” from Time Magazine. I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed since reading my first novel from him back in 2016, but here I am finally getting into a second one!
The majority of this book takes place in and around the year 2312. In this future, while humanity has spread out across the Solar System, it is still spiritually beholden to an Earth wracked by the effects of climate change, overpopulation, and massive social inequality. The story unfolds mainly from the perspective of an eccentric artist named Swan Er Hong and opens with the death of her grandmother Alex, the widely respected and extremely influential Lion (ruler) of Mercury. Shortly after the funeral, Swan is approached by a pair of Alex’s colleagues, Inspector Jean Genette of the Interplanetary Police and a diplomat from the Saturnian moon Titan named Wahram. Prompted by their inquiries regarding any messages Alex may have left behind regarding a particularly sensitive project, Swan uncovers a store of hidden communications left for her to deliver, a mission that quickly finds her swept up in a plot that spans the Solar System.
I was absolutely blown away by this book! Though it often dove into some pretty dense subject matter, the story remained thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding throughout. It covered so much ground and featured such a richly developed universe that I am thoroughly impressed the author managed to pack so much into a single 576 page book that still offered an intricate story and vision. From the internal politics governing the various centers of humanity to the complex, Basque-inspired, economic system tying them together, the political and economic realities of this world told a compelling piece of the story. Guiding this, of course, was a heavy dose of science and astronomy, with a multitude of facts and theory shaping the author’s portrayal of everything from quantum computing and space travel to patterns of climate change on Earth and the resource requirements for terraforming other worlds. While this may sound a bit dry to some people, I can assure this book was anything but! The author’s beautifully detailed descriptions of such fascinating locations as a terraforming Venus, rugged settlements on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, the flooded remains of Manhattan, and the rolling city of Terminator on Mercury really made this universe spring to life and make the reader feel like they were places they could actually visit.
Another fascinating part of this story were the people inhabiting this universe, for it is through them that we explore the complex social and biological changes this future brings. The three mains, Swan, Wahram, Inspector Genette were all fascinating on an individual level, but more broadly served to explore the other frontiers presented in this novel; namely, a re-imaging of human biology, gender, and sexuality. Inspector Genette, is what is referred to as a “small”; a person who by design is significantly shorter and lighter than the average human so that they are better suited to life in higher gravity. As for Swan and Wahram, the story got a little more radical. Though they identified as female and male, respectively, both were revealed to be gynandromorphous, a fairly common trait among the spacers of this universe who tended to embrace treatments and procedures that often radically redefine the human experience. It was Swan, however, who pushed the boundaries of humanity more than most in this story, to the point of alarming her companions. Her major body modifications, beyond the addition of male sex organs, include incorporating animal brain matter into her own, ingesting a suite of alien bacteria found on Enceladus, and, perhaps most notably, embedding a quantum computer in her neck. There was a very interesting balance of necessity and vanity to all of these enhancements, as well as an air of rebellion in doing things simply because one could.
As for the actual plot, well, I really don’t want to give that much of it away! A lot of the fun of this story was watching events unfold while experiencing the wonder of traveling the Solar System with Swan. The cryptic lists and extracts that the author added between chapters were an excellent way to unobtrusively get the reader up to speed on some of the events and ideas that shape this world, and once they started coming into clearer view, made for some shocking revelations and insights. Likewise the gradual reveal of Alex’s project and the root of her mistrust of quantum computers made for some fascinating reading.
Put that all together and this was an impressive book that offered a thoroughly captivating look into humanity’s future while telling a fascinating story. Needless to say, I highly enjoyed this one and found that offered everything (and more!) that I had hoped for upon embarking on another sci-fi adventure. I know I’ve said this a lot lately, but this author is definitely getting an increased presence at the top of my TBR list. I’m even going so far as to promise myself now that I’ll read at least one more book from him before the year is over!