Dream Worlds Here and There

Against the Current, No. 167, November/December 2013

Jase Short

by Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit Books, 2012, $26 hardcover.

REVIEWING A SCIENCE fiction novel in a political magazine requires some explanation, but the case of the Nebula Award-winning 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson writes itself. Robinson is a noted socialist science fiction writer, part of a list of contemporary greats including Ken MacLeod, China Mieville and the recently-passed Iain Banks. Furthermore, his previous works, including the celebrated Red Mars trilogy, have all dealt with political issues from social and political revolutions to ecology.

Finally, 2312 concerns the state of a world three hundred years from now in which a twisted version of the dream “another world is possible” has come to pass, where nothing stops the daily grind of class oppression and ecological devastation but the sheer ruin of the Earth itself.

The world built by Robinson throughout the book is closer to a portrait of our own situation than a runaway utopian speculation. Neither utopian nor dystopian, the world of 2312 is one in which the capitalist system limps along on Earth, bolstered by trade with the solar system-wide “Mondragon.”

The economic model of the space settlements developed in part from their origins as scientific stations. In this early model, life in space was not a market economy; once you were in space, your housing and food were provided in an allotment system, as in Antarctic scientific stations. What markets existed tended to be private unregulated individual enterprises in nonessential goods. Capitalism was in effect relegated to the margin, and the necessities of life were a shared commons…one of the most influential forms of economic change had ancient origins in Mondragon, Euskadi, a small Basque town that ran an economic system of nested co-ops organized for mutual support. A growing network of space settlements used Mondragon as a model for adapting beyond their scientific station origins to a larger economic system. (124-25)

In the Mondra­gon humanity is able to flourish, developing scientific knowledge and human creativity. Genetic modifications allow for more fluid sexual expressions; indeed the main characters both possess male and female sex organs.

On Earth however, a different geopolitical reality reigns supreme:

“And there were still powerful nation-states that were also corporate conglomerates, the two overlapping in Keynesian disarray, with the residual but powerful capitalist system ruling much of the planet and containing within it its own residual feudalism, there to fight forever against the serfs, meaning also against the horizontalized economy emerging within the Mondragon. No, Earth was a mess, a sad place. And yet still the center of the story. It had to be dealt with…or nothing done in space was real.” (90)

In effect, the world that Robinson constructs is based on the realities of our current global impasse: the old adage “the old is dying but the new cannot be born” writ across the entire solar system.

While those who are privileged enough to be born (or emigrate) in space settlements are free to pursue their creative impulses and labor under common projects, the masses on Earth remain subject to the same old class system that has been victimizing humanity for centuries.

Against the techno-utopian prognostications of thinkers like Ray Kurzweil who peddle century-old arguments about inevitable social progress brought on by technological development, Robinson paints a picture of an Earth riddled with class oppression even in the bright future of space settlements and terraformed planets:

“Wizened by sun, broiled a bit, sure — but it was more than that. Someone had to run the harvesters in the rice and sugarcane fields, check the irrigation canals or robots, install things, fix things. Humans were still not only the cheapest robots around, but also, for many tasks, the only robots that could do the job. They were self-reproducing robots too. They showed up and worked, generation after generation; give them three thousand calories a day and a few amenities, a little time off, and a strong jolt of fear, and you could work them at almost anything. Give them some ameliorative drugs and you had a working class, reified and coglike.” (307)

Liberation from Outside?

The main thrust of the story involves a cadre of individuals spread across the solar system who are intent on changing the political reality on Earth by directly intervening to transform its climate. Over the course of the novel much is made of their character development through the emergence of a political consciousness of Earth’s situation:

“No matter what [the spacers] did it seemed that the misery of the forgotten ones would keep pulling civilization down, like an anchor they had tied around their own neck. Terran [Earth] elites would stay on top of an artificial Great Chain of Being until it snapped and everyone fell into the void. A pathetic Gotterdammerung, stupid and banal, and yet still horrible.” (378)

A weakness of the novel is the way in which resistance by Earth dwellers is left to oblique references by characters in space, or at best historical overviews given in the breaks between chapters. Nevertheless, the “spacers” remain committed to helping spark more resistance to the hated class order on Earth, and remain politically mature enough to understand that they cannot simply impose an egalitarian order at the barrel of a gun.

Indeed, after a frustrating conversation with an A.I. (artificially intelligent computer), Swan asks it point blank for a mechanical recipe for “successful revolution.” The response:

“Take large masses of injustice, resentment, and frustration. Put them in a weak or failing hegemon. Stir in misery for a generation or two, until the heat rises. Throw in destabilizing circumstances to taste. A tiny pinch of event to catalyze the whole. Once the main goal of the revolution is achieved, cool instantly to institutionalize the new order.” (334)

Throughout the book democratic deliberations of various bodies, both clandestine and official, form the backdrop for much of the drama. In this Robinson manages to capture the real power of actually existing democratic practice without waxing utopian or paving over the sad truth that democracy does not guarantee good results.

The crux of the problem for the “spacers” in their attempt to jump start revolution by intervening in Earth’s biosphere is the main source of debate throughout the novel: “They had immensely powerful terraforming techniques off-planet, but here they usually couldn’t be applied. No slamming comets into it, for instance.” (90)

The geography of an Earth transformed by climate change has been discussed ad infinitum by scientists and activists around the world, but placing this geography in the context of a narrative allows for a greater emotional appreciation of this knowledge. 2312 accomplishes this magnificently, particularly when “spacers” visit Earth with its non-regulated atmosphere and harsh gravity.

Our own political period is alluded to only briefly. Known as “the Dithering,” spanning roughly 2005 to 2060, it is simply described as “the wasted years.” The generations of the Dithering are only recalled with contempt by the denizens of Earth in 2312:

“The eleven-meter rise in sea level on Earth had been accommodated all around the world by intensive building on higher ground, but the costs in human suffering had been huge, and no one wanted to have to do it again. People were sick of the sea level rise. How they despised the generations of the Dithering, who had heedlessly pushed the climate into a change with an unstoppable momentum to it, continuing not only into the present but for centuries more to come, as methane clathrate releases and permafrost melting began to outgas the third great wave of greenhouse gases, possibly the largest of them all.” (316)

Avoiding the pitfalls of climatic “disaster porn” like the blockbuster film “The Day After Tomorrow,” Robinson paints a picture of ordinary life persisting after disastrous climatic upheaval. In his description of New York City, “A few parts of Manhattan’s ground still stood above the water, but most of it was drowned, the old streets now canals, the city an elongated Venice, a skyscraper Venice, a super Venice — which was a beautiful thing to be.” (92)

Escape to Mars?

Indeed, the origin of humanity’s great leap into space settlements is given as a consequence of the very failure to transform the social order in time to stave off ecological disaster:

“The space project accelerated as it was becoming clear that the Earth was in for a terrible time because of the climate change and general despoliation of the biosphere. Going into space looked like an attempt to escape all that, and there was enough truth in this that defenders of the space project always had to emphasize its humanitarian and environmental value, the ways in which the resources available in the solar system might help Earth limp through its stupendous overshoot.” (368)

Of course, the great migration of humanity to space is not without its detractors in the political complexities of Robinson’s work. Jean Genette, a kind of stock character (an inspector straight out of a procedural law enforcement show), notes that “There are more than five hundred organizations on Earth that have expressed opposition to the idea of humans in space…They usually point out that Earth’s problems remain unsolved, and assert that spacers are trying to escape these problems and leave them behind. Often the bodily modifications in spacers are cited as evidence of the beginnings of forced speciation.” (232)

Hope is given by way of reference to the situation on Mars. Mars is the only fully terraformed planetary body in the book (soon to be followed by Venus and the moon Titan) and has gone through a revolutionary tumult. “(W)ith the success of the Martian revolution and the emergence of its single planetwide social-democratic system, the gates were opened for the rest of the solar system to follow. Many space settlements remained colonies of Terran [Earth] nations and combines, however, so the ultimate result was a patchwork of systems somewhat resembling anarchy.” (127)

There are no easy fixes in the realism engineered by Robinson’s novel, however. The success of one revolution does not automatically mean the dominos are set to fall for the rest.

What grounds this work of science fiction and makes it a worthy read for any activist, but particularly for socialists, is its attention to the untidy realities of everyday social systems. There are no complete democratic utopias nor despotic dystopias populating Robinson’s solar system, but rather the complicated mix of various trends and processes making up an entirely believable world. This is explicitly discussed in one of the chapter breaks:

“(I)n residual-emergent models, any given economic system or historical moment is an unstable mix of past and future systems. Capitalism therefore was the combination or battleground of its residual element, feudalism, and its emergent element…” (126)

Robinson’s compelling and too-believable future is also a portrait of our present, in which the development for part of the population in the capitalist core outpaces much of the rest, concerning particularly the “digital divide” but also a whole other range of issues from access to decent healthcare to education. This is a work of science fiction that no good activist can afford to miss.

November/December 2013, ATC 167