2312 by Kim Stanley RobinsonOctober 31, 2013
From artists' monographs to beach reads, "Printed Matters" offers a monthly take by a rotating group of contributors on visual art through the printed word.
The author of this column is a voracious general reader grounded in visual art but easily distracted by genre fiction, and most everything else; his largest collection of books are biography, the book he thinks about the most lately is The Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich.
Kim Stanley Robinson is one of Northern California’s unheralded arts treasures: he is arguably America’s greatest living science fiction writer, who lives quietly in Davis, yet is virtually unknown by the general public. He has won all of the most important awards in the field—ie the Hugo and the Nebula, both several times—and his Mars Trilogy of twenty years ago is a contemporary classic. In that trilogy he creates a dichotomy between an idealized minority of communally minded and ecologically committed scientist/settlers who eventually start a quixotic revolt against the government-in-league-with-corporate-power and their rapacious exploitation of the newly colonized planet. It’s a nearly 2000-page slog to read, but its intuition of where corporate capitalism would take us over the past twenty years is impressive.
Last year he published 2312, a look at the future exactly 300 years from now. 2312 is a different kind of book: it’s emotionally affective and intellectually ambitious, but also much more richly characterized and consistently amusing. It also contains a subtext, particularly noted by this writer, which places the arts central to its analysis of culture. In it, humans have occupied almost the entire solar system, including the asteroids, and converted the planets to be tolerable for habitation within the possibilities of each planet’s situation. Earth is exhausted and kept alive by importing food and materials from elsewhere; there are political tensions between the colonies and the home world. Humans have artificially evolved to include very large and very small beings (think of gravitational preferences), as well as sexual dimorphism and extended lifetimes (up to 200 years). There is a nominal plot about interplanetary terrorism, which serves as an excuse for the two central characters to travel all over the solar system for the reader’s orientation into the 24th century. It’s a hoot, and the relationship between these two characters is one of the most unlikely yet moving partnerships in contemporary literature: he’s a giant from Titan, described as frog-like, and she is a beautiful hermaphrodite from Mercury, and lord help us, an artist. Both have been the opposite sex in their pasts, and both are well into their second century of life. At times it reminds me of the wonderfully odd relationship between the lead characters in Patrick O’Brian’s acclaimed Aubrey-Maturin series, in which the mismatched male-bonded lead characters—a rough-hewn 19th century sea captain and an intellectual naturalist and spy—travel all over the world encountering the Other during the Napoleonic wars two hundred years ago. That series spends an eccentric amount of time describing sailing technology; Robinson’s is preoccupied with 24th century terraforming and Artificial Intelligence technology.
The central character, Swan Er Hong, is an artist who makes what are referred to as “goldsworthies” and “abramovics”; thus those two contemporary artists have been memorialized by generalized practices—temporary outdoor installations and body-based performances, respectively—that are understood and accepted widely in the future. Of course, Swan lives on Mercury and so most of her work is done in the baked wastes of that world, during the hours when the land faces away from the sun. Robinson describes a Hiroshige-inspired work “that referenced one of the Japanese artist’s most famous images. Balancing the rocks that would be the crest of the breaking wave….” Another one is described this way: “a circle of…Göbekli T-stones, which looked very contemporary even though they were based on something over ten thousand years old.” Robinson writes that on Mercury all the hundreds of planetary craters are named after famous artists, writers, and composers; I scoffed, unable to suspend my disbelief—then I found out that this is in fact true. This kind of playing with expectations makes the book unpredictable and reiterates its surprising undercurrent of the presence of the arts. Robinson extends the conceit to make Mercury the repository of Earth’s Old Master works.
One of the key scenes in the book is the central characters’ visit to a Tintoretto museum on Mercury. “Most of the paintings were the originals, moved here for safekeeping; the rest were copies so perfect that it would take a chemical analysis to tell them from the originals.…the hope was to gather all the original paintings here and locate only copies on Earth, to take on the intense assault of that most volatile environment—oxidation, corrosion, rust, fire, theft, vandalism, smog, acid, daylight…Here, in contrast, everything was controlled, benign—safer. Or so it was said by Mercurial curators. The Terrans were not so sure.” Robinson’s wit peeks through here, in his reference to Tintoretto’s Venetian painting (inevitably in this context initiating the aural pun of Venusian painting), and the barbs about curatorial turf wars.
Like many artists, Swan prefers making art to looking at it. (“Ineffable aesthetic responses, communing with a work—these struck her as too precious.”) She does respond to the portraits however—for “eight centuries” they have been saying, “I am always me, I am always new.” Her eventual lover, Wahram, on the other hand, puts his nose right up to the Tintorettos, and spends hours staring at the work. He eventually asks her if she noted that the wings of the angels were black, and that the letters CHER were visible in the wings, but isn’t particularly interested in her response. He is a caricature of a solipsistic aesthete, she a bit of a narcissistic artist. In a world in which much of human activity—the building of worlds—is understood as an extended form of installation or performance art, (even the mechanism for launching spaceships is “an aesthetic matter”) the essentially isolated if not isolating nature of art making and art appreciation is not ignored.
Swan is fearless in her abramovics: she has imbibed, against everyone’s warning, an alien microbe in the hope of reaching another state of consciousness, like an early LSD researcher. It almost kills her. She has had a chatty, catty artificial intelligence implanted in her head, and has had a miniature set of male genitals generated in her vulva. She’s had bird song neurons transplanted into her brain. A record of Swan’s performance works, included in one of Robinson’s inter-chapter inserts, lists: spending five hours in a spacesuit with only four hours of air; running around Mercury on the equator [where the risk is getting caught in the non-survivable light of the sun]; and cutting a solar system diagram into the skin of her chest with a laser knife (holy Catherine Opie!] Before taking up art, she was a designer of boutique space environments, a trope increasingly part of the science fiction universe. Again, this comes from an actual NASA research notion: the industrial use of asteroids.
The original idea is that asteroids might be mined for their ores, but fiction has introduced the notion that if they were hollowed out and spun, the internal environment could have simulated gravity, with people living and walking on the inside of the external wall. Extending for miles, or tens of miles, even weather could be created, duplicating planet-like environments whose only anomaly would be that the other side of its shell, with its buildings and fields, would delimit the sky. Swan designed these environments in the first century of her life. This extension of installation art, design and architecture to a vast and living system is one of Robinson’s, and science fiction’s, most lasting and fascinating inventions. Robinson lists some of these bizarre places, which can become worlds, hotels, or even forms of transportation. There are 19,000 inhabited asteroids and moons: some are full of water, or completely dark and gravity-less; others resemble rainforests. There is a canal town with a gift economy; a desert occupied by British travelers; a place where the men think they are living in a Mormon polygamy, while the women consider it a lesbian world with a small percentage of male lesbians; an aquarium recreating the drowned islands of Micronesia; 34 different approximations of Yellowstone; and some environments that are deadly to humans but hospitable to the growth of organisms in the creation of medicines.
Robinson’s understanding of art is inclusive and generous. “We are here to inscribe ourselves on the universe…blank slates are given us. All landscape art reminds us: we live in a tabula rasa, and must write on it. It is our world, and its beauty is entirely inside our heads.” Whether your goldsworthy is moving human occupation out into the solar system or building a modest home site on Earth, in the end Robinson’s science fiction is about the ability to make change via informed choice through the lens of art.