Thursday, April 25, 2013

Proust on Mercury and other issues in coming to terms with 2312

About a quarter of the way through Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 two of the major characters, after a catastrophe, find themselves in a section of what is essentially a grand maintenance tunnel running underneath (approximately) the entire equator of Mercury. Above them the long, deadly day has just begun; and just to their west the catastrophe has made the tunnel impassible. And so their choices are either to wait where they are for the eighty-eight Earth days it will take for Mercury's night to return and make rescue possible, or to walk east nearly half of Mercury's circumference--about two thousand kilometers, we're told--to meet the night and be rescued earlier. Despite Mercury's gravity, only a little over a third of Earth's, this is not a trivial amount of walking.
"We walk a day's worth, eat, sleep a night, then walk again. Set a daily schedule. If we hiked for twelve hours out of every twenty-four, that would be a lot, but it would save even more days.... [My AI] says twelve-hour days of walking would shorten our time down here by around forty-five days. That's enough for me.

"Well," Wahram said. "That's a lot of walking."

"I know, but what are you going to do? Sit here for over twice as long?"

"No," he said slowly. "I guess not."

Although really it would not be so very long. A rereading of Proust and O'Brian, a few times through the Ring cycle; his little wristpad was very well stocked.

Though the lengthy episode of walking that follows (in which Wahram does not in fact read Proust, though he does whistle the symphonies of Beethoven) is often excellent, it strikes me what a marvelous novel that might be: the long trudge underground, twelve hours a day, pausing periodically to allow the next section of tunnel to fill with breathable air ("It's like turning on the lights"), reading In Search of Lost Time.* The harrowing environment and the trudging would set the tone for the character's (and the reader's) feelings about Proust; the reading would set the tone for the character's (and the reader's) feelings about the environment and the trudging. Much could be made of the contradictions between Proust's thinking, generated by the experience of living on the open face of one's native planet in its natural atmosphere at 1 g, and the characters', enclosed within an artificial underground environment painstakingly regulated to be just barely survivable, at .38 g. Periodically while walking, and certainly when they stop to eat, there could be conversation. Perhaps things would be dreamed. The text of the novel would maybe even consist almost as much of extracts from Proust's as of "original material." (I've often daydreamed of writing a novel that would consist at least as much of some one other novel as of my own writing.) The other character(s) would no doubt be involved in their own pursuits, which might come into view from time to time. And above all they would be walking, walking, walking, the same every day, nearly without event.

*Which, full disclosure, I still have not yet read, though completely coincidentally I have a first approach to Swann's Way almost next on my list. Speaking of which, yes, I've noticed that 2312's central character is named Swan. I've also noticed that there's a character named Jean Genette. I won't be discussing either of these names, because who cares.

It is one of Robinson's strengths and simultaneously one of his weaknesses that he continually offers up these tantalizing notions that would serve excellently as novels of stasis. In 2312 just in the pages prior to the ones quoted above a woman spends days traveling from one planet to another in a hollowed-out asteroid that is deliberately kept at near-zero g and in complete darkness, passing the time uncomfortably in sensory deprivation hallucinations and conversations with her implanted AI about the various related but very different ways the word aporia has been used by different thinkers in different times; a man spends five days being smuggled up from Earth in a space elevator (hence constantly, gradually losing g until he reaches freefall in orbit) sealed into a spacesuit inside a box full of soil and worms for export; and a man on another hollowed-asteroid vessel (this one with earthlike conditions, called a "terrarium") traveling between planets tries to find the best "pseudoiterative," the balance between routine and surprise, with which to fill the days. Proust on Mercury would no doubt be the best of these potential novels, but all are intriguing to one degree or another.

Of course long periods of stasis must be a facet of any story involving multiple trips between different locations in the solar system, or at least any such story which, like Robinson's, cares to present such travel in a way which pays respect to physical law and at least remotely plausible technological possibility. To his considerable credit, Robinson does not pass over such periods in silence; the authorial eye does not look away in distaste with a "meanwhile" or a "five days later," or if it does it at least makes clear that there could be something to look at. And much in the structure of 2312--particularly the non-narrative sections: the breaks in which Robinson infodumps various aspects of scientific fact or socioeconomic speculation or what have you, the "Extracts" from imagined future texts, the "Lists" (of named craters on Mercury, of mind-altering substances and practices, of types of biomes...)--encourages one to stop the onrushing flow of narrative and consider what has passed by in that flow, including these periods of stasis. (This aspect of 2312's structure is admirably discussed by L. Timmel Duchamp in her Strange Horizons review, which examines many of the best aspects of the novel.)

At the same time, though, the narrative does rush on. As Wahram considers a re-read of Proust, an entire city is burning over him in the direct Mercurian sunlight, a result of the same catastrophe that forced the characters underground; and those same characters do not rest but start walking immediately, on to the next event. Robinson's novels are packed with such world-shattering devastations (one thinks of the climax of Red Mars, with its almost absurd concatenation of catastrophes: floods, cities incinerated, space elevator collapsing...) that seem to contradict with the quieter aspects (the Mars trilogy, after all, consists mainly of people wandering around talking--or not--with other people). In a way I want this to be a complaint, to say that the action-packed sequences get in the way of the more contemplative, to me far more interesting, bulk of the novels. And to a certain extent this is true: the knowledge that big and loud things are going to happen encourages even those of us with an interest in the small and quiet to get impatient, to turn the pages faster: "Yes, yes, she's floating in the dark, but what's going to happen when she gets there?" But the contradiction is also a strength; to return to Mars, perhaps the best thing about that trilogy is that despite all the early (and occasionally continuing) pyrotechnics it never does particularly "get there." One could say that Red Mars contains all of the "plot," whereas Green Mars and Blue Mars consist in their different ways of "...and yet life continues." Much of what is strong in 2312 too is in the way the small and the quiet can overwhelm the big and the loud: a city burns and we go into the tunnels for a month; a spaceship explodes and we float in space for days (it's no "Kaleidoscope," but the resonances are there). But where the trilogy had the freedom simply to go on and go on until it stopped, 2312 does not. There are a number of reasons for this, some of which will be mentioned below, but it is primarily because it has, like far, far too much sf, hitched itself to the structure of the mystery story--which must, by its very nature, "get there."

Where once the sf mystery was a novelty (Isaac Asimov, for example, did it largely as a stunt in The Caves of Steel), it has by now become automatic, almost obligatory--which is a shame, because it never was a healthy trend. Even the handful of great sf stories that are mysteries (including Asimov's robot novels) are never great because of the mystery, always in spite of it. The temptation of the mystery for the sf writer is understandable; it is of course the ready-made set of genre tropes most easily adapted to sf's central aesthetic problem, exposition. What better way, the writer might think, to reveal to the reader the wondrous function of this world I've created than to place in it a mystery, the solving of which requires the slow unfolding of this very world? More grandly, some might argue that other of sf's major concerns, from "conceptual breakthrough" to "transcendence," are in terms of fictional structure nearly identical to the mystery story.

The problem, though, is that once one has dedicated oneself to the mystery structure, one must hit all of its "plot points"--most especially the concrete revelation of "the truth," always and only at the end--whether or not these points are what the work demands. This is of course not literally true; it is possible to write a book which points in the direction of the mystery story for a moment only to go elsewhere, or one that systematically and painstakingly avoids all of the plot points, as for example Paul Auster has done. It is far easier, however, for the mystery to overwhelm the writer's own needs, especially when, as is the case in most of these sf novels I'm complaining about (one thinks of frustratingly near-great novels like China Miéville's The City and the City as well as Psychic Werewolf, PI: Book #7 et al.), the choice seems not actually to have been made so much as to have been assumed reflexively. That is to say, the sf mystery story has become so prevalent as to be the invisible default.* This unfortunately seems to be the case with 2312, which even goes so far as to have an interplanetary police detective (yeah...) as a major character and coyly to place tendentious hints as to coming grand revelations throughout the otherwise strongly non-narrative sections. The intrigue--that is to say, not the specifics of the intrigue in this story but intrigue itself--feels simply trivial in the midst of the conceptual context in which Robinson has placed it. That he can create what he has here created but can only think to tell a police procedural--no matter how grand--within it,** is a failure of imagination not greater but certainly more painful than those of a thousand lesser writers.

*As with so much I blame this largely on the cyberpunks, who, I am increasingly certain, saw the startling vitality of so much of 70s sf and, knowing they could never hope to equal it (and threatened by its frequent assaults on white heterosexual male hegemony), retreated from its many promises in a panic. Their inexplicably successful self-branding as literary and political radicals has done incalculable damage to the sf field ever since. Good work was done in cyberpunk, and has been done since, but again: despite, not because of.
**I should note here that the police procedural is not in fact the central strand of the story, which is more directly focused a bit off of it (the better to heighten the mystery, no doubt). Nevertheless it shapes all of the events
in the story, and its conclusion is the finale of the book.

This major failure seems to draw in its wake dozens more; that the novel climaxes both in a mass incarceration and a marriage (!) between two people of diametrically opposing sexes is indicative of the extent to which it pulls back from what it imagines. That both events are questioned as they happen in precisely these terms--that is to say, as reactionary, atavistic--only makes things worse. Far more serious, in ethical terms, are the problems Vandana Singh discusses in her excellent post about the novel's attitude of, essentially, "benevolent" colonialism. This attitude is of course an integral part of what you might call sf's original sin, the seemingly friendlier face of what Joanna Russ aptly describes as sf's "imperial American/engineering values." One often gets the impression in much of Robinson's work that he is attempting to face this sin directly and confront it, sometimes through its ironic portrayal, sometimes by positioning it as just one element of a much larger mosaic. If this is his goal, however (and that is an increasingly large "if"), he seems to be having a harder and harder time achieving it since the near (or at least nearer) success of the Mars trilogy. What once appeared as irony and complexity now appears as something much closer to--at best--naïveté.

As an example (if you still need one after reading Singh's post, that is), there is an episode in the third quarter of the novel in which Swan and Wahram lead what comes to be called the "Reanimation," in which among other things animals endangered or extinct on Earth are reintroduced in massive quantities from the terraria in space in which they have been preserved. Knowing the opposition they will face, Swan and Wahram do this largely unannounced, unilaterally, and whether or not they have secured approval from anyone on the Earth's surface. In the narration, hovering at the moment ambiguously near (but not quite in) Swan's thinking, we are told that their "leading of animal migrations across agricultural land," in particular, "was the biggest organized act of civil disobedience ever committed by spacers on Earth." No doubt this is intended to call to mind resonances from the Diggers and the mass trespass and other similar actions from Earth's real history of disobedience, but Robinson appears (and certainly Swan is) unaware of the extreme difference between the actions he is describing and real-world civil disobedience. The spacers are not a part of the community they are disrupting. The results may in fact be good (and conveniently the novel tells us they are, though I have severe doubts as to whether such a scheme would work at all even in the context the novel sets up), but regardless of result, what has really happened is not civil disobedience but incursion. The Diggers were taking back the land that they lived on and worked--the land that supported them and that they supported--whereas Robinson's spacers are the very people who have abdicated responsibility to the lands of the Earth. It is troubling at best to see them portrayed as the ones best suited to decide how to restore these lands (not to mention that they seem to be the only ones with any ideas about it, which is nonsense on its face).

In general 2312 sees a fracturing of what had once been a remarkably fruitful contradiction in Robinson's work, that of the conflicting urges towards what you might oversimplistically call artificiality and nature. Over and over in his work we find expressed a seeming certainty that a better way of life (though not utopia by any means) will be the almost inevitable attendant of leaving the Earth, mixed with an insistence that a life rooted in the Earth--living like the savanna primates he reminds us we are--is the most truly human. The loving portraits of the glories of terraforming contrast with the stark awareness that these same processes are what destroyed (or, for the reader, are destroying) the Earth, and also with the recognition of the right of land, even lifeless land, to remain what it is, untouched. In the Mars trilogy the different configurations of these contradictions were emblematized by the characters Sax, Ann, and Hiroko, respectively representing, roughly, heroic technologism, hands-off respect for place-as-it-is, and a mystic syncretism focused on the spread of life.* The trilogy proceeds to its end essentially through the "reconciliation" of Sax's and Ann's positions into a version of the absent Hiroko's, though of course by the end even of the first volume Ann's position is a wholly lost cause, as Mars will never again be as it was before the arrival of humanity. But throughout Ann serves as almost a voice of conscience, or at least a nagging memory of what's been lost forever in the midst of this humanity-triumphant, allowing us to feel the pain of this loss even in the midst of the victory of its opposite. Though by the end even she is forced to admit that she has lost and to contribute to the new order of things, it is her presence at all in the trilogy that allows it to be as beautiful a work as it is.

*Yes, the Japanese woman is the mystic. These problems have always been present in Robinson's work to one extent or another.

One of 2312's greatest failings is that it contains no Ann. Instead what we have is an array of mixtures of Sax and Hiroko in their most self-deluding faces: that is, a supposed love of the land that consists only in changing it to make it more humanly lovable. In the infodump chapter on Saturn's ice moon Iapetus, which has one hemisphere almost pure white and one almost pure black from the dust it passes through in its tidally locked orbit, Robinson, in authoritative-fact mode, describes "graffiti" people have drawn in the black side (called Cassini Regio) by clearing away the dust to reveal the white ice underneath. "Anytime you can easily make such a contrast in the landscape, people have written out their thoughts for the universe to read," we are told.

Later it was declared a mistake and a scandal, a moral stupidity, even a crime, in any case disgusting; and there were calls for the entirety of Cassini Regio to be reblacked. Someday it may happen, but don't hold your breath, for the truth is we are here to inscribe ourselves on the universe, and it is not inappropriate to remind ourselves of this when blank slates are given us. All landscape art reminds us: we live in a tabula rasa, and must write on it.
It is perhaps a mistake to ascribe the opinions professed in these sections, the tendentious musts and the truth ises, to Robinson (and it would be interesting to see what Swan's AI, who frequently mocks Swan by dissecting her rhetorical devices, would make of the first blockquoted clause); all I can say is that as a reader of his novel I find very little else present in it to counter these propositions. The mention of the landscape art could have been a way to present such a counter, had he wished to: in a frankly silly conceit, Robinson has his spacers refer to all such artworks as "goldsworthies," after the artist Andy Goldsworthy.* I confess I am not particularly familiar with Goldsworthy's work, but it had been my impression that its defining characteristic is not so much that it is done on the landscape but that it is temporary: that it erodes or washes away or what have you, leaving no trace.

*They also refer to works of art using the body as medium as "abramovics," after Marina Abramović.

This aspect of leaving no trace seems largely to have been lost on Robinson, or when it does show up seems to be more incidental than essential. Towards the end, Swan finds herself in a terrarium described as a "classic New Englander" during its local October. We are treated to a lovely description of New England autumn foliage as seen coating the hollow interior of a cylinder (i.e., rather than curving down and away to the horizon the ground curves up and over until it becomes the "sky"), and then:

One day she took up leaves that had fallen and arranged them across a clearing so that they went from red to orange to yellow to yellow-green to green, in a smooth progression. This colored line on the land pleased her greatly, as did the wind that blew it away.
A lovely sentiment, but too little too late, I find. Too much of the novel has consisted of the line on the land, and Robinson too often has forgotten the wind. This forgetfulness, along with the absence of any equivalent to Mars's Ann, makes 2312 in comparison to the trilogy not just the less moral work but also the inferior.


With this novel, Robinson has completed his transformation into, essentially, today's massively recomplicated Asimov. We find in them many of the same concerns: the effects of sheer size and complexity on human society taken as a whole; the threat of ecological collapse; the expansionist urges of humanity; the potentially antagonistic and/or symbiotic relationship between humans and artificial intelligences of our creation (sometimes with bodies and suites of behavior potentially indistinguishable from our own); the question of the possibility of frankly and precisely assessing one's own psychological makeup and that of one's culture; the sincere desire to figure out how to create the best possible conditions for everyone's life; and so on. We also find in them the same blind spots--and these blind spots, recomplicated, threaten to take over Robinson's work in a way they never did in Asimov's. Despite his often terribly moving awareness of many of its problems, Asimov was far too strongly wedded to technocracy truly to consider, or even seriously to represent, any real alternative to it--nor did he want to; his concern was to explore what was possible within it. Robinson is conscious enough of other possibilities that his increasing failure truly to engage with them is ultimately far more tragic.

I long for a Kim Stanley Robinson who has read, and internalized the lessons of, Maria Mies, Silvia Federici, and Vandana Shiva--for example. Such an internalization would, I suspect, allow him to find better answers to the questions that nag him...or, even better, to realize that it may not be his place to provide the answers--rather to keep the questions alive. Perhaps then--indeed to that very end--he might spend more time with Proust on Mercury. Until then, I'm afraid that all the--considerable!--beauty and greatness of his work will continue increasingly to buckle under the strain as the moral and aesthetic problems he has set himself become ever more insoluble.


Nathan said...

KSR is an old fave but you & Singh have almost succeeded in putting me off this one.

Ethan Robinson said...

Well...on the one hand, I'm very much not sorry I read it. Much of the praise people have given it (especially in e.g. the L. Timmel Duchamp review at Strange Horizons) is earned. There are many moments of real loveliness in it.

On the other hand it's very long, and there are a lot of books in the world.

And, oof...thanks (?) for that link...

Nathan said...

Ha! I'm not writing it off, but as you say there are a lot of books. Seems I need to check out this Josipovici guy's books, And Chaos Died, Blue Mars (after rereading the previous two, which I read in high school)... We'll see. At the mo I'm into Nalo Hopkinson's Sister Mine, which I quite like. Keep on truckin'.

Ethan Robinson said...

Whenever I hear anyone plans to read books I've recommended my first instinct is always to start up the disclaimers: "Well, you might think Josipovici is..." or "Well, And Chaos Died is kind of...". But I'm not going to do that now!

Josipovici has nothing to do with sf (the closest I've ever seen him come to mentioning it is putting an "of all people" after HP Lovecraft's name, haha), but is surprisingly relevant to it--more importantly, he's "taught" (ugly word) me a lot about reading in general and, well, about living. It's not an exaggeration to say he changed my life, and it might not even be an exaggeration to say he saved it.

Ethan Robinson said...

Also meant to say: I've still not read any Nalo Hopkinson, which is stupid. I should remedy that.