I’m still working on automating this process — all of the RSS → WordPress plugins seem to be designed for producing SEO spam; Goodreads doesn’t offer reviews-only feeds; and so I think I’m gonna have to submit a patch — so for now I’ll just post ‘em manually.
Spoilers follow, but you should probably read them instead of this book. I’m not sorry to have read this — I did it for a book club, and look forward to discussing it — but it’s pretty bad.
This is an awful book. It’s funny: Kim Stanley Robinson uses the word “autistic” as a mild pejorative in the opening pages, but that might be the single best description of this book’s aesthetic. The author consistently ignores the things that make a novel worth reading — excitement, interesting characterization, original ideas — and instead hangs little essays filled with thoughts (by turns implausible and banal) about terraforming, economics, gender and governance onto a novel-like framework.
As Ben has noted, nearly all the action occurs outside the narrative, and is simply mentioned off-handedly as having occurred. This might be for the best, since the plot makes absolutely no sense: a seemingly low-stakes real estate dispute on Venus somehow accidentally gives rise to a multi-step mass-murder plot hatched by a new class of artificial beings? But it’s not clear that there’s any intentionality behind this–perhaps it’s just a screwup. Certainly the villain (if there’s a villain?) is barely named and never confronted, seemingly because the author is tired and wants to wrap things up. Then the perpetrators–a new race of beings, maybe, who are somehow detected, surveilled and rounded up from across the solar system in a massive police action that is mentioned but not even slightly described–are shipped into exile by the inspector who was working the case, who gets to declare judgment and sentence because…?
I would like to to bag on the characters, particularly the endless, hammer-it-into-your-head repetition of Wahram’s froggy eyes as his defining trait. But the truth is that I did find that Wahram and Swan eventually emerged as distinct entities. This was particularly true of Swan, whose pervasive neuroticism was both off-putting and fairly believable. This showed the way to the most promising potential theme in the book, I thought: the cultural claustrophobia and exhaustion faced by humanity as it finishes developing the solar system’s resources and realizes that what they’ve built is a prison. Alas, Robinson flirts with this idea briefly and and then abandons it. Instead he sprints toward ridiculous nostalgia, implying mystical spiritual renewal through communion with (wholly manipulated!) nature, along the way spewing a lot of bullshit about “our horizontal brothers.”
Still, though Wahram and Swan were decently developed, the idea of romantic chemistry between them seemed absurd, and the larger treatment of relationships in the context of massively extended lifespans felt superficial.
Absent a source of excitement (plot) or emotion (compelling character mechanics), we’re left with KSR’s thoughts about the evolution of human civilization.
His musings on speciation and blurring of gender are fine, but never really deployed in a way that made me squirm, which felt like a missed opportunity. It’s all reasonable enough, but kind of boring. When Wahram and Swan finally have their weird and unnecessarily graphic hermaphroditic sex, my reaction was less about alarm over the plumbing that KSR was so anxious to explicate and more a basic dismay at having to read about a boring nebbish (Wahram) sleeping with a sure-to-be-trouble headcase (Swan). Ick.
There is a LOT of time spent talking about terraforming. And there’s a place for that kind of hard sci-fi stuff. But KSR seems to expect to be allowed to waste my time with technical minutiae the way Clarke does in, say, Rendezvous with Rama. Sadly, he doesn’t have the chops. Randall Munroe has helpfully demonstrated the impossibility of one of KSR’s schemes — making Venus rotate faster through planetary bombardment — but there’s plenty more fishiness throughout the book when it comes to masses, energy levels, speeds, distances, problems related to acceleration and docking, venting waste heat and the quantity of astronomical objects in the solar system. I haven’t done the math, but it seems pretty obvious that the author hasn’t, either. He sure pretends like he has, though.
His soft-science ideas are worse. The Mondragon, a cybernetic economy run by AIs that perfectly allocate resources, is laughably utopian — particularly when he introduces a sudden real shock into the economy by destroying the city of Terminator, but never discusses how the system responds. The ideas about governance are incredibly vague. There are plenty of allusions to human civilization’s balkanization. But the only form of government that seems to exist outside of Earth consists of tiny, tiny oligarchies — say, a dozen people on Venus, and maybe a few dozen more throughout the rest of the system. Through robotic, exposition-filled meetings and the occasional conference call these groups are somehow able to organize resources sufficient to terraform planets or stage immensely complex logistical operations (the “reanimation” of Earth). This is all the more ludicrous when one considers how implausibly dependent on human labor much of this hi-tech future activity seems to be. Seriously: Wahram, that tedious milquetoast, would be among the humans with the most governing power in history if he could do what he’s described as doing. It makes absolutely zero sense.
So yeah, it’s just a complete mess. The thing is long and boring, and the ideas on offer are either bland or half-baked. Terrible.