My first impression of “2312” by Kim Stanley Robinson is that the author could use a good editor, or needs to take up short-form poetry to sharpen his descriptive skills. Much of the book is repetitive and does little to propel the narrative or bolster the main themes.
And yet…I haven’t read a book in decades that reminds me of the best long-form science fiction of the Silver Age (’60′s and ’70′s) like this book does. Robinson looks forward to an era when humans have populated and terraformed Mars, Venus, and the moons of Saturn, when space-flight within our solar system is common, and human lifespans have more than doubled. And, of course, the main theme of the novel is not just whether humanity can grow up as it grows outward, but what will humanity become–what will being “human” mean–when people can incorporate genes from animal species and alien bacteria into their bodies, and even implant quantum computers into their brains.
In one passage that falls in the center of the book, Robinson riffs on the similarity between a linked group of quantum computers and the human brain. He asks: “if you program a purpose into a computer program, does that constitute its will? Does it have free will, if a programmer programmed its purpose? Is that programming any different from the way we are programmed by our genes and brains? Is a programmed will a servile will? Is human will a servile will? And is not the servile will the home and source of all feelings of defilement, infection, transgression, and rage?…could a quantum computer program itself?”
The difference, of course, is that humans “programming” themselves with their own brains is how we might define “free will.” But Robinson nicely illustrates that our free will is limited by physical externalities: our physical bodies, the environment around us, the society in which we live, and the deceptively remote influence of historical forces.
And so this big, sprawling work brings us back around to a question that lies at the heart of most American fiction: how self-reliant and self-actualized do you really need to be? In the end, don’t you need other people–a connection to human society–as much or even more than your personal, individual freedom?
For that, the book is worth the time it takes to read all of its 560 pages. And Robinson does provide many beautiful descriptive passages like this one of Titan, the terraformed moon of Saturn: “True sunlight and mirrored sunlight crossed to make the landscape shadowless, or faintly double-shadowed–strange to Swan’s eye, unreal-looking, like a stage set in a theater so vast the walls were not visible. Gibbous Saturn flew through the clouds above, its edge-on rings like a white flaw cracking that part of the sky.” I just wish the book were as condensed and strking as this lively passage.
On the other hand, even short novels can have their flaws. So much praise has been given to “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers that I was puzzled to find it lacking in many ways. The story is simple: a young soldier goes to war in Iraq, having made a promise to the mother of one of his platoon mates that he would bring him back home alive–and we learn how impossible that promise is to keep.
It’s a first novel written by a young poet, and it contains many of the elements of good poetry: archetypes, vivid metaphors, wrenching themes, alternating stanzas that lead us eventually to a final reveal, and a strong central voice. But it doesn’t quite hold together as a novel. Archetypes, when used in a longer narrative format, quickly become uninteresting stereotypes—for example Sterling, the hard-bitten sergeant whom everyone agrees is the perfect soldier. And we never get attached to the younger soldier that the narrator has promised to protect (conveniently named Murph, as if he were a cute, stuffed toy unable to hold his stitching intact in a hostile environment).
So instead the book becomes an exploration of the soul of its narrator, and succeeds on that level. Its poetry reminds us that the young men we send into war are not machines, not the brutal automatons that the army wants them to be, but young people full of life and the urge to experience beauty and a sense of purpose. As the narrator says of himself and Murph while they’re getting ready to be deployed: “Being from a place where a few facts are enough to define you, where a few habits can fill a life, causes a unique kind of shame. We’d had small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams. So we’d come here, where life needed no elaboration and others would tell us who to be.”
But a novel is not just the poetry of its language and the insights of one narrative voice. And sometimes the metaphors in this book stretch to the breaking point and beyond, as when the narrator struggles for an image to describe what it’s like to fly home as one of the survivors of a pointless war. His words are buffeted by so much turbulence that the reader eventually loses the sense of what he’s saying or what the character is thinking.
We also never get a sense of the every day routine of deployment in Iraq. In the midst of so much lovely metaphor, true description was strangely lacking. Less poetry and more straightforward narration would have served the story better. Fortunately, the novel is short in length so that the reader isn’t asked to stay involved with the characters too long. And the disjointed narration lends truth to its overall message, presented as a sudden insight the narrator has after going AWOL in Germany: “I realized, as I stood there in the church, that there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true. And I didn’t think I’d ever figure out which was which.”
I can’t say I liked “The Yellow Birds” as much I expected to. And I find the high praise that critics and other writers have given it to be more an expression of their guilt over not condemning a war that was obviously unnecessary, than a clear-eyed look at the qualities of the book itself. Nevertheless, I think everyone should read it in spite of its flaws, and take the opportunity to get inside of a mind that’s been battered and torn by war.