Tim Kreider over at the New Yorker brands Kim Stanley Robinson “Our greatest political novelist.” To be fair, he adds a question mark, but the article is pretty un-critical.
The issue with Robinson, as a political novelist at least, is that the more political his novels are, the more terrible they are. The issue with Robinson as a political, science fiction novelist is that he makes no actual attempt to have his politics make sense within his science fiction. Which ends up producing stupid, stupid books.
In 2312, a book that follows in the vein of his Mars series but is more explicitly political, Robinson creates a technological landscape of human omnipresence throughout the solar system. Thousands of asteroids turned into O’Neil habitats. Mars terraformed. Venus in the process of being terraformed. Mercury home to massive city on rails. Saturn’s moon system inhabited, guys. The technological and energy budget necessary to do all this. Godlike AI.
And his political plot is that nothing has changed at all on Earth. The exact same problems that an academic liberal (like, say, Robinson) thinks are the biggest problems today are the problems in three hundred years of technological change that allows humans to reshape whole planets to their whims. It’s pretty much global warming plus dudes Africa is poor. Holy shit, guys! This is a setting in which dropping VENUS to a livable temperature (current Venus surface temperature: ~432° C) is not just doable, it’s done. But the greatest challenge for Earth is reversing five degrees of global warming.
Spoiler warning: the solution to Earth’s problems is parachuting down wild animals. That’s it. That’s what it takes to make Africa develop. Parachute in wild animals.
There is no subtext in 2312. None at all. It’s all text. It’s like Robinson said, “I want to show my vision of a terraformed solar system. And I want to talk about how we should work on environmental issues.” And his solution to those problems was to just write two completely different novels, one about the environment and one about a far-future society, and like — I want to say “stitch them together,” but that does too much of a service to his craft. More like “put them next to each other.”
This isn’t untrammeled territory. You can write a book about the environment in a far-future science fiction novel. It involves extrapolating an environmental issue into something that makes sense within the frame of your fictional world, and then letting your readers understand the allegory. It can, in fact, be a powerful technique of political writing, letting you put a microscope on issues that are hopelessly tangled in the real world.
But Kim Stanley Robinson is not the writer who can do that.