Monthly Archives: June 2012

Review of Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312

2312, The Year of the Lens Flare

Summary: A weak protagonist and an even weaker ending overwhelm what could have been a strong and thoughtful novel.
2312 presumably takes place within the same universe as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, but it fails to live up to the thoughtfulness and epic scope of those books.
The protagonist is a silly, shallow, self-absorbed dilettante who flits about the solar system, moving from one distraction to the next like a 24th Century Paris Hilton. We’re told that she was intelligent once, but apparently her penchant for novelty via various body and brain modifications has rendered her into a vacuous sensualist with an implanted AI. Indeed, one of the major discussions threading the novel is whether an AI could achieve consciousness, and if so, how could you tell if it had? In one of the major ironies of the book, the main character is someone who is so one-dimensional that you’d have a hard time distinguishing her from a simple AI.
A weak protagonist can be easily overcome with a strong plot, which this book has for 90% of its length. There’s a mystery surrounding terrorist attacks on spacer colonies in the solar system, coupled with odd and potentially dangerous qube (quantum computer) behavior. Throw in an increasingly desperate and depressing Earth (which in the novel has basically become the solar system’s Africa), and you have a story threading together various inferences that seem to lead toward an epoch-shattering conclusion.
Alas, ’tis not to be. The general malaise throughout the book remains unresolved and humanity continues along its meaningless path. The problem with the qubes, which could have represented a new era for humanity by having a novel, alien intelligence with which to interact and learn, is quickly resolved and dispatched in a few paragraphs. The central mystery of the novel–terrorist attacks on spacer colonies–turns out to be nothing more than an unintended consequence of a minor real estate dispute involving characters who are barely mentioned in the novel.
The slow, gathering surge toward an epic conclusion merely peters out in the end. It’s almost as if the author, after painting a picture of humanity as a stagnant people who are merely distracting themselves until they die (ironically delayed due to longevity treatments), was afraid of the potential transformative power his qubes represented and pulled back for some reason.
As I read the book, I actually thought the protagonist was a thumbnail for a moribund humanity who’d reached the limit of its abilities. It was almost as if the human race was bumping up against a wall which, for all of the mind and body enhancements, it could not conceptually break through due to fundamental flaws in its construction. There’s a lot of movement and apparent progress, but when observed from the macro level the species is just spinning its wheels. There’s a lot of heat, but no fire.
The qubes, who appear to be evolving and perhaps even self-aware, are appearing in human bodies that are indistinguishable from the genuine article, much like the cylons from the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. It seemed like the book was heading to a point where these qubes would in some way transform human society and break it free from its stagnant state. Instead, all of the build-up involving these new qubes is swept away with not much said about what they were or what they could become.
The book could have ended with the genesis of a post-human society, or at the very least a humanity with some sort of hope for the future. Instead, it ended where it began and reading it turns out to have been an exercise in futility, much like humanity’s existence in the book.
Despite all that, I would still recommend picking up this book at the library since it does generate some food for thought (if only incidental to the main story), plus it features some high imagination, from surfing Saturn’s rings to a city crawling along Mercury’s terminator (and what happens when it stops). Just don’t expect to be treated to the epic breadth and depth of ideas presented in Red Mars and do not expect a big, world-changing ending.

Expired

I’ve been going through Wired’s first issue on the iPad and it barely resembles the safe, neutered magazine that bears its name today. I didn’t buy the first issue, but I did read most every issue up until around 1997 or so. I had always been a fan of the cyberpunk genre and a huge technology enthusiast, so Wired was a magazine tailor-made for someone like me. It was a garish mix of absurd pretentiousness and genuine art. I liked it in spite of itself and enjoyed it without irony.

The thing that kept me coming back, besides wondering what heights of self-importance it would reach in the next issue, was its focus on people, ideas, and culture rather than a dry recitation of some beige box’s specs. It seemed plugged-in to the Silicon Valley scene, plus Interesting People wrote for it, so it felt like a magazine that was actually commenting on the digital revolution instead of obsessing over the actual devices that were making the revolution possible. It was the only technology mag to ask, “What does this all mean, anyway?”

It was the first place I’d seen the word “colophon.”

Going through the first issue made me somewhat sad, but not really from any sense of nostalgia. It was a painful reminder of how much the magazine has changed from a weird, dangerous, avant-garde magazine from the future to basically PC Magazine with a goatee and cargo shorts. This was a magazine whose cover, in addition to a rogues’ gallery of provocative thinkers and technologists, once featured the Apple logo encircled with a crown of thorns over the word “Pray” to mark the return of Steve Jobs to Apple. It was a fairly controversial cover to people who had never heard of the magazine, much less actually read it, but it was keeping with the magazine’s attitude.
Now, the magazine has a cover with a “Geek Dad.” Seriously. They might as well just fold it into Men’s Health or something.

I stopped reading Wired regularly in the late-’90s, as the web finally became interesting and informative in its own right (rather than people talking about how interesting and informative it was going to be). Combined with newsgroups and IRC, Wired instantly seemed old-fashioned and quaint. The digital world it heralded had finally arrived. The hackers, crackers, phreaks, and other Genuinely Smart People were moving things along at a furious clip, far faster than anything as mundane as a monthly magazine could hope to keep pace with.

Wired had its own website, Hotwired, but it never really caught fire with me. Once you’ve tasted digital ambrosia yourself in far more interesting places on the ‘net, you can’t really take a comparatively safe and mainstream website seriously–especially one tied to a supposedly forward-looking, underground magazine. The arrogant seriousness of the magazine didn’t really mesh well with the culture of the ‘net in those days, which was far too experimental, self-aware, and sarcastic for a magazine that took itself way too seriously.

Wired was supposed to be about the future, but it turned out the future was ASCII dicks and spam.

Wired was very much a product of its time. It’s deeply embedded in ’90s cyber-culture and the world it foresaw has largely come to pass. In a sane world, the magazine would have shutdown with dignity at the turn of the millennium; alas, anything that turns a profit, even it has long outlived its mission, shambles along like a shadow of its former self, forgetting who it was or what it was doing here in the first place. So it goes with Wired.

At any rate, revisiting the first issue was an interesting look into the future, courtesy of the past, when we knew what was going to happen before it actually did.
Except for Comments sections. No one saw that train wreck coming.