Bright Futures Still Have Shadows: The Recent Novels of Kim Stanley Robinson

It’s been hard for me to figure out what to read since the 2016 election. While some people have doubled down on post-apocalyptic horror–witness the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale TV show–I have been looking for books that keep my hopes up, without denying reality. I found what I was looking for in the more recent works of Kim Stanley Robinson. I have liked his books in the past, but New York 2140, 2312, and Aurora entranced me and lifted me up in exactly the way I wanted. These books all imagine plausible or semi-plausible futures, based on where we are right now.

New York 2140

The New York of New York 2140 is flooded by global warming, a new “Supervenice”, while outside New York many species’ futures hang in the balance–only assisted migration to the South Pole can save polar bears from extinction.

At the same time, a cooperative ethos has sprung up in New York City, and crowded apartment buildings operate as commune-coops, sharing and growing some of their own food, while their residents look after one another. The book has a slow build, following several different characters, some enthusiastic revolutionaries, and some more reluctant, as a new financial crisis looms, and just maybe, this time, the governments and the people can get it right.

2312

In 2312, humanity has spread out across the solar system, finding ways to live on worlds as disparate as Mercury and Saturn’s moons, as well as terraria built within the thousands of asteroids in between. Through genetic engineering, the solar-system dwellers have changed themselves into post-humans, while only Earth has been left behind.

2312 tells another compelling tale of non-violent revolution, but my very favorite parts were when Robinson describes the technologies that have enabled habitation of various planets and moons. Mercury’s city on rails, which stays on its dark, habitable side, while the sun heats the rails and the expansion pushes it forward, so it remains just before dawn, is an imaginative vision I will never forget.

Aurora

Aurora, set in the 25th century, has been described as less optimistic than Robinson’s other works, and it is, in a way, but it is a fitting cap for this loose trilogy that continues to imagine how humanity and its structures evolve and change into the future. The setting for most of the novel is a generation ship that is attempting to colonize a far-off earth-like planet. The settlers reach the planet as the effects of many generations within a small ecosystem are becoming more and more threatening, and then have to face a devastating choice: whether to stay or return.

Still, I found even this somewhat bleak portrait of interstellar travel optimistic for the ways it portrays different types of humanity, the way humans fight and reconcile, and finally the simple joys that we can find here on earth. If the first two books were about the exuberant possibilities of tomorrow, Aurora seems to be about the things that may not change, and the things that cannot change, but that we can and should embrace anyway.

I recommend these books to anyone who likes science fiction and is feeling bleak about the future. Robinson’s wonder at technology and love of humans, their foibles and their ingenuity, shines through in every sentence. It is hard to read these books without feeling both uplifted and determined at the end of the experience.

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