Brilliant is probably the best word to describe this book. Still… Not great.
I don’t know how Robinson manages to create something of this magnitude and scope without a single interesting character. Wonderful and descriptive science is sickled over by the pale cast of… well… the cast. It’s like seeing the most beautifully orchestrated concert in the world being played on a kazoo…
Certainly amusing… But not enjoyable.
I hate it, because this story is truly an epic and expansive story of one year of human history. Every location is crafted with incredible accuracy down to the smallest detail. The different human habitations across the planets in our solar system, advancements in computation technology, biological ideas, and means of terraforming all sit as plausible and easily within the realm of human possibility in the next few centuries.
That in and of itself is remarkable – most science fiction could care less as long as a few scientific details are in place. I’m not nit picking other sci-fi, that attention to detail is what makes this fantastic future history. Simultaneously, it also makes the book read like a really awful history text book. Or rather like excerpts from a bad text book.
The approach to gender issues and longevity did add something to the book. It was the first book I’ve ever encountered that took the direction this one took, and I wont spoil it here. It also has the added advantage of making this book somewhat controversial.
All of that detail and controversy should make this book a hoot… But no.
The problem is the characters.
They’re not entirely unlikeable or not relatable… But only just. I just frankly don’t care what happens to the spoiled artist Swan or the frog man from Titan, Warrick, or pretty much any of the other characters. In the most compelling part of the story, they’re trapped in an endless tunnel whining copiously.
That was the most compelling part of the story.
Oh yeah, there was some sort of attempt at a love story which had all the believability of the love between two characters from Friends. It was a weird little affair to say the best of it. Almost the worst love story of all time, but that would actually go to fair. This was far too tapioca for that sort of hyperbole.
But let me say this – I hate pretentious science fiction. Dan Simmons does the let’s tell everyone how smart I am shtick. Kim Stanley Robinson doesn’t take the cake for this bit, Dan Simmons is better at it – nothing is going to impress me like a classical education. But this is not for lack of effort by Robinson.
This is to say that Robinson goes all out. His character are needlessly overly interested in art and music – and pseudo philosophy. It’s like Robinson wants to show off every composer he’s ever heard of and every art style… Maybe he just likes that stuff, and I do too if I’m honest.
So, if I like classics and learning about music and literature and philosophy, why in the world am I upset and Robinson – why do I hate pretentious science fiction?
Because the folks who do play “look how smart I am” forget about developing characters. It’s universal, almost every science fiction writer has a little part of showing off. The best writers know when to stop it and come back into something solid. Dan Simmons is at his best when he forgets that shtick and works magic with the people he puts together. At that point, his stories are great.
Unfortunately, Robinson doesn’t have those moments. Yet at the end of it all, I read the whole book and enjoyed parts enough to keep going. Obviously, I don’t feel completely satisfied, but oddly, this book might be worth it…