Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2312 has inspired in me an interesting and potent mixture of reactions. On the one hand, I love the concept for this book: a scientifically plausible and ultimately optimistic look at a possible future world which addresses such issues as loss of the Earth’s biodiversity and the paradoxical immiseration of billions of the world’s poor even while advanced technology is generating wonders elsewhere in the solar system. Add to this a subplot about quantum computers evolving sentience and the fact that almost every major character in this world is depicted as being some form of transgender*, and this seems like the kind of book which I should really, really like.
But then, we come to protagonist.
Simply put, Swan er Hong is an aggressively unlikable character. Now, of course, a novel’s protagonist doesn’t have to be likable, but they should at least by sympathetic enough that the reader doesn’t start actively rooting against them midway through the narrative. Even Satan himself in Milton’s Paradise Lost managed to invest the reader in what he’s doing; Swan, on the other hand, is a self-absorbed, violent, petulant, stupid, whiny little woman-child. Reading through this novel, one can thrill to learn that she once chugged back a tankard of newly-discovered Alien microbes like a drunken frat boy on a dare; see her sexually assault and then commit a hate-crime against a group of sapient artificial intelligences**; witness as she browbeats and repeatedly hits her romantic partner; watch as she abuses her underlings; hear her constantly describe herself as an “activist” even in spite of the fact that she seems utterly pig-ignorant of the actual political realities of the solar system***; and most of all, listen to her endless whining. None of this would be so bad, were it not for the fact that I honestly cannot tell whether the author is actually aware of just how horrible Swan is. At no point in the novel does she face any real consequences for anything that she does, and all of the supporting characters seem, completely unaccountably, to genuinely like being around her.
There’s an old view that holds that speculative fiction should be judged on the quality of its ideas alone, and that in this genre, character is of secondary importance. This view has been continuously challenged since the 1960s, and I don’t believe that it applies in this case–Swan’s problem is not that her character is badly written, but that her character is just plain bad. However, it’s interesting to note that by applying these two metrics, a novel can be simultaneously both enjoyable and unenjoyable.
*Although 21st century concepts like transgenderism explicitly no longer have much meaning in the world of 2312.
**Her justification for which– that she “doesn’t like being lied to”–ironically comes close, in my opinion, to what one generally hears out of the mouths of people who murder trans women.
***Presumably she’s an “activist” in the exact same sense that those people who think that boycotting vodka will help gay people in Russia are “activists.”