The Networked Frontier: Kim Stanley Robinson and Our Connected Universe

By Samuel Gerald CollinsAugust 15, 2013

The Networked Frontier: Kim Stanley Robinson and Our Connected Universe

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

BACK IN THE 1980s, it looked like we were on our way to a future where we would all be isolated monads crouched at our computers, universal hikikomori addicted to MMORPGs. For me, that all changed when instant messaging hit in the 1990s, and I realized that people were using their computers to facilitate their face-to-face lives and not just to disappear down digital rabbit holes. And although there are still numerous theorists who look to successive developments of ICTs (information and communication technologies) as just one more nail in the coffin of alienation, the data (painstakingly gathered by successive Pew studies headed up by Lee Rainie) show that people who are online a lot are also more connected to each other physically (see Rainie and Barry Wellman’s 2012 book Networked). And yet, it’s tough to really think of a “networked self” that is simultaneously linked to both digital and material worlds — we are still prisoners of etiolated, 1980s metaphors: “virtuality,” “cyberspace,” “online classes.” 

Something similar has happened with our imagination of space settlement. It has been almost 30 years since the publication of Gerard O’Neill’s The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, a sprawling evocation of thousands of isolated space settlements, spinning somewhere along multiple Lagrangian points, each a laboratory — and a ghetto — for human diversity. In his thoughtful 2003 critique (and evocation) of Astrofuturism, De Witt Douglas Kilgore glosses over O’Neill’s designs as so many “separate but equal” suburbs, each a sanitized island of homogeneity. Indeed, the anthropologists Ben Finney and Eric Jones, in a chapter of their 1985 book, Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience, imagined the ultimate telos of these colonies as speciation, a social, cultural, and biological segregation that would confirm the racist’s polygenism fantasies. Today, when we look to the neoliberal inflections of space colonization in NewSpace entrepreneurial start-ups, it is difficult not to think of this dimension of O’Neill’s thought. 

But these two (past) futures — the virtual human and the hermetically sealed space colony — are the tools we’re stuck with to imagine the future. For better or worse, they are still the “metaphors we live by” in our future imaginings. And these are also what animates Kim Stanley Robison’s sprawling novel 2312, a grand epic that takes ideas elaborated in earlier fictions, especially his Three Californias and Mars trilogies, and extends them across the solar system in ludic and sometimes conflicting configurations. But it is also a novel that addresses, interrogates, and undertakes a rescue of these moribund, past futures. Just as Joseph Masco has written of California and the West, in his 2005 essay  “A Notebook on Desert Modernism,”

so space for Robinson is “a region at once empty, being emptied out, already filled up, and always filling up with unfolding futures and futures past.” In the end, Robinson’s 2312 is a work of anthropological science fiction brimming with ideas for the here and now, something that those of us interested in “the future of the future” need to pay attention to, especially as we drag along in this world, kidnapped by a neoliberal hegemony that imagines a vast, endless replication of its own mendacity, across all space and over all time.

2312 begins at the moment of raveling and unraveling, where older futures gather and dehisce against the intimation of something else, a something that never really manages to coalesce. It opens after the death of Swan Er Hong’s grandmother (Alex) on Terminator, a rolling space colony on Mercury moving precariously with the terminator, the liminal space between day and night. The year is 2312, and in this age of “Balkanization,” thousands upon thousands of “terraria” proliferate within even the most modest asteroid, and “there was too much going on to be seen or understood.” 

Swan herself is a contributor to the Heisenberg suburbanization. In her former career, she designed terraria, the O’Neill-esque combination of art, science, and social engineering resulting in a bewildering bestiary of vaguely habitable space colonies for posthumans escaping the gravity (and gravitas) of Earth. Mercury’s Terminator seems like a perfect example — a city continuously on the run from its natural (and uninhabitable) environment.

Now, after her grandmother’s death, Swan just wants to be left alone to do her own thing. It’s unclear what her career is these days, but it seems to revolve around the narcissistic elaboration of her own life. She’s not alone — spacers have developed a “nonattachment” of weak ties, “paced for the long haul” in an era of extended lifespans. But things aren’t always what they seem. Swan’s grandmother seems to have been part of some grand, pan-solar-system scheme, and Terminator finally falls prey to the solar immolation it’s been running from all this time, a deliberate destruction involving a “pebble mob,” the incremental, coordinated movement of small rocks only a few meters across into a composite asteroid capable of terrible damage.

This leads Swan, together with Alex’s erstwhile co-conspirators Wahram, Inspector Genette, and Wang, to chase across the solar system in a series of metonymic encounters that make sense of the randomness of the pebble mob, and simultaneously the histories that animate it — instantiated in the “historical” fragments that Robinson embeds between chapters. Leap-frogging across varied human terraria, descending down space elevators to the Earth’s surface and back again, Swan and company find themselves on the trail of the posthuman, literally and figuratively. Literally, in that the forces that are behind Terminator’s destruction seem to be qube humanoids, quantum computers that have achieved a measure of self-consciousness and have taken human form. Figuratively, in that the trail to these qube humanoids traces the outline of what it might mean to live in a posthuman universe of vast spaces interconnected with all sorts of lively, non-human agencies, including Swan’s own qube-implant, Pauline, a bored AI who whispers rhetoric lectures in her ear like an underemployed English major working in a Books-a-Million.

It’s these interconnections that constitute the looming threat to the future Swan and people like her have built — the clandestine coordination of qubes and their humanoid extensions across the enormity of space (limited only by quantum decoherence), together with the stealthy machinations of Venusians engineering body parts for the qubes. But connections are also a source of hope and change. If there are bad connections (those puzzling pebble mobs), then there are also salubrious ones, and it’s these that come to triumph in 2312

First, Robison continues to extrapolate on Basque Mondragon cooperatives as an alternative to exploitative capitalism. By “mathematizing the Mondragon,” colonies are able to build expert systems for the satisfaction of material needs that incorporate an ever-widening circumference of terraria settlements into an integrated, horizontal cooperative. Space colonies don’t “go it alone”; prosperity means the multiplication of mutually beneficial connections, but not hierarchical ones. And as Robinson points out in his Mars trilogy, it’s not about getting rid of trade, it’s about putting it in its place in order to forge a post-scarcity society not premised on surplus accumulation and exploitation. 

Likewise, terraria continue to maintain and develop relationships to Earth. Instead of attaining escape velocity and leaving the Earth and its problems behind, it’s about using these technologies to connect back. As Swan admits, “No, Earth was a mess, a sad place. And yet still the center of the story. It had to be dealt with, as Alex had always said, or nothing done in space was real.” This comes home with the “reanimation,” a massive repopulation of a deracinated Earth with near-extinct fauna that have been meticulously raised in terraria repurposed into a “dispersed zoo or inoculant bank.” One of the wonderful, fanciful, Rabelaisian images in Robinson’s novel is that of thousands of varied fauna descending to Earth in protective bubbles:    

Descending out of the Western sky, dropping from low cumulus clouds, were caribou and elk and grizzly bears, all big brown dots with splayed legs. All the other animals too, many in clusters, the higher ones too small to see what they were.

Here, the reanimation is an uncanny recapitulation of the “pebble mob” that doomed Terminator: multiple agencies across space and over time that have been coordinated into a loosely coupled assemblage, incremental in their singular impact, but revolutionary when scaled up.

How do we judge connectivity, then? The Mondragon? The reanimation? The pebble mob? Is Robinson suggesting possible directions for our future? Is he reflecting on our varied presents? After all, we live in an era of networked contagion, where “small worlds of infection” might snowball into large-scale impacts (as Tony Sampson puts it in his 2012 book Virality). Are Robinson’s connected actions futuristic echoes of Occupy? Of Arab Springs? Of flash mobs? We’re used to various nostrums on the neutrality of technologies, but Robinson’s message is at once more interesting and more subversive. At this level, 2312 is a meditation on these different forms of networked agency, and the ways in which they have generated new hopes and fears. 

For Swan, solving the mystery of the pebble mob and — simultaneously — of Alex’s life, means tracking down Alex’s brachiating network and crunching through the complexity of a posthuman universe. Yes — this also does double duty as the “tour” part of utopian writing, but it also sets up one the novel’s central conflicts: a tension between the connecting and disclosing, on the one hand, and enclosing and disconnecting on the other. To be open to information and new relationships, or to be selective, exclusive and proprietary? With her qube implant continuously recording her movements and possibly in secret communication with other qubes, Swan is frequently viewed with suspicion by Alex's colleagues. “Can you turn it off?” Genette (and many others) ask her. Can Swan manage not to be connected?  

Ultimately, that is the fate of the renegade qubes (and the humans who have enabled them) — disconnection. Not in a terminal sense, of course, but in the form of exile in an enclosed terraria. In other words, O’Neill’s dream of self-enclosed, space colonies. But that’s not the end of it. Swan here is the double agent, alternately helping to corral the bad guys all the while allowing some of the qube humanoids to get away. After all, she’s the most posthuman, with a qube implant and a stomach full of alien microbes she ingested on a whim. But she also refuses to practice network hygiene. Are some forms of relationships to be suppressed and others to be encouraged? Should terraria connect to each other? To Earth? Are some forms of political networks inherently evil? Or is it true, as Rainie and Wellman point out, “Information not only wants to be free, it also wants to be networked.” What deserves to live and proliferate in the posthuman world?  

Who, after all, can confidently declare what is to be included and excluded? In his history fragments, Robinson explains that:

[A]lthough the events right before and after the year 2312 were important and signaled changes latent in the situation at the time, nothing tipped decisively then, there was no portal they passed through and said, “This is a new period, this is a new age.” Events set in train were mired and complex, and many took decades more to come to fruition.

There are intimations here that the humanoid qubes end up being important after all; maybe the historical fragments that bookend Robison’s narratives are from them. Why not? It’s the quantum computers that are ultimately the guarantors of history here. As Genette explains, “Because despite all the talk you hear about balkanization, we are still recording the history of the world down to the level of every person and qube.”   

In a networked world, the surveillance implied in “big data” is absolute, and yet so, too, are the possibilities for “sousveillance” (surveillance from below) or the potential for subversive self-surveillance, as in the work of Hasan Elahi, a University of Maryland artist who began to record every instance of his life after being (falsely) targeted by the FBI. 

Connected lives, then, are not necessarily a bad thing. After all, the politics Robinson sketches are exactly that — loosely coupled social actions assembled into intervention. These are the prefigurative politics of Occupy, or the loosely-coupled organization of protest in hundreds of different places around the glove, all enabled by the combination of people and their machines. In the wake of well publicized, large scale organizing with the help of Twitter (Occupy), Facebook (Tahrir Square), and elsewhere, questions of organizing revolve around what Jeffrey Juris, in his 2012 essay “Reflections on #Occupy Everywhere,” calls “logics of networking” and “logics of aggregation” — for example, the difference between sustained networks of anti-globalization activists, on the one hand, and the scintillating diversity of people who showed up to Occupy, on the other.  

Robinson is enacting a kind of prefigurative SF, one where he models different ways of thinking about this networked world that are not separate from each other, in the Thomas More sense, but generative, hybrid, and contrastive. In his Mars trilogy, the contrast was between different visions of ecology and politics: “red” Mars versus “green” Mars. In 2312, the thesis and antithesis take the forms of connection and disconnection, large-scale networking with the help of social networking sites (SNS) or smaller groups of face-to-face confidants. But he’s not solving these dilemmas in the space of 2312. As Fredric Jameson writes of Robison’s Mars trilogy in his Archaeologies of the Future, “The utopian text is not supposed to produce this synthesis all by itself or to represent it: that is a matter for human history and collective praxis.”  The role of 2312 here is to incite us to think past the limits of our theorizing. As Susan McManus writes her 2003 essay “Fabricating the Future,” the text “confronts, opens up, and disrupts the acceptance of given realities as the only realities.”

The genius of 2312 is that it identifies the asymptotes of our imagination, the fulcrum upon which our hopes for the future rests. Other science fictions (from Robinson and others) will develop other lines of flight — reservoirs of potential futures rather than prescriptions for the ways we should live. The uncertainties of 2312, together with its vaguely unsatisfying denouement (Swan and Wahram together forever?), are testament to the demands placed on the reader by the utopia: to imagine becoming other to the stale antinomies of the present. Just as 2012 was not an end so much as the multiplication of new beginnings, so 2312 opens onto a multiplicity, a LeFebvrean heterotopics that urges us to “occupy” the future in different ways than now. 

LARB Contributor

Samuel Gerald Collins is an anthropologist at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland. He researches information society and information and communication technologies in the United States and South Korea, and in particular the formation of multi-agent socialities composed of human and non-human agents. His present work examines the urban as the confluence of people and social media. He is the author of various books, book chapters and articles, among them All Tomorrow’s Cultures: Anthropological Engagements With the Future (Berghahn, 2008).


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