Comments on 2312

I can’t stay quiet any longer… not with 2312 now also nominated for the Arthur C Clarke award, as well as being already on the shortlists for the BSFA and Nebula awards.

I bought the book and I wasn’t more than a few pages in when I started to feel uncomfortable. The more I read, the more queasy I became. I can understand what Kim Stanley Robinson was trying to do in the literary sense – for those that haven’t spotted it, it’s making the characters align with characterisation of the god their home planet is named after and seeing what pans out in their interplanetary interactions. This is an interesting idea.

But to then build the settlements on those planets and moons to also reflect the gods is in my mind a disaster. What he has done on Mercury had me screaming, ‘No, No, NOOOOOO…’ No engineer in their right mind would do things like that.

Worse, Kim Stanley Robinson is accepted as a writer who’s doing his best to predict the possibilities of the future. So there is section of his readership who would take his science and engineering at face value. Some of them will be youngsters and I squirm at the thought of them taking his ideas and believing they can be built and put into practice. This to me is just downright irresponsible.

Let’s get one thing straight… I’m not talking about genuine misreads of future technology, but about the deliberate mangling to suit the literary idea here.

Full-color image of from first MESSENGER flyby
Full-color image of from first MESSENGER flyby (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take the art gallery in Tintoretto Crater…. and I quote: “… the hope was to gather all the original paintings here and locate only copies on Earth, to take on the intense assault of the most volatile environment – oxidation, corrosion, rust, fire, theft, vandalism, smog, acid, daylight… Here, in contrast, everything was controlled, benign – safer.” By implication Swan and Wahram would be wearing spacesuits to avoid the oxidation damage. The paintings would have to be held in some form of atmosphere to stop the paint oils boiling off, but the author puts a window round the crater. So during the Mercurian day, light and far more intense light than we experience on Earth, would be washing over the paintings… one of the things Robinson wanted to avoid.

Then there is the Terminator city itself, travelling on 20 tracks round Mercury ahead of the dawn. Robinson goes on to say, “The sleeves on the underside of the city are fitted over the track at a tolerance so fine that the thermal expansion of the tracks’ austenite stainless steel is always pushing the city west, onto narrower tracks still in the shade.” My reaction was even if you have sweepers ahead of the city to keep the tracks clean of dust and small meteoroids, even if you could design the shape of the individual tracks to make sure the speed of the city is maintained up hills and down slopes, how would it go round bends, all 20 of them at the same time? How would you stop solar flares from licking Mercury’s surface and suddenly heating up parts of the track, making the city go much faster? The meteoroid defences would have to working all the time to stop the tracks being dented, given the need for fine tolerance – it’s a no failure allowed situation – something engineers are very wary of.

There is more, lots more, and yes I could go on… but I think I’ve made my point.

But I keep coming back to what really upsets me about this novel… the apparent

deliberate mangling of the engineering for the purposes of literary style and artistry.

4 thoughts on “Comments on 2312

  1. The Mercury idea, I think, goes back to a time when such things were predicted. I’ve heard the idea about a tracked city constantly on the move around the planet somewhere else before. I’m guessing he didn’t really look into it too much, liked the idea and just decided to go with it.

  2. The notion of hanging lives off that sort of nonsense makes me cringe. Simplicity, “farm-yard” construction and multiple redundancy is the key to reliable applications of technology – and a vast-scale reliance on perfect tolerances exposed to an uncontrolled environment is none of those things!

    It doesn’t even fail in any “safe” mode.

    I have never quite recovered from watching the original Italian Job film where a mechanic was under the BACK end of a front-wheel drive Austin Mini – “working on the differential”. Annoys me in the way that gobbledegook in Hollywood Morse code used to annoy my ol’ deep-sea trawler radio operator dad! Everyone makes mistakes but well, sheesh O’Reilly!

  3. It always makes me very annoyed when authors make obvious engineering mistakes in stories, especially having been an engineer for 50 years.

    Another story that involves a city on tracks is ‘The Inverted World’ by Christopher Priest and he gets the engineering right.

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