In the middle of last year, Neal Stephenson caused a minor kerfuffle when he declared it was time for science fiction to give away its contemporary obsession with apocalyptic scenarios and dystopias and return to the hopeful visions of sci-fi's golden age of the 1950s and '60s.
Whether the author's characterisation of contemporary sci-fi as nihilistic and inward-looking is a fair assessment is questionable, as is his assumption that sci-fi's real value lies in its capacity to inspire scientists and visionaries. Yet there's little doubt the new novel by sci-fi luminary Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312, is precisely the sort of big-picture, outward-looking story of which Stephenson wants to see more.
Set, as the deliberately provocative title suggests, 300 years from now, 2312 imagines a future in which technological and scientific advances have let humanity spread out into the solar system. Made habitable by vast terraforming projects, Mars and Venus are home to thriving societies. Likewise, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn host an array of cities and habitats.
Even that most hostile-seeming of worlds, Mercury, is home to a human city, the beautiful Terminator, which is designed to move with the sunrise across the surface of the planet.
Robinson's vision is spectacular and often breathtaking, especially in set-pieces such as the opening chapter, in which sunwalkers race the dawn across Mercury, or a much later scene in which millions of wolves, bears and caribou bred in habitats in space descend towards the wheat fields of an ice-free Arctic in clear bubbles.
Yet the world the novel depicts is not without its problems. Fuelled in part by the increasing scarcity of space that can be colonised, tensions are growing between the non-Earth colonies, a situation made worse by the increasingly erratic nature of the Martian government and discord within the economic relationships between the planets.
But the biggest and most intractable problem is not the new worlds but the old one. Crowded by a population many billions larger than it is today, and irrevocably altered by climate change, Earth is an intractable, solution-resistant mess whose internal problems threaten the stability of the entire solar system.
This particular vision of the future - an environmental catastrophe on Earth, followed by a rapid and transformative expansion into the solar system - is common to much contemporary science fiction. And while Robinson's version is perhaps less plausible (and certainly less densely imagined) than that explored in Paul McAuley's stunning The Quiet War series, or Alastair Reynolds's recent Blue Remembered Earth, it nonetheless presents a future that is in turn awe-inspiring, unsettling and challenging, not least in its preparedness to demand that the reader thinks seriously about the possibilities of using technology to make other planets habitable by humans.
Robinson has dealt with these questions before, not just in his classic Mars trilogy, but in his more recent series Forty Signs of Rain,Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting, which depict the race for solutions and adaptations to deal with rapid climate change. Yet in 2312 these questions are embedded in a larger exploration of the forces that underpin social change and development.
Whether the book's answers to these questions are satisfying is probably at least partly a matter of perspective. While Robinson is too intelligent and subtle a writer not to be aware of the dangers of treating science as a panacea for all human ills, he is, ultimately, a product of the very mindset that gives rise to this assumption, a fact made explicit by the novel's frustration with the resistance of Earth's population to technological solutions to their planet's problems.
It's a problem underlined by the plot, which is driven by the rise of a seemingly dangerous form of artificial intelligence. The novel not only seems unprepared or unwilling to grapple with the ethical dimensions of this but also chooses to resolve it in a manner that is oddly perfunctory and, more importantly, uneasily suggestive of the dangers of allowing the ''rational'' to take precedence over more human considerations.
These are not small criticisms, nor is it coincidental that they are criticisms that might also be made of sci-fi's golden-age writers such as Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, both of whom shared Robinson's belief in the transformative nature of scientific rationality. Yet nor do they detract significantly from 2312's real achievements, in particular its power as a reminder not just of the possibilities of science, but of sci-fi's importance in opening our minds to those possibilities.
Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, 576pp, $29.99