How would you introduce 2312 to someone unfamiliar with your work? What kind of ideas sparked it off?
I guess I would say it is a science fiction novel set in the year 2312, which attempts to give a portrait of human civilization at that time, which is postulated to be complex, and spanning most of the solar system, while still very much centered on Earth.
The idea that sparked it had to do with the central story, a romance between two people, one from Mercury, the other from Saturn (with matching personality traits). I needed a solar system-wide culture to make it possible for people to be living in those two places, and it grew from there.
2312 seems to share a lot of themes and ideas with your Mars trilogy – do you see them as being related?
They are only loosely related. The Mars trilogy takes its story only into the early 2200s, so the new novel can be seen as a kind of very general sequel to the Mars trilogy, but the histories described in the two novels are different, and Mars itself is very much offstage in 2312; terraformed more quickly than in the Mars trilogy, it has been more altered by the process, and exists as an offstage heavyweight in the political drama described in 2312.
Even though science is steadily filling in the gaps (and quashing dreams of Martian cities and Venusian swamplands), our nearest planetary neighbours are still a feature in science fiction. Why do you think that our own solar system continues to exert such a pull on the imagination?
To me this is really just focusing on our own neighborhood and what is physically possible for us to reach. The stars are out of our reach, the solar system is not. We know the planets and moons in our system pretty well, and they are accessible to us. So there is a wing of science fiction that concerns itself with what might really be possible for us in the future, and in that wing, the solar system takes center stage because of the physical facts of the situation.
I should add that I like all the wings of science fiction, and have tried a novel or two in most of them.
What do you model your future society’s on in 2312? Is there a base coat that we can find on Earth today?
The society in 2312 is modelled on today society’s on Earth, which is then altered by extrapolation of certain trends into a future scenario, with also some aspects of allegory or symbolism, in which features of our current society are foregrounded by exaggeration.
In other words, it’s the usual set of science fiction operations put to use to help us see our own time better, by imagining one future for us to look back at now from.
China, the West, the under-developed world, vampire capitalism, alternative economies like that in Mondragon, Spain, technological advances and environmental damage, the uneasy mix of hope and fear, utopia and catastrophe—all these are already here, and in the case of this book, being displayed as if from three hundred years further on.
When it comes to world building, how do you know where to stop? How much detail do you jot down for your various worlds and societies that doesn’t even make it into the finished tome?
I ended up with perhaps an extra 100 pages of scenes or notes that somehow did not fit in 2312 or were redundant. Usually I don’t do “world building” as a series of isolated exercises, but just write the scenes I think the novel needs, and revise from there. In 2312, what I found was that the story needed to include a lot of settings as if they were secondary characters, to flesh out the civilization as a whole. So that led me to a lot of pocket biographies and other collage devices out of John Dos Passos’s great USA trilogy, a formal wonder that also influenced John Brunner in his Stand On Zanzibar.
Do you think a good narrative, and a dash of adventure and romance, still have a very important role to play in getting people to digest complex political or scientific issues?
Yes, I think it’s clear that we understand the world by way of stories we tell ourselves or hear told to us. There are macro-stories about human nature and about our relationship to the planet, within which we frame our responses to the daily stories that keep pouring in. We build a relationship to human history that is made up of this network of interlocking stories, and understand what we do against this backdrop, which can also be called a philosophy, a set of values, a paradigm, a religion, or something else like that.
From your question you can see how possibly this can go awry: let’s see, the world’s resources are being used up and we are wrecking our only home, but let’s tell that story with a dash of adventure and romance so people can digest it… I tried that in my Science In the Capital trilogy, but it’s an open question whether the resulting mix actually helps us to comprehend the situation. I hope so, but the incongruities and ideological warpings can mean that as much gets obscured as is revealed. This is an ongoing struggle for all the arts, which need to be beautiful and to entertain, but they also must engage with a very dangerous current reality, which they should reflect and illuminate. That’s a big problem for art now, but I think science fiction is one of the best art forms available to deal with it. As I’ve been saying, since we live in a science fiction novel we’re all writing together, science fiction is maybe the central art form now.
You’re obviously incredibly environmentally aware, yet 2312’s depiction of civilisation after we’ve ruined the Earth is fairly optimistic – mankind builds something new and wonderful among the stars. Should we worry more about what we’re doing to the planet, or what we’re going to do after we’ve broken it, or both?
We should definitely worry about what we are doing to the planet. We can’t “break the planet,” but we can and will drive many species to extinction, and that will make our own future existence difficult, maybe even miserable. Life after a mass extinction event will present huge problems for our species’ well-being.
So from now on history will be a matter of necessary adjustments to Earth’s biophysical reality. We will be deploying ever-more powerful technologies, and we may get better at understanding our problems and addressing them. We could very possibly build a sustainable civilization that shares the planet with the other animals, and gives all humans alive a chance at a fulfilled existence. This is what the combination of justice and science working on physical reality could do, if we were to successfully shove history that way.
So two possibilities exist at once and are in a kind of awful race: utopia or catastrophe are both possible from our current moment. The thing is, the catastrophes will be wide-ranging but not universal, and will play out over decades and centuries, and in those same decades we will be struggling to accommodate to whatever situation exists, to make the best of it, and even to make it better. So there will be an ongoing struggle.
One thing I wanted to do with 2312 was ask the question: what would a mix of utopian attempts and environmental catastrophes look like? Is it technically possible to make some progress despite the various damages, or is that a mirage? I don’t know the answers to these questions. My novel is a set of questions; it doesn’t say “this could be,” but rather “could this be?” The answers may include “no, this would not work.” Then the interesting follow-up thought might be, but wait, this is what we are counting on working.
Are you at ease with being thought of as a ‘political’ SF writer? Do you think that left wing writers seem to get called out more for their supposed agenda than right wing ones?
I am mostly at ease with being thought of as political. Science fiction, by postulating future histories, always contains theories of history and theories of human nature, so political philosophy is simply part of the genre. Ignoring that, or pretending that you can dodge that, is to try to reduce science fiction to nothing more than a game. But as fun as it is, science fiction can be so much more than a game.
I’m not sure who gets called out the most for their agendas. I do think the best novels are coming out of a left perspective. But I would think that, wouldn’t I? It is part of my worldview. What I would like also to be able to say is that whatever one’s political perspective, my novels are stimulating and entertaining, and can be engaged by people of any persuasion.
Finally, what on earth happened with AMC’s Red Mars adaptation? I gather that some people are still working on it, but it’s no longer AMC – are you still involved in that?
Red Mars is not at AMC any more, but yes, there are people still working on it, led by my wonderful media agent Vince Gerardis, so eventually something may happen. I think it would be wise not to hold your breath on that one, unless you can hold your breath for years.