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We are rapidly, terrifyingly, approaching the half-way mark of the year, which for me at least usually marks the time for a preliminary assessment of The Year In SF: what I've liked best, what I haven't got around to, what I'm looking forward to. So far as novels go, lists two and three are, as ever, far too long, including (in no particular order), The Drowning Girl, Osiris, The Black Opera, The Method, Rapture, Jack Glass, Empty Space, A Stranger in Olondria, and A Face Like Glass, among many others. List one is shorter but satisfying: Margo Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island (which almost entirely achieves what it sets out to do); Ken MacLeod's Intrusion (which is for me a real return to form after a couple of iffy books, and which I expected to generate more discussion than it has); Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker (which is an unreasonable amount of fun, and gets away with unreasonably more than you think it should be able to); and, over and above all of the preceding, Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312.

I've therefore been meaning to write something about 2312 for a little while now, and as a hopeless partisan for the novel I've been following reviews of it with particular interest. The most positive, charitable, and accepting of the terms of the novel that I've seen is Gerry Canavan's thorough piece in The LA Review of Books. Not the most positive, but the most thought-provoking so far, is M. John Harrison's take in The Guardian, which contains much I would quibble with, and in particular this closing paragraph, which I've been chewing over for a few days now:

But it's one thing to read "pausing to look in cracks they earlier inoculated with bioleaching metallophytes" and quite another to imagine, or visualise, such an act, even after you've excavated the concept from the bare words

There are, it seems to me, two critiques being made here: one, that as a reader meaning has to be "excavated" from the "bare words" in the phrase, "pausing to look in cracks they earlier inoculated with bioleaching metallophytes"; second, that the act is hard to visualise in and of itself. Both of these claims are so alien to my reading of that phrase, at least in context, that I can't help feeling I've missed something.

That context is the first paragraph of the prologue of the novel, which is available on the Orbit site, here:

The sun is always just about to rise. Mercury rotates so slowly that you can walk fast enough over its rocky surface to stay ahead of the dawn; and so many people do. Many have made this a way of life. They walk roughly westward, staying always ahead of the stupendous day. Some of them hurry from location to location, pausing to look in cracks they earlier inoculated with bioleaching metallophytes, quickly scraping free any accumulated residues of gold or tungsten or uranium. But most of them are out there to catch glimpses of the sun.

Now, the phrase does stand out: it's an injection of technical vocabulary that is otherwise absent from the paragraph. But it's surely not difficult to parse. Even if you've never encountered the words 'bioleaching' or 'metallophytes' before, they're straightforward compounds with transparent meanings. The chronology of the phrase is, at first glance, backwards, in that the walkers pause to look before we've been told what they're looking for; but surely that sort of overstuffed, catching-up-on-itself quality fits with a sentence that is about people who are always hurrying through their actions. The whole paragraph maybe challenging to visualise, but only because what's being described is remote from contemporary human experience; that specific phrase, on the other hand, is easy to imagine as a human experience. And as for the "bare words" themselves: I might be persuaded that "inoculated" is a shade too clinical, and that, say, "seeded" would have worked just as well; but "bioleaching" and "metallophytes" are the specific words that exist to describe the thing being described; and to my eyes "metallophyte", at least, is quite a beautiful word, not bare at all.

But the larger point, I think, is that the word choice ties into the philosophy of the novel, which is one of practical utopianism, always working to make the world a better place and (seemingly) never getting there -- which is also one reason why "The sun is always just about to rise" is such a perfectly chosen first sentence. So far as knowledge goes, this manifests as an assumption that artists in this future have a working scientific vocabulary and scientists have a working artistic vocabulary -- indeed that art and science have come much closer, are both things that people do for pleasure -- and so the narration of the novel expects a similar fluency from its readers. Just as this first paragraph expects the reader to be able to appreciate and integrate "metallophyte", so a few paragraphs later when a character is introduced as spending "most of her time making goldsworthies and abramovics" we are expected to recognise references to the work of Andy Goldsworthy and Marina Abramovic. Nor is this the only arena in which we are expected to pay attention to -- if you like, excavate meaning from -- the linguistic choices being made. As a good number of reviews have noted, the future of 2312 is post-gender-binary, with a profusion of new identities and the terms to go with them, some of which have evolved from current usage; see, for instance, discussion of the meaning of "bisexual" in Cheryl Morgan's review.

All of which is to say that I can't find a way of rewriting the phrase Harrison objects to that doesn't lose more than it gains. As for the rest of the novel, it's a book I lived with for almost a month -- so a big book, and a good book to read slowly -- and for me filled with images that provoke and delight. I've said a lot of what I might say about Robinson's style in general before, and a lot of it applies to this novel as much as any of his work. Of the new twists, I found the Dos Passos-esque structure particularly rewarding, in the density of texture it offers, in the way in which, as Jeff VanderMeer put it, it lets the novel refuse to "choose a position", and how as a result at different moments you might think 2312 an interstellar intrigue, or a love story, or a Grand Tour of the solar system, or something else. There is less authorial nudging, less direction given as to which events a reader might be intended to perceive as most important, than in any novel I have read for years. All of it seems to matter. Were I searching for a critique of my own, I might suggest that in some areas 2312 talks the talk better than it walks the walk -- there is much attention given to the plight of the impoverished and troubled nations of Earth, for instance, but little in the way of a voice -- but my heart would not be in it. It's such an expansive novel that even the foundational assumptions of the story feel very open to challenge, to question, to disagreement. We are not asked to approve of everything 2312 shows us; we're asked to think seriously about what we want the future to look like.



Niall Harrison is a reader and fan.
6 comments on “The Language of 2312”
Liz

But it's surely not difficult to parse.
Actually, I find that it is. Putting aside the word choice and use of technical vocabulary, I find that I stumble across that sentence and have to think twice before I get how it fits together, even though I know what all the individual words mean - it just feels clumsy, rather than evoking the feeling of hurried movement it wants to. I don't know about the rest of the novel, because I haven't read it, but I don't think that particular sentence is so great. I can't think of a quick rewrite which would fix it, but it doesn't mean there isn't a better way to put it across.

Dan Ellender

Surely, difficulty is an individual matter. For my part I found "The Man Who Lost the Sea" by Theodore Sturgeon very hard to understand when I was 14. That only added to its allure for me. No doubt about it, we live in an age where geekspeak is stylish. Other mannerisms were stylish, for example, in the early 1900's. Just read some of the bestsellers from those days. The current trend toward technical snarls of language has been a long time coming and won't be here for very long. Even in speculative fiction.

I realise it says a lot about how immersed I've been in reading sf, and for how long; but I found that the fairly dense use of the technical language of basketball in this novel about basketball generated a quasi-sf-y affect. But only because I don't know that much about basketball.

I wonder whether M. John Harrison's concern was primarily about the tech terms, or primarily about something else about the sentence's structure. (Or both, or neither.)
I agree with the general thrust of your argument, Niall; but I can imagine someone having a bit of a hard time with that sentence. I agree that "bioleaching" is pretty obvious, but I can somehow never remember what "-phyte" means, so when I see "metallophyte," my brain replaces it with "insert technobabble here."
Then again, I think that that kind of technical terminology is nearly ubiquitous in the harder branches of sf. I love the effect in some contexts—“Lobsters” springs to mind, for example—and just skim over it in other contexts. The sentence is certainly no harder to read or understand than half the sentences in (say) any given Dozois Year's Best. (For that matter, I seem to recall having that reaction to some of the sentences in Light. Sometimes unusual words are there to help create a sense of strange, of ostranenie, in the reader.)
(On a nitpicky side note, if I'd been editing that sentence, I'd have suggested "they've" instead of "they", for clarity.)
While I'm here: Dan, since you mentioned Sturgeon's excellent and lovely “The Man Who Lost the Sea,” I figured it was worth linking to so anyone who hasn't read it can do so. (We reprinted it a couple years ago.)

Hi all!
Re-reading my original post, I was in quite a trenchant mood, wasn't I? Apart from anything else, I think I needed a more nuanced distinction between difficulty (that is, a sentence you need to take a moment to work out) and lack of clarity (that is, a sentence that just doesn't work). I can, I admit, see why someone might find the KSR sentence difficult; but I think it is ultimately clear, and I don't think the difficulty in this case is a bad thing.
Jed and Adam -- I think there certainly is a school of sf writing that gains some of its affect from cramming in terminology; "Lobsters" is an excellent example of that. I don't think that's what KSR is up to in 2312, though. Most of the jargon-heavy sentences are shunted off into the 'extracts' sections; what you get are occasional intrusions, like the sentence Harrison pulled out. I take the goal to be to normalise certain kinds of language, to show that they have become more commonly understood than is the case today, rather than to overwhelm the reader.
Jed specifically -- 'phyte' is a suffix I've seen enough that it's transparent to me, I guess. And excellent use of ostranenie.

I always have to think for a minute to keep from confusing "-phyte", "-phage", "-cyte", "-tropic", and maybe a couple of others. Somehow I can remember all of them except "-phyte", so when I see "-phyte" think "Wait, does that mean cell? No, that's cyte. Eating? No, that's phage" and so on.
But perhaps this discussion will finally get me to remember phyte.

 

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