2312: Terraforming the Solar System, Terraforming the Earth

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest book “2312″ is set in that titular year in a Solar System alive with busy humans and thousands of artificial habitats carved from asteroids. Earth is a crowded mess, home to eleven billion humans, but no longer the home of thousands of species, now only preserved, flourishing in fact, in the habitats. Spacers, those living in space, are long-lived, thanks to being artificially made “bisexual” (male & female) and some are living even longer by virtue of small size. Humans live from the Vulcanoids – a belt of asteroids just 0.1 AU from the Sun – out to Pluto, where a quartet of starships are being built for a 1,000 year flight to GJ 581. Mars has been terraformed, via Paul Birch’s process of burning an atmosphere out of the crust to make canals, while Venus is snowing carbon dioxide (another Birch idea.) The larger moons of Jupiter and Saturn are extensively inhabited and debating their terraforming options.

On Mercury Stan introduces us to the moving city Terminator, which runs along rails powered entirely via thermal expansion of the rails as they conduct heat from Mercurian day and radiate it away in the Mercurian night. Mercury is a planet of art museums and installations of art carved out of the periodically broiled and frozen landscape. Sunwalkers walk forever away from the Sunrise, braving the occasional glimpse of the naked Sun, which can kill with an unpredictable x-ray blast from a solar flare.

The two main protagonists are Swan, an Androgyn resident of Mercury, a renowed designer of space-habitats whose mother, Alex, has just died; and Wahram, a Wombman resident of Titan, who is negotiating access to solar energy for the terraforming of his home world. Due to a freak “accident” the two must journey through the emergency tunnels underneath Mercury’s Day-side, an experience which draws them together inspite of being literally worlds apart in personality and home-planets.

There’s a lot going on in 2312 and Stan only shows us a slivver. Plots to reshape the worlds and plots to overthroe the hegemony of humankind. But for our two interplanetary lovers such forces can’t keep them apart.

Of course, I’m not here to review the book. This being Crowlspace, I’m looking at the technicalities. Minor points of fact have a way of annoying me when they’re wrong. For example, Stan mentions Venus wanting to import nitrogen from Titan, which is rather ridiculous. The atmosphere of Venus is 3.5% nitrogen by volume, which works out as the equivalent of 2.25 bars partial pressure. Or about 3 times what’s on Earth. So importing nitrogen would be the equivalent of the Inuit importing ice.

Stan is critical of interstellar travel being portrayed as “easy” in Science-fiction. He mentions a fleet of habitats being sent out on a 1,000 year voyage to a star 20 light-years away – given the uncertainties of these things and the size of habitats, that’s not an unreasonable cruise speed. Yet he describes it as being “a truly fantastic speed for a human craft.” But at one point he mentions that a trip to Pluto from Venus takes 3 weeks, an unremarkable trip seemingly, yet that requires a top-speed of 0.022c – significantly higher than the starships!

He’s a bit vague about the pace of travel in the Solar System via “Aldrin cycles” – cycling orbits between destinations, timed to repeat. Buzz Aldrin developed the concept for easy transport to Mars – have a space-station with all the life-support in the right orbit and you only have to fly the passengers to the station, rather than all their supplies. The station either recycles everything or is resupplied by much slower automated freighters using electric propulsion. Stan’s mobile habitats do the former, with some small topping-up. But such Cyclers are slow. Stan mentions a Mercury-Vesta Cycler trip taking 8 days. Not possible for any Cycler orbit that’s bound to the Sun (i.e. cycling) – a straight-line parabolic orbit would take a minimum of 88.8 days. A proper Cycler needs to be on an orbit that can be shaped via the gravity of the planets to return it to the planets it is linking together, else too much fuel will be expended to reshape the orbit. Preferably an orbit that isn’t too elliptical else the shuttle fuel bill is too high. A minimum-energy Hohmann orbit would take 285 days to link Mercury and Vesta.

These are quibbling points. The real meat of the book is the optimistic future – a dazzlingly diverse one – that is basically plausible. Enticingly possible, in fact. Yet the optimism is tempered by the fact that not everyone is living in a wise, open society. Earth, even in 2312, remains a home to suffering masses, their plight made worse by the greenhouse effect’s flooding of low-lying parts of the Globe, and the Sixth Great Extinction’s erasure of most large animals from the planet (fortunately kept alive or genetically revived in the mobile habitats.) New York is mostly flooded, becoming a city of canal-streets, something I can imagine New Yorkers adapting to with aplomb.

The real challenge of the 24th Century, in Stan’s view, is the terraforming of the Earth, remaking a biosphere that we’ve ruined in our rush to industrialise. Perhaps. We certainly have many challenges ahead over the next 300 years…

Leave a Reply