I’m working these days on an article about Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2312, which has turned out to be a love story. Science fiction does not often deal with that topic, and, besides, this novel has been mainly read as a utopian tale of regeneration after Earth is devastated by the effects of climate change. Robinson presents a scenario in which Earth is a backward remnant of pre-Spacer times, preventing its own survival while Mars, the Saturn League, and Mercury progress towards a new alliance which will one day leave our stubborn little planet and its pseudo-feudal capitalism (the author’s appreciation) behind. As it is typical of Robinson’s fiction, the world building is energetic and requires masses of information that, without constituting info-dumps as they do in less gifted writers, do conceal in this case the centrality of the romantic motif. That 2312 is essentially a love story is not, after all, my own impression, but the author’s own. At least he declared at the time of publication that “I began with the idea of the romance at the center of the novel, between two people from Mercury and Saturn who were (surprise!) mercurial and saturnine in character, and thus a real odd couple”. The project of building their high-tech future civilization became necessarily “a major component of the novel, but it all began by trying to give the central romance its proper setting”, three hundred years into our future (in Susan De Guardiola “The Future Is Fun”. Publishers Weekly, 259.10, March 2012, 54).
To make matters even more complicated, Robinson’s odd couple is composed by two persons–Swan Er Hong from Mercury and Fitz Wahram from Titan, one of the moons of Saturn–who are not particularly likeable and who take a long time to have a series of almost random meetings transform into something that we might call with conviction romance. It took me two readings (the kind of exercise to which you only submit for academic reasons, or out of love for a writer) to grasp the mechanics of their love, and a third reading, which I finally totally enjoyed, to truly warm up to them. So, as you can see, I am recommending 2312 only to sf die-hards willing to go to all that trouble to enjoy an interplanetary tale of love.
What finally struck a chord with me is that Swan and Wahram have time and space as we don’t have, for theirs is a world in which longevity is expanding (reaching the 200 year mark is common) and in which none of members of the new post-human sub-species known as the Smalls have yet died of old age. The more years you live, as we’re beginning to learn in real-life, the harder it is to think of marriage for life. Swan’s grandmother Alex had lived with her partner for 70 years before she died (please recall that Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip of Edinburgh have been married for 73 years) but what do love and marriage mean when you’re life expectancy might be in the hundreds? As for space, which does not seem to trouble Swan and Wahram in their many comings and goings across the Solar System to which Robinson confines space travel, I was reminded of Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, but in reverse since 2312’s odd couple have “world enough and time” to let their love grow “Vaster than empires and more slow”. It doesn’t take Wahram “Two hundred to adore each breast” Swan possesses nor “thirty thousand to the rest” but about three years for him to declare his love, which (attention!) is but a blink of the eye, considering that he is 113 and she 137. The 24 year gap, however, is nothing in a context in which, as it appears, people remain young as they age, at least judging by Swan’s fierce love of physical adventure.
Now, here comes the really peculiar gender bit in Robinson’s world: longevity is significantly improved for the individuals he calls bisexual but are really hermaphrodites, possessing a male and a female sex (we call them usually intersexuals). This is the accidental result of therapies that have led “to very sophisticated surgical and hormonal treatments for interventions in utero, in puberty, and during adulthood. The XX/XY dichotomy still exists, but in the context of a wide variety of habit, usage, and terminology”. As Robinson adds, “principal categories of self-image for gender include feminine, masculine, androgynous, gynandromorphous, hermaphroditic, ambisexual, bisexual, intersex, neuter, eunuch, nonsexual, undifferentiated, gay, lesbian, queer, invert, homosexual, polymorphous, poly, labile, berdache, hijra, two-spirit”, with some “cultures deemphasizing gender (…) sometimes referred to as ursuline cultures”, a nice wink at Ursula K. Leguin’s masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) in which the Gethenians remain sexless and genderless except for a few days every cycle. As for Swan and Wahram, she is a woman-identified gynandromorph and he is a man-identified androgyne. Both have parented children as mothers and fathers.
Among readers that did not enjoy 2312, no complaint is louder than that of Robinson’s admirer and fellow sf author, Vandana Singh. She wrote in her blog a scathing indictment of this novel (“Why KSR’s 2312 is a Fail on Many Counts”. Antariksh Yatra: Journeys in Space, Time and the Imagination 19 March 2013, https://vandanasingh.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/why-ksrs-2312-is-a-fail-on-many-counts/) that, focused, above all, on the patronizing attitude that Swan and Wahram assume towards Earth. Swan’s misguided attempts to help Africans build homes fast with the help of AI-guided machinery is totally unacceptable in the context of the novel but Singh was incensed above all by how the couple and their extra-terrestrial allies decide to start a revolution on Earth to increase the safety of the other more prosperous planets. Singh denounces that this smacks of the worst colonial ideology, as Earthlings are treated as if “They aren’t people” but just “a monolithic mass of misery, beyond help”.
Her anger against what she calls Robinson’s betrayal of his post-colonial readers expands to his alleged mismanagement of the gender issues: “It is worth mentioning also that despite its apparent imaginativeness on the subject of human sexuality, gender and variations thereof, the book seems to idealize heterosexual mating, although between hermaphroditic beings. (Come on!) The romance between the two main characters, even independent of sexuality, does not come across as believable”. I was flabbergasted by this–not because Singh found the romance unappealing, as I found it when I first read the novel, but because she decried Robinson’s supposed idealization of heterosexual mating. Now, here’s the only sex scene in 2312. Judge for yourself: “Now it was said that their particular combination of genders was the perfect match, a complete experience, ‘the double lock and key’, all possible pleasures at once; but Wahram had always found it rather complicated. As with most wombmen, his little vagina was located far enough down in his pubic hair that his own erection blocked access to it; the best way to engage there once he was aroused was for the one with the big vagina to slide down onto the big penis most of the way, then lean out but also back in, in a somewhat acrobatic move for both partners. Then with luck the little join could be made, and the double lock and key accomplished, after which the usual movements would work perfectly well, and some fancier back-and-forths also. Swan turned out to be perfectly adept at the join, and after that she laughed and kissed him again. They warmed up pretty fast”.
Quoting Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” is not something I do frequently, for fear of misreading her opaque philosopher’s prose. But I found in its pages that given that heteronormativity is maintained by the ‘logic’ that ‘he’ is the penetrator and ‘she’ the penetrated “then, without this heterosexual matrix, as it were, it appears that the stability of these gendered positions would be called into question” (51, original italics). So, if you have a couple for whom sex consists of mutual penetration, I understand that this cannot be heterosexual mating, as Singh calls it, but something else. Furthermore, Butler notes, “The heterosexual logic that requires that identification and desire be mutually exclusive is one of the most reductive of heterosexism’s psychological instruments: if one identifies as a given gender, one must desire a different gender” (239, original italics). Neither for Wahram nor for Swan is their double sex and gendered identity an obstacle in this sense: both have had a diversity of sexual partners and both have, as noted, fathered children and been mothers. In fact, Robinson goes as far as to have Swan visit several times a former partner that goes by the gender-neutral name Zasha and for whom he never uses a personal pronoun. The child Swan and Zasha have parented together is a girl but though it appears that Swan was the father, this does not mean that Zasha, the alleged mother, is a woman. She could be another gynandromorph or a wombman like Wahram. Or someone else in gender terms altogether.
My personal perception is that Robinson is trying to do many things at the same time with Swan and Wahram. To begin with, I don’t think he offers conventional heterosexuality disguised as something else with this couple’s hermaphroditism but a comment on how perhaps only mutual penetration in intercourse could break heterosexuality away from heteronormativity. I am tempted to use the word heteroqueer for Swan and Wahram but I realize that it falls short since they are not really heterosexual: they are bisexual intersexuals, but I’m not sure whether there is a category for them, taking into account that each member of the couple identifies as either a man or a woman. Following this binary identification, they cannot be called gender-neutral or gender-fluid, so perhaps what Robinson is saying with all this is that not even three hundred years into the future will we have solved the matter of gender–though I hope we do sooner than that.
Actually, and this is the other big statement in the novel about sex, Robinson is saying that it just matters far less than love. In his otherwise quite insufferable philosophical novel On Love, Alain de Botton has some brilliant moments and, so, he says through the narrative voice of his main male character that love should be divided into mature and immature, categories by which he does not mean a difference connected with age but with idealization. Immature love is trapped by it, hence bound to be disappointing, yet this is the type we prefer. In contrast, “the philosophy of mature love is marked by an active awareness of the good and bad within each person, it is full of temperance, it resists idealization, it is free of jealousy, masochism, or obsession, it is a form of friendship with a sexual dimension, it is pleasant, peaceful, and reciprocated (and perhaps explains why most people who have known the wilder shores of desire would refuse its painlessness the title of ‘love’)” (185). I find that Swan and Wahran’s love is a great instance of mature love in this sense, though it is true that their romance is also mature because both are facing what could be called a second life, when most of the experiences of a habitual life have been gone through, and neither fully knows what to do with the years ahead.
When the word marriage starts looming in their horizon, Swan wonders what this old-fashioned patriarchal word may mean in a society in which, Robinson writes, “affection, child rearing, sex, lust, cohabitation, family, and friendship have all been delinked from each other and reconfigured as affect states” and in which individuals are free to engage in “line marriage, group marriage, polygamy, polyandry, panmixia, timed contracts, crèches, sexual friendships” in whatever capacity they choose. Yet, as Stephanie Coontz writes in Marriage a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (2005), marriage remains, though “optional and more brittle” still “the highest expression of commitment” (309). Perhaps it will be still that in 2312, on Mars, Mercury, Titan or wherever Swan and Wahram choose to live. Of course, there is no guarantee that a union across vast time and space can work better than a union among conventionally aged humans living together 24/7 but Robinson is throwing at us this peculiar ‘what if?’ and it is just fascinating to consider its implications – had we but world and time enough.
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