2312, By Kim Stanley Robinson

A novel of ideas that also sets out to be tremendous fun

All novels about the future are in some sense about the present. But they are also about the present's desire that there be a future, and one that we have some hope of understanding. One of the attractive things about 2312 is that its central characters, who are endlessly free to zip around the inhabited parts of the solar system, are nonetheless constrained by death, irritation and falling in love.

This is a novel that begins with a funeral and ends at a wedding, even if in the interim it has had hairs-breadth escapes, terrifying plots and a near interplanetary war. Kim Stanley Robinson is a supremely rational man, and we know that his female protagonist and the man she works with will win, and end up together. That is the only outcome consonant with good sense.

The feel of this book is a little sideways from that of Robinson's classic Mars trilogy, even if it seems to take place in a universe in which many of the same things happened. The environmental collapse of Earth was narrowly avoided, or at least mitigated. Humanity has spread out among the planets, moons and asteroids, and started turning some into unspoiled earths. Everything is a perpetual project of improvement. Where the Mars books were thought – experiments in how we might get there, historical novels about the future, here there is some sense that the spreading of humanity might not be an unalloyed good thing. There is a tone of ironic teasing that was not in the earlier books.

Sculptor Swann finds herself pulled into the heart of events by the death of Alex, her grandmother. Alex was part of a conspiracy to prevent various bad things happening – supposedly impossible meteorite strikes that helped trigger implosions of habitats, which nearly kill Swann. Wahram is a plodding scientist, Swann is a flighty artist: they have to remember that Alex valued both.

This is not, though, in the end a book about its own plot or its quirky characters. It goes back to the roots of the sci-fi genre and puts at its centre utopian and dystopian visions of the social models our descendants might inhabit, with a flashy travelogue around the places they might live. It is a novel of ideas that also sets out to be tremendous fun.