By Kim Stanley Robinson

Read by Sarah Zimmerman

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From the acclaimed author of New York 2140 and Red Mars, this NYT bestselling novel tells the story of a future where humanity has populated miraculous new habitats engineered across the solar system — and the one death that triggers a precarious chain of events that could destroy it all.

The year is 2312. Scientific and technological advances have opened gateways to an extraordinary future. Earth is no longer humanity’s only home; new habitats have been created throughout the solar system on moons, planets, and in between. But in this year, 2312, a sequence of events will force humanity to confront its past, its present, and its future.

The first event takes place on Mercury, on the city of Terminator, itself a miracle of engineering on an unprecedented scale. It is an unexpected death, but one that might have been foreseen. For Swan Er Hong, it is an event that will change her life. Swan was once a woman who designed worlds. Now she will be led into a plot to destroy them.


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Alex's memorial ceremony began as Swan was straggling up Terminator's great central staircase. The city's population had come out into the boulevards and plazas and were standing in silence. There were a lot of visitors in town as well; a conference had been about to begin, one that had been convened by Alex. She had welcomed them on Friday; now on the following Friday they were holding her funeral. A sudden collapse, and they hadn't been able to revive her. And so now the townspeople, the diplomat visitors: all Alex's people, all grieving.

Swan stopped halfway up the Dawn Wall, unable to go on. Below her rooftops, terrace patios, balconies. Lemon trees in giant ceramic pots. A curved slope like a little Marseilles, with white four-story apartment blocks, black iron-railed balconies, broad boulevards and narrow alleys, dropping to a promenade overlooking the park. All crowded with humanity, speciating right before her eyes, each face intensely itself while also a type—Olmec spheroid, hatchet, shovel. On a railing stood three smalls, each about a meter tall, all dressed in black. Down at the foot of the stairs clustered the sunwalkers who had just arrived, looking burnt and dusty. The sight of them pierced Swan—even the sunwalkers had come in for this.

She turned on the stairs and descended, wandered by herself. The moment she had heard the news, she had dashed out of the city onto the land, driven by a need to be alone. Now she couldn't bear to be seen when Alex's ashes were scattered, and she didn't want to see Mqaret, Alex's partner, at that moment. Out into the park, therefore, to wander in the crowd. All of them standing still, looking up, looking distraught. Holding each other up. There were so many people who had relied on Alex. The Lion of Mercury, the heart of the city. The soul of the system. The one who helped and protected you.

Some people recognized Swan, but they left her alone; this was more moving to her than condolences would have been, and her face was wet with tears, she wiped her face with her fingers repeatedly. Then someone stopped her: "You are Swan Er Hong? Alex was your grandmother?"

"She was my everything." Swan turned and walked off. She thought the farm might be emptier, so she left the park and drifted through the trees forward. The city speakers were playing a funeral march. Under a bush a deer nuzzled fallen leaves.

She was not quite to the farm when the Great Gates of the Dawn Wall opened, and sunlight cut through the air under the dome, creating the usual horizontal pair of yellow translucent bars. She focused on the swirls within the bars, the talcum they tossed up there when they opened the gates, colored fines floating on updrafts and dispersing. Then a balloon rose from the high terraces under the wall, drifting west, the little basket swaying under it: Alex; how could it be. A surge of defiance in the music rumbled up out of the basses. When the balloon entered one of the yellow bars of light, the basket blew apart in a poof, and Alex's ashes floated down and out of the light, into the air of the city, growing invisible as they descended, like a shower of virga in the desert. There was a roar from the park, the sound of applause. Briefly some young men somewhere chanted, "A-lex! A-lex! A-lex!" The applause lasted for a couple of minutes, and arranged itself as a rhythmic beat that went on for a long time. People didn't want to give it up; somehow that would be the end, they would at that very moment lose her. Eventually they did give it up, and lived on into the post-Alex phase of their lives.

She needed to go up and join the rest of Alex's family. She groaned at the thought, wandered the farm. Finally she walked up the Great Staircase, stiffly, blindly, pausing once to say, "No, no, no," for a time. But that was pointless. Suddenly she saw: anything she did now would be pointless. She wondered how long that would last—seemed like it could be forever, and she felt a bolt of fear. What would change to change it?

Eventually she pulled herself together and made her way up to the private memorial on the Dawn Wall. She had to greet all those who had been closest to Alex, and give Mqaret a brief rough hug, and withstand the look on his face. But she could see he was not home. This was not like him, but she could fully understand why he might depart. Indeed it was a relief to see it. When she considered how bad she felt, and then how much closer Mqaret had been to Alex than she had been, how much more of his time he spent with her—how long they had been partners—she couldn't imagine what it would feel like. Or maybe she could. So now Mqaret stared at some other reality, from some other reality—as if extending a courtesy to her. So she could hug him, and promise to visit him later, and then go mingle with the others on the highest terrace of the Dawn Wall, and later make her way to a railing and look down at the city, and out its clear bubble to the black landscape outside it. They were rolling through the Kuiper quadrant, and she saw to the right Hiroshige Crater. Once long before, she had taken Alex out there to the apron of Hiroshige to help with one of her goldsworthies, a stone wave that referenced one of the Japanese artist's most famous images. Balancing the rock that would be the crest of the breaking wave had taken them a great number of unsuccessful efforts, and as so often with Alex, Swan had ended up laughing so hard her stomach hurt. Now she spotted the rock wave, still out there—it was just visible from the city. The rocks that had formed the crest of the wave were gone, however—knocked down by the vibration of the passing city, perhaps, or simply by the impact of sunlight. Or fallen at the news.

A few days later she visited Mqaret in his lab. He was one of the leading synthetic biologists in the system, and the lab was filled with machines, tanks, flasks, screens bursting with gnarled colorful diagrams—life in all its sprawling complexity, constructed base pair by base pair. In here they had started life from scratch; they had built many of the bacteria now transforming Venus, Titan, Triton—everywhere.

Now none of that mattered. Mqaret was in his office, sitting in his chair, staring through the wall at nothing.

He roused himself and looked up at her. "Oh, Swan—good to see you. Thanks for coming by."

"That's all right. How are you doing?"

"Not so well. How about you?"

"Terrible," Swan confessed, feeling guilty; the last thing she wanted was to add to Mqaret's load somehow. But there was no point in lying at a time like this. And he merely nodded anyway, distracted by his own thoughts. He was just barely there, she saw. The cubes on his desk contained representations of proteins, the bright false colors tangled beyond all hope of untangling. He had been trying to work.

"It must be hard to work," she said.

"Yes, well."

After a blank silence, she said, "Do you know what happened to her?"

He shook his head quickly, as if this was an irrelevance. "She was a hundred and ninety-one."

"I know, but still…"

"Still what? We break, Swan. Sooner or later, at some point we break."

"I just wondered why."

"No. There is no why."

"Or how, then…"

He shook his head again. "It can be anything. In this case, an aneurysm in a crucial part of the brain. But there are so many ways. The amazing thing is that we stay alive in the first place."

Swan sat on the edge of the desk. "I know. But, so… what will you do now?"


"But you just said…"

He glanced at her from out of his cave. "I didn't say it wasn't any use. That wouldn't be right. First of all, Alex and I had seventy years together. And we met when I was a hundred and thirty. So there's that. And then also, the work is interesting to me, just as a puzzle. It's a very big puzzle. Too big, in fact." And then he stopped and couldn't go on for a while. Swan put a hand to his shoulder. He put his face in his hands. Swan sat there beside him and kept her mouth shut. He rubbed his eyes hard, held her hand.

"There'll be no conquering death," he said at last. "It's too big. Too much the natural course of things. The second law of thermodynamics, basically. We can only hope to forestall it. Push it back. That should be enough. I don't know why it isn't."

"Because it only makes it worse!" Swan complained. "The longer you live, the worse it gets!"

He shook his head, wiped his eyes again. "I don't think that's right." He blew out a long breath. "It's always bad. It's the people still alive who feel it, though, and so…" He shrugged. "I think what you're saying is that now it seems like some kind of mistake. Someone dies, we say why. Shouldn't there have been a way to stop it. And sometimes there is. But…"

"It is some kind of mistake!" Swan declared. "Reality made a mistake, and now you're fixing it!" She gestured at the screens and cubes. "Right?"

He laughed and cried at the same time. "Right!" he said, sniffing and wiping his face. "It's stupid. What hubris. I mean, fixing reality."

"But it's good," Swan said. "You know it is. It got you seventy years with Alex. And it passes the time."

"It's true." He heaved a big sigh, looked up at her. "But—things won't be the same without her."

Swan felt the desolation of this truth wash through her. Alex had been her friend, protector, teacher, step-grandmother, surrogate mother, all that—but also, a way to laugh. A source of joy. Now her absence created a cold feeling, a killer of emotions, leaving only the blankness that was desolation. Sheer dumb sentience. Here I am. This is reality. No one escapes it. Can't go on, must go on; they never got past that moment.

So on they went.

There was a knock at the lab's outer door. "Come in," Mqaret called a little sharply.

The door opened, and in the entry stood a small—very attractive in the way smalls often were—aged, slender, with a neat blond ponytail and a casual blue jacket—about waist high to Swan or Mqaret, and looking up at them like a langur or marmoset.

"Hello, Jean," Mqaret said. "Swan, this is Jean Genette, from the asteroids, who was here as part of the conference. Jean was a close friend of Alex's, and is an investigator for the league out there, and as such has some questions for us. I said you might be dropping by."

The small nodded to Swan, hand on heart. "My most sincere condolences on your loss. I've come not only to say that, but to tell you that quite a few of us are worried, because Alex was central to some of our most important projects, and her death was so unexpected. We want to make sure these projects go forward, and to be frank, some of us are anxious to be sure that her death was a matter of natural causes."

"I assured Jean that it was," Mqaret told Swan, seeing the look on her face.

Genette did not look completely convinced by this reassurance. "Did Alex ever mention anything to you concerning enemies, threats—danger of any kind?" the small asked Swan.

"No," Swan said, trying to remember. "She wasn't that kind of person. I mean, she was always very positive. Confident that things were going to work out."

"I know. It's so true. But that's why you might remember if she had ever said anything out of keeping with her usual optimism."

"No. I can't remember anything like that."

"Did she leave you any kind of will or trust? Or a message? Something to be opened in the event of her death?"


"We did have a trust," Mqaret said, shaking his head. "It doesn't have anything unusual in it."

"Would you mind if I had a look around her study?"

Alex had kept her study in a room at the far end of Mqaret's lab, and now Mqaret nodded and led the little inspector down the hall to it. Swan trailed behind them, surprised that Genette had known of Alex's study, surprised Mqaret would be so quick to show it, surprised and upset by this notion of enemies, of "natural causes" and its implied opposite. Alex's death, investigated by some kind of police person? She couldn't grasp it.

While she sat in the doorway trying to figure out what it could mean, trying to come to grips with it, Genette made a thorough search of Alex's office, opening drawers, downloading files, sweeping a fat wand over every surface and object. Mqaret watched it all impassively.

Finally the little inspector was done, and stood before Swan regarding her with a curious look. As Swan was sitting on the floor, they were about eye level. The inspector appeared on the verge of another question, but in the end did not say it. Finally: "If you recall anything you think might help me, I would appreciate you telling me."

"Of course," Swan said uneasily.

The inspector then thanked them and left.

What was that about?" Swan asked Mqaret.

"I don't know," Mqaret said. He too was upset, Swan saw. "I know that Alex had a hand in a lot of things. She's been one of the leaders in the Mondragon Accord from the beginning, and they have a lot of enemies out there. I know she's been worried about some system problems, but she didn't give me any details." He gestured at the lab. "She knew I wouldn't be that interested." A hard grimace. "That I had my own problems. We didn't talk about our work all that much."

"But—" Swan started, and didn't know how to go on. "I mean—enemies? Alex?"

Mqaret sighed. "I don't know. The stakes could be considered high, in some of these matters. There are forces opposed to the Mondragon, you know that."

"But still."

"I know." After a pause: "Did she leave you anything?"

"No! Why should she? I mean, she wasn't expecting to die."

"Few people are. But if she had concerns about secrecy, or the safety of certain information, I can see how she might think you would be a kind of refuge."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, couldn't she have put something into your qube without telling you?"

"No. Pauline is a closed system." Swan tapped behind her right ear. "I mostly keep her turned off these days. And Alex wouldn't do that anyway. She wouldn't talk to Pauline without asking me first, I'm sure of it."

Mqaret heaved another sigh. "Well, I don't know. She didn't leave me anything either, as far as I know. I mean, it would be like Alex to tuck something away without telling us. But nothing has popped up. So I just don't know."

Swan said, "So there wasn't anything unusual in the autopsy?"

"No!" Mqaret said, but he was thinking it over. "A cerebral aneurysm, probably congenital, burst and caused an intraparenchymal hemorrhage. It happens."

Swan said, "If someone had done something to—to cause a hemorrhage… would you necessarily be able to tell?"

Mqaret stared at her, frowning.

Then they heard another tap at the lab's outer door. They looked at each other, sharing a little frisson. Mqaret shrugged; he had not been expecting anyone.

"Come in!" he called again.

The door opened to reveal something like the opposite of Inspector Genette: a very big man. Prognathous, callipygous, steatopygous, exophthalmos—toad, newt, frog—even the very words were ugly. Briefly it occurred to Swan that onomatopoeia might be more common than people recognized, their languages echoing the world like birdsong. Swan had a bit of lark in her brain. Toad. Once she had seen a toad in an amazonia, sitting at the edge of a pond, its warty wet skin all bronze and gold. She had liked the look of it.

"Ah," Mqaret said. "Wahram. Welcome to our lab. Swan, this is Fitz Wahram, from Titan. He was one of Alex's closest associates, and really one of her favorite people."

Swan, somewhat surprised that Alex could have such a person in her life without Swan ever hearing of it, frowned at the man.

Wahram dipped his head in a kind of autistic bow. He put his hand over his heart. "I am so sorry," he said. A froggy croak. "Alex meant a great deal to me, and to a lot of us. I loved her, and in our work together she was the crucial figure, the leader. I don't know how we will get along without her. When I think of how I feel, I can scarcely grasp how you must feel."

"Thank you," Mqaret said. So strange the words people said at these moments. Swan could not speak any of them.

A person Alex had liked. Swan tapped the skin behind her right ear, activating her qube, which she had turned off as a punishment. Now Pauline would fill her in on things, all by way of a quiet voice in Swan's right ear. Swan was very irritated with Pauline these days, but suddenly she wanted information.

Mqaret said, "So what will happen to the conference?"

"There is complete agreement to postpone it and reschedule. No one has the heart for it now. We will disperse and reconvene later, probably on Vesta."

Ah yes: without Alex, Mercury would no longer be a meeting place. Mqaret nodded at this, unsurprised. "So you will return to Saturn."

"Yes. But before I go, I am curious to know whether Alex left anything for me. Any information or data, in any form."

Mqaret and Swan shared a look. "No," they both said at once. Mqaret gestured. "We were just asked that by Inspector Genette."

"Ah." The toad person regarded them with a pop-eyed stare. Then one of Mqaret's assistants came into the room and asked for his help. Mqaret excused himself, and then Swan was alone with their visitor and his questions.

Very big, this toad person: big shoulders, big chest, big belly. Short legs. People were strange. Now he shook his head and said in a deep gravelly voice—a beautiful voice, she had to admit—froggy, yes, but relaxed, deep, thick with timbre, something like a bassoon or a bass saxophone—"So sorry to bother you at a time like this. I wish we could have met under different circumstances. I am an admirer of your landscape installations. When I heard that you were related to Alex, I asked her if it might be possible to meet you. I wanted to say how much I like your piece at Rilke Crater. It's really very beautiful."

Swan was taken aback by this. At Rilke she had erected a circle of Göbekli T-stones, which looked very contemporary even though they were based on something over ten thousand years old. "Thank you," she said. A cultured toad, it seemed. "Tell me, why did you think Alex might have left a message for you?"

"We were working together on a couple of things," he said evasively, his fixed gaze shifting away. He didn't want to discuss it, she saw. And yet he had come to ask about it. "And, well, she always spoke so highly of you. It was clear you two were close. So… she didn't like to put things in the cloud or in any digital form—really, to keep records of our activities in any media at all. She preferred word of mouth."

"I know," Swan said, feeling a stab. She could hear Alex say it: We have to talk! It's a face world! With her intense blue eyes, her laugh. All gone.

The big man saw the change in her and extended a hand. "I'm so sorry," he said again.

"I know," Swan said. Then: "Thank you."

She sat down in one of Mqaret's chairs and tried to think about something else.

After a while the big man said in a gentle rumble, "What will you do now?"

Swan shrugged. "I don't know. I suppose I'll go out on the surface again. That's my place to… to pull myself together."

"Will you show it to me?"

"What?" Swan said.

"I would be very grateful if you were to take me out there. Maybe show me one of your installations. Or, if you don't mind—I noticed that the city is approaching Tintoretto Crater. My shuttle doesn't leave for a few days, and I would love to see the museum there. I have some questions that can't be resolved on Earth."

"Questions about Tintoretto?"


"Well…" Swan hesitated, unsure what to say.

"It would be a way to pass the time," the man suggested.

"Yes." This was presumptuous enough to irritate her, but on the other hand, she had in fact been searching for something to distract her, something to do in the aftermath, and nothing had come to her. "Well, I suppose."

"Thank you very much."


Lists (1)

Ibsen and Imhotep; Mahler, Matisse; Murasaki, Milton, Mark Twain;

Homer and Holbein, touching rims;

Ovid starring the rim of the much larger Pushkin;

Goya overlapping Sophocles.

Van Gogh touching Cervantes, next to Dickens. Stravinsky and Vyasa. Lysippus. Equiano, a West African slave writer, not located near the equator.

Chopin and Wagner right next to each other, equal size.

Chekhov and Michelangelo both double craters.

Shakespeare and Beethoven, giant basins.

Al-Jāḥiẓ, Al-Akhṭal. Aristoxenus, Ashvaghosha. Kurosawa, Lu Hsün, Ma Chih-yüan. Proust and Purcell. Thoreau and Li Po, Rūmī and Shelley, Snorri and Pigalle. Valmiki, Whitman. Brueghel and Ives. Hawthorne and Melville.

It's said the naming committee of the International Astronomical Union got hilariously drunk one night at their annual meeting, took out a mosaic of the first photos of Mercury, recently received, and used it as a dartboard, calling out to each other the names of famous painters, sculptors, composers, writers—naming the darts, then throwing them at the map.

There is an escarpment named Pourquoi Pas.


It was not difficult to spot the Titan, standing there by the city's south lock door at the appointed hour. He was in form spherical, or perhaps cubical. As tall as Swan, and Swan was pretty tall. Black hair in tight curls like sheep's wool, cut close to his round head.

Swan approached him. "Off we go," she said gracelessly.

"Thank you again for this."

Terminator began to glide past the platform that held the Tintoretto tram station. They walked through the lock directly into a waiting tram, along with about a dozen other people.

The tram, when it departed, moved much faster than Terminator did, zipping off west on ordinary tram tracks and soon reaching a couple hundred kilometers an hour.

Swan identified a long low hill on the horizon as the outer wall of Hesiod Crater. Wahram consulted his wristpad: "We slide between Hesiod and Sibelius," he announced with a little smile. His pop eyes had brown irises, flecked with radial streaks of black and pumpkin. His wristpad meant he probably did not have a qube stuck in his head, and if he did, it would not be a bitch trying to ruin his day. Pauline was murmuring stuff in her ear, and when Wahram got up to look out the other side of the tram, Swan muttered, "Don't bother me, Pauline. Don't interrupt me, don't distract me."

"Exergasia is one of the weakest of the rhetorical devices," Pauline opined.

"Be quiet!"

After another hour they had a good lead on Terminator, and the tram glided up to the outer wall of Tintoretto Crater, where the tracks led into a tunnel in the rugged wall of old ejecta. As they exited the tram, it announced they had two hours before it would return to the city. Through the vestibule of the museum, then to a long arcing gallery. The inner curve of the chamber was a single recessed window wall, giving them an excellent view of the crater's interior. It was a small but steep-walled crater, a handsome circular space under the stars.

But her Saturnian did not appear to be interested in Mercury. He walked facing the outer wall of the gallery, moving slowly from painting to painting. He planted himself in front of them each in turn, stood staring impassively.

The canvases ranged in size from miniatures to gigantic wall-fillers. The palette of Renaissance Italy fleshed out crowded scenes from the Bible: the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, Paradise, and so on. Mixed in was a bit of classical mythology—including a portrait of Mercury himself, with stylish gold shoes covering his feet, the shoes sporting slots through which Mercury's wings emerged. There were also many portraits of individual sixteenth-century Venetians, vivid to the point of breaking into speech. Most of the paintings were the originals, moved here for safekeeping; the rest were copies so perfect that it would take a chemical analysis to tell them from the originals. As with many of Mercury's single-artist museums, the hope was to gather all the original paintings here and locate only copies on Earth, to take on the intense assault of that most volatile environment—oxidation, corrosion, rust, fire, theft, vandalism, smog, acid, daylight…. Here, in contrast, everything was controlled, benign—safer. Or so it was said by Mercurial curators. The Terrans were not always so sure.

Toad Man was very slow on his feet. He stood right next to the paintings, for a long time, sometimes with his nose only a centimeter from the paint. Tintoretto's Paradise was twenty meters wide and ten tall—the notes said it was the largest painting ever painted on canvas—and very crowded with figures. Wahram moved all the way back to the clear inner wall to look at this one for a while, then took his more usual position nuzzling it. "Interesting how he has angels' wings as being black," he murmured, breaking his silence at last. "It looks good. And look here, see how the white lines in this one angel's black wings actually form letters. C H E R, see? Then the rest of the word is hidden in a fold. That's what I wanted to check. I wonder what that was about."

"Some kind of code?"


On Sale
May 22, 2012
Hachette Audio

Kim Stanley Robinson

About the Author

Kim Stanley Robinson is a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. He is the author of more than twenty books, including the bestselling Mars trilogy and the critically acclaimed 2312, Shaman, New York 2140, and The Ministry for the Future. He traveled in Antarctica twice, courtesy of the US National Science Foundation. In 2008, he was named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine, and he works with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute. He lives in Davis, California.

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