Characters: Swan Er Hong from 2312

Most reviewers seem to agree, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 is a book with well thought out science, beautiful descriptions, and a bold, interesting look at the future of humanity. Most also seem to agree that the plot and characters of 2312, left something to be desired.

I didn’t hate this book. I found it to be beautiful. But I also found the characters, namely Swan Er Hong, to be frustrating and unlikable. As someone who values character development, I was sad to see someone so revered as KSR fail to deliver on that element.

One of the biggest rules of writing a character is that you don’t have to like the character, but you do have to root for them. Another rule states that readers need to develop empathy for them. So why didn’t I root for Swan?

The Long Lived Artist/Activist

We first meet Swan while she’s mourning for her newly departed grandmother. Instant empathy. It’s established that Swan is over one hundred years old, and in her youth designed the interior of asteroids into livable habitats. It’s considered an art form in this age.

Only, something seems off about Swan. When people come to mourn her grandmother, and inform her that her grandmother was part of a movement designed to help solve Earth’s problems (cultural, climate, political, etc.) she acts rude and combative. She demands to be a part of her grandmother’s plans, and later on, when they begrudgingly accept her, she starts enacting plans on her own.

I thought this was grief. I was wrong. Swan acts rude and combative throughout the entire novel. For someone over a century old, she came off as very immature.
Anytime anything got hard, she’d complain about how stupid the people of Earth were. Furthermore, she took it upon herself to bomb Earth with animals. Seriously. In one of the most memorable scenes in the book, she drops a whole bunch of containers with animals inside (which had been removed from those habitats decades before) back down to the Earth’s surface. She does this under no sanction. She just does it.

The Promise Breaker

Swan has an AI program named Pauline installed in her head. She can turn it on or off at will. At one point, while it’s off, her friends tell her they suspect an AI conspiracy is responsible for some recent tragedies. They tell her not to tell Pauline. Then she goes ahead and tells Pauline. It works out, sure, but this is another instance of Swan breaking peoples’ faith in her, and then getting defensive about it.

The Everything Works Out Girl

Here’s my main problem with Swan’s character. Everything she does, whether it’s telling her AI about the AI conspiracy, bombing Earth with animals, or bullying members of a secret group into letting her join and become the leader, works out for her. None of the decisions she makes have negative consequences, and if they do, she dismisses them as no big deal.

She never fails once. She keeps succeeding, and thus, keeps acting like a spoiled maniac. She was almost like a Mary Sue in that respect, someone who could do no wrong and somehow everyone ended up loving anyway, despite her lack of personality.

I know Kim Stanley Robinson is a veteran of the SF world. I know he’s a great writer. But Swan Er Hong was a poorly crafted character, who elicited no empathy from me, and judging by a lot of reviews on Amazon and the like, few others as well.

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  1. The first red flags for me are when she repeatedly uses autistic as a negative term to describe Fitz and when she briefly seems to imply that she has assaulted other women when looking at Leda and the Swan.

  2. She was a very flawed character, but I think if a film adaptation was ever made, the right scriptwriter and actress could probably iron out these flaws. It is still a great book though.

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