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Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capital

Forty Signs of Rain, Kim Stanley Robinson, Bantam Spectra, 2004, 393 pp.

The works of Kim Stanley Robinson have given me some of the greatest reading pleasure, in science fiction or out. I've read most of his books, and while I admire the award-winning Mars series as much as anyone else, I have an especial fondness for the Three Californias trilogy (The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, Pacific Edge). In those three books, Robinson kept the story moving at a brisk pace at the most basic level, but provided the reader with a great deal to think about once the higher level pieces were revealed and started to fit together.

A few years after the publication of the Mars trilogy, I heard that Robinson was working on a new trilogy, this time about climate change and specifically from the point of view of scientists working in Washington D.C. to move the levers of power. I confess that I was a bit worried about this setup, a feeling that never went away as the new books came out and I tried to figure out my own decidedly mixed response to them. Robinson has certainly done the scientist shtick before, with great results, but these were in settings, like Mars or Antarctica, where the dry nature of the scientific endeavour was enlivened by the drama of the locale.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all on the side of the scientist and the essentially heroic work of methodically solving problems and making the world a better place. But it's the old problem of the mad scientist: very few real-life scientists are power-mad maniacs bent on world domination by way of some freaky apparatus (that usually goes without saying!), but it makes for a much more dramatic B-movie plot if such is the case. Nuance is important, but let's not forget that science fiction is also a type of entertainment. Again, I'm not saying that we should succumb willy-nilly to the use of stereotypes (and perpetuate scientific illiteracy), but there are ways to do this that are craftier than others.

For example, bringing the readers along on a visit into a scientist's life on Mars or during a trek to Antarctica lets Robinson have it both ways. Doing scientific work on Mars might not be all that different from similar work back on Earth, in a side-by-side comparison of tasks... but on the other hand, you're on freaking Mars! How awesome is that! Robinson definitely conveyed that in his famous Mars trilogy.

Forty Signs of Rain and its two sequels are set in the near future in a world not that different from our own. In the first book in particular, Robinson focuses on domestic life along with how projects are authorized at the National Science Foundation in Washington D.C. These are all admirable things, but it's also pretty clear that book lost its narrative drive, and its science fiction zing, along the way.

My thoughts are mixed, in other words.

But clearly Robinson has set himself against this challenge deliberately, and on paper it's a good idea as it fills a gap in his utopian vision. In some of his other works, utopia would take place, either far in the future on Mars, or in a third version of California where neither militarism nor consumerism had gotten carried away. Those types of utopias are interesting, and Robinson did much better at dramatizing them than many attempts by other authors. But I stumble on a fairly large obstacle while reading such books: how did the utopians get from here to there? What were the steps? I'm an ordinary, flawed human being -- how do I get from point A to point B? If this series were to successfully address this gap, it would be quite an achievement.

In the first book, Forty Signs of Rain, we are very far from utopia; society is not even at a stage where the main problem of the time, climate change, is recognized. That sounds pretty familiar, really.

So here we are: it's the near future in Washington D.C. The ostensible main character, Charlie Quibler, is a science policy writer for a politician named Phil Chase. His wife, Anna, works at the National Science Foundation (NSF), along with a third character, Frank Vanderwal, who is from San Diego.

Charlie's a stay-at-home father, working on policy over the phone when he has a chance, otherwise spending most of his time with his youngest son, Joe. We get a lot of detail about life in a young family. The Quiblers also befriend some Buddhist monks who have opened an embassy in D.C. after their island refuge has been flooded by rising ocean levels. The connection becomes even more entangling after Charlie notices some odd behaviour in Joe and he begins to suspect something supernatural -- this is a strange storyline that gets dragged out through all three books.

The book follows Frank through some odd twists and turns as well. He expends considerable energy to try to bend one of the NSF's grants towards a company that he has interest in back in San Diego. When I read this book for the first time, Frank came off as shady and annoying. That's about all I'll say about him at this point.

Forty Signs of Rain has little to do with climate change. Yes, some of the characters discuss it, but there's so much else going on, or rather, so little, that the concepts of the book get entirely diffused. The book has domestic details and information about applying for scientific grants, and then ends with a flood of Washington D.C. The lack of sharp focus or narrative drive is remarkable. There's plenty of worthy material in the various digressions, but they don't necessarily add up to a novel per se. In other words, climate change itself is not the drama; if so, there would perhaps be a danger of resembling a cheesy disaster movie, but the pendulum swings too far in the other direction here.

I'll close with a quotation from about halfway through the book. Charlie is attending a meeting held by the presidential science advisor, someone who is clearly bought off by commercial interests and such:

Marking such people and assisting in the immediate destruction of their pseudoarguments was important work, which Charlie undertook with fierce indignation; at some point the manipulation of facts became a kind of vast lie, and this was what Charlie felt when he had to confront people like Strengloft: he was combating liars, people who lied about science for money, thus obscuring the clear signs of the destruction of their present world. So that they would end up passing on to all the children a degraded planet, devoid of animals and forests and coral reefs and all the other aspects of a biological support system and home. Liars, cheating their own children, and the many generations to come: this is what Charlie wanted to shout at them, as vehemently as any street-corner nutcase preacher. (193)
There's a fine indignation here, and some clear insight. I just wish that sense of urgency and justice was translated into a storyline that swept up us readers and made us feel that anger and understanding, rather than just pointing us towards it by endless talk.

Fifty Degrees Below, Kim Stanley Robinson, Bantam Spectra, 2005, 603 pp.

Fifty Degrees Below is a clear improvement over the preceding book, Forty Signs of Rain. The second book picks up exactly where the last one left off: Washington D.C. has been flooded and the city is trying to recover. At the end of the previous book, I wasn't convinced that one flooded city would cause a widespread realization that climate change was on the way, and unfortunately that has been proved rather dramatically since Robinson started writing this series. In fact, the situation is much worse in Fifty Degrees Below, and while it's a sad thing, I think that this book is more realistic: the various scientists have an uphill battle, despite the abundance of evidence on their side.

So the book has shaken off some of the bits and pieces that dragged down the preceding volume -- the ideas are clearer and the arguments have shifted from "what is happening" to "what should we do about it." At least, that's the optimistic interpretation of Fifty Degrees Below.

The ambiguity is encapsulated in Frank Vanderwal, who now firmly takes centre stage as the protagonist. Frank, suddenly no longer a scheming back-stabber, is knee-deep in the NSF's plans to fix things like the stalled Gulf Stream (the resultant weather gives the book its title). The lists that Frank is working on are dense with scientific detail, and provide some fascinating material for thought.

While it's nice to have the characterization a little more centralized, that means that it's Frank's personal concerns that take up the bulk of the book. Near the end of the last book, Frank met a woman and fell in love, but he has not seen her again. She is deeply embedded in the official security/surveillance apparatus of official (and not so official) Washington D.C., and she is getting together with Frank without the knowledge of her husband, who also works in spook circles. So Frank's love life is made up of short jolts of pleasure surrounded by long chapters of tedium.

Frank is also a budding neo-paleolithic man; he has nowhere to live and decides to build a sleeping platform in a tree in a local park. We get an unprecedented amount of detail about D.C. and its various neighbourhoods and parks and the people who live there. Robinson has a lot of insight into how people from all different strata of society live, and Frank is a great viewpoint character to use in this context.

Frank is also a way for Robinson to describe what is happening, with regard to climate change, with a more visceral impact than might have happened with a different character. As Frank notes after living in his tree, most people in a modern society are insulated from immediate contact with nature. Frank, on the other hand, is actively trying to throw off some of the habits of civilization.

Unfortunately, I'm not entirely sure Frank is a sympathetic character. Even he doesn't seem to remember the shady things he did in the first book. And of all things, he's injured in a fight and suffers damage to the area of his brain behind his nose -- for the majority of Fifty Degrees Below, he has trouble making decisions due to his brain damage. When a book is so focused on one character's personal dilemmas, and that character has to agonize over every one of those decisions, it gets to be a bit much!

Frank's San Diego colleagues disappear almost entirely, while the rest of the cast of D.C. characters continue much as before. Charlie Quibler still works in politics and takes care of his son, Charlie's wife Anna works for the NSF solving scientific dilemmas, and the Buddhist monks who came to D.C. to save their homeland have essentially moved in and settled down. At one point, Frank lives with them when his friends convince him that living in his treehouse is too dangerous for someone who can't make decisions effectively.

What it comes down to: Robinson bets his book on Frank, and I'm not convinced that the bet pays off.

Two other things in the book are worth mentioning: the process of restarting the stalled Gulf Stream is shown in fascinating detail -- the technology, the unusual allies, and so forth -- and mostly told from Frank's point of view; and there's a presidential election. I'll talk about this a bit more in my review of the third and final book in the series, but I was initially disappointed in Robinson's answer to many of the problems currently plaguing the American political system (and wider circles); it's actually a bit deeper if you ponder what he's saying by the end of the third book. The political side of the solution is a fantasy of long-standing tradition in American culture -- the great man who comes in and cleans up politics -- but there are some deeper waters. Onward!

Sixty Days and Counting, Kim Stanley Robinson, Bantam Spectra, 2007, 600 pp.

The title of the third and final book in this series refers to the burst of energy in Washington D.C. with a new president in charge. Never mind a hundred days -- newly-elected Phil Chase wants to fix everything within sixty days: the environment, foreign relations, the greedy system of hypercapitalism, etc. That's just as impossible as FDR's famous 100 days, of course, but Chase wants to carry that energy and momentum past the first 60 days, thus the "and counting."

Chase is the great man who comes in to clean up politics and, as such, represents a huge swath of wish-fulfillment fantasy in this book. The political system in America is so clearly broken, especially for those who care about science and various looming crises of the climate kind and otherwise, that it's tempting beyond the forbearance of rational beings to dream about what could be fixed. And in this particular headspace, the enormous frustration on the part of a writer like Robinson -- an example would be the passage I quoted at length from the first book -- can warp even the finest storytelling instinct towards the didactic. If only there were a politician like Phil Chase, then the enormous task of changing our society to a more sustainable basis would apparently have a chance! Maybe so, maybe not.

When I think back on the series as whole, I find this political magic-hand-waving to be a remarkable contrast to what happens on the scientific side. Bluntly: it's going to be hard work, there are some big projects described (salting the ocean, filling inland lakes with water from rising sea levels) but those are the exceptions, and the only hope we have is our hard work and cheery optimism. As near as I can tell, that's the recipe for change on the political side as well in real life; perhaps we are more used to having a solitary leader, symbolic or otherwise, in politics. Science is already more of an ad hoc process, with the crowd nature an essential part of the endeavour (along with a healthy dose of skepticism, of course!). The unruly mob of scientists might be pushing in thousands of different directions but I would agree with Robinson that they would be agreeable to a sustained effort to chase certain goals, like sustainable energy sources, mitigating climate change, and other large scale survival efforts.

As with the previous two books, we get a mix of the domestic lives of the characters and the grand schemes that must be brought to life to mitigate climate change. One of the high points in the book for me was a rather unexpected description of the game Apples to Apples -- a family plays a hilarious round or two during a blackout. Like a lot of Robinson's books, there's a big emphasis on outdoor life and activity, including a particularly vivid trip to the Sierras. Charlie has a tradition of going on a backpacking trip with his friends, and he takes Frank along this year. They venture into California's interior, only to discover that a whole series of microclimates, familiar to them from previous trips up and down the mountainsides, have been burned out by lack of rainfall. And when a fragile area loses its life, it takes a long time to get it back.

Frank, a shady character in the first book and an indecisive neo-caveman in the second, gets his brain damage fixed up (insofar as this is possible), gets to help out in some of the largest scale endeavours in human history, and finally gets his girl! Unlike what happens to the majority of protagonists in spy thrillers, Frank's encounter with the surveillance apparatus of various black-ops groups turns out rather well for his sake. In the tradition of tragedy and comedy, Sixty Days and Counting is definitely a comedy, complete with multiple marriages.

So the trilogy is complete -- I was wondering where Robinson was going to get his usual optimism from in the face of climate change, but his hope is where it's always been: the smart people who find a way to act, and act together. Still, there was not much in the way of resolution. Granted, one person cannot solve something as giant as "climate change" as such; that's why I was frantically dialling down my expectations all the way through. In the end, the trilogy boils down to something like "we should get some smart people to work on this problem; here's what their lives might be like in this situation." If that's enough for you, you'll like the trilogy; I'm still not entirely sure if that was enough for me.

James Schellenberg lives and writes in Ottawa.

Last modified: December 16, 2007

Copyright © 2007 by James Schellenberg

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