Young Geoffrey (ed_rex) wrote,
Young Geoffrey

Review: Fifty Degrees Below, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson ought to be the most important novelist in the world, his ideas debated in the corridors of power, his books enjoyed and discussed by readers everywhere.

Boldly inventive, he has made a career out of exploring Big Ideas without ever forgetting a novelist's chief obligation - to tell an entertaining and engaging story, with characters a reader can care about.

(Cross-posted to my journal, my website and elsewhere.)

Since his break-out Mars trilogy of the 1990s, he has tackled the conflicts between science and religion, ecology and economics - to name just four timely issues- with passion, wit and a wild imagination that is nevertheless solidly grounded in research and respect for the way the world is.

Robinson's characters are often close to the seat of power, but he has no use for the all-too-typical science fiction super-hero. In Robinson's view, no one man or woman can "save the world". Yet he is no nihilist; if even the best and brightest among us are incapable of moving history to their will, any and all of us can still play a part in at least nudging it in a different - and, maybe - in a better direction.

The second book of a projected trilogy, Fifty Degrees Below is as timely as tomorrow's headlines. Set in Washington DC, probably no later than 2010, and global warming - more correctly, global climate change - is no longer a possibility, but is on the verge of becoming a catastrophic reality, one this past summer's deluge in New Orleans and even more recent reports that the Gulf Stream may be shutting down, make all the more plausible.

Though climate change – and the desperate struggle to counter it - drives the narrative, Fifty Degrees Below is no more "about" climate change, than War and Peace was "about" Napoleon's invasion of Russia.

The novel opens in the aftermath of a flood of New Orleans proportions, and Frank Vanderwal, a researcher with the National Science Foundation, finds himself homeless, unable to afford any apartment available in a Washington recovering from the deluge.

Improbably, but entirely convincingly, his desultory exploration of the "new" Washington leads him to Rock Creek Park, an enormous "wilderness" abutting the National Zoo. Before long, the recreational rock-climber has put his skills to arboreal use and built himself a tree-house, from which base, he continues his work with the NSF, and also meets others who have made the officially off-limit park their home – a group of homeless men and women, and a group of "ferals", people who have opted out of the money economy almost entirely, eating out of dumpsters and squatting abandoned buildings.

Meanwhile, a tropical summer is followed by the harshest winter in recorded history, with Washington experiencing blizzards and temperatures of, well, fifty degrees below; ice sheets in the Arctic and the Antarctic are sliding into the ocean, promising a dramatic and sudden rise in sea-level; and 600 million people in Europe are looking ahead to at least one year-without-summer.

This limited summary may sound like the outline of a Hollywood thriller, but Robinson has no interest in writing melodrama or potboilers. As in real life, his characters live mostly in the moment, pursuing love and friendship, raising children and - especially - playing.

Robinson is also sometimes a very funny writer; not slapstick or Douglas Adams-style absurd, but witty. Also as in life, when his characters say something clever, his readers laugh out loud.

But the serious issues are still at the heart of the book. As is often the case with Robinson's fiction, the practice of both science and politics form the scaffold on which he hangs his tale.

Not science in the "Isn't it amazing what they can do nowadays!" sense, but science as both a process and as an almost spiritual calling (religion, or spiritual exploration, is another of Robinson's recurring themes); and not politics as either horse-race or good versus evil, but politics as a method people and institutions use to negotiate the complexities inherent in the fact that every person sees the world in a different way, has different values and - often - different interests.

Robinson is sometimes cynical about politicians, but he understands and respects the importance of discussion, argument and compromise. (He would make a very good Canadian in some ways.)

The American politics in Fifty Degrees Below is a lot like those south of the border today. The Republican administration is willfully blind to the environmental changes occurring around the world, so long as catastrophe holds off until after the next election.

Robinson is an environmentalist and a critic of capitalism. He does not preach, and he never approaches didacticism, but it's clear he believes there are better ways for us to run our affairs than to capitulate to the whims of big business or big government.

Though this summary may sound like a screed, Robinson is too good a writer to let plot or background, let alone his own beliefs, get in the way of telling his story. As scary as things are in that story, Robinson's characters - as we all do - live mostly in the moment, making friends, raising children, partying, looking for love and often, just having fun. Even in the midst of the very hard work involved in trying to stave off looming disaster, Robinson's people continue to live their lives. The personal may be political, but it is also very personal indeed.

This is a very good book and an important one. As a warning of what very well might come to pass sooner than most of us are willing to admit, it is terrifying; as an ode to the inventiveness and courage of the human imagination, it is celebratory; as a novel, it is exhilarating.
Tags: books, climate change, kim stanley robinson, reviews, sf

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