Thursday, May 15, 2008

Sixty Days and Counting
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam Dell paperback

This is the third and concluding volume of Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy about an alternate present or near future when the world is forced to face a catastrophic climate crisis. But this isn’t another apocalyptic dread-feast. Extraordinary events shape and bend the everyday, but they don’t break it.

Robinson is known as a science fiction writer (his Red/Green/Blue Mars triology, etc.) and a futuristic California writer (the Three Californias series). In this volume in particular, he is also an evocative nature writer, describing the wilds of the California Sierras, Maine and Washington, D.C. That he finds wilds in Washington is part of the story.

This trilogy is centered in Washington and follows a group of scientists and politicians as the climate crisis gets real, with a more realistic version of the “Day After Tomorrow” scenario of rapid climate change resulting in the paradox of a monster winter, with worse to come. In the midst of all this, there’s a presidential election.

Forty Signs of Rain introduces many of the main characters of the trilogy, told from the points of view of Charlie Quibler, political aide to Senator Phil Chase, and his wife Anna, a scientist at the National Science Administration. Also scientist Frank Vanderwal (a close friend of the Quiblers). His interest in primate behavior suggests he’s partly a tribute to real scientist Frans B.M. De Waal, a contemporary pioneer in the study of primates, especially their peaceful conflict resolution. Though scientists are clear as to the reality of the Climate Crisis, and Charlie is drafting a bill to respond to it, it is just beginning to impinge on political and personal lives. This novel ends with a spectacular flood in Washington itself.

Fifty Degrees Below shows the climate crap hitting the fan. This is the most exciting of the three novels, on several levels. It’s told mostly through Frank, as he experiments with living off the urban land, and they all get more involved with the Buddhists who live on the fictional island of Khembalung, which becomes uninhabitable because of flooding. He’s also has a romance with a woman at work (National Science Foundation), and gets involved with the mysterious woman he met on an elevator in the first novel, who gets him involved in foiling a plot to fix the presidential election.

By the time this third novel begins, the Bush clone candidate has been defeated, and the U.S. has a new President committed to confronting the climate crisis: California Senator Phil Chase, a looser West Coast version of Al Gore, but with Obama’s communication skills. The story follows his efforts and thoughts (he has his own presidential blog called “Cut to the Chase”), and those of the scientists in the actions they propose and begin to take.

But except for the fallout of the failed attempt to fix the election in a not very distinguished but still apropos Washington paranoia-thriller plot (surveillance, proliferating intelligence agencies spying on each other etc.), this novel flows with the lives of those characters. Frank is at the front lines of the scientific efforts, but also living on the grounds of the Khembalung embassy with an elderly Buddhist monk as his roommate. He continues to monitor his friends “living feral” in Washington’s parks and abandoned buildings, as well as the animals flooded out of the zoo, also living feral in the extensive parklands in the D.C. area.

In many ways this is the opposite of the conventional science fiction dominated by technology, even if scientists are the heroes. On his computer, Frank subscribes to “Emerson for the Day,” and both Emerson and Thoreau are guiding spirits. So is Buddhism—in fact, the Dalai Lama appears as a character.
Even President Phil Chase is a philosophical blogger (he gets five million responses to his first post.) By the end he’s musing about reclaiming imagination as the human tool to create a dynamic culture that can be permanently sustained, a culture “in which no one is without a job, or shelter, or health care, or education, or the rights to their own life. Taking care of the Earth and its miraculous biological splendor will then become the long-term work of our species. We’ll share the world with all the other creatures. It will be an ongoing project that will never end.”

This is a very smart novel—on politics, economics, science and those underlying matters of soul. In this, it advances the soul of Star Trek. There are some very astute and intriguing responses to the technological challenges of the Climate Crisis that real world politicians and scientists could profitably consider. Things happen, that it wouldn’t be fair to reveal. But perhaps most surprisingly, the novel often feels like a kind of pastoral: valuing the real Earth and real life that makes keeping humankind from destroying the planet worthwhile. In a technical Shakespearian sense it’s even a comedy, because it ends like As You Like It: good people restoring the state, gathered in nature, for weddings.

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