Monday, June 11, 2012

Kim Stanley Robinson, Fifty Degrees Below

When last we left Frank Vanderwal and the other characters who make up the community inside Kim Stanley Robinson's climate change trilogy, in Forty Signs of Rain, Washington DC had just survived a massive storm that had changed everything: not just the landscape, but the political landscape as well. With climate change no longer a theoretical event possibly affecting other people in other places, but a material and palpable reality in people's lives, Fifty Degrees Below moves to the more urgent question of how action happens. (And yes, just as the first title's promise of rain is fulfilled, so too is this title's promise of severe cold. This should be obvious enough not to count as a spoiler, and I've tried to avoid those in this post just as I did in posting about Forty Signs of Rain.)

Let's deal with the recommendation issue early. Valuable and troubling and fun, is how I'd characterize the first two novels of this trilogy.

If you don't want to go back to the review of Forty Signs of Rain, and I didn't make the point as strongly there as I might have anyway, I thought that the trilogy's first novel was powerful, useful, and inventive; I'd say much the same about Fifty Degrees Below. The only thing making me anxious about the first one was Robinson's use of evolutionary psychology, which has been used by other writers for dangerously misogynistic, racist, and homophobic ends. In Fifty Degrees Below, Robinson mostly calms me down even about this detail, because evolutionary psychology (or sociobiology, depending on the character) is used not by the author but by individual characters thoughtful about its implications and its fit in modernity (a thoughtfulness excruciatingly absent in much popular writing about these ideas, I should say, and much academic writing as well). With that concern out of the way, I was free to get obsessed with the events and characters, and obsessed I cheerfully got!

I should say that it's been a long time since I read a trilogy back to back to back (with the exception of trilogies for students' thesis projects, ie Lord of the Rings and Dune), but I've made the time for it in this case because Robinson's Science in the Capital series feels just that important. Plus I identify with several of the characters, especially in their flaws, leaving me hooked simultaneously out of shame and out of vanity. Your call as to whether that's a good thing, either for me or for you.

One thing that fascinates me about this series is the parallelism between characters' lives and global events. Robinson portrays here a rapidly changing America, in a rapidly changing global climate, and some of the characters are changing rapidly as well. Frank Vanderwal is the one who's changing the most, certainly, but in general he's not evolving at all, but deliberately DE-evolving in pursuit of a modern Paleolithic lifestyle. This might seem anomalous, given that he works for the National Science Foundation specifically to help move the world forward into a Brave New Climate Reality, but it's also true that (much like the 350.org folks) he's trying to roll back the carbon clock to before the Industrial Revolution. Modern life in an ancient climate regime, resurrected through cutting-edge technology and social engineering: that's maybe the best we can hope for, and it's certainly the only option visible for characters in this novel's near-contemporary barely-alternate fictional reality.

(On the Paleolithic point, incidentally, I was delighted this week that I was also reading a 1937 faux-Paleolithic fantasy novel [simply because it fit in my coat pocket, for breaks between meetings] while mostly concentrating on Fifty Degrees Below. Apart from being another tri-named writer, Edgar Rice Burroughs has little in common with Robinson, but his Pellucidarian fantasy Back to the Stone Age also features a man shedding some of his modernity, and the contrast between the two novels made them both just that more fun to read. More on that in a separate review of that novel, though.)

Now, Frank has a very serious thing happen to him in this novel, and it changes everything that happens afterward, presumably including in the third novel (Sixty Days and Counting, which I haven't yet started). I'm not going to give away details, but the symbolic import of The Incident has me a little puzzled still, especially in terms of the novel's political program. Throughout the first half of the trilogy (and hence the first half of this second novel), he's mostly self-aware, which means he's self-aware enough to recognize that there are things about himself that he has never understood and doesn't care to. (Cripplingly self-aware at times, about the things about which he's self-aware at all, like many of us. Or possibly just me.) His actions are the best he can make them, and he's reflective both about his actions and about the reasons behind them, to the extent that he's able to comprehend said reasons, so he mirrors not just his readers' internal lives but also the public statements of democratic governments like the USA. Once Frank stops being inadequately self-aware (though aware of his inadequacy), and becomes (via The Incident) incapable of full self-awareness, I lost some track of what political point Robinson might be making.

(Why so many brackets in this review? Hmm.)

Fifty Degrees Below includes numerous reference to the sublime: the technological sublime, mostly, which Robinson uses to mean that we look at technology as a way of shaping the world, but also the genomic sublime. Sometimes it seems like Robinson's just gesturing at the human habit of getting distracted by Cool Stuff Generally, but that's not the only thing going on with the term. I haven't figured out quite what else he's doing with it, but it kept jumping out at me here.

And if it seems like I'm not giving away much of the plot, or indeed digging deeply into the thematics, well, I want you to read these books! It's a teaser, not much more. Once I finish the third novel, I'll put up a single spoiler-stuffed post discussing them all in detail, for anyone who doesn't want to read them but wants to know what one might think about them all collectively, but for now:
  • climate change proceeds apace, with some of the key tipping-point pieces getting triggered,
  • our man Frank finds himself attracted to women women women, for interesting reasons and with interesting consequences,
  • Buddhism is maybe both more and less worthwhile than I thought it was, and
  • American presidential election politics have never been more important than they're portrayed in these books as being.
If you need more detail than that, check out this review, or the MangalaWiki page about the novel. When in doubt, ask the author: here's a good interview in The Guardian on the occasion of the book's publication (in which he remarks pungently on George W. Bush's "pathological assholery").

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