Friday, June 22, 2012

Kim Stanley Robinson, Sixty Days and Counting

Trilogy complete: a few days ago, I closed the final pages of Kim Stanley Robinson's Sixty Days and Counting, the third volume in his Science in the Capital series, satisfied with the reading experience and delighted to see a novelist trying in a sustained way to engage artistically AND technically with the actual science of climate change. They're entertaining novels, with rich characters and complex relationships and all that, in a conventional sense (if it's possible to use that term as a compliment!), but they're also valuably rigorous in their treatment of scientific bureaucracy, development, and deployment. Such a great project to undertake, and very much worth your time, especially if you're a regular enough reader that a trilogy doesn't intimidate you over-much!

(I've commented already about the previous two volumes, Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below. As with those posts, I'm trying to keep spoilers out of this one, but in the next few days I'll post something more sustained that deals with the three books together and is stuffed with spoilers, just in case you want -- Alain de Botton-style -- to be able to talk about the books without reading them. I'm just saying.)

I don't think it'll come as a surprise, speaking of spoilers, if I say that most of the character-driven narrative arcs come to their conclusions by the end of the novel, not all of them happily, because that's how a multi-novel series tends to work. We learn some very cool things about some of these characters, we see some of them do amazing things, but they're human enough that there are also some satisfying failures and assorted idiocies. Frank remains plagued by The Incident from Fifty Degrees Below, but eventually it gets resolved, and the rest of his life comes together as well, albeit in ways I found quite unexpected.

Similarly, it should also be unsurprising that most of the scientific and climate-change narrative arcs are so much larger than just this trilogy that Robinson is happy to let them carry on unresolved past the back cover of the third novel. That's one thing I mean by the idea of rigour, because the world offers no short-term responses to the huge, complicated, and fascinatingly interwoven challenges that result from human manipulations of the world, and so Robinson doesn't either. Sure, there are some successes, or it wouldn't be possible to have any hope, but Sixty Days and Counting doesn't cheat through an evasion of contemporary science's limits.

The great ideological turn in this book is toward history, specifically the history of American intellectual culture, in the Transcendentalist figures of Emerson and Thoreau, particularly Thoreau. Our man Frank Vanderwal becomes a devotee of emersonfortheday.com, which incidentally is a real web site, not one invented for the book. He'd been looking at it in Fifty Degrees Below on occasion, but it becomes a persistent narrative thread here: he discusses some of the ideas in detail with his Buddhist friends from Khembalung, for example, and by book's end most of his friends are daily visitors to the site. My assumption is that Robinson gets his Buddhists, scientists, and government policy advisors all reading the best snippets of these great 19th-century thinkers as a way to emphasize that the future American Republic had better ground itself in this formerly inspiring path, rather than in the hyper-individualist economic concepts that have come to dominate global political structure at such a shattering environmental cost.

This is a novel of peaceful revolution that -- when the trilogy ends -- leaves standing virtually all of the contemporary structures of capitalist, political, and social life. I'm used to dystopia and damning the man, so I'm still pondering this outcome, but it's refreshing even if I wind up turning against Robinson's ultimately comic vision.