The time is now
Sixty Days and Counting by Kim Stanley Robinson
15 April 2007
It’s highly unlikely that the heroic scientist of the pulps is going to come up with a technical fix that will save the world, although it’s clear that the only solution is through science
Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the widest-ranged of modern science fiction (SF) writers. And he's an author not only of fiction which clearly looks like SF (such as the “Mars” trilogy, set on another world with spacecraft, longevity drugs and other future tech), but of fiction which doesn’t (Antarctica’s near-future tech looks more everyday each year).
As with most SF writers, the imagined futures are more closely linked to Robinson's present than a cursory glance might suggest. Mars offers a scenario in which the political and environmental questions of our time can be examined, while Antarctica is as much as any off-world scenario a laboratory for speculations about human ecology – speculations often posed in the language of SF.
The “climate” trilogy (also known as "Science in the Capitol") is closer to Antarctica than Mars (it shares a number of characters) although it ends with a touch of the utopian vision which fills the Martian books. Its main “new thing” is the radical shift in climate which some scientists think can happen in a matter of years. The trilogy's manner of dramatising this is among the political and scientific classes of Washington DC, which is early on devastated by major floods – more West Wing than Waterworld. Arguably, Robinson alludes to SF rather than states it outright. “We are going to terraform the Earth” says a character in Fifty Degrees Below, the second book in the trilogy – a sentence that echoes a discussion in one of the “Mars” books, but which doesn’t require its readers to know that, or the origin of the word “terraform”, although it adds to the series’ richness to know that Robinson is writing within a long tradition of speculation. The point is the avoidance of gosh-wow, and the sly humour of the response: “we already are [terraforming the earth] but we don’t know how.” It’s highly unlikely that the heroic scientist of the pulps is going to come up with a technical fix that will save the world, although it’s clear that the only solution is through science.
The first two books in the “climate” trilogy, Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below, give us the future caused by global warming in some not-necessarily-implausible scenarios. The process has reached a tipping point and chaotic flooding and severe winters begin to suggest ,even to the political classes of the United States of America, that things can’t go on that way. In the preceding episodes, we have followed Charlie and Anna Quibler, their sons Nick and Joe, Frank Vanderwal, and the former Tibetan refugees from the island nation of Khembalung in the Bay of Bengal who have come to Washington to lobby for action in face of forthcoming catastrophe. By the beginning of Sixty Days and Counting, environmental-activist Senator Phil Chase is in the White House, and Charlie Quibler is about to return from being “Mr Mom” for his toddler Joe to full-time work as a policy advisor. Meanwhile, Frank, an administrator at the National Science Foundation, has fallen in love with two women – his boss Diane and Caroline, an intelligence operative who is playing her own game against a shady plan to sabotage Chase’s plans. Moreover, he's been living in a tree-house and a van for the best part of a year, and has been the victim of an assault that may have caused brain-damage, specifically to his decision-making abilities. Young Joe Quibler may, or may not, have become the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama. And a growing proportion of Washington’s (and the nation’s) population of dispossessed and dissatisfied have become “feral”, bringing the habits of our co-operative hunter-gatherer ancestors to the modern situation of post-capitalist industrial society.
Sixty Days and Counting is less a stand-alone novel and more the third chapter in one long novel (fourth, if we consider Antarctica, which is specifically referenced towards the end, as part of the same sequence). As such, it’s probably wise to draw a line under summary and plot descriptions: those who have read the first two will find the strands there developed and drawn to a conclusion, although not necessarily a “then we saved the world” conclusion. As both science and the Tibetan Buddhism which becomes an important part of the sequence suggest, the point is to make a difference. We can always make things less bad, more good.
Robinson is sometimes called a “hard science fiction” writer: his science is accurate, plausible and possible, and so it is in these books as in his more obvious science fiction such as the “Mars” trilogy. That’s not to say that the science, in, for instance the development of the lichen which is to draw down carbon from the atmosphere, or the pumps which will move the surplus seawater from the melted icecaps to create saline lakes in low-lying deserts, or back to the high Antarctic ice shelf to re-freeze, is a necessary blueprint for the actions we are going to have to take in the real world, because he can also be a wry, comic writer, and he’s at his very best in this vein here. In setting his story at the heart of America’s political/scientific bureaucracy, he’s written not only a science fiction novel of the near future, but a gloriously playful satire of the hoops scientists have to jump through to get their work noticed and approved, and the compromises needed to convert science to political action. The characters in this sequence are among his best – not exactly caricatures, but real people who you suddenly realize with some exasperation may be seriously strange in terms of how they function in society but who care, for themselves, their families, their friends, and civilization. There are moments of almost slapstick comedy, but the tone is so uncannily accurate that you don’t notice them until after you read them – there are various Hollywood actors who would almost certainly be offered the parts of Frank and Charlie if these books were filmed, and they are precisely the wrong actors to play these parts. Robinson’s characters may have quirks, but they are not wacky.
The physical world plays a strong role in these novels, and I don't just mean the wider world of climate fluctuations and the “virtual” possible world (or worlds) which might come about after the tipping point – at all points of crisis, Robinson emphasizes that there is no going back – but also the local physical environments. Many of the characters are hikers, climbers, runners. There is the physical world of science, of course, but the Tibetan Buddhists remind us that the “spiritual” world is also a physical world too, or rather that “spiritual” is another way of discerning the physical. Perhaps some readers might feel disappointed that in the end there is no major disaster, no harrowing scenes of mass die-offs or psychotic outbreaks of war, and that there is a sense of optimistic “we can deal with it”-ness here. But this would be to misread the story, I think; there certainly is a sense of dread, but there is also a sense that this is the only life we’ve got and we can’t afford to squander it on despair. Robinson isn’t telling us to be cosy, but suggesting that the struggle is important. The last sentences of the book contain the phrase “storms to come” but also the word “love”. The global story is made up of countless individual stories, and we have only encountered a few.
Order Sixty Days and Counting (HarperCollins, 2007, £18.99) on Amazon.
Links to Robinson's other science-related novels can be found in our LabLit List, along with many other books in the 'lab lit' and SF crossover genres.
Read our recent interview of Kim Stanley Robinson here, which also features behind-the-scenes insights on the 'climate' triology.