Friday, September 24, 2010

Escape from Kathmandu - Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is primarily known as a science fiction writer. For a number of his works one could question if this is actually the right description. There is the novel A Short, Sharp Shock (1990), which could be called surrealistic or just fantasy for instance and right before he published that novel, Escape from Kathmandu, a collection of four linked novellas set in contemporary Nepal was published. Three of the novella's, Escape from Kathmandu, Mother Goddess of the World and The True Nature of Shangri-La were published in Asimov's in 1986, 1987 and 1989 respectively. The first three can be read independently. The fourth one, The Kingdom Underground, can be read independently as well if you really want to, but it does refer to events in the earlier novellas in several places. I think this story is better if you've read the others.

The novella's share two main characters, George Fergusson and George "Freds" Fredericks. Both Americans who fell in love with the Himalayas and are now semi-permanent residents of Kathmandu. Together (much to Freds' dismay) they explore the mysteries of Nepal. From a captured Yeti to the fate of the Mount Everest expedition of 1924 and from the mysteries of the Nepalese bureaucracy to the true location of mythical Shangri-La, George and Freds stumble across all of them trying to make sense of their strange environment. It's Nepal though a western eye so their (rather laid back) sense of wonder never wears out entirely.

Robinson writes about men who have fallen in love with the country and I suspect he shares something of this affection as well. Nepal in the late 1980s was not in all respects a pretty place. Plagued by poverty, corrupt government and environmental problems, there was much misery to discover once you move outside the touristic part of Kathmandu. My aunt spent some time in Nepal more or less around the time Kim Stanley Robinson visited the country. She was staying in India for a year but had to make a detour to Nepal because her visa to India expired. One of the things she told me about her time there is that the place is unbelievably filthy. The lack of sanitation is one thing that Robinson points out numerous times in the book.

Although he isn't blind to the problems of Nepal, Robinson managed to make Escape from Kathmandu a surprisingly upbeat book. George and Freds are both accustomed to the peculiarities of the country and although it the corruption in the Nepali government sets Freds off at times, especially after it humiliatingly defeats him in The True Nature of Shangri-La, they can just as easily see the good around them as the bad. Part of what they love about the country is the fact that even if the Nepali doesn't always understand the reasons themselves, the place is run very differently from a western country. Mystery is very much accepted as one of the main ingredients of Nepal's allure and should therefore be kept a mystery. Interesting enough, George and Freds discover the nature of these mysteries while trying to keep others from doing so on a number of occasions.

There are a number of elements in these novellas that would make their way in Robinson's later work. There's the trekking and mountaineering of course but also his interest in various forms of Buddhism and the occupation of Tibet. In the Mars trilogy in particular, Robinson develops a style in which descriptions of the (Martian) landscape are very present in the narrative. Although Escape from Kathmandu includes a number of passages where he does something similar, his descriptions of Mount Everest and it's surroundings are particularly vivid, they are much more contained. The harsh conditions of these great altitudes on Earth do bear some resemblance to the conditions on Mars however.

The tone of this novel is rather light. Some passages are comical, especially later on in the book, when Freds wonders what disaster George is luring him into this time. That surprised me a little to be honest. Robinson's works are usually full of quite heavy scientific and sociological themes and while this novel doesn't lack that entirely, it is a much more relaxed read than the previous books he published. Robinson touches on a lot of sociological, religious and political issues in this book but where in most of his novels the characters are deeply involved in these issues, George and Freds pick more limited, immediately pressing causes. As such, it offers the readers more of a choice to about how much to invest in this book. It works very well on the surface, as an at times comical story about two Americans in Nepal, but also as a story that exposes some of the problems the country was facing at the time (and in some cases still is facing). Escape from Kathmandu is a surprising read from people who are familiar with Robinson's work. I also think it is a good place to begin if you haven't read any of his other books. In either case, I highly recommend it.

Book Details
Title: Escape from Kathmandu
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orb Books
Pages: 320
Year: 2000
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-312-87499-5
First published: 1989


  1. I found and read this book in Kathmandu. An easy read full of stories that make the fantasies of Nepal come alive. Even if you have never been to Nepal, this is an excellent work.

  2. There are some very nice pictures of Nepal on your blog. Which makes me wonder, is air travel in Nepal as terrifying as Robinson describes it?