Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fifty Degrees Below - Kim Stanley Robinson

Fifty Degrees Below is the second book in Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capital trilogy. It's a near future science fiction novel tackling rapid climate change, a topic that has always greatly interested me. I read it for the first time in 2006, when my classes in things like atmospheric chemistry, environmental systems analysis and ecology were still more or less fresh in my mind. Back then, I thought it a bit better than Forty Signs of Rain, which was a bit of a disappointment to me. After this reread I still feel it's an improvement but for slightly different reasons. I guess my expectations played an important role in my initial read.

The National Science Foundation is starting to put its plans to become the global coordinator of the human response to rapid climate change in action. Scientist Frank Vanderwal has agreed to stay on a year longer and help with the project. He has had to move out of his apartment however and with the flood wrecking many homes in the DC area, fining an affordable living space proves to be difficult. While the NSF projects grind on, defying a hostile White House, Frank tries out life as an urban nomad. With the harshest winter in living memory about to descend on North America, things are going to get very challenging both personally and professionally for Frank.

In my previous review I wrote that I had some reason to believe that the novel was set in the 2040s but that it didn't really seem to match with other elements in the novel. In Fifty Degrees Below, more and more hits showed up that would make it more likely that the novel is set right about now. Phil Chase for instance, is mention as having been a reporter in Saigon. Even if he started his career early and got there late in the Vietnam war, it would still mean he is pushing a hundred in the 2040s. A group of Vietnam veterans show up in the novel as well, one mentioning being involved in the Tet-offensive. I'm going to have to look into the Antarctic treaty some time to see where I went wrong. Of course setting it 2014  doesn't match with the presidential campaign described in this book.

In Forty Sings of Rain the novel focused on three major characters, Frank Vanderwall and Anna and Charlie Quibler. Fifty Degrees Below is almost entirely Frank's territory. If you don't like this character, and I have seen plenty of comments out on the web from people who don't, then this novel is going to be dreadful. Personally, I like Frank just fine. He is intelligent, resourceful, impulsive and still obsessed with the prisoner's dilemma and sociobiology. He's also very lonely and throughout the novel shows increasing signs of paranoia, a development that will carry over to Sixty Days and Counting.

In this novel Frank is trying out some of his scientific theories. Although he makes a token attempt to find another place, he convinces himself rather quickly that he can do without a permanent home. It's a fairly common theme in Robinson's work. A lot of his characters are constantly on the move. Frank finds his live with a minimum of material possessions liberating. Although he has a semi-permanent shelter in one of city's parks, closed after the flood, his activities are spread out over the city. This roving lifestyle is perhaps not as extreme as Nirgal's run with the ferals in Blue Mars but the hunter-gatherer Frank so often thinks about is very present in this book. It makes me wonder what Frank, or Robinson himself for that matter, would make of Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines.

His explorations in the park and his experiences as a homeless man often lead Frank to think about how hopelessly ill prepared most people are to live without modern conveniences. He tries to convince people to stop wearing cotton during the coldest parts of winter for instance, and does a lot to help a group of homeless people he's been in contact with. On the other hand, he also feels that if you know how, survival even in this cold winter is quite possible. He thinks about how his basic survival gear, Frank is an experienced mountaineer, has not survived since the time of Ötzi the Iceman. Robinson's interest in Ötzi is one of the things that would eventually inspire him to write Shaman. Frank's new lifestyle will get him in trouble eventually and in a way contributes to his loneliness but he displays a kind of happiness in parts of the novel that clearly wasn't there when he at the end of his first term as NSF.

Frank is full of contradictions in this novel, primitive living conditions if a highly developed urban environment, lonely but surrounded by millions, some of whom he could consider his friends, cynical of politics yet involved in a project to get science some political leverage, a self confessed rationalist deeply moved by Buddhist principles. When you think about it, it's no wonder he looses his mind. But even that is not straightforward, Frank suffers a trauma to the head that clearly influences his behaviour too. Some readers may not like him much, I think he is a fascinating character.

One drawback of this almost entirely single point of view approach is that it gives a very one sided view of events. Frank rationalizes his choice to become homeless by ignoring the drawbacks of his new lifestyle for instance. All this primate on the plain stuff works very nicely when you are strong and healthy and experienced. Mistakes can be very costly. For all his talk of happiness, there must have been a reason why the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was ultimately abandoned. Another obvious issue is Frank's growing paranoia. How much of the spy stuff is actually real? The reader has no way to judge. One has to constantly keep in mind Frank is unreliable and for some readers that gets tiring.

Fifty Degrees Below is frighteningly relevant in two aspects. The fist is obviously the harsh winter it describes. The title of the book refers to a particularly cold night when the temperature in Washington DC drops to -50 °F (or about -46 °C for those of us used to a more sensible temperature scale). It was cold in parts of the US this winter but fortunately for the people living there, DC didn't get that cold. The mechanism appears to be a little different, as far as I know the termohaline circulation hasn't stalled (yet), but the link with the disappearance of the polar ice cap is certainly there. Unfortunately, this winter in the Eastern US doesn't seem to have inspired the sense of urgency when dealing with the problem of climate change Robinson describes in the novel. I guess we need a few more signs to get us moving.

In the novel the NSF does get things going however. It focuses extensively on the political side of getting things done. Frank is quite cynical about the whole process. The mudslinging and corruption of pure science to fit a political ideology disgusts him. Fortunately his boss Diane better at politics. Like the previous novel, there is not much actual science in this novel. Where Forty Signs of Rain focused on the process of science, here we get to see the political side of things. One thing that does get described is an attempt to restart the sinking of saline water in the northern Atlantic and thus restart the thermohaline circulation. Between the lines, Robinson does explain the science of this and notes that there are tipping points in all sorts of physical and biological processes that offer opportunities for mitigation strategies. When dealing with climate, relationships are rarely linear.

I must admit I have my doubts about the feasibility of the technological fix Robinson describes but it does make for a very dramatic scene in the final part of the novel. It is a very visible attempt to do something, and therefore from a political point of view useful, but much more structural changes need to be considered to really bring the situation under control. Climatic terrorism, as the incumbent republican president keeps referring to the situation, cannot be dealt a finishing blow that easily. The simplicity of political reasoning is dominant in this novel but Robinson makes sure the reader understands the problems with it. In a way, the Chase campaign reminded me of the Obama campaign in 2008. There's a huge sense of optimism but in the background also the nagging question whether or not he can actually deliver.

The second aspect I found strangely relevant is the surveillance theme in the novel. In Forty Sings of Rain Frank met a woman working for a nebulous secret service. As their relationship evolves, he gets to know more about her work and the inner workings of the organisation she is working for. Frank is amazed that he would be interesting enough to keep an eye on and that it would be so easy. After Edward Snowden's recent leaks, we know that what Robinson describes is positively tame to what is going on in reality. Where the science Robinson describes, still works pretty well, I'm afraid reality has overtaken him on this point. One particular weakness is the low-key role of information technology (and the possibilities to monitor the communication it enables) seems odd. It's one area where technological development almost seems to outpace the capacity of society to adapt to it.

The trilogy is often being described as eco-thrillers and quite a few very dramatic events take place in this novel. Whole islands disappear into the sea, blizzards rage, elections are being manipulated. There is plenty of material for a real thriller here. Robinson didn't write a thriller though. He uses these event to make a point but they are not what the novel focuses on. As such, I think the thriller label is a bit misleading. If you go into these books expecting some Michael Crichton or Robin Cook you're in for a disappointment. Treat is as a near future science fiction novel works a lot better.

I think Fifty Degrees Below is a better novel than Forty Signs of Rain. It's his most political novel up to that point and probably also the one that is most likely to polarize readers. The tighter focus on a single character will not be appreciated by all readers but does give us the most detailed look into the mind of a type character that Robinson portrays in a number of his novels: the scientist engaged with society, working not just to expand the sum of human knowledge but to put this knowledge in practice too. Through Frank's eyes we see science reaching out to society and politics in a way that clashes with the traditional view of science as the pursuit knowledge only. Will science be able to overcome the shortcomings of the current political process? Will science help us deal with the current crisis better than the current policy of denial?

Fifty Degrees Below poses some very fundamental questions about the way we run the world at the moment. Not everybody will agree with Robinson's views but it makes for fascinating reading. At it's core, this novel is not a thriller but a political statement and the message is 'we need to do something now!' Read it as such and there is plenty of material to think about. It hits a lot closer to home than the Mars trilogy or other novels set in various places in the solar system. Earth is old, full and complicated and changing the direction we're headed is hard. The details of a story tackling such a complex subject and the details of science underpinning will always be debatable  but Robinson captures that sense of complexity and inertia in society very well. All things considered I think I got a lot more out of this novel than during my first read.

Book Details
Title: Fifty Degrees Below
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Pages: 405
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-553-80312-3
First published: 2005


  1. Completely concur with your opinion of this novel. Robinson touches upon some of the most important issues in our world today, and yes, the reader may disagree with the feasibility of the solution, or perhaps dislike the Mary Sue presentation of Frank, but they cannot deny the resulting environmental events as highly possible realities, and based on that, the series will hopefully induce greater awareness and thought.

    Great review.

    1. Thank you, it took forever to write.

      I get the feeling that this book will mostly be read by people who don't need much convincing about the reality of climate change but one cam hope...

    2. I wish there wasn't so much truth in that thought...