Tuesday, February 13, 2007

17 Things About Kim Stanley Robinson

I was a huge fan of Robinson's early work. The Orange County trilogy, three fully realized alternative futures, was brilliant; Escape from Kathmandu, about a yeti, hilarious; and his story "The Lucky Strike," about what would have happened if a WWII pilot had refused to drop the atom bomb, made me cry like few literary works before or since.

His later work I have not found so gripping. The Mars trilogy bored me beyond measure; it reminded me a lot of the kind of "Golden Age" science fiction that I find unreadable, full of vast gee-whiz techno events that mean nothing because the landscapes are populated with stick figures. The Years of Rice and Salt, a huge infodump masquerading as a novel, made me angry at the waste of such a fertile premise. The only segment of the book that breathes is the one about the Iranian scientist who prevents the development of the atom bomb (clearly a theme with him, or at least one I notice and respond to); now a book about that would have been worthwhile.

Anyway, all this is leading up to say that I approached his latest series on global warming with some trepidation. Forty Signs of Rain, the first book, displays some of his best and worst characteristics. It introduces a lively array of interesting and well-drawn characters: Anna Quibler, a National Science Foundation staffer who believes passionately in science as a force for good; her husband Charlie, science advisor to a popular senator, who likewise believes in the power of politics to enact change; Frank Vanderwhal, a temporary NSF appointee fleeing some bad personal and professional decisions, who views everything from a sociobiological perspective; and Drepung and Rudra Cakrin, representatives of the Buddhist nation of Khembalung, which is being threatened by rising sea levels. Robinson presents a great deal of information on climate change and its consequences, but it's so well integrated into the story that I rarely felt like I was being lectured.

The problem is that almost nothing happens. We learn a lot about the dynamics of raising a family in a two-income household, the inner workings of the NSF, and numerous other subjects, but again, none of it is meaningful because it has no real impact on events. Frank meets and kisses a mysterious woman in an elevator; later he sees her again. Wow. Exciting. Frank is run off the highway by a maniac in a fit of road rage; nothing ever comes of this. Even the massive setpiece at the end, with a hugely flooded Washington, DC, comes off like the special effects in Independence Day -- cool to look at but not emotionally involving.

I wasn't sure I would pick up Fifty Degrees Below, but I did, and on the whole I'm glad. The story finally begins to move forward. The NSF, spurred by an angry letter from Frank, is beginning to engage the problem of climatic change and actively direct a response, culminating in a worldwide effort to restart the Humboldt current. Frank connects with his mystery woman, a spook assigned to keep him under surveillance, who is in a bad marriage with a higher-powered and more dangerous spook. (She seems to be what she claims, but I can't help feeling she's bad news.) Charlie's boss runs for president on an environmental platform (he too seems to be for real, but may turn out to be bad news in the end). The Quiblers and Frank visit Khembalung, which is completely inundated when a chunk of the polar ice cap breaks off. And Charlie, who suspects that his younger son Joe is a reincarnated lama, asks Drepung to intervene, then is unsure he did the right thing.

The biggest problem I found with this book was lack of balance. The viewpoint in Forty Signs was well distributed between Anna, Charlie, and Frank, giving us a useful contrast of perspectives on events. In Fifty Degrees, a good 80 percent of the narrative belongs to Frank, who, as we come to learn, is not the healthiest person, mentally or physically. He is an interesting character, but I began to find him irritating and offputting. More of Anna's cool rationality would have been welcome.

Also, Robinson's emphasis on Buddhist teachings is becoming overdone and heavy-handed. I suspect that Rudra Cakrin's statement that "the animals don't love us anymore" is supposed to be a profound insight, but I just had to laugh. Please, don't beat us over the head with it. He handled the subject much more subtly in the first book.

Overall, however, I enjoyed the book, and I'm cautiously looking forward to the conclusion of the trilogy, Sixty Days and Counting.

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