Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A less than perfect storm

As ever, I have a bunch of half-written posts I want to get to, but let me get this one out of the way first. As I think I mentioned when we were all listing the SF and fantasy books we'd read, I think that (along with Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, my favorite book as a tween) Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) is the definitive treatment of Mars colonization, and required reading for anyone even thinking about such a thing. I also liked his more recent The Years of Rice and Salt, an involving marriage of alternative history (Black Death wipes out Europe completely) and reincarnation (enabling us to follow our characters through many lives lived in this alternative world, not to mention interludes in the Bardo).

But I cannot endorse his most recent venture, a trilogy about climate change in the near future. I read the first volume, Forty Signs of Rain, but I plan to skip Fifty Degrees Below and the recently released Sixty Days and Counting. One of the strengths of KSR's work is his ability to weave together the personal concerns of his characters with the bigger historical picture (as well as, of course, the geeky techno stuff). Here, though, it doesn't work. One character, Charlie, is the climate change expert for a U. S. Senator trying to pass meaningful environmental legislation. Charlie is married to Anna, an administrator at the National Science Foundation. The couple has recently had their second child, and a great deal of Charlie's scenes relate his travails as a Mr. Mom juggling job and child care responsibilities. For instance, this particular toddler seems to be quite a handful! Two words about this: Bo. Ring.

Equally tiresome is the stuff about the politics of climate change in Washington. Apparently, well-meaning legislation is difficult to enact, due to the opposition of corporate and other special interests, not to mention bureaucratic red tape. Who knew?

And we get even more of this when we look over the shoulder of our other main character, a scientist who works for Anna at NSF. Frank is (hold onto your hats) driven by a love for pure science, yet worldly-wise about (you guessed it) the politics and bureaucratic red tape, not to mention the commercial profit-motive, contaminating the search for truth. He's been impressed by the potential of a particular young researcher associated with a start-up with which Frank is also associated, and we are to be struck by the ambiguity of Frank's own motives in his handling of the researcher's NSF grant application: he supports the project, of course, but stands to profit immensely if the grant is denied and the research delayed until Frank can rejoin the company and get the researcher under exclusive contract. A promising moral dilemma in theory, but the treatment here is uncharacteristically dull.

Frank has also, per SF convention, messed up the main relationship(s) in his life to date, and we are treated to many of his cynical ruminations on the biology of human mating (significance of hip-to-thigh ratio, the inconvenient obsolescence of traits evolved for life on the savannah a million years ago, etc., etc.). Plus he's a sportsman, a climber in fact, and in one decidedly bizarre set piece, we follow the technical blow-by-blow of his unsuccessful attempt to retrieve an overly vitriolic letter of resignation from the director's office, which attempt involves breaking into the building and climbing down into the atrium from the roof in the middle of the night.

Here's what one reviewer said at Amazon (from a comment on the third book (which apparently mainly features Frank rather than Charlie), but relevant to Forty Signs as well):
What Robinson really wants to talk about is why primitivism is the best way of life, why outdoorsy people are the only completely realized humans, why rock climbing is so interesting, and why Californians should be infinitely more snobby about their state than New Yorkers could ever be about New York. These themes interrupt Sixty Days so frequently, and at such length, that they essentially hijack whatever the book was trying to be.

I would like Robinson to go back to his word processor and give Sixty Days a fair shot, dispensing with the kayaking, backpacking, rock climbing, and feral life. That book would be more like a novel -- but unsatisfying, I suspect, to Robinson. And thus we are left with this question: if Kim Stanley Robinson's main priority is to preach primitivism and impress upon us the virtues of the California landscape and outdoor sports, does he really want to be in the business of writing novels, or is there a better way to communicate this?
How about the natural disaster angle? In this first book, at least, not much actual climate change occurs – there's a big storm and flood in DC, and the Arctic ice is breaking up, affecting the ocean currents – but nothing really exciting. I suppose this is part of KSR's point, that it won't go down like The Day After Tomorrow, but it doesn't exactly make for interesting reading. There is a suggestion, in a subplot involving Tibetan exiles, of possible future paranormal activity (this is a science fiction book, after all), but I'm afraid I'm not going to stick around to find out.

If you're interested in a better (quasi-SF) book about the politics of science, check out Carter Scholz's Radiance.

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