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Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson
Review by Ernest Lilley
Bantam Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0553803123
Date: 25 October, 2005 List Price $25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Having successfully terraformed the red planet in his spectrum spanning Mars trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson turns his hand to our world for a makeover in the face of global warming, and a bit of local freezing as well.

Fify Degrees Below is the second book in this trilogy, following Forty Signs Of Rain which came out last year (See Review) Since the story is set in and around Washington DC, the author was gracious enough to let me use an early form of the first chapter in my anthology (See Future Washington Review this issue). In the first book we met Frank, a researcher doing a stint at the NSF, bouncing around and off the walls without a lot of direction in his life. By the end of the first book, Frank has found direction. First in the form of a mandate to get the National Science Foundation into the business of saving the world from (or to adapt it to) severe climate change. Second, though it preempts pretty much everything else in his mammalian brain, to find the woman he encountered by chance in a metro (that's Washington for subway) elevator. Frank is at once hyper-rational and totally given over to his primate self. The trilogy charts the uneasy dance of these halves around each other, and with any luck, the next book will bring his superego onto the scene to integrate and referee the other parts.

On the heels of the storm that flooded the lower portions of DC, a change in the salinity of the North Atlantic stalls the ocean current that controls its weather. Frank comes up with a piece of engineering on a nearly planetary scale to restart it, and we're off on a revival of the 1950s scientists to the rescue scenario we thrilled to in Saturday matinees...but with KSR's savvy perspective on the very real science and the politics and intrigues of science, academia, affairs of the heart, and ... did I mention politics?

Actually, the political struggle for the National Science Foundation, whose director has decided it's time to take back the place of scientists as world savers to gain clout in DC and beyond is a minor part of the story. Severe weather, ending the first book in a storm that flooded DC and now in a winter that reaches the temperature in the title, is offered as an inducement more powerful than any lobbyist's lyre and congress is ripe for a world saving project.

Frank's travails brought back a lot of things that I've done, if in not so spectacular a way. No, not changing the global climate. You may not have tried voluntary homelessness as a lifestyle, or living in a treehouse, and running with a feral pack of Frisbee worshipers while leading a corporate life by day, but a lot of it struck uncannily close to home for me. Well, we can all relate to the oppressive prospect of increasingly severe weather, a seemingly never ending republican administration, and inner struggles for enlightenment. Not to mention the war being waged for his heart between rutting and reason.

The story picks up after the recession of the flood from the Capital in the first book and the resumption of apparent business as usual. Government buildings are cleaned up, but the area's poor are left to fend more for themselves than ever. Frank, having burned his bridges behind him in a plan to leave the NSF, now finds himself footloose and homeless, but still at the NSF and hence in DC. Rather than rent a pricey apartment (though one assumes that he could afford it) he trades in his car for a minivan and buys a membership at a health club. Bedroom and bath thus secured he begins a schizophrenic existence as an highly placed NSF scientist directing a global remediation project by day, and a semi-feral fellow by night.

Techno-homeless Frank soon develops patterns in his new life. Up at dawn in Rock Creek Park (just north of the Capitol) to hoot at the green flash with an assortment of simians released from the national zoo in the face of advancing flood waters. Off to the gym for a workout and a shower, up to the office to save the world through better science till his end-of-day alarm goes off at 5, get take-out food somewhere in DC, hang with the homeless "bros" in Rock Creek Park and play Frisbee with the "ferals" till he's worn out. Repeat.

To keep from falling into to much of a rut, the woman he met in the elevator resurfaces briefly and secretively from time to time, at which point Frank drops everything and takes off to whatever secret rendezvous she offers. When it turns out she's married to a spook and she's one too, by the way, assigned to monitor guess who...Frank does what any sensible person would do. Not. In fact, this whole book is about his living in a reflex state, unable to plan beyond the next day if that long, living a schizophrenic semi-feral, almost pre-conscious existence. Just to get him in the mood for this pre-civilization state, the author visits him with a touch of brain damage, maybe, or possibly just enough post traumatic stress disorder to keep him off balance.

Balance threatens to enter his life in the form of Diane, the director of the NSF, and thus his boss. They run into each other every morning at the gym, and often in meetings where she brainstorms and mentors in equal degrees, and they slowly develop a familiarity full of portent.

The thing that Frank is missing from his life, and has been since the beginning of the series, is an investment in community ethics, which is very much super-ego territory. It's an odd lack, considering the amount of time he spends analyzing the socio-biological nature of human interaction, but he is a really selfish bastard in his direct relationships. Yes, he develops affections. For a homeless chess player, a family whose wife he works with, a garrulous Buddhist monk who's country sinks beneath the rising waters, the entire Quibbler family, frisbeterians, and the yin and yang selections of women in his life...but they all operate at the reflex level. His wiring is pretty altruistic, but his actions never take anything more than the present circumstance into account.

Though living in the moment may seem like a good idea in the midst of the kind of chaos that SF loves to write about, it's not an especially useful way to live one's life. Circumstances may be impermanent, but life goes on, and relationships do to, especially the one you have with yourself. A day of reckoning is sure to come for Frank, quite possibly in the next book, and I'm looking forward to seeing how things turn out, though I expect he'll have a price to pay if he decides to rejoin the race.

Warning: Editorial mode: There are reasons that science has fallen out of favor with conservative politicians, some of which the author nicely illuminates for us. But some of the reasons are simple the conflicting natures of conservative and scientific beliefs. Fundamentally, I think that conservatives believe in evolved systems rather than engineered ones and scientists believe that the universe is ultimately manageable by humans. The first group has a perfectly sensible fear of radical tinkering with the systems they depend on, and the second is often endangered by a combination of hubris and defensiveness that shuts down its ability to process the useful parts of conservative concern. Age offsets this to a degree, and over the course of this trilogy I think we'll see its effects on the protagonist. That's all "In My Humble Opinion" of course.

Should you start this trilogy in the middle? You could. There's enough back-story thrown in to make sense of it all, but you'd miss the character arc and lose some involvement with the story. Better to pick up the paperback of the first and look forward to the second. And the third.

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