Friday, November 14, 2014

Review of Sixty Days and Counting by Kim Stanley Robinson

While there remain differences, I have come to think of Kim Stanley Robinson as the contemporary Arthur C. Clarke.  More diverse in the inclusion of science, writing lengthier novels, and more obviously Californian than British, Robinson nevertheless approaches the problems of humanity with the same optimism, lenience towards Eastern religions, practically and realistically conceived science fiction concepts, and underlying belief science can bring society to a higher plane of existence.  In short, they are very similar in spirit, and Sixty Days and Counting (2007), the third and final book capping Robinson’s Science in the Capital series, is glaring proof.

The conclusion of Fifty Degrees Below, the second book in the series, saw Frank Vanderwaal caught up in a fracas with a black ops intelligence team that had apparently been involved in a plot to alter presidential voting.  The election going off smoothly despite their intentions, Senator Phil Chase was elected and has chosen Diane, Frank’s boss at the National Science Foundation, to head his science group, in turn bringing Frank even closer to the executive level of science in government.  Chase the most open minded politician ever to sit the White House, a whole world of possibility reveals itself to Frank and Diane, who immediately set about investigating big-scale schemes that might mitigate ongoing climate change issues.  Their massive salt operation having changed the jet stream in Fifty Degrees Below, they now look at ways to get the polar ice caps back into good condition and the ocean levels lower such that the radical changes in weather patterns can be brought back within normal ranges and frequencies.  And the need is pressing.  From the depths of a freezing winter, record setting temperatures are predicted for D.C. in the summer.

Sixty Days and Counting is a consistent follow up and conclusion to the Science in the Capital series.  Robinson pulling no major surprises on the reader or drastically changing tone or style, the usage of politics, science, Buddhism, and the environment in the previous novels is once again front page.  This is not to say the story is overly predictable or dry, rather that the building blocks already in place remain in place.  Frank continues to develop his relationship with the Kembalis while dealing with the aftereffects of the blow he took to the head in his scuffle in the forest, and the semi-love triangle he’s inexplicably found himself the crux of; Chase takes his campaign on environmental and social issues to heart once in the White House; Caroline’s position in government security gets both murkier and clearer; and the role NGOs and GOs might play in mitigating cross-border and domestic climate change become evident—in reasonable fashion.

If there was any doubt as to the message of the Science in the Capital series, Sixty Days and Counting puts a capstone on it—as any good concluding volume in a series should.  Thus while Phil Chase, a blogging president, states in one of his posts: “’This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.’ Our time has to be understood as a narrow gate, a window of opportunity, a crux point in history.  It’s the moment we took responsibility for life on Earth”, it’s obvious the words are in fact coming from Robinson’s own mouth.  But rather than wallow in all of the symptoms, problems, and results of poor environmental management and corporate bad practice, he creates a vision, admittedly a moonshot, but a vision nonetheless of what international and domestic cooperation between governments and corporate interests might be like toward accomplishing goals universal to all humanity (rather than only local); of what pooling capital can really accomplish in terms of massive mitigation projects; and, perhaps most importantly, of revisioning the system toward focusing on the issues that are having a real impact on society and the Earth.  Frank may be Jesus Christ with a pocket-protector, but he remains the ideal of a concerned and active person, indeed trying to make the world a better place—just we all could be, and perhaps should be, doing.  Like Clarke’s heroes, Frank the scientist is Robinson’s, and he lights the way forward in altruistic fashion.

In the end, Sixty Days and Counting is the fitting conclusion to the Science in the Capital series.  The state of the world, through the eyes of Frank, the Quiblers, Phil Chase, and Drepung, undergoes drastic changes—not in terms of climate or natural disaster, but in how man approaches the environmental hand he has dealt himself and finally gets the stakes in his favor once again.  Robinson too savvy to actually believe that the events and actions he portrays to be a true vision of the future, that it sets a goal—a pie in the sky to hunger for—however, seems the idea.  Given the state of the environment is only getting worse in our own world—the fluctuation in climate ongoing—indeed it may be time to start heading in a new direction. 

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