Fifty Degrees Below, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Spectra, 2005, 405 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-553-80312-3

Many things change yet stay the same in Kim Stanley Robinson’s second entry in his “Science in the Capital” trilogy, but this isn’t a problem as much as it’s a statement about Robinson’s extraordinary abilities as a writer. The first volume spent most of its duration setting up subplots before flooding Washington DC in a climax of biblical proportion. This time, the plot is in motion and things start happening right away. Global warming has reached runaway velocity, and temperatures soon hit titular record lows as the good folks at the NSF do their best to find ways to terraform Earth back to a semblance of equilibrium.

While Forty Signs of Rain spent time going back and forth between Anne Quibler, her husband Charlie and their friend Frank Vanderwall. Fifty Degrees Below is almost all told from Frank’s viewpoint, a strange choice given the particularities of Frank’s view of the world. Educated in evolutionary biology, Frank keeps seeing the world in terms of primate socialization mechanisms, and it’s that outlook on life that leads him to adopt a consciously homeless lifestyle early in the novel as the housing crisis in Washington reaches acute level during the capital’s reconstruction. Spending his time between the office, his van, the gym and the park where he eventually builds a secluded treehouse, Frank joyously (“Ooop!”) reverts back to an optimodal life, a choice that will eventually have serious consequences are the temperature falls and the rest of his life heats up. Because Frank has found the beautiful woman he was chasing in the first volume… and she turns out to be a deep-secret agent with personal problems that soon become indistinguishable from national security. And that’s without counting the attractive presence of Diane, Frank’s boss at the NSA…

But if the novel revolves around Frank, the world doesn’t and it keeps disintegrating. Khembali, the fictitious country introduced in the first volume, predictably disappears under the waves, and an audacious plan is hatched to reboot the Gulf Stream via a salt dumping scheme of epic magnitude. The tone of the novel changes a bit, introducing enough gadgets to push it a few more years in the future, and enough cloak-and-dagger thriller plotting to send things in a more conventional direction after the refreshingly free-form first volume.

It all comes together thanks to Robinson’s usually excellent prose. The novel spends so much time in Frank’s primally satisfied brain that the very narration comes to reflect that emotion. We grin as Frank finds his true human potential, doing science even as he communes with nature. Ooooop! But at the same time, his romantic escapades are heart-wrenching, and we can’t help but be concerned whenever truly bad things start happening to him.

Yet this is also the story of a planet in peril, and Fifty Degrees Below keeps the balance in mind as it tackles global action and a new activist role for science. NSF, under Diane’s hard-driven leadership, starts meddling in political activities, establishing “Permaculture” as its ultimate goal even as it proposes a “Scientific Virtual Candidate” before rallying to Phil Chase’s campaign.

Once again, Robinson is able to strike narrative sparks from material that would have been unbearably dry in anyone else’s hands. Robinson’s progressive politics find explicit expression, and the novel’s readability remains exceptional event as it stays away from conventional plot mechanics. It ends with a political victory, a damaged hero, a planet in the balance and gathering clouds: Phil Chase has powerful enemies out there, and Frank’s messing with one of them in very personal ways.

All good fodder for Sixty Days and Counting, the final volume in the trilogy. This has been an unusual, but satisfying series so far: the conclusion should be more of the same.

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