Bantam Spectra, 2007, 388 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-553-80313-6
Little about Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Science in the Capital” trilogy has been conventional so far, so it fits that the third volume, Sixty Days and Counting, also defies usual trilogy protocols. Mind you, it fits the subject: Critic John Clute often talks about the challenges of fiction in representing today’s “unstoryable” concepts that cannot have clearly-defined heroes and dramatic climaxes (such as environmentalism). This book puts the notion to the test, and though it may bore readers looking for more excitement, it does manage to remain true to its ideals.
By the time thir third volume begins, the flashy battles have been won: Pro-environment Phil Chase is the President of the United States, the NSA has gained enough favor with him to be able to lead the massive new governmental programs required to deal with global warming, and the Gulf Stream has been rebooted thanks to a massive saline injection. In another context, this would mean the end of the story. Here, though, there are still plenty of small issues to consider. Frank Vanderwal is still brain-damaged and unable to make decisions, which gets more and more dangerous as a shadowy group sets its sights on him. Meanwhile, Charlie Quibbler returns to political life, leaving behind his son, who may still be affected by the influence of the Khembali monks.
On a conventional plot level, only Frank’s struggles with brain damage, his lifestyle, his dangerous girlfriend and her unsavory, all-powerful ex-associates keep things moving. Frank struggles with decision-making following his assault in the previous book, but by the time he decides to have an operation that may solve the issue, he’s fighting for his life, chasing down covert agents and trying to uncover the identity of those who try to manipulate US elections. But even he can’t do it alone, and the ultimate resolution of that plot line is another one of Robinson’s attempts to defy expectations. Frank is a hero for how he reacts more than what he does. (Amusingly, the novel’s best moments are just as counter-intuitive: A moment in which Charlie verbally eviscerates World Bank representatives is a highlight, while an assassination attempt is completely under-played.)
But chases and special agents all seem a bit silly given the series’ continuing reliance on domesticity, utopianism and the scientific method as plot drivers. Neither of those elements can be achieved with dramatic gestures and extraordinary heroes: they are built day after day, with an accumulation of small actions. And so Sixty Days and Counting (which refers to the grace period after a presidential inauguration) is a novel of phase transition, as Robinson suggests a way to turn the country around towards a better society. Heady stuff: readers interested in Robinson’s liberal politics are sure to appreciate the blueprint for change.
The flip side of that argument, of course, is that readers looking for stronger dramatic plot drivers are going to be sorely disappointed. If people were still expecting something different this far ahead in the series, it’s too late to change course. Sixty Days and Counting is a logical follow-up in the course of Robinson’s career and a piece that echoes a good chunk of the author’s work so far, from the utopianism of Pacific Edge to the political musings of the Mars series, to the environmental message of Antarctica and the Buddhist themes of The Years of Rice and Salt. Readers who didn’t like any of that, well, should know that there’s another book that they’re not going to like…
As for me, I continue to be surprised at how much I enjoyed the series even if it does a lot of things in ways that I shouldn’t enjoy. Granted, I tend to be more generous toward Robinson’s work that other readers (though not early on, nor always: I tried reading A Short Sharp Shock recently, and it practically fell from my uninterested hands.), so you may adjust expectations accordingly. I’m constantly on the lookout for true science-fiction and this series really does stick close to the ideals of fiction about science, even if in doing so, it risks short-changing its fictional interest. On issues such as global warming, unstoryable by definition, that may be the only defensible choice.