Review: Sixty Days and Counting, by Kim Stanley Robinson

I initially sent the following review to The Globe and Mail on spec. When I didn't get a response in a reasonable length of time, I posted it to my Livejournal account on April 1, 2007.

, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Cover: Sixty Days and Counting
Sixty Days and Counting, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam Spectra, March 2007 - 388 pages
CDN$30.00

It has been said that patriotism is a scoundrel's last refuge. Like most adages, there is truth in that statement, but not the whole truth. In reality, there are (at least) two kinds of patriotisms, and two kinds of patriots - the negative and the positive.

Where negative patriotism is based largely on fear - fear of change, fear of The Other - and is always on the look-out for scapegoats when troubles arise, positive patriotism is confident and outward-looking, based on a healthy love for one's country and having the courage to face up to its short-comings.

By these criteria, Kim Stanley Robinson is a patriotic American in the very best sense of the term, a writer other Americans owe it to themselves to read and whose thoughts they should be debating. He is also an American whose vision encompasses the rest of the world (not to mention the past and future as much as it does the present) and foreigners like myself also owe it to ourselves to both enjoy and consider his works.

Since at least as far back as his ambitious and brilliantly-realized Mars Trilogy, Robinson has been thinking big and writing small. That is to say that - whether he is creating an alternate history spanning 1,500 years; envisioning the colonization and terraformation of Mars over 200 years; or, as now, dealing with the effects of global warming and all of its possible repercussions in the space of three years - while his themes span the hard-sciences, politics, religion and art, his stories are close-up and personal. Robinson has repeatedly managed the very difficult feat of combining the "gosh-wow" excitement of hard science fiction extrapolization with literary characterization and deeply-thought consideration of politics and philosophy.

Sixty Days and Counting is the concluding volume of a trilogy, and a novel I have been awaiting with child-like intensity since the release last year of the second book in the series, Fifty Degrees Below.

If Robinson's three-year time-scale is more modest than that of his previous novels, the breadth and depth of his speculations are even more ambitious than before, and his characterizations more focussed (if, perhaps, not entirely succesful).

Sixty Days and Counting is set in the very near future indeed, perhaps no more than a decade ahead. The plot is driven by an accelation of global warming bringing with it catastrophic and very rapid climate change. The eastern Antarctic ice-sheet is breaking up, the Greenland ice-sheet is falling into the Atlantic ocean and the Gulf Stream may be shutting down.

(If this sounds like a Hollywood disaster movie, it is nothing of the kind. Robinson doesn't write "thrillers", nor does he play fast-and-loose with science. Though his vision is more extreme than that recently presented by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he is neither engaged in scare-mongering nor in drama for drama's sake. He is a hard SF writer who does his research and, if the scenario seems alarmist it is, I am confident, because Robinson is alarmed.)

For a change, Robinson's thematic focus is on one character, the basically decent but unhappy and confused biochemist, Frank Vanderwal, whose personal spiritual journey over the three-year span of the novel parallels his country's from its long imperial slumber.

In the first book, Vanderwal is putting in time at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., far from his surfing-friendly home in San Diego, California. Between slow-growing friendships with several colleagues, an encounter in an elevator with a beautiful but mysterious woman and an equally-fortuitous meeting with a group of Tibetan refugees from the soon-to-disappear island nation of Kembalung (yes, thatKembalung!), by the end of the first book, with Washington flooded and himself homeless, Vanderwal opts to re-up and, in so doing, to gain the chance to save his own soul and do his part to save civilization itself.

As in most of Robinson's books, much of what "happens" in tradition plot-terms, happens off-stage. And much of what he actually describes is almost impossible to synoptize and often (some might say, "too often") seem to do little or nothing to move the story along. Robinson's characters are often at or near the centre of Big Events, but they are also friends, lovers and parents, juggling work, home and play and Robinson spends a great deal of time exploring those elements of life that are more often found in so-called literary fiction than in popular novels.

Over the course of the series, Vanderwal plays a lot of frisbee golf with so-called "ferals" (people who have opted-out of the traditional economy - squatting in abandoned buildings, dumpster-diving for food and - perhaps and at least in part only coincidentally - exploring alternatives to the mainstream consumerism of western culture), builds and lives in a tree-house in a large park officially closed due to the damaged caused by the flood at the end of the first novel, finding and losing (repeatedly) the mysterious elevator-woman, and spending a lot of time with some of the Tibetans. There were times when I found myself muttering, "Get on with the story!" but in the end, Robinson was doing just that.

Although Frank Vanderwal is the novel's focus, as usual, Robinson tells his story through more than one set of eyes, in particular through those of Charlie and Anna Quibler and their children. Charlie is an advisor to Senator (and later President) Phil Chase, while Anna is a big wheel at the National Science Foundation.

But even as sketchy a synopsis of their story as I attempted with Vanderwal's would be a waste of your time and mine. Suffice it to say that both are deeply involved in the events of the novel and also in making the best of their own lives. So enough with synopses! While one wants to find out what happens next when reading a Robinson novel, what is happening now is just as much of a draw.

For one thing, Robinson is a very funny writer, a keen observer of those small moments we all know, when situation and wit, shared histories and intimate knowledge make for laughter that can fill a car or echo 'round a dining room table.

On the way back to the garden-supply store, to get more plants and stakes and other supplies, Charlie said, "I wonder how many cubic feet of compost we need if we want to cover all four of the beds, let's see, they're six by twelve, say a foot deep in compost, make it simple..."

"Mom can tell you."

"No, that's all right, I'm working on it-"

"Two hundred and eight-eight cubic feet," Anna said, while driving.

"I told you she would."

"It isn't fair," Charlie said, still looking at his fingers. "She uses all these tricks from when she was in math club."

"Come on," Anna said.

Nick was helpless with laughter. "Yeah, right, Dad - she uses all these clever fiendish tricks - like multiplication," and he and Anna laughed all the way to the store.

Through such moments, such apparently irrelevant scenes, Robinson delienates the relationships of and between his characters and so finds contextual humour, as we all do in life: a witty remark or acute observation; through irony and self-deprecation. Robinson's humour arises from character and situation and from the reader's familiarity with both.

Yet, along with its predecessors, Sixty Days and Counting is at heart a very serious attempt to deal not only with global warming as dire threat to our entire civilization (and possibly to human existence itself) but also to explore the root causes that got us to the point we are at today.

And further, he dares to offer solutions that insist on changes political, economic and philosophical. In this readers opinion, his ideas are more inciteful and more radical than those of either the vast majority of mainstream punditry or those of the likes of Noam Chompsky.

As he made clear in his Mars series, Robinson doesn't believe that Capitalism is the best of all possible economic systems or that its (apparent - though less so now, perhaps, than a decade ago) ascendancy is permanent. In Robinson's analysis, the existing world order is at once a product of historical development and of human decisions made at specific moments in time. No absolutist, he recognizes Capitalisms strengths and its weaknesses and believes that we can - indeed, that we must! - do better.

Nevertheless, his critique of our existing econo-political order is harsh and - to my mind - very often right on the money (as it were).

The World Bank guys said something about nothing getting cheaper than oil for the next fifty years, ignoring what the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] guys had just finished saying about the devastating effects fifty more years of oil burning would have. They had not heard that, apparently. They defended having invested 94 per-cent of the World Bank's energy investments in oil exploration as necessary, given the world's dependence on oil - apparently unaware of the circular aspect of their argument. And, being economists, they were still exteriorizing costs without even noticing it or acknowledging such exteriorization had been conclusively demonstrated to falsify accounts of profit and loss. It was as if the world were not real - as if the actual physical world, reported on by scientists and witnessed by all, could be ignored, and because their entirely fictitious numbers therefore added up, no one could complain.

Charlie gritted his teeth as he listened and took notes. This was science versus capitalism, yet again. The IPCC guys spoke for science and said the obvious things, pointing out the physical constraints of the planet, the carbon load now in the atmostphere altering everything, and the resultant need for heavy investment in clean replacement technologies by all concerned, including the World Bank, as one of the great drivers of globalization. But they had said it before to no avail, and so it was happening again. The World Bank guys talked about rates of return and the burden on investors, and the unacceptable doubling of the price of a kilowatt hour. Everyone there had said all of this before, with the same lack of communication and absence of concrete results.

Charlie saw that the meeting was useless. He thought of Joe, over at the daycare. He had never stayed there long enough even to see what they did all day long. Guilt stuck him like a sliver. In a crowd of strangers, fourteen hours a day. The Bank guy was going on about differential costs, "and that's why it's going to be oil for the next twenty, thirty, maybe even fifty years," he concluded. "None of the alternatives are competitive."

Charlie's pencil tip snapped. "Competitive for what?" he demanded.

He had not spoken until that point, and now the edge in his voice stopped the discussion. Everyone was staring at him. He stared back at the World Bank guys.

"Damage from carbon dioxide emission costs about $35 a ton, but in your model no one pays for it. The carbon that British Petroleum burns per year, by sale and operation, runs up a damage bill of fifty billion dollars. BP reported a profit of twenty billion, so actually it's thirty billion in the red, every year. Shell reported a profit of twenty-three billion, but if you addedthe damage cost it would be eight billion in the red. These companies should be bankrupt. You support their exteriorizing of costs, so your accounting is buillshit. You're helping to bring on the biggest catastrophe in human history. If the oil companies burn the five hundred gigatons of carbon that you are describing as inevitable because of your financial shell games, then two-thirds of the species on the planet will be endangered, including humans. But you keep talking about fiscal discipline and competitive edges in profit differentials. It's the stupidest head-in-the-sand response possible."

The World Bank guys flinched at this. "Well," one of them said, "we don't see it that way."

Charlie said, "That's the trouble. You see it the way the banking industry sees it, and they make money by manipulating money irrespective of effects in the real world. You've spent a trillion dollars of American taxpayers' money over the lifetime of the Bank, and there's nothing to show for it. You go into poor countries and force them to see their assets to foreign investors and to switch from subsistence agriculture to cash crops, then when the prices of those crops collapse you call this nicely competitive on the world market. The local populations starve and you then insist on austerity measures even though your actions have shattered economy. You order them to cut their social services so they can pay off their debts to you to your financial community investors, and you devalue their real assets and then buy them on the cheap and sell them elsewhere for more. The assets of that country been strip-mined and now belong to international finance. That's your idea of development. You were intended to be the Martial Plan, and instead you've become the United Fruit Company."

One of the World Bank guys muttered, "But tell us what you really think," while putting his papers in his briefcase. His companion snickered, and this gave him courage to continue: "I'm not going to stay and listen to this," he said.

I know, that was a hell of a long excerpt, but I think it serves to illustrate very well the skill with which Robinson mixes the personal with the political and why I believe this series is not only a good read, but an important one.

As I mentioned earlier, Charlie Quibler is a close aide to the new President, Phil Chase, whose "first sixty days" is self-consciously modelled after Franklin D. Roosevelt's "first hundred days" in office ("Because we've got no time to lose!").

(Chase - as a Senator - is a recurring voice (literally a voice, as he appears only via telephone) in Robinson's earlier novel, Antarctica (which I liked quite a lot more than the reviewer linked above) and plays a much more significant role in this one. In fact, he is clearly Robinson's ideal politician and, as such, may be the novel's weakest link. Creative, iconoclastic and driven, yet with a wry and self-deprecating sense-of-humour, his only apparent flaw is a tendency to phone his staffers at any time of the day or night. Arguably too good to be true, his presidency risks offending the reader's willing suspension of disbelief. Nevertheless, probably because Robinson doesn't try to fully flesh him out, for this reader Chase is a plausible - if unlikely - figure.)

Chase's administration is pro-science and determined not only to take action on global warming, but to use the growing ecological crisis to beyond the world's existing political and economic order. Yet Robinson, unlike most science fiction writers who delve into explicit politics, never denies the complexity of politics - the need for compromise among competing (and sometimes legitimate) interests, the "counter-revolutionaries" who value their own short-term interests over that of "the commons", and even sheer egotism are addressed by him, as they would have to be in the real world.

Though he both mocks and savagely attacks the existing order, Robinson is no mere satirist, but proposes more tangible solutions than you are likely to find in the works of Noam Chomsky or on the website of Canada's New Democratic Party.

As a positive patriot, Robinson loves his country. He admires and respects the principals it proclaims and believes that asking his country to live up to them is not only the moral thing to do, but also the pragmatic thing to do.

Robinson is also an optimist and does not believe (with apologies to John Wyndham) that the best response to global warming will be to, "Find a nice, self-sufficient hilltop, and fortify it". Robinson believes that just as our technologies and ways of thinking got us into this mess, only both technology and social change can avert the oncoming disaster.

  • The ocean is going to rise by seven metres in a couple of years? Why not use solar-powered pipelines to return the water the (stable) Western Antarctic ice-cap?
  • The Gulf Stream is shutting down? Let's try salting the North Atlantic Ocean!
  • China is facing a regional catastrophic ecological collapse? If the Chinese agree, we can send in our nuclear-powered fleet to maintain their essential services while replacing their coal-fired power plants with wind and solar.

Yes, it sounds too easy (and no doubt it won't be that easy), but "thinking big" or "outside the box" is required when the old ways are what created the problem in the first place.

Robinson's ideas may not be the right ones, but he at least has the courage to not only face the problems head-on, but to offer us possible solutions. All that, and a novel (or trilogy; I know, I've used both terms) that made this reader laugh out loud many times and shed a tear at the end.

That said, as a novel (or trilogy), I did not care quite as much about the lives of Frank and Anna and Dianne and Drepung as I did about John and Maya and Sax of the Mars books. At times I had the sense that Robinson was writing too fast - possibly, he felt it was important to get the book(s) out as soon as possible in hopes of influencing things as soon as possible; or, possibly, the three-year time-scale simply didn't provide the romantic breadth that the 200 years his previous series did.

Despite those small caveats, this is both an entertaining book and an important one. It will entertain you and it will make you think and that is no small gift.

Spread the word!

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