Fiction Reviews


Sixty Days and Counting

(2007) Kim Stanley Robinson, Harper Collins, 18.99, hrdbk, 504 pp, ISBN 978-0-007-1-4892-9

 

This is the third in the series of climate change (global warming) technothrillers from SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson; the first two being Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below. Given the previous titles, the 'sixty' in this one was rather inevitable wasn't it. (If ever there is to be another then it either have to be 'seventy months' or 'seventy gigatonnes' and relate to possible methane clathrate release, but I am getting ahead of myself.)

To briefly recap Forty Signs of Rain sees aids to senator Phil Chase come to terms with climate change issues just as one symptom of global warming -- a change in ocean circulation plus more energy to the atmospheric system -- brings severe storms and flooding to Washington DC. The second book, Fifty Degrees Below, has Phil Chase running for President while his aids (including Frank Vanderwal) continue to develop climate change policy ensuring that it is underpinned by sound science. Actually this trilogy has as the protagonists Phil Chase's aids: Chase himself is not central to the story even if he is to the story's backdrop. Bringing urgency to Frank's and his colleagues work is that the NE of the US is in the grip of the coldest winter on record due to the changed North Atlantic oceanic circulation (part of the Broecker thermohaline global conveyor). A plan is devised to salt part of the North Atlantic to kick-start the regional over-turning that drives the thermohaline circulation and so enabling warmer water to return to give milder winters to countries bordering that part of the ocean. Meanwhile Frank appears to be the subject of attention from some very secret, secret service types...

By Sixty Days and Counting Phil Chase has made it to the White House and Frank Vanderwal begins work in the Office of the Presidential Scientific Advisor. Chase, capitalising on the election mandate given him by the people, sees that he can only force meaningful radical climate policies through if this is done quickly within the first couple of months of his office. This is the 'sixty days' of the book's title. Yet Frank is still under surveillance by some deep, secret service group. Though the salting of the North Atlantic seems to be working, the longer-term problems continue of lowering greenhouse gas emissions and rising temperatures with their associated ice melt. These have to be addressed and, as in Fifty Degrees Below, they are through technological fixes.

Right, for those that do not know it, in addition to reviewing the occasional SF book, I have worked for many years in (UK) science communication and for over a decade in providing science advice from bioscientists to Government and Parliamentarians. I am also one of the two biologists on the Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation team and, coincidentally, have a personal interest in climate change science with (so far) two university level books on the topic under my belt. So as it happens in this instance not only do I know a little about the genre but also the science and how it relates to government, albeit from a UK (not US) perspective. So how does the book stack up?

As with both the previous in the series it is a very readable technothriller. Frank is under surveillance, which means he has to take countermeasures such as sweeping his office and car. He also has to minimise any electronic trail and somehow communicate with others (including his other girlfriend) who are helping him. Meanwhile he walks through Washington's corridors of power.

Again as with the previous two books, the underpinning science as to why global warming is happening and how this is expressed in climate change is very good and clearly Robinson has either undertaken some considerable (and accurate) background research and/or has had sound help. (The acknowledgements at the back do not contain any names that I recognise from the climate science community but unless they were top US scientists operating at the international level, being a Brit, I would not recognise mid-level US biosphere scientists or climatologists, and so I cannot tell you whether it was good background legwork on Robinson's part or help that did the trick.) Either way he does deliver and if anyone wants to learn about the underpinning science without the pain of a text book, but disguised in fiction, then Sixty Days and Counting does the trick. Furthermore for me, the science-political interface does have the ring of familiarity about it (though again I only know this from a British perspective).

Where there is factual slippage is when the science becomes technology (this being the 'application of science') as Robinson continues from the previous book with the notion that technological fixes of the symptoms of climate change are the way to go. It has to be said that some of these are (in the real world) very contentious. It also has to be said that his fossil carbon accounting and drivers to exploit the same leave a little to be desired. (Having said that, the real life accounting of fossil carbon leaves a lot to be desired.) These complaints are, though, trivial compared to the fact that Kim Stanley Robinson has created a series of novels that are clearly streets ahead of any others (or indeed films) I have come across that relate to global warming. (I will therefore leave the detailed question of how climate science relates to these works for another time.)

Aside from entertainment (and there is nothing wrong in bringing harmless joy into folks lives), some SF can deliver a real message. I am sure many of you can name several examples from War of the Worlds and 1984 to those from the present day. Kim Stanley Robinson's series of global warming novels clearly belong in this grouping of meaningful SF: although this is arguably more technothriller than out-and-out SF. Therefore if you enjoy technothrillers I can wholeheartedly commend Sixty Days to you.

Jonathan Cowie

 

To find out a little about Jonathan's science policy work and climate change interests then visit his mini-personal website.


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