Fiction Reviews

Fifty Degrees Below

(2005) Kim Stanley Robinson , Harper Collins, 6.99, pbk, 520 pp, ISBN 0-007-714891-7


The climate is changing and the US is beginning to feel the effects after a huge storm. Now winter looms and looks as if the climate of northern North America is going to get a tad chillier than usual, in fact positively glacial. For Senator Phil Chase this is an issue he has decided to adopt but he needs science to underpin his policies. Here Frank Vanderwal can help. Frank is exploring the science and advising a policy team. His home was ruined in the storm so -- because he also helps out monitoring wildlife for a ranger service -- he lives in a tree house. Wandering the woods at weekends and nights he makes friends with vagrants and others there. Balancing this life with work is a bit of a juggle and all the while the science is pointing to a disruption of the ocean currents that could switch off the Gulf Stream (rather at least redirect it) so that it no longer warms the NE coast of the US and NW Europe. This itself is a seemingly paradox event (regional cooling) against a backdrop of overall global warming. Nonetheless it is a symptom of warming.

Meanwhile other global warming symptoms continue to grow. The sea is very slowly rising millimetre by millimetre. One island belonging to the Khembali can only barely maintain its see defences as it is. For them sea-level rise, means it is only a matter of time. All it might take is a high tide combined with appropriate wind and air pressure to act synergistically to put the tiny nation under water.

If all this were not bad enough, it appears that a black-op secret service is taking an interest in Frank. Why, he cannot guess...

This is Robinson's sequel to Forty Signs of Rain, and there's yet another to come in the trilogy. Though it can be read as a stand-alone, and be perfectly enjoyable, I would urge you to read the series as a trilogy.

The sense of wonder may be a little light for some SF readers (or maybe I am too familiar with the subject of climate change which is an area of scientific interest for me). On the other hand Robinson has thoroughly researched the subject and I can say that his science is spot on.

(What is not spot on is the science of the publisher who wrote the back-cover blurb which says 'another ice age could be imminent' and the last time it happened was 11,000 years ago. Actually we are in an ice age right now, just a warm interglacial bit. This interglacial proper began about 11,600 years ago. Actually 11,600 we were coming out of a temporary (3,000 year long) return to effectively glacial conditions called the Younger Dryas caused by a change in ocean circulation to which Robinson refers. So the publishers got it wrong on the back cover. I mention this in case any palaeoclimatologists are put off buying this book as Robinson inside gets it right! I won't tire you anymore with climate science though if you hanker for more of the same then you can get my 2007 book on the subject from Cambridge University Press.)

Though not an attention grabbing, or page turner book, Robinson does manage to convey the way we are slowly drifting into a globally warmed world with our drift punctuated by short sharp events be it a huge flood, the disintegration of a large chunk of an Antarctic ice shelf and so forth. That the science is as near as damn-it spot on is nothing short of brilliant. In fact it is the most soundly based work of fiction that relates to climate change that I know of. Given this and the seriousness of real global warming and this book has far more value than just a story. It is a worthy example of how SF can meaningfully contribute to social comment. Recommended.

Jonathan Cowie

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