Science fiction is like country music. Otherwise open-minded people often dismiss it as a genre: “Oh, I’ll read anything… except sci-fi” is roughly analogous to “Oh, I’ll listen to anything… except country.” In some minds the phrase ‘science fiction’ brings to mind Star Trek books-of-the-TV-series, and indeed those are part of the sci-fi spectrum; but Kim Stanley Robinson is as different from Star Trek as Johnny Cash is from Leann Rimes.
(I feel seasick just writing her name. Urgh.) Fifty Degrees Below is set in the near future; I don’t think an exact year is ever specified, but within our decade. It’s about climate change. That’s the first important thing to know about this book; if the idea of a novel about climate change doesn’t appeal to you, then you’ll be bored catatonic. Robinson is a science fiction writer with the emphasis on science. He’s not afraid to go into great detail, speculating on possible effects of climate change and technologies that might be employed to mitagate them. There are pages and pages of this stuff. There’s a lot about thermohaline cycles in the Arctic Sea, about carbon sequestration through geneticallyengineered lichen, and so forth. I find science interesting, so I’m fine with this education, but I’m aware that others don’t enjoy such real-world intrusions into their fiction. This is a novel, so of course it has a protagonist, but he’s a scientist, so he spends a lot of time thinking and talking about science.
There are political ideas in Fifty Degrees Below as well as scientific ones. Robinson has a mildly satirical take on American politics, and how they’ll react to climate change. He has the Republican party refusing to admit that it’s real, even as Washington is blanketed in unseasonable snow. His scientists are political too, as in some of his other novels (the Red Mars trilogy featured socialist, hippy and Sufi astronauts). He doesn’t hesitate to point the finger at the hijacking of American politics by lobbyists from the energy industry. Our hero is tracked by a mysterious deepcover branch of Homeland Security, of which Robinson is presumably not a fan. This adds a touch of thriller to the whole proceedings.
I can wholeheartedly recommend Fifty Degrees Below to anyone who enjoys ‘hard’ sci-fi. It’s well-written by anyone’s standards and covers an exhilarating range of real science, from oceanography to sociobiology. It also has a good story. It’s also the middle book of a trilogy (of course, this is sci-fi) of which I fully intend to read the next instalment.
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON