Fifty Degrees Below (Bantam Books, NYC: 2005) is the second novel in Kim Stanley Robinson’s global warming trilogy (the first is Forty Signs of Rain). In this book, the novel shifts its attention from Anna and Charlie Quibler and their quirky sons onto NSF scientists/beaureaucrats Frank Vanderwal and Diane Chang.
The first book in this trilogy, Forty Signs of Rain, developed slowly, which seemed to reflect the author’s perception of America’s slow reaction to impending global climate change. However, that book ended with a stunning crescendo when Washington DC was innundated by the storm of the century, resulting in a flooded capital city. Fifty Degrees Below picks up where that book left off. As the story begins, Frank has decided to remain with NSF for another year, but found himself homeless after surviving that nearly biblical deluge. Unable to find an affordable place to live, Frank decides to “go feral”, similar to the escaped exotic animals from the National Zoo. In the process, Frank befriends a group of homeless people in the local park and builds a treehouse where he tries to survive even when the wintertime temperatures plunge dramatically. As the title of the novel implies, the temperatures in Washington DC reach fifty degrees below zero — a response to the melting of the polar ice caps that cause a total stagnation of the warm Atlantic Gulf Stream.
Frank loses much of his surly facade in this book as he develops a close but casual relationship with Diane, his boss at NSF, and as he also begins to do “science-y things” with the Quibler’s older son, Nick. Later in the novel, Frank also spends a fair amount of time with the Khembalese. Throughout the book, he reflects upon man’s special relationship with nature and how humanity’s struggle against the environment has shaped our thoughts and reactions to nature and other people. In fact, we see him transformed into a socially conscious (but socially unsure) scientist.
At several points in the story, significant weather events are mentioned, such as tornadoes along the east coast of Canada, excessive rain in California, and drought nearly everywhere else, but surprisingly, these seem to be almost an afterthought.
Unfortunately, I found several aspects of this book to be either peculiar or completely unbelievable. For example, Charlie Quibler was still the environmental advisor to Senator Phil Chase, but he never seemed to work very much. Because the senator was running for the presidency in this book, I would have expected Charlie to work 100 hours per week during the campaign. On the other hand, this presidential campaign did provide an interesting tangential storyline about a secret government conspiracy to steal the presidential election (a la Diebold) and about governmental spying on innocent Americans. Does this sound familiar?
Another detail that I found unconvincing was the Khembalese stoicism after they witnessed the loss of their island nation due to a huge storm combined with rising sea levels. Also, this might be nitpicking, but I was puzzled as to the reason that the National Zoo would allow its precious exotic animals to roam freely throughout a city park, especially when one of those animals was an adult jaguar. Weren’t they worried that the jaguar might eat someone? I also was confused as to why Frank would choose to live in a treehouse in a city park during the coldest winter recorded in Washington DC. Oh, and speaking of cold temperatures, fifty degrees below zero should result in a lot of deaths in Washington DC, especially among the homeless, wouldn’t you think? However, we don’t see any deaths, even though Frank personally knows about a dozen homeless people.
Anyway, I am not entirely sure what to think about this book. It was interesting, although not as believable as the first book in the series. It introduces enough loose ends into the plot that the last installment of the trilogy has the potential to provide the reader with a satisfying conclusion, or conversely, the finale could also come completely unraveled. For the most part, I read this book to satisfy my curiosity, to find out how the author would develop the story further while maintaining its scientific realism. Even though Robinson obviously did a lot of research into the climate change science that provides the framework for this book, I thought the scientific development was rather superficial, although some of the ideas that the author proposes were interesting. Perhaps this casual treatment was necessary to avoid boring the audience and to prevent the plot and character development from stagnating?
Nevertheless, this book is the most realistic and believable portrayal of climate change that I’ve read. Despite my criticisms, I am still looking forward to the last novel in this trilogy because I want to find out what happens and I want to know how the author resolves the story while remaining loyal to the science, the plot and the characters. Further, it seems that Robinson is building this story toward some important and thoughtful observation about our fate as a species, as a nation and as individuals, and I want to find out what that is.
Kim Stanley Robinson has travelled and worked in different parts of the world (including Washington, DC and Switzerland) with his wife, Lisa, an environmental chemist. His work has won many awards including the Nebula Award (“The Blind Geometer” and Red Mars), the Asimov, John W. Campbell, Locus and World Fantasy Awards (“Black Air”) and the Hugo Award (Green Mars).