Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Fifty Degrees Below

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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).

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    June 8, 2007

    Of the three in the trilogy, this one got less stars from Amazon readers than the 1st and the 3rd volume. I am assuming you’ll review the third one soon. I have placed all three on my amazon.com wish-list now.

  2. #2 Chris' Wills
    June 8, 2007

    …and about govermental spying on innocent Americans…

    “We aren’t here to judge your innocence or guilt, just your level of guilt.”

    If the Khembalese are budhhists perhaps this explains the stoicism?

    Look forward to the review of the 3rd book.

  3. #3 Bob
    June 8, 2007

    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 which cause a total stagnation of the warm Atlantic Gulf Stream…this book is the most realistic and believable portrayal of climate change that I’ve read.

    Well, that tells us something about the gullibility of you global-warming hypesters. Washington D.C. is 50 below but the polar caps are melting? Uh huh. And the Gulf Stream warms Europe, not D.C., which is at about the same latitude as Death Valley. In general, the Atlantic cools D.C.–even in winter, the water temperature is usually lower than the air temperature.

    On a related point, why do all global warming disaster movies, from “Day After Tomorrow” to “A.I.” invoke an ice age as the result of global warming? Seems like a lot of people need some remedial education on the physical properties of H2O, particularly the relation of its phase transitions to temperature.

  4. #4 biosparite
    June 8, 2007

    Before we go too far off on debating climate change, I wonder if we should look again at the extraordinarily cold and snowy English winter of the late seventeenth century portrayed so vividly in Blackmoor’s LORNA DOONE. Freezing cold and tremndous snow accumulations characterized that year. One would not have expected such an event wih the salubrious effect of the Gulf Stream waters, although there was a recent paper in SICENCE or NATURE that challenged whether the Gulf Stream can fully explain the relatively mild European climate given the relatively high latitutdes. Also, we should recall that the highest latitudes are warming far more than low latitudes, with a risk that weather systems might be affected along with Atlantic water turnover at high latitudes. No one knows the answers, and no one can predict from current conditions what will happen when we keep injecting greenhouse gases at a runaway rate into the atmosphere. Whatever happens, I suspect we are in for some surprises.

  5. #5 Chris' Wills
    June 8, 2007

    A better name than “Global Warming” would be “Global Climate Change”; as with the present weather some areas will be warmer than others though on average it will be warmer.

    We can argue about the causes (I’m not totally sold on the anthropic causes being the only cause of all that is happening), but changes are happening. Glaciers are shrinking in the Andes, there is less ice in Greenland etc.

    As for Washington DC & Death Valley being on the same latitude the relevance escapes me. Does it snow in Death Valley in Winter?

  6. #6 llewelly
    June 8, 2007

    In the context of a global-warming-induced slowdown of the global thermo-haline conveyor belt, ’50 degrees below’ is unlikely, as the conveyor belt only accounts for 3-6 C of extra-latitudinal warmth in Western Europe, see here or here. Furthermore, it is unlikely that global warming could ‘turn off’ the convey-er belt completely, as ice sheets in the modern arctic are far smaller than at beginning of the 8.2 kyr event (a historical case where warming may have resulted in ice melt, freshwater discharge into the N Atlantic, conveyor belt slowdown, and sharp reversal of temperature trends around the N Atlantic), and so there is far less ice available to be melted into fresh water. Finally, the rapid warming of the Arctic, which is already far warmer today than it was just before the 8.2 kyr event, would further reduce the effect of a conveyor belt slowdown. In the end, all Europe can expect from a conveyor belt slowdown is a temporary stall in the warming. More here .