Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Sixty Days And Counting

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I read the first two books in this trilogy last year [book 1 and book 2] and ever since I finished them, I had wondered; and then what happened? Well, now I know the answer to this question, and I can honestly say that this, the third of three books, made the entire trilogy into a huge disappointment, even though the series started out by showing some promise. Sixty Days And Counting by Kim Stanley Robinson (NYC: Bantam Books; 2007) is the last installment in a eco-political near-future sci-fi thriller trilogy. This particular book’s title refers to the first sixty days of the new president’s administration, which is the time period that this book presumably focuses upon.

Those of you who read the previous two books in this series will remember that, at the end of the previous book, Fifty Degrees Below, Senator Phil Chase was elected President of the United States. Chase was elected, thanks to the combined efforts of NSF scientist, Frank Vanderwal, his spook girlfriend, Caroline Barr, and a number of Frank’s clandestine colleagues around the country — all of whom joined forces to prevent the right-wingers, including Caroline’s (ex?) husband, from yet again stealing the presidency for their own personal gain and evil ends (but the author never clarifies what exactly are the goals of these evil people, I guess he assumes we all are privy to this information, although I certainly am not).

By the time Chase is elected president, it is clear that the planet’s climate is going to hell in a handbasket. Not only is the weather in Washington DC wildly unpredictable — warm one day, freezing the next — but there are other daily indications that things are not going well, such as widespread housing and food shortages, flooding, drought, loss of biodiversity and numerous other problems. However, there is some reason for optimism: scientists have at least managed to restart the Gulf Stream, for example.

Because Chase was elected President, his principle advisor, Charlie Quibler, must go to work full-time at the White House instead of spending his days yelling advice into his cell phone while running through the city’s parks, chasing after his toddler son, Joe — a proposition that Charlie hates. But he finally does give up his mister mom role by entrusting his precious younger child to the White House daycare staff, and works down the hall from the President himself, helping Chase make key appointments to his cabinet.

One of those choices was appointing NSF head, Diane, to the role of Presidential Science Advisor. Diane, of course, asks Frank and Anna Quibler to join her, but Anna refuses, wisely preferring to stay at the NSF. Frank is suffering from a brain injury that renders him indecisive, and further, he is also in love with Diane, so he accepts her invitation, although he’d rather return to his previous job in California.

The novel mostly focuses on Frank, once again, although why it does, I do not know — so would it be trite of me to mention at this point that even though he is working at the White House, Frank is still officially homeless? Hello?? Has the author ever heard of Homeland Security? Okay, it’s true that Frank often stays with the expat Khembalese on their estate in Maryland instead of in his van or in his treehouse in a downtown park in Washington DC, and that he rarely hangs out with his homeless friends anymore and only tracks escaped zoo animals when he has spare time, instead of every evening as he did in the second book when he was working at NSF. I should also point out that when Frank stays with the Khembalese, he is properly nourished too, instead of living on refuse retrieved from dumpsters throughout the greater Metro area.

Anyway, after this idiosyncratic beginning, the novel rapidly devolves into a silly 500-plus page cat-and-mouse political spy thriller where poor, indecisive Frank is stuck in the middle of two women (neither of them knows about the other, of course), unable to decide who he is really in love with; the powerful, articulate and intelligent Diane, or the nearly invisible and flighty, but occasionally sexually available Caroline? Of course, there is Caroline’s (ex?) husband to consider, too. He’s the man who gave Frank his little brain injury in the second book by smashing him in the face with a tire iron.

The book occasionally comes up for air from the contrived Frank-Diane-Caroline emotional menage a trois to examine other topics that were introduced in the two previous books, such as the effect that the Khembalese ah, “exorcism” had on Joe’s personality. Basically, in the second book, the Khembalese perform a so-called “exorcism” ritual that transforms the toddler from a complete brat into a more affable kid. But his parents, Charlie and Anna, are troubled by this sudden docility, realizing that they prefer their little Joe to be banging innocent playmates on the head with steel dump trucks that are the size of footballs. So by the end of this book, poof, the Quiblers get their wish: the Khembalese undo their hocus-pocus and little Joe is once again happily terrorizing his parents, their friends and all the children within city blocks of where he is located.

Additionally, this book includes a brief but nonetheless unsatisfying glimpse at the so-called “ferals” and homeless people (mostly men, mostly mentally ill) whom Frank spent so much time with in book two, giving me the impression that these people were not very important to Frank (nor to the story, and definitely not to the author). Further, I was especially disappointed with the thoughtlessly casual way that the author dealt “the problem” of the homeless teenager, Chessman: the author hinted that Chessman might have an important role in the development of the story as early as the middle of the second book, since Frank repeatedly wondered about Chessman’s mysterious disappearance from that point onwards. But Chessman’s disappearance had nothing whatsoever to do with the story’s development or resolution, making it appear that the author didn’t know what to do with this particular character, which makes me wonder why Chessman was introduced into the story in the first place.

In addition to all those little quibbles, I have a few other things I’d like to mention: I thought that Frank’s brain injury, which made him unable to think clearly and to make decisions, was an absolutely ridiculous plot device. Ditto for Frank’s entire lifestyle as a homeless, tree-dwelling, dumpster-diving, frisbee-flicking, animal-tracking primate who happened to be employed as a scientist at NSF. I mean, really, this was such an overt insult to all those truly hard-working scientists out there who actually do work at NSF or elsewhere!

I also thought the “exorcism” (and its subsequent reversal) of Joe Quibler by the Khembalese was beyond stupid: It was an overt insult to the author’s main characters, most of whom were scientists — people who are steeped in rationality and logic, who are not about to believe in that sort of mumbo-jumbo. He thoughtlessly betrayed so many of his characters, beginning with the cooly rational Anna Quibler, with this truly ridiculous and dead-end story line.

Further, I was astonished at the audacity and lack of ethics displayed by the scientists who released an untested, genetically-engineered lichen that would supposedly reverse global warming by absorbing carbon [yes, there was a wee bit of science in this book, although you did have to look hard to find it]. And finally, I admit that I laughed out loud when the author suggested that nearly all (or was it all?) of the US military’s funds be shifted to ecological programs — puhleeze. I thought the author was writing a “hyper-realistic science-fiction novel” not a comic fantasy.

Okay, this is my last complaint: I didn’t like ANY of the characters. After spending 1500 pages with all of the characters in this story, I ended up wanting to slap every one of them for various reasons, starting with Frank, because they were so annoying, so stupid, so out-of-character! Well, except for Diane and Phil Chase, but we, the readers, never get to know either of them because the author is too busy regaling us with yawn-inspiring anecdotes about how women look sexy when throwing softballs or rock-climbing or kayaking up dangerous waterfalls.

Oddly, after taking more than one thousand pages to develop the story, the author casually wraps up most of his plotline’s wacky loose ends in only a few pages (three or four, to be exact), none of which are even remotely interesting or logical. In short, Sixty Days doesn’t end with a bang, as I had expected, instead, it ends with a barely audible whimper, accompanied by a stinky sulfurous cloud as it quietly slides past the author’s sphincter muscles and out of his bowels and onto thousands of dead trees that these stupid books were printed on.

In short, I view this book as another justification that I should be a published author because I would never dream of insulting my readers in all these many elementary ways.

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 MikeB
    February 5, 2008

    Your review chimes with my view of the book, which I’ve just read.

    I havn’t read the first one, but ’50 Degrees Below’ did at least move along, and I was interested in the idea of living a paleolithic existence in the 20th century (I used to be an archaeologist). But in both books, you quickly want to just smack Vanderwal around the head and tell him to stop being a prat, and the Buddhist mysticism very quickly pales. The paleo-anthropology regarding women – enough already. As for Charlie’s worries about Joe? I’m a stay-at-home dad of a three and a one year old, and a nice quiet kid would be fine by me…

    Robinson wrote a cracking novel in ‘The Years of Rice and Salt’, but these three don’t even come close. There is a great book to be written about facing up to climate change, but I’m still waiting…

  2. #2 Tlazolteotl
    February 5, 2008

    Oh my. I was waiting to find the paperback, having read the first two, and I’m sorry to hear this. I enjoyed Robinson’s Mars trilogy, and the Central Coast trilogy as well.

    I guess I’ll go re-read John Brunner’s futuristic ‘quartet’ again. Sigh.

  3. #3 "GrrlScientist"
    February 5, 2008

    well, if you really want to read it, i can send you the book in snailmail. i was going to make the entire series a project in my “rehoming unloved books” project where i abandon the entire trilogy on the subway for someone to find.

  4. #4 MikeB
    February 7, 2008

    I love the concept of ‘rehoming unloved books’, but what worries me is what they could do in the wrong hands. On the other hand, perhaps a few randomly scattered copies of books by Rachel Carson, Jared Diamond or Stephen Jay Gould might do the world of good.

  5. #5 Pierce R. Butler
    August 29, 2008

    A belated comment, but I just finished the trilogy and felt the urge to chime in.

    GrrlScientist got a couple of minor points wrong (Frank’s injury came from a 2×4 swung by a stranger attacking his homeless friends; there’s a throwaway line from the Khembalese leader that their rituals were aimed at the little boy’s father, not the boy, which is cute – the dad never figures it out – but unrelated to the kid’s reported behavior changes), but I can’t blame her much for same: the story line moves so slowly that the temptation to skim is overwhelming.

    Which is a lethal flaw in a purported “thriller” (eco- or otherwise) – having whole chapters go by in which nothing happens but characters lecturing each other on fuzzy physics is something science fiction generally left behind in the 1950s.

    Equally damning is that the general impression of the author’s political naïveté – a story set in Washington should leave readers feeling like they’ve learned something about how government works, not that they need to explain things to the writer. Given that Robinson’s heart-on-sleeve political and social views are solidly progressive (something quite rare in “thriller” novels), this clumsiness presents a net loss for the good guys in propaganda terms.

    I could go on and on, but the short version is that GrrlScientist’s conclusion is exactly right: these books are a mess. Very disappointing from a writer who’s done so much better.

    GS: I hope you took ‘em to a used book store and traded ‘em for something good.

  6. #6 "GrrlScientist"
    September 1, 2008

    pierce — i ended up “freeing” the entire series of books together in the subway system one evening, hoping that someone else would enjoy them more than i did.

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