Customer Review

3.0 out of 5 stars Grand ideas, imperfectly executed - an uneven read, 18 April 2009
This review is from: Fifty Degrees Below (Paperback)
"Fifty Degrees Below" is the second instalment in Kim Stanley Robinson's 'Science in the Capital' series, set in the near future and exploring the potential impact of climate change. Picking up almost directly from where "Forty Signs of Rain" left off, it charts the life of scientist Frank Vanderwal, currently homeless in Washington D.C., a city recovering from the greatest floods it has ever witnessed. Climate change is already beginning, and something must be done. A general election is looming, and - for once - the political will to change the planet seems to be there.

Winter is rapidly approaching, however, and with the Gulf Stream having been brought to a standstill, it is likely to be one of the coldest on record. As world leaders' attentions turn to radical plans to restart the Stream, Frank makes a home for himself in the treetops of Rock Creek Park. His adaptation to life in the wilderness forms an interesting thought-experiment on humanity's feral origins, as well as a wry commentary on modern civilisation and consumerism. However, despite the introduction of a romantic subplot and hints of government surveillance, it is not enough to sustain the whole book. Unfortunately Frank's story tends to dominate, with both Anna and Charlie Quibler reduced to mere bit parts. One senses that Robinson has missed a trick here, since a larger number of viewpoints could have conveyed more effectively the experience of living through climate change.

Even so, the scientific narrative - as ever a trademark of Robinson's writing - works well, and the technical information is easy for the lay reader to absorb. However, the novel lacks the drive of the first volume. Whereas "Forty Signs of Rain" was characterised by a sense of dread and impending disaster, its sequel deals with the catastrophe in full swing, and with humanity's response to it. In some respects Robinson achieves this very well: the evacuation of the drowning island of Khembalung is very well handled. But in general, despite the summer flood and the winter freeze, life in Washington appears to go on unchanged. Occasional snippets of news elsewhere filter through - the breakup of the West Antarctic ice sheet, for example - but the effect of climate change on human society seems almost negligible. As a result the book remains somewhat lacking in credibility.

In all, "Fifty Degrees Below" is an uneven book. While the scientific element remains as strong as in "Forty Signs of Rain", the plot and characters meander without significant development. Nevertheless, the scene is set for the third - and presumably final - volume in the series, "Sixty Days and Counting".
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