Frank Vanderwal goes Paleolithic in Washington DC, living in a tree-house in Rock Creek Park, a tranche of recently flooded and devastated wild land in the middle of the city. Washington is reeling from the horrendous recent weather conditions that have produced chronic real estate shortages. Frank is a realist - he has all the modern accoutrements to survive, whatever happens.
Fifty Degrees Below is a catastrophe novel which has tremendously good credentials. Robinson knows the theory behind global warming and he sites his novel at the heart of America's National Science Foundation, with a group of people, including Frank, who just might have the solution to the problem. Or one of several solutions, as it happens. It is also election-year and a credible candidate who has all the right ecological ideas has arisen and is muddying the political waters.
In this discomforting thriller, we are given a kind of treatise of what to expect when the earth's carbon resources are approaching critical depletion because of the warming effect of greenhouse gases. In approachable prose we learn some of the reasons why this results in - not warming but freezing. Those with an interest in environmental disaster scenarios will be well and truly hooked. There is a visit to a devastated Tibetan refugee enclave as well as intriguing side plots, one of which involves a teasing love-affair with a woman whose husband is a master of the black arts of metal bit technology and data mining. Robinson manages a wide and disparate number of plot-lines with consummate ease.
Fifty Degrees Below lives up to its chilling title and is a very good read.
"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".
Fifty degrees below focuses on one mans life as he decides to revert to a neolithic lifestyle amid the aftermath of huge flood in Washington D.C. and set during one of the coldest winters yet to hit the capital. This book is quite good at revealing the machinations of the U.S government and the politics of climate change. It has a notable environmental narrative which finds the main characters in the book working together to sink a giant fresh water bubble that is threatening oceanic sea temperatures. There is a lot of environmental science riddling the narrative, but this works for the book, not against it, as most of the environmental science is actually quite interesting. The book does a good job of describing the pitfalls of working against various lobby groups within the U.S energy industry as well as the government itself. Interestingly enough the romantic pursuits of the main character provide more interest to the reader than anything else in the book, betraying a distinct lack of direction in the novel. Although the book is long, it somehow seems to end prematurely although this saves it from banality and more importantly from turning into a rambling overture on climate change.