Science Saves the World
The Arctic ice sheet is melting, we have a climate denier in the White House, and scientists are in open rebellion. It’s a scenario right out of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy—Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), Sixty Days and Counting (2007), now collected in a one volume edition called Green Earth (2015). In the field of reality-based science fiction, Robinson rules, and the books could serve as Bible for the coming times.
I wrote a review of Forty Signs of Rain when it came out in 2004 but it was never published because the then-book editor of The Nation insisted I put in so many apologies for writing about science fiction that I got pissed off. Recently I reread the trilogy and decided more people need to know about these books. What follows is a rewrite of my 2004 review, without apologies.
The basic plot of the Science in the Capital books is that climate change is upon us but the US government is controlled by anti-science reactionaries and it won’t do anything. At their wits’ end, government scientists decide to do an end run around the administration and try to save the planet.
The trilogy is a wonderful stew of all Robinson’s usual California-flavored ingredients: science, ethics, politics, love, espionage, counter-espionage, surfing, rock climbing, and quite a bit of satire. Like his other books, it is populated by hard-working, politically committed, intelligent people who are a lot more like people I know than the characters I meet in most novels. That’s why its such an enlivening experience to read Robinson’s books. Even though his analysis of what’s wrong is scientifically accurate and politically devastating, his characters are so decent and energetic that one feels there’s hope. In fact, Robinson’s own approach, as revealed in a 2002 interview in the e-zine of the Independent Booksellers’ Association, is a lot like Rebecca Solnit’s in Hope in the Dark.
“Yes,” he said, “I am hopeful. I think this is the best attitude to take as a matter of policy, even though clearly we are in a tough moment right now. The gross disparity between rich and poor, the severe environmental problems, these need to be addressed, and the sooner the better, because damage is being done that will be very hard for later generations to repair. It means that it really matters what we do. But many people are aware of this, and are devoted to working to make the world a better place, so there is reason for hope.”
When asked what things need to happen, he said, “Women's empowerment would be a good one, as it has so many immediate positive side-effects to go along with the positive main effect of more powerful women: lower birthrates, better stewardship of the land, less violence. Living within our ecological footprint would be a good idea for those of us in the States.”
A writer of large ambitions, Kim Stanley Robinson has made a habit of trilogies. His first was Three Californias, coming-of-age stories set in three different future Southern Californias, the last a paradise where small is good, politics are green, and town councils make the major environmental decisions. Utopian? You bet. As one of the characters tells us, “Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous, agonizing process, with no end.”
A narrative path to utopia, based on human learning, is the basic trajectory of most of Robinson’s novels, including Years of Rice and Salt (2002), an alternate history of the world in which the Black Plague wipes out most of Western Europe during the Middle Ages, and the rest of history is shaped by China, the Middle East, and the Iroquois Federation. His most worked-out utopia is the Mars trilogy, to my mind one of the major 20th century achievements in political fiction. Were it not for the vagaries of shelving, the tunnel vision of the reviewing media, and the prejudices of readers who like to stay in one groove, the Mars trilogy would have long since become required reading not just for readers of science fiction but for anyone who cares about social transformation.
Red Mars begins in 2026, when the first hundred people are sent to settle on Mars and make the planet habitable. The First Hundred are all world class scientists, a third American, a third Russian, and a third everything else, and they are supposed to do what people back on Earth tell them. But even before they land, some have begun to dream of independence. The trilogy is the story of how the multinationals, who view Mars as a good old fashioned colony from which to extract minerals, oppose their movements toward autonomy, and the wars that result. There is a quick failed revolution, followed by another that takes a lot longer to build but has a chance of actually winning. There are also internal struggles over questions of economics, ecology, terraforming, science, culture, sex , child rearing, and all the other factors that determine what kind of life people in this new society will actually have, including relations with an increasingly desperate Earth, which has “gone Malthusian,” and is sunk in a swamp of global warming, unable to sustain its enormous population.
Robinson always does his homework; in addition to all the plot and character development we expect from a normal realistic novel, his Mars books are an amazingly rich brew of science and politics. Utopian economic and social theories, the geology of Mars, gene therapy, bio-engineering, the construction of a space elevator, the mapping of memory—it’s all there Through politics and science, the author develops characters like Sax Russell, a paradigmatic geek so absorbed in his lab that he doesn’t even look at the actual planet Mars, who changes over the course of three books to a lover of life, fascinated by the wonders around him. His feeling for science could be Robinson’s own: “The structure of science was so beautiful. It was surely one of the greatest achievements of the human spirit, a kind of stupendous parthenon of the mind, constantly a work in progress, like a symphonic epic poem of thousands of stanzas, being composed by them all in a giant ongoing collaboration. The language of the poem was mathematics, because this appeared to be the language of nature itself.”
Robinson believes in the integrity and truth of science, and takes a severe view of those who ignore its warnings or distort it to make money or serve their own political ends. There is plenty to be severe about in Forty Signs of Rain, set at the National Science Foundation and a biotech lab in San Diego. Yet even in these halls of power, signs of global warning are producing such anxiety that something’s gotta give, though it is unlikely to be the President’s chief science advisor, “a pompous ex-academic of the worst kind, hauled out of the depths of a second-rate conservative think tank when the administration’s first science advisor had been sent packing for saying that global warming might be real and not only that, amenable to human mitigation.”
“No,” thinks Charlie Quibler, environmental advisor to a major senator, “That went too far for this administration....Easier to destroy the world than to change capitalism even one little bit.” One of the high points in the book is Charlie’s unexpected encounter with the President, who drops into his meeting with the science advisor. Charlie is wearing his toddler son Joey in a backpack at the time, but that’s okay as long as the kid stays asleep—this is the “family president,” after all, and in fact the Chief Executive offers to sign the baby’s head, confirming Charlie’s belief that he is not just a stooge for his advisors, as some say, but “had such a huge amount of low cunning that it amounted to a kind of genius.”
Charlie’s wife Anna works more than full time at the NSF, and his trials as house-husband and principal caregiver to an extremely active baby are one of the unexpected charms of Forty Signs of Rain. Another is a breakaway group of Tibetan Buddhists, relocated by India to Khembalung, a rapidly submerging little island, who have rented an office on the ground floor of the NSF building to set up their embassy. In no time at all they are giving a brown bag lecture at the NSF on the Buddhist view of science, which translates into “the appropriate response to nature.”
And is the NSF, a funding body, capable of making an appropriate response to nature? One of the great transformations in the book is that of Frank Vanderwall, the organization’s cynic, who finally goes ballistic and turns a routine meeting around with his passion: “Free market fundamentalists are dragging us back to some dismal feudal eternity and destroying everything in the process, and yet we have the technological means to feed everyone, house everyone, clothe everyone, doctor everyone, educate everyone—the ability to end suffering and want as well as ecological collapse is right here at hand, and yet NSF continues to dole out its little grants, fiddling while Rome burns!”
As the political contradictions over global warming heat up, so does one of the volcanoes under Antarctica. Finally it explodes and, in the process, cuts loose chunks of ice the size of small nations, which go floating out into the ocean, displacing vast quantities of water. Within days, Washington, (which was, after all, built on a swamp) is under water; people are kayaking on a huge brown lake that used to be the Mall, and the President has evacuated to Camp David. We are left with Charlie’s question: will they do something about global warming now?
The Trump administration may be under water very soon—certainly its supporters in Florida will. Which is why scientists are now organizing a march on Washington and 400 of them are planning to run for office. If they are looking for a platform, they could take a page or two from the trilogy’s second book, Fifty Degrees Below, whose scientists draw up a political program based on two axioms: “the greatest good for the greatest number,” (with full minority rights) and “the life of our species depends on the rest of the earth’s biosphere.” They have a list of concrete suggestions: 1) protection of the biosphere; 2) protection of human welfare, meaning universal housing, clothing, shelter, clean water, health, education, reproductive rights; 3) full employment; 4) individual ownership of the majority of the surplus value of one’s labor, which would mean redistribution since all the profits would no longer go to owners; 5) reduction of military spending; and 6) population stabilization. “Context/ultimate goal: Permaculture.”
Sounds good to me.