Page-turner with a Point

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s newest novel, the race to save humanity is on

By Jessa Crispin

Sixty Days and Counting, By Kim Stanley Robinson (bantam, $25)

At the beginning of Sixty Days and Counting, the third volume of Kim Stanley Robinson’s eco-thriller trilogy, it is the near future, and President Phil Chase, a Democrat, is taking office after a rogue intelligence group’s failed attempt to steal the election. Even though the oceans have been resalinated and the jet stream restarted in the earlier books, the new administration must somehow find a way to deal with rising sea levels, switch out America’s entire energy system with either new technology or older nuclear systems, and help poorer countries alter their infrastructure—all while working within the confines of a bureaucratic system.

Robinson, the author of the celebrated Mars trilogy, has researched every nook and cranny of these novels, and it’s a bleak, terrifying picture he paints. The “sixty days” of the title refer to the first two months of Chase’s presidency, when his science advisory team and members of the National Science Foundation attempt to stave off a mass extinction of large mammals—including a large percentage of the human population. At every juncture, their efforts are met with resistance. The World Bank does not see how supporting their work in the Third World will be profitable. There are constant power struggles between governmental departments over who is responsible for what. It’s amazing anything is allowed to happen in Washington at all.

When Robinson is focusing on the details of the weather’s impact on individuals, the book is genuinely chilling: Craving eggplant, statistician Anna heads to the grocery store, only to find shelves depleted by food-hoarding customers. The power goes out periodically, and each time, Anna and her husband Charlie have to prepare for the possibility that it will not be coming back on. Robinson is also good at explaining the science behind the government’s attempts to stabilize the climate. It’s when he tries to fill in the gaps between pre-apocalyptic imagery and hard science that the trilogy suffers under the weight of its subject matter.

There are just too many subplots to follow. The stories that we care about—what happened to Caroline after she put her life in danger by warning that the Oregon election was about to be stolen?—are shoved aside for stories we don’t. Science advisor Frank’s head injury may have caused him to…be indecisive. Not exactly a gripping narrative. All of this could have been slimmed down for one novel, but Robinson crams so much philosophy, bureaucracy, hard science, and exposition into each book, at times it feels like you’re watching Senate hearings on C-SPAN 2 instead of reading fiction.

There are huge problems with Sixty Days and Counting as a whole, yet it’s perhaps the best novel about global warming to date. Robinson makes the reader understand the vastness of the issue, and how challenging it will be to find a solution. But the situation is not without hope. Robinson infuses his book with the thoughts of Thoreau and Emerson, and a group of displaced Buddhists lends a sense of tranquility to the story. A quotation from Oliver Cromwell best sums up one of the novel’s most unsettling points: “A man never rises so high as when he knows not whither he is going.”

Issue 25

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