Book Review: Science in the Capitol trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

It is World Environment Day today and I thought I would mark the occasion by posting a review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy.

Forty Signs of Rain: The first part of the trilogy sees the arrival of a delegation from the (fictional) island nation of Khembalung to petition the US government to change their course of action to halt the regular flooding of Khembalung.

Despite Robinson’s reputation for hard scifi, this is very much a story about people. Not just the delegation from Khembalung, but Anna Quibler, an NSF employee and her husband who is an environmental consultant for a politician. It also goes into detail about the politics of research funding. Not rivetting, but fascinating nonetheless. The majority of this first book is about their daily working life and the frustrations of dealing with politicians who pay lip service to the problem but do nothing. If you are looking for action a la The Day After Tomorrow then you will be bitterly disappointed because this is science fiction with the emphasis on the SCIENCE. At the end there is a flood that devastates Washington DC but that is only the beginning…

Fifty Degrees Below: Following the devastating flood, it seems that the ice caps are melting rapidly and the Gulf Stream has shut off, plunging the entire northern hemisphere into a winter that would make Siberia seem like Hawaii. The focus of the story now shifts to Frank who is keen to emphasise that the environmental changes are reflecting conditions of the Younger Dryas. There is also the hint of political thriller as Frank is being constantly watched while his boss fights for research funding against a backdrop of a possible attempt to fix the election. Robinson does not have designs on being the next John le Carre though, this story is still one of science and philosophy and a stark warning about what will happen if we carry on business as usual.

Sixty Days and Counting: And so the trilogy ends. A second horrific winter has gone by, Phil Chase is now President and setting about tackling the problem caused by years of human recklessness. The emphasis shifts back to the Quiblers when Charlie is appointed as Science Advisor to the Senate.

Poignantly, Frank goes on a walking holiday in the Sierra Nevada and it is during this seeming interlude that Robinson really hammers home the issues. More than DC flooding, more than the harsh winters, this part of the book demonstrates the wider environmental change that has been forced on the landscape and highlighting what the world has lost.

Overall, this is yet more high quality work from Kim Stanley Robinson that is character driven and science heavy. However, this trilogy takes a while to get going and really lacks the magic of some of his other work, especially the Mars trilogy. What it lacks in style it more than makes up for in substance through research and characterisation and attempts to bring home not only the potential problems of climate change, but also of doing nothing.


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