Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Chorus vs. The Echo Chamber

Forty Signs of Rain
Fifty Degrees Below
Sixty Days and Counting
The Years of Rice and Salt
Kim Stanley Robinson

I've recently finished the 40-50-60 trilogy from Kim Stanley Robinson with the kind of reluctant anticipation of one who was given a paperback of the first book without foreknowledge that it was part of a set. In the particular instance, the three books are very much on the installment plan, with a dramatic pause of sorts separating one from two and two from three, but without much in the way of plot resolution.

Therein lies the rub, the pebble in the shoe of the author who is trying to make an entertaining infonovel on a Really Big issue that just happens to have science as its theme and scientists as its heroes (OK, a couple of scientiests, a Dalai Lama figure or two, and a politician who is married to a scientist and who really wants to be a scientist if only he weren't such a political guy who was devoted to being a stay at home dad). I'm a fan of fiction about science, which isn't at all the same thing as science fiction either by genre conventions or topic matter, but it may be one of those genres whose oxymoronic characteristic prevent the authoring of even a single decent book. It's as if one took a longish New Yorker article on a scientific topic and tried to jazz it up with some fictionalized characters.

The 40-50-60 trilogy really revolves around Frank Vanderwal, a sociobiologist who has been tempted by fate and misfortune away from his beloved SoCal to Washington DC to work for the National Science Foundation. Without giving away the main plot point -- OK, here it is, Global Warming is REAL and upon us, you forced it out of me -- let's just say it's hard to work in a lot of action hero adventurism in the Michael Crichton right-winger mode for a thoughtful nuanced middle-aged geek. Not that Robinson doesn't try: he lets Frank become a wild homeless man by day, White House aide by night, wielding a prehistoric home for self-defense while plotting out massive global interventions to save humanity from its own bad self. (The positive glorification of homelessness as the ultimate low-carbon lifestyle in an industrialized society is one of the more bizarrre bits of wish-fulfillment in this alternatively apocalyptic and hopelessly optimistic saga.) Throw in a mystery woman fighting deep dark secret spook agencies set to steal elections on behalf of big oil Republicans who, yes, becomes instantly attracted to him for an attempt at a sort of 'Enemy of the State' contrapunto, you've got the 21st Century Action Man science hero guy.

I should say parenthetically that the character I identified most with was Charlie, the stay at home Dad who really didn't want to go back to work, although in his case his boss ends up being President of the United States and forces his hand, and his child may be the reincarnation of a Tibetan Lama. You think you have problems balancing work and home, eh? Ha!

So the long and short of this is it's more or less a failure as a dramatic novel -- way too wordy and heavy on exegesis of the whole the planet is in serious trouble now stuff. But as agitprop, I proclaim it a success, since it was just entertaining enough and the characters compelling enough to convince me to get to the end of the trilogy, and at the end while I was annoyed with all the happy endings and sunsets (literally) for the charactrs I was, in fact, panicked about global warming and hypersensitive for weeks on end about my own carbon footprint. Such that I am left grasping at whether some energy-efficient light bulbs and their noxious mercury waste are in balance better than my seasonal-affective-disorder-friendly incandescents. At least, I'm remembering to turn off unused lights more frequently after reading it. So, job well done, Mr. Robinson.

Between installments of 40-50-60, though, I read the award-winning (tm) Years of Rice and Salt, in which Robinson re-encapsulates the entire history of science via an alternative history device, to whit, the entire race and culture of Western Europe is wiped off the map by the great plague of the 14th century, never to return. Instead, Muslim and Chinese civilizations expand, fettered only by a temporarily-reprieved and therefore not-entirely-weakened Native American unified society and a science-loving subcontinental culture that has a sort of Wilsonian foreign policy even while being the weakest of the major powers. So you try re-telling 800 years of history, from 1350 to the mid-21st century. What I like about this book is the challenge the author took upon himself, to use consistent characters in each re-imagined alternative historical period, from medieval Aristotileans discovering monastically-transcribed texts to a faux renaissance to a double-enlightenment to a parallel universe Union of Concerned Scientists that actually manages to quash the bomb before the Manhattan Project gets off the ground. How does he have the same cast of characters through all these years? Why, reincarnation, of course! Each episode is separated by a little bumper of life in the bardo, as the characters come together to try to figure out how they screwed up this time on the great cosmic wheel. Part of the fun is in deciphering the characters in each incarnation/chapter of the book, as the clues are only provided by the actions of the characters themselves (who change sex, status, role in the story, etc. from chapter to chapter along with their names). It's a great writer's workshop kind of exercise, and at the same time the liberating aspect of alternative history -- one can research what one wants, and make up the rest if one feels like it -- makes it easy to get resolution for each character. Since they all die in the end -- that is, the end of every single chapter -- you get all that sequelitis taken care of at once, as well as the importance of adding resolution to the characters' lives for the reader. Oh, sure, you get sort of shallow characters as a result, and the MacGuffin of the Removal of Western Civilization from the History of the world becomes less of a lesson in multicultural education than it does a description of the universalism of the rotten parts of human character. But that said, it made for a good yarn in only one volume in a way that 40-50-60 did not in three tomes.

Anyway, more power to Mr. Robinson. Michael Crichton can't even be bothered to get his science straight these days, if he ever could, even if he magically convinces the allegedly liberal Hollywood establishment to make his books into movies, which are, after all, the main vehicle for agitprop, anyway. That's always the problem with liberal science fiction, or fiction of any sort: to be a reader these days, you already have to have a somewhat flexible approach to the world, that is to say, adaptive, and on that score no matter what the literary accomplishment, it's preaching to the choir.