Escape from Kathmandu by Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson is primarily known as a science fiction writer, but that category doesn’t fit all of his work. For example, just before he published the novel A Short, Sharp Shock (1990), which could be labeled as surrealistic fantasy, he published Escape from Kathmandu, a collection of four linked novellas set in contemporary Nepal. Three of the novellas — Escape from Kathmandu, Mother Goddess of the World and The True Nature of Shangri-La — were printed in Asimov’s in 1986, 1987 and 1989 respectively. The first three can be read independently. The fourth one, The Kingdom Underground, can be read independently as well, but it does refer to events in the earlier novellas. I think this story is better if you’ve read the others.
The novellas share two main characters: George Fergusson and George “Freds” Fredericks. Both are Americans who fell in love with the Himalayas and are now semi-permanent residents of Kathmandu. Together (much to Freds’ dismay) they explore the mysteries of Nepal. From a captured Yeti to the fate of the Mount Everest expedition of 1924, and from the mysteries of the Nepalese bureaucracy to the true location of mythical Shangri-La, George and Freds stumble across all of them trying to make sense of their strange environment. It’s Nepal though a Western eye, so their (rather laid back) sense of wonder never wears out entirely.
Robinson writes about men who have fallen in love with the country and I suspect he shares something of this affection as well. Nepal in the late 1980s was not in all respects a pretty place. Plagued by poverty, corrupt government and environmental problems, there was much misery to discover once you move outside the touristic part of Kathmandu. My aunt spent some time in Nepal more or less around the time Kim Stanley Robinson visited the country. She was staying in India for a year but had to make a detour to Nepal because her visa to India expired. One of the things she told me about her time there is that the place was unbelievably filthy. The lack of sanitation is one thing that Robinson points out numerous times in Escape from Kathmandu.
Although he isn’t blind to the problems of Nepal, Robinson managed to make Escape from Kathmandu a surprisingly upbeat book. George and Freds are both accustomed to the peculiarities of the country and, although the corruption in the Nepali government sets Freds off at times, especially after it humiliatingly defeats him in The True Nature of Shangri-La, they can just as easily see the good around them as the bad. Part of what they love about the country is the fact that even if the Nepali doesn’t always understand the reasons themselves, the place is run very differently from a Western country. Mystery is very much accepted as one of the main ingredients of Nepal’s allure and should therefore be kept a mystery. Interesting enough, George and Freds discover the nature of these mysteries while trying to keep others from doing so on a number of occasions.
There are a number of elements in these novellas that would make their way into Robinson’s later work. There’s the trekking and mountaineering, of course, but also his interest in various forms of Buddhism and the occupation of Tibet. In the MARS trilogy in particular, Robinson develops a style in which descriptions of the (Martian) landscape are very present in the narrative. Although Escape from Kathmandu includes a number of passages where he does something similar — his descriptions of Mount Everest and its surroundings are particularly vivid — they are much more contained. The harsh conditions of these great altitudes on Earth do bear some resemblance to the conditions on Mars however.
The tone of Escape from Kathmandu is surprisingly light. Some passages are comical, especially later on when Freds wonders what disaster George is luring him into this time. Robinson’s works are usually full of heavy scientific and sociological themes and, while Escape from Kathmandu doesn’t lack that entirely, it is a much more relaxed read than Robinson’s previous stories. He touches on a lot of sociological, religious and political issues in this collection but, whereas in most of his stories the characters are deeply involved in these issues, George and Freds pick more limited, immediately pressing causes. As such, Escape from Kathmandu offers readers a choice about how much to invest in the book. It works very well as an at-times comical story about two Americans in Nepal, but it also works as a story that exposes some of the problems the country was facing at the time (and in some cases is still facing). Escape from Kathmandu will be a surprising read for people who are familiar with Robinson’s work. I also think it is a good place to begin if you haven’t read anything of his. In either case, I highly recommend it.
This was one of my favorites back when it first came out, and remains the only KSR book I’ve read to date. I know his Mars Trilogy sets the standard for complex near-future terra-forming tales, but it’s a bit intimidating for its density and seriousness, so I appreciated the light-hearted tone of this book.
In fact, I liked it so much I actually seriously explored doing a junior year abroad in Kathmandu (despite the severe poverty and filthy conditions), but ended up in ultra-developed Tokyo instead. I sometimes wonder how my life would have gone there…