Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson science fiction book reviewsFifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson

Forty Signs of Rain identified the themes and mode for Kim Stanley Robinson’s SCIENCE IN THE CAPITOL series. As is expected for the middle novel of a trilogy, Fifty Degrees Below (2006) further unpacks the ideas while escalating the story to new heights of excitement. Salting what was a rather tasteless opening, the second novel improves upon the first while launching the story into the third and conclusory volume, Sixty Days and Counting.

Working with the same cast of characters, Fifty Degrees Below opens with Frank Vanderwal having to leave the apartment where he was staying and search for a new home. The flood has receded, but its effects remain. Housing prices and rent are through the roof given the lack of supply and huge demand, so Frank opts for creative domesticity. Dividing time between his van, a homemade treehouse in a local park, and the showers at work, he soon settles into a routine that allows him to focus on what Diane, his boss at the NSF, has laid out for him to do: think of plausible ideas that can be implemented to combat climate change. With the jetstream sweeping ever southward, drawing the cold with it, Frank is under pressure. Charlie Quibler, still advisor to Senator Phil Chase, is faced with a new task: a presidential campaign. Caring for little Joe during the day while Anna works, Charlie has to back a man who does not implement every environmental mitigation plan, but is at least a sight better than the man currently in office. Let the campaigning begin.

Where pacing may have been an issue for readers uninterested in the subjects under discussion in Forty Signs of Rain, Robinson shifts the balance in Fifty Degrees Below. Frank’s story is mainly in the spotlight as he spends his time in the park tracking animals that escaped from the Washington DC Zoo during the flood, playing ultimate frisbee with the neo-hippies that live on the margins of civilization, relating to the homeless who also call the park home, trying to find the mysterious woman he met in the elevator, and getting back to the basics of life in his treehouse. These events are all related in a fashion that makes the pages turn — especially after Frank learns that he and several others at the NSF are targets for observation by the department of Homeland Security. Robinson plays out Frank’s line nicely, and the story escalates over the last fifty pages to a subtle, but exciting crescendo.

Given Frank is the main focus, the reader is privy to his thoughts, habits, and behavior. Presented in altruistic fashion (a la an Arthur C. Clarke hero), Frank’s scientific knowledge and inquiries range the spectrum from climatology to paleontology, and never is his thirst quenched. When cold weather sets in, he’s found helping all he can, going to homeless shelters, building plastic lean-tos for his down-on-their-luck friends in the park, and helping to re-capture lost zoo animals — all the while helping to come up with a solution that will re-balance the catastrophic changes that have come about environmentally. Frank is a sci-fi Mary Sue and it’s possible the reader will be turned off by his altruistic personality. But that would be to miss Robinson’s point.

The Khambali Tibetan storyline is given more detail in Fifty Degrees Below, and Frank’s presentation as Mister Perfect is not intended to be realistic. A representation, Frank is intended to be inspirational, to provide a goal for others to strive for. He’s concerned about his health so he stays fit. He is concerned about the state of the environment, so he does his part to combat negative impact. He is concerned about society, so he does what he can to pitch in. And lastly, life is interesting to him, so he digs into the facts available. And so while Robinson obviously had a lot of fun imagining Frank’s day-to-day life, it’s easy to see he serves as an example of a socially responsible world citizen. As sugar sweet as he may be, the world would be a better place were more people to engage with life and society in the same fashion.

But Frank’s character is only bread. The meat and cheese (sorry for the poor metaphor) are the politics which have allowed the environmental situation to go unchecked. With a cynical tone to the chapter interludes, Robinson makes the reader aware of his stance on the state of American politicians as of 2006: 

They want a silver bullet. Some kind of technical fix that will make all the problems go away without any suffering on Wall Street.


…there is a ten-trillion-a-year economy that also wants more consumption. It’s like we’re working within the body of a cancerous tumor. It’s hopeless, really. We will simply charge over the cliff like lemmings. 

At the same time, Robinson does not blame a lack of knowledge for the environmental issues:

Clearly ignorance of the situation has not been the problem. The problem is acting on what we know. Maybe people will be ready for that now. Better late than never.

This ideology, coupled with Frank’s character, serves up the socio-enviro-political agenda for the book, and the series.

In the end, Fifty Degrees Below continues to take the SCIENCE IN THE CAPITOL series in two distinct directions: one highly politicized and the other mainstream plotting. With Robinson’s neo-socialist views on politics, economy, spiritual philosophy, environmental policy, and society pouring out in the narrative, readers with conservative political ideologies will balk at most of what he has to say. Frank’s tangible sense of altruism may further annoy. That Robinson, however, is attempting to offer real-world solutions to some of the real-world problems we are currently facing overshadows the plastic characterization. Rather than just complaining or making snarky comments from the sidelines, he wades in hip-deep with thought-out ideas rooted in science and society. The window dressing to discussion on arguably the most important issues facing humanity in the world today, well, that would be the pulp plotting.

And what’s next in Sixty Days and Counting?:

First the great flood, now the great freeze, with widespread fires as well — what’s next? “There’s an excellent chance of drought next summer.”

Science in the Capitol– (2004-2007) The bestselling author of the classic Mars trilogy and The Years of Rice and Salt returns with a riveting new trilogy of cutting-edge science, international politics, and the real-life ramifications of global warming as they are played out in our nation’s capital—and in the daily lives of those at the center of the action. Hauntingly realistic, here is a novel of the near future that is inspired by scientific facts already making headlines. When the Arctic ice pack was first measured in the 1950s, it averaged thirty feet thick in midwinter. By the end of the century it was down to fifteen. One August the ice broke. The next year the breakup started in July. The third year it began in May. That was last year. It’s an increasingly steamy summer in the nation’s capital as Senate environmental staffer Charlie Quibler cares for his young son and deals with the frustrating politics of global warming. Charlie must find a way to get a skeptical administration to act before it’s too late—and his progeny find themselves living in Swamp World. But the political climate poses almost as great a challenge as the environmental crisis when it comes to putting the public good ahead of private gain. While Charlie struggles to play politics, his wife, Anna, takes a more rational approach to the looming crisis in her work at the National Science Foundation. There a proposal has come in for a revolutionary process that could solve the problem of global warming—if it can be recognized in time. But when a race to control the budding technology begins, the stakes only get higher. As these everyday heroes fight to align the awesome forces of nature with the extraordinary march of modern science, they are unaware that fate is about to put an unusual twist on their work—one that will place them at the heart of an unavoidable storm. With style, wit, and rare insight into our past, present, and possible future, this captivating novel propels us into a world on the verge of unprecedented change—in a time quite like our own. Here is Kim Stanley Robinson at his visionary best, offering a gripping cautionary tale of progress—and its price—as only he can tell it.


  • Jesse Hudson

    JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.