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Fifty Degrees Below
Kim Stanley Robinson
HarperCollins, 520 pages

Fifty Degrees Below
Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson has travelled and worked in different parts of the world (including Washington, DC and in Switzerland) with his wife, Lisa, an environmental chemist. His work has garnered many awards including the Nebula Award ("The Blind Geometer" and Red Mars), the Asimov, John W.Campbell, Locus and World Fantasy Awards ("Black Air") and the Hugo Award (Green Mars).

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Forty Signs of Rain
SF Site Review: Nebula Awards Showcase 2002
SF Site Review: The Years of Rice and Salt
SF Site Review: Antarctica
SF Site: Kim Stanley Robinson Reading List

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

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It's the near future, and chaos is in the air and water; chaos in the form of tipping points, changes in the giant system that determines the Earth's weather that could lead to sudden, severe climate change. One of those tipping points lies in the interaction of cold water from the polar ice cap with the warm water of the Gulf Stream. Too much of the polar water, which is also less salty, and the Gulf Stream could be displaced to the south, removing the flow of water that currently warms England and Northern Europe.

Frank Vanderwal and his fellow scientists working at the National Science Foundation are afraid that is exactly what is happening. Afraid because the last time such an event occurred, the result was an Ice Age known as the Younger Dryas, a period of several thousand years in which England, most of Northern Europe, and the eastern half of North America lay under a blanket of ice and snow. In the summer, the polar ice cap completely melts for the first time. That winter, the temperature hits fifty below in Washington, D.C.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Fifty Degrees Below is a near-future novel built around speculations in climatology and global warming that provide all the necessary elements for an adventure story of survival under extreme circumstances. It also has elements of a political thriller, there's a presidential election going on, and Frank learns early in the novel that he is under surveillance by a super-secret, or blackblack, agency of Homeland Security. But while there are moments of adventure and intrigue in Fifty Degrees Below, the story Robinson is most interested in telling is Frank's; his decision to try and survive in Rock Creek Park while working at the NSF, his relationships with women, and his search for a kind of mental stability while living in a rapidly changing environment. If Robinson had wanted Fifty Degrees Below to be a conventional thriller, there would have been more emphasis on Frank's boss Diane, who is fighting with Congress for funding and with rival agencies for bureaucratic turf, and with the presidential campaign and evidence that some of the more paranoid fears of the American Left may be true.

In many ways, Fifty Degrees Below is a typical Kim Stanley Robinson novel. There is a good amount of exposition, especially in the first third of the novel, as Robinson lays the groundwork for the reader's understanding of the problem Frank and the NSF is facing and their attempts to fix it. There is also the physical activity, there may be no other science fiction writer whose characters spend more time running, hiking, climbing, or just working out. What sets Fifty Degrees Below apart is the seriousness of its message, and the frightening likelihood that we are headed toward some such ecological disaster right now. It's a message that comes through even with the emphasis on the personal story of Frank, the other people and animals living in the park, his friends involved in the campaign of an environmentally-aware presidential candidate, and the scientists desperately looking for a way to reverse what is happening in the Atlantic Ocean.

Unfortunately, the same qualities that make Fifty Degrees Below more literary than the typical thriller could also prevent it from breaking out to a wider audience. The typical SF reader is probably already aware of the possible drastic affects of global warming, the average reader of say, Michael Crichton, probably isn't. If the readership of Fifty Degrees Below is limited to Robinson's regular audience, then the book could be preaching to the already converted, its message unheard by those who most need to hear it.

But because you agree with its message, or need exposure to it is never reason enough by itself to read any novel. Novels are read because there's a good story with interesting, well-developed characters, and the writer has a style that makes his or her words compelling and worthy of attention. Fifty Degrees Below, and Kim Stanley Robinson, has all that and more.

Copyright © 2005 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L Johnson can attest to the incredible sharpness of the senses that is brought out by experiencing thirty-degrees below zero on a Winter's night, but is not so certain he could handle life at minus fifty as well as Frank Vanderwal. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.


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