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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

Fifty Degrees Below

by
Kim Stanley Robinson


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Fifty Degrees Below



Title: Fifty Degrees Below
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 603 pages
Availability: Fifty Degrees Below - US
Fifty Degrees Below - UK
Fifty Degrees Below - Canada
50° au-dessous de zéro - France
  • The second volume in the Science in the Capital-trilogy
  • The trilogy has also been published in a single volume, as: Green Earth

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Our Assessment:

B : makes for a decent picture of drastic climate change, and offers quite a bit of suspense, but very much a middle novel that still leaves practically everything open

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 18/12/2005 Gerald Jonas
The Times . 1/10/2005 Peter Millar
The Times . 1/7/2006 Lisa Tuttle
TLS . 7/10/2005 Michael Saler
The Washington Post . 21/12/2005 Gregory Feeley


  From the Reviews:
  • "There's no magic in Kim Stanley Robinson's Fifty Degrees Below unless you count the way he invests the details of scientific and bureaucratic decision making with high drama. (...) For a writer who deals with world-class disasters, Robinson is incorrigibly optimistic. The most dire problems, he assures us, can be solved by the prompt application of scientific thinking and physical and moral courage. The catch comes in the word "prompt."" - Gerald Jonas, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Unfortunately, unless you have read the first book, this one is nigh on unintelligible, as little that has gone before is explained. (...) If you are fascinated by the detailed geophysical, meteorological and climatological background to the global warming debate you might get a kick out of this, but then you're probably already over-excited by the latest issue of Nature." - Peter Millar, The Times

  • "(A) sequel to his 2004 Forty Signs of Rain that can stand alone (.....) Robinson's novel, which adroitly combines the fetish for detailed scientific knowledge of Jules Verne with the relish for cataloguing contemporary mores of a Tom Wolfe, is much more than a "timely intervention" in contemporary discussions of global warming, although it does succeed admirably at that level. (...) Fortunately, though, Fifty Degrees Below goes beyond being a mere tract for the times. Robinson is as concerned to delineate the moral dilemmas of his characters as he is to delve into the scientific remediation of environmental problems. He shows that the two are, in fact, inseparable." - Michael Saler, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The novel is at its best in scenes describing the strange semi-wilderness of the park (.....) Robinson knows the dangers for a novelist in trying to deliver a message, but he seems confident that he can get away with it. His straightforward presentation of alternatives to our present ruinous behavior can threaten to become oppressive, but Robinson's evocation of his imperiled world, the particulars of his frozen, half-feral Washington and the novel's global perspective manage to offer a counterbalance. This is fortunate" - Gregory Feeley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Fifty Degrees Below continues the story from Forty Signs of Rain -- though it almost feels like not that much would be missed just starting here. (There is quite a bit of character-background that has been built up in the first installment of the trilogy, and a few plot odds and ends, but most of the forward-movement in this installment works just fine even without all that; still, for the full experience you really do want to start at the beginning.)
       A month has passed since the great storm that flooded Washington D.C.; the water has receded and while considerable damage has been done, life (and government) has, more or less, returned largely to what previously passed for normal; among the few lingering differences is that a lot of animals that were released from the National Zoo are still on the loose in Rock Creek Park -- where a lot of the story is set.
       The central figure in Fifty Degrees Below is Frank Vanderwal, semi-roped/convinced into spending another year at the National Science Foundation, working on how the NSF can be more pro-active in addressing the increasingly pressing issue of climate change. Frank had leased an apartment for a year, but that lease was now up, and the D.C. housing market has tightened up some; leaving things to the last minute, Frank finds he has limited options -- though there is always that office he can retreat to. Ultimately, he decides on a pretty far-out solution: he builds a treehouse, way up in a tree, in a Rock Creek Park. He trades in his car for a van, so he has another room, as it were, to fall back on too, but the nature-lover is quite happy in his tree -- basically only a place to sleep, in any case -- and, for much of the novel, that's his home.
       A surprising amount of the novel is set in the park, with Frank's activities there extending beyond bunking down in the treetops. He befriends some homeless veterans who set up camp there, and, for a while, plays chess with a youngster; one of the minor (and left-dangling) storylines is Frank trying to find out what happened to the kid after he no longer shows up in the park. He also occasionally joins up with a group that plays frisbee golf in the park, a good way to get some exercise.
       Frank is also fascinated by the wildlife that is still loose in the park, and joins FOG, the Feral Observation Group set up by the Friends of the National Zoo to track the feral animals roaming around -- initially for practical reasons (it gets him a permit to enter the area that is officially off-limits -- not that that is very strictly enforced), but he also become a real enthusiast. There's a great deal in the novel about Frank in the park, especially as the weather changes, and his observations about how the animals (and humans) adapt to the changing conditions.
       Oh, yes, Fifty Degrees Below is also a climate change novel, and, as the title suggests, D.C. does get hammered by a hell of a winter, with the temperatures dropping catastrophically. The animals -- and the humans -- living in the wild struggle some to survive, with Frank, and the zoo-folk, doing what they can to help out.
       Frank's professional duties, under boss Diane, whom he gets closer to -- including their paths crossing regularly at the local gym (Frank does need a place to shower, after all) --, are mentioned, but not so much at the forefront. But another storyline running through the novel is the mystery-woman he was trapped in an elevator with from Forty Signs of Rain, who remains very much on his mind. She finally does contact him again, and he even learns her name -- Caroline. She's just as eager to be reunited with him. There are, however, complications. For one, she's married (unhappily, and to a creep). And then there's her job -- and her husband's, as both work somewhere deep within the government on secretive spy-y things. Among the information she shares with Frank: he is being surveilled. Loosely, along with many around him, and for reasons that aren't entirely clear -- though likely having to do with his interest in and support for the work mathematician Yann Pierzinski is doing.
       Caroline and Frank can only meet rarely and stealthily, and things come to a head when Caroline decides to break with what her husband is doing (she's not sure about the exact details, but gets her hand on enough of it that Frank and friends can determine the danger it poses) and then with her husband, enlisting Frank's help for both and thus putting him in (even) greater danger; the semi-cliffhanger finale involves an action-packed election night that brings several of the storylines together.
       Politics isn't too much at the fore in the novel, either, but early on Charlie Quibler -- whose wife Anna also works at the NSF -- convinces his boss, Senator Phil Chase, to run for president, and the novel concludes with that decisive election night that will determine who leads the nation for the next four years. Charlie and family aren't quite as prominent in this novel as the previous one, but baby Joe does get his moments -- and continues to get too-much-attention-for-comfort from the exile Tibetan community whose latest Khembalung-incarnation (their would-be state), as island-state in the Bay of Bengal, was washed away and who are now even more of a presence in D.C. Charlie and Anna suspect the Khembalung-folk want to see Joe as one of their reincarnated own ..... (Older son Nick, meanwhile, does get a bit more attention here too, accompanying Frank at times on his animal-expeditions.)
       Oh, yes, Fifty Degrees Below is, along the way, also a climate change novel ..... The NSF is trying to find possible solutions to what has become a much bigger and more immediate problem. The situation has -- terrifyingly rapidly -- gotten a great deal worse. As Diane sums up:

Abrupt climate change is real, no one can deny it, and it's a big problem. Things are a mess !
       First there's the Gulf Stream stall, which has completely changed the heat exchange especially in Europe and made for these extreme temperatures -- especially extreme cold -- even in D.C. Then, well into the story, comes the news that: "The West Antarctic Ice Sheet has started to come off big time". As Charlie realizes when he hears about this:
     "Okay okay. Shit. My God." Everything Anna and her colleagues had been doing to restart the Gulf Stream was as nothing to this news. Changing currents, maybe -- but sea level ? "The stakes just keep getting higher, don't they ?"
       A plan to restart the Gulf Stream is put into action, occupying much of Diane's time; it's a major operation -- the scale is incredible -- and involves a lot of salt; Robinson nicely walks the reader through the logistics, right down to the effect on salt futures (and the hedging one of the parties involved had the foresight to do). There's another plan in the works too, for carbon capture, but the NSF isn't too involved in that -- indeed, they're caught by surprise at the speed with which that is going forward ("So the Russians are just doing this ?" a surprised Frank realizes).
       There isn't too much about the presidential election campaign, but American politics, and a Republican Party that is ... limited in its willingness to address even the blatantly obvious do slip in at times, Robinson for example sharply summarizing the Republican incumbent's position:
     The president announced on the campaign trail that he had inherited this problem from his Democratic predecessors, particularly Bill Clinton, and that only free markets and a strong national defense could battle this new threat, which he continued to call climactic terrorism.
       [Note: It's unclear whether Robinson is being too clever by half here or the copy-editing was poor, but he uses the expression: "climactic terrorism" twice in the novel; of course it should be (ridiculous though the concept is, regardless) 'climatic terrorism'. I'd say it was a proof-reading error, but both times the words are ascribed to the president, so maybe he's just making more of a fool out of him ? (For what it's worth, the paperback edition (i.e. a re-print, where they could have corrected the original [I can hear those in the publishing industry laugh ...]) of the novel has it as: "climactic", but a later omnibus edition, the trilogy published in one volume as: Green Earth (2015) does have it as it as: "climatic" both times.)]
       The election is a sort of pivotal point in the novel -- not for nothing does one character wonder: "If Phil doesn't win, what do you think will happen ?" -- and the otherwise fairly odd Caroline-sub-plot story also takes on significance regarding that, and it's a shame Robinson doesn't feature that more. Similarly, there's not really that much day-to-day NSF work in play here, Robinson largely focusing on a few highlights and some summaries. This means that the novel doesn't bog down in the bureaucratic -- but, quite honestly, more of that would have been welcome. Robinson is pretty good with this stuff, and it is all interesting, especially given how pressing the issue at the heart of the novel continues to be.
       Instead, Fifty Degrees Below spends a lot of time on the personal and individual level, especially around Frank and what he sees of now nature has changed, and how people and animals adapt to it out in the wild. (There's disappointingly little on the more domestic front: minus fifty degrees in D.C. must have frozen and burst a hell of a lot of water pipes and even just the fallout of that would be interesting to hear about.) A whole lot of the novel takes place in the park, and, sure, it's neat to see the survival strategies (and failures) in these extreme conditions -- but it makes for more of an outdoor-adventure novel than hard science/policy one (which is what at least this reader would have been far more interested in).
       Robinson continue to play the long game here -- and, some 1100 pages into his story, it can seem pretty long already. There's enough set up now to suggest some more excitement ahead, but the payoff isn't here yet. Yes, the ending to this instalment is pretty exciting -- but also only in the more conventional thriller sense. So much remains a mystery .....
       Robinson is good on the secondary effects of the climate change that's happening, and how people adapt, at work and play, but at this point more -- a lot more -- about the efforts to counter it would be welcome.
       Fifty Degrees Below is entertaining enough, but hasn't really led anywhere yet. The clues to some of what is happening Robinson has dropped make for enough suspense to tempt readers onwards to the concluding volume, but Fifty Degrees Below makes for a pretty wobbly stand-alone.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 June 2020

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Links:

Fifty Degrees Below: Reviews: Kim Stanley Robinson: Other books by Kim Stanley Robinson under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Kim Stanley Robinson has written several highly acclaimed works of science fiction.

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© 2020 the complete review

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