Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science In The Capital Series

About the author:

Born: Waukegan, Illinois on March 23, 1952

Education: 

B.A. Literature – University of California- San Diego

M.A. English – Boston University

Ph.D. English Literature – University of California- San Diego

Website: http://kimstanleyrobinson.info/

Thriller Sub-genre: Eco-science fiction

The Simon Review

With the recent decision by this administration to remove the US from the Paris climate agreement, I thought it would be good time to hunt for the ultimate climate change thriller series, and I decided to start with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital series. So what should one look for in a really good climate change thriller? First of all, the science must be as close as possible to being correct. I know this is difficult with fiction writers as real science can sometimes be a bit boring and put a damper on what could be an exciting thriller. Plus it is challenging to make technical jargon easy to understand for the general population. But with the topic of climate change, it is important to have the facts straight. Secondly, it must be scary. Even though a larger percentage of the population is starting to believe that climate change is real, many of them believe that it won’t affect them and it is not a big deal.  Apathy is a challenge to overcome, and many will not get involved unless they are scared senseless. Thirdly, it must be as non-political as possible. Divisive partisanship should not come into play when humanity is facing potentially catastrophic situations as is true with climate change, so politics must not be part of a good climate change thriller, otherwise there will be many that will just tune out. Humans have come to a stage in our evolution that we have the capability to foresee potential threats to our survival and be able to act on it. But greed, hubris, and apathy are potential roadblocks and may ultimately be our undoing. Vice President Mike Pence was quoted as saying, “For some reason, this issue of climate change has emerged as a paramount issue for the left – in this country and around the world”. Climate change is not a liberal issue, it is not a conservative issue- it is a human issue.

So does Robinson’s series fit the bill? Well, ummm, noooo not exactly. First of all, the series is not a thriller, a drama perhaps, but not a thriller. Even the most exciting aspects of the series such as the flooding and the extreme cold snap that occurred in Washington D.C. were rather tame, so no fear factor. Secondly, it is very liberal minded, so any conservative leaning reader will throw the first book in the garbage before the ending of the first chapter. So far, two strikes. So what about the science? Robinson does a very good job discussing the scientific aspects of climate change, so I would give an A+. In the third book of the series, Sixty Days and Counting, Robinson discusses the potential fixes that would need to be done to slow down or even reverse the effects of CO2 on the climate, and, for the most part, I agree with the exception of the concept of terraforming. The reason being that the adverse effects of adding CO2 to the atmosphere through fossil fuel consumption was not even conceptualized when the Industrial Revolution began, and the fact that we still are not precisely sure what will be the ultimate outcome of global warming. I think it would be best not to add any unknown variables into our ecosystem, such as the salting of the Atlantic to upstart the Gulf Stream as was mentioned in Sixty Days and Counting. Let’s just try removing the variable that we already have added which would be CO2.

There are three primary characters throughout the series, Charlie Quibler, climate change advisor to senator Paul Chase, who would later become president; Anna Quibler, Charlie’s wife and Director of the Bioinformatics Division at the National Science Foundation; and Frank Vanderwal, a bioinformatics faculty member at UCSD on temporary assignment at the National Science Foundation. Of all the characters Frank Vanderwal is the most prominent and unfortunately the worst character. Vanderwal has one of the most significant roles in the series in getting Science involved in the political storm when dealing with the issue of global warming, but the character is a mess. To give you an example, Vanderwal uses his rock climbing skills to break into the office of the Director of NSF to retrieve a letter that he had previously sent her, he chooses to become homeless and live in a tree house in a Washington D.C. park. And on top of this he falls in love with a spy that he met in an elevator who also happens to be married, and, guess what, to a husband that is a spy too.  This character, if anything, should be the James Bond of climate change, instead he comes off as a character that can’t deal with his own life situation which doesn’t make him very believable as an environmental hero.

For the most part, I thought the series went very slow with a lot extraneous discussions that seem to take away from the concept of global warming. On the positive side, Robinson did a good job of illustrating the delicate balance between science and politics. The vast amount of scientific research is funded through the government, so science investigators are at the mercy to the whims of the political environment.  Our most recent administration believes that science funding would be best done by the private sector, but this would be devastating to the progress in scientific research. The business world sees science as a way to produce a product and will fund the research if they believe they can make a profit. The problem is that most of the products that we see on the market, such as many of the drugs that we see so aggressively advertised, could only exist as a result of decades of research most likely done at the academic level backed by government funding. Scientific research does not occur behind a veil of secrecy as is true for industry, but builds on the results of many investigators with each bit of information added to a collective which ultimately brings on new discoveries.

Robinson released a couple of years ago a more condensed version of the trilogy entitled Green Earth. I would highly recommend reading this over the trilogy as the trilogy is very long. Additionally, Robinson has updated the science. I have not read Green Earth, but my understanding is that it follows the series quite closely.

Simon’s pick:

Most Favorite Novel in the Series- Forty Signs of Rain- because the flooding of Washington D.C. was fun

Least Favorite Novel in the Series-Sixty Days and Counting- I was pretty burned out on Frank by this point

What about the science? Robinson has a Ph.D. in English so he is definitely not a scientist but he happens to be married to one. Robinson is married to Lisa Howland Nowell who is an environmental chemist that works for the U.S. Geological Survey. So if Robinson screwed up the science in his novels, I am sure he would hear about it.

The Technical Word in Review: Carbon Dioxide– This controversial simple molecule may change the world as we know it, but the question is why? The science behind as to why carbon dioxide is such a problematic molecule is quite complicated and for those of you that would like an explanation in all its glorious detail the blog Science of Doom does a very good job of it. I, on the other hand, will give a more limited and simplified explanation.

The simplified version is that carbon dioxide has the ability to absorb and re-emit infrared waves. When energy from the sun comes to planet earth half of the energy is in the form of high energy or short waves such as gamma rays while the other half is in the form of lower energy waves which include UV or near infrared waves which we know as visible light. Once the radiation of the sun collides with the surface of Earth it is absorbed by molecules which results in vibrational motion of the molecules. It is the vibration of molecules that generates heat. The faster the vibration, the greater the heat. Of all of the energy coming from the sun 29% of it is reflected immediately back into space. Only about 48% of the energy from the sun is absorbed by the earth, the rest of it either escapes back into space or is absorbed by the atmosphere and this is where carbon dioxide’s role as a greenhouse gas comes into play. Our atmosphere is mostly made up of nitrogen (78%), oxygen (21%), and argon (0.9%) but these gases are not able to absorb energy in the infrared region which is the form in which most of the energy that is trying to leave the surface of the planet. If nitrogen, oxygen, and argon were the only gases in our atmosphere, then all of that radiation would simply escape into space. However, carbon dioxide as well as other gases such as water vapor can absorb this radiation which results in vibrational energy or heat. Some of this thermal energy generated by these greenhouse gases will be released out into space but some of it will heat the surface. The reason that carbon dioxide is becoming a problem is because as more molecules are added to the atmosphere then more molecules are absorbing the energy which means more heat is being generated and less energy is escaping into space.


She clicked to the next slide. “Let’s start with atmosphere, particularly the carbon dioxide aspect. Now up to 440 parts per million, from 280 before the industrial revolution. Clearly, we need to slow down how much CO2 we’re putting into the atmosphere, despite the industrialization of China, India, and many other places. Then also, it would be interesting to see if we could remove and sequester from the atmosphere any significant amounts of CO2 that are already up there. Drawdown studies, these are sometimes called. – Fifty Degrees Below

Books in the Series by Order:

Most Favorite in the series: Sixty Days and Counting with a score of 3.87

Least Favorite in the series: Forty Signs of Rain with a score of 3.51

Based on overall ratings from Goodreads, Barnes and Nobles, Library Thing and Amazon (US & UK)

#1-Forty Signs of Rain- 2004

First Line

The Earth is bathed in a flood of sunlight.


Characters

Frank Vanderwal: Originally from UCSD, did a one-year visit to NSF in Washington. His bold ideas to change the way NSF does science won him an extended position in NSF. Later member of the staff to the Presidential Science Advisor

Charlie Quibler: Environmental policy advisor to Phil Chase

Anna Quibler: NSF Director of Bioinformatics Division

Phil Chase: Senator, then Presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, and ultimately President of the USA

Diane Chang: Director of the National Science Foundation then later science advisor to the president

Caroline Churchland: Covert operator and love interest of Frank Vanderwal


The Setting

Washington D.C., and San Diego, California


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.


Looking for a review of Forty Signs of Rain?  Check out:

Anthony Nanson’s Deep Time

A Bookish Type

Teaching Cli-fi

A Book A Day In Hay


Amazon Rating-US: 3.28 out of 5 stars based on 142 ratings

Amazon Rating-UK: 3.15 out of 5 stars based on 13 ratings

GoodReads Rating: 3.53 out of 5 stars based on 2,827 ratings

Barnes & Nobel Rating: 3.23 out of 5 stars based on 13 ratings

Library Thing Rating: 3.44 out of 5 stars based on 309 ratings

Total Score 3.51

#2-Fifty Degrees Below- 2005

First Line

Nobody likes Washington D.C.


Characters

Frank Vanderwal, Charlie Quibler, Anna Quibler, Phil Chase, Diane Chang and Caroline Churchland


The Setting

Washington, D.C.


Set in our nation’s capital, here is a chillingly realistic tale of people caught in the collision of science, technology, and the consequences of global warming–which could trigger another phenomenon: abrupt climate change, resulting in temperatures…

When the storm got bad, scientist Frank Vanderwal was at work, formalizing his return to the National Science Foundation for another year. He’d left the building just in time to help sandbag at Arlington Cemetery. Now that the torrent was over, large chunks of San Diego had eroded into the sea, and D.C. was underwater.

Shallow lakes occupied the most famous parts of the city. Reagan Airport was awash and the Potomac had spilled beyond its banks. Rescue boats dotted the saturated cityscape. Everything Frank and his colleagues in the halls of science and politics feared had culminated in this massive disaster. And now the world looked to them to fix it.

Whatever Frank can do, now that he is homeless, he’ll have to do from his car. He’s not averse to sleeping outdoors. Years of research have made him hyperaware of his status as just another primate. That plus his encounter with a Tibetan Buddhist has left him resolved to live a more authentic life.

Hopefully, this will prepare him for whatever is to come….

For even as D.C. bails out from the flood, a more extreme climate change looms. With the melting of the polar ice caps shutting down the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, another Ice Age could be imminent. The last time it happened, eleven thousand years ago, it took just three years to start.


The fires burned all night and into the next day, but on the other hand, the temperatures never dropped lower than ten below. Some in the coffee shops next morning thought all the smoke had created a smudge pot effect, the ultimate urban heat-island insulator; but even out in the country the temperatures had not dropped as low as they had gotten the night before. The low had been a freak thing, an all-time record for the city, and even the Post the next morning had a headline like a London tabloid: FIFTY DEGREES BELOW.


Looking for a review of Fifty Degrees Below?  Check out:

A Bookish Type


Amazon Rating-US: 3.34 out of 5 stars based on 78 ratings

Amazon Rating-UK: 3.29 out of 5 stars based on 17 ratings

GoodReads Rating: 3.68 out of 5 stars based on 2,073 ratings

Barnes & Nobel Rating: 3.25 out of 5 stars based on 12 ratings

Library Thing Rating: 3.56 out of 5 stars based on 220 ratings

Total Score 3.65

#3-Sixty Days and Counting- 2016

First Line

Why do you do what you do?


Characters

Frank Vanderwal, Charlie Quibler, Anna Quibler, Phil Chase, Diane Chang and Caroline Churchland


The Setting

Washington, D.C.


By the time Phil Chase is elected president, the world’s climate is far on its way to irreversible change. Food scarcity, housing shortages, diminishing medical care, and vanishing species are just some of the consequences. The erratic winter the Washington, D.C., area is experiencing is another grim reminder of a global weather pattern gone haywire: bone-chilling cold one day, balmy weather the next.

But the president-elect remains optimistic and doesn’t intend to give up without a fight. A maverick in every sense of the word, Chase starts organizing the most ambitious plan to save the world from disaster since FDR–and assembling a team of top scientists and advisers to implement it.

For Charlie Quibler, this means reentering the political fray full-time and giving up full-time care of his young son, Joe. For Frank Vanderwal, hampered by a brain injury, it means trying to protect the woman he loves from a vengeful ex and a rogue “black ops” agency not even the president can control–a task for which neither Frank’s work at the National Science Foundation nor his study of Tibetan Buddhism can prepare him.

In a world where time is running out as quickly as its natural resources, where surveillance is almost total and freedom nearly nonexistent, the forecast for the Chase administration looks darker each passing day. For as the last–and most terrible–of natural disasters looms on the horizon, it will take a miracle to stop the clock . . . the kind of miracle that only dedicated men and women can bring about.


Really, if I don’t get the infrastructure and transport systems out as fast as is physically possible, the world is cooked. It’s like our first sixty days never ended, but only keeps rolling over. It’s like sixty days and counting all the time. So we have to look to what we have now. And right now we have capitalism. So we have to use it.


Looking for a review of Sixty Days and Counting?  Check out:

Grist

ScienceBlogs

SF Site


Amazon Rating-US: 3.86 out of 5 stars based on 58 ratings

Amazon Rating-UK: 3.64 out of 5 stars based on 11 ratings

GoodReads Rating: 3.65 out of 5 stars based on 1,646 ratings

Barnes & Nobel Rating: 3.90 out of 5 stars based on 10 ratings

Library Thing Rating: 3.60 out of 5 stars based on 153 ratings

Total Score 3.87

Green Earth- 2015

More than a decade ago, bestselling author Kim Stanley Robinson began a groundbreaking series of near-future eco-thrillers—Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting—that grew increasingly urgent and vital as global warming continued unchecked. Now, condensed into one volume and updated with the latest research, this sweeping trilogy gains new life as Green Earth, a chillingly realistic novel that plunges readers into great floods, a modern Ice Age, and the political fight for all our lives.

The Arctic ice pack averaged thirty feet thick in midwinter when it was first measured in the 1950s. 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 a muggy summer in Washington, D.C., as Senate environmental staffer Charlie Quibler and his scientist wife, Anna, work to call attention to the growing crisis of global warming. But as they fight to align the extraordinary march of modern technology with the awesome forces of nature, fate puts an unusual twist on their efforts—one that will pit science against politics in the heart of the coming storm.


Looking for a review of Sixty Days and Counting?  Check out:

Weighing A Pig Doesn’t Fatten It

Joshua Foust


Amazon Rating-US: 4.38 out of 5 stars based on 50 ratings

Amazon Rating-UK: 3.00 out of 5 stars based on 2 ratings

GoodReads Rating: 3.84 out of 5 stars based on 260 ratings

Barnes & Nobel Rating: 4.00 out of 5 stars based on 1 ratings

Library Thing Rating: 3.61 out of 5 stars based on 9 ratings

Total Score 3.91

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