Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Science in the Capitol” triology

Just this past week, I finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Sixty Days and Counting, the third book of what Wikipedia calls his Science in the Capitol trilogy. (Actually, Wikipedia called it the “Science in the Capital” trilogy, but I changed it. And at least one source suggests that either form is correct, but I can’t shake the suspicion that they’re wrong. And at any rate, the relevant DC locale is Capitol Hill, so I’m sticking with it.)

The first book, Forty Signs of Rain, really blew me away: here was a book that tried to be about the way that science really operates, and the way that the American government and political system operate. In the novel, climate change forces both groups to confront their inherent limitations and to react to circumstances. Forty Signs of Rain really struck me because both politics and science operate essentially without heroes, though individual scientists and politicians may be iconic and seem heroic. The real work, in both cases, is systemic. Turning scientists and politicians into heroes in no small way discounts their very professions, and I admired Robinson’s work at trying to turn in an interesting thriller about climate change without real individual heroes.

I was less impressed by the second volume, Fifty Degrees Below. Perhaps Frank Vanderwal, one of the scientists, became too heroic. Perhaps the conspiracy angle that emerged seemed too implausible. But I did like some of the sections with Buddhists, and Vanderwal’s attempt to live a neo-paleolithic lifestyle, so I looked forward to the third volume.

Like some other reviewers, I found Sixty Days and Counting to be a significant disappointment: more heroics, less real science, less real politics. More conspiracy. The characters hurtle through flaming hoops to their appointed destinations without much real feeling. Force-fed Emerson and Thoreau, without any acknowledgment of the gap between their writings and their lives. Heavy-handed plotting and philosophizing on topics that Robinson handled much more deftly in the first two volumes. Worst of all, I had real trouble believing the endings, and the way each character’s story wrapped up.

In short, I loved the first volume in the trilogy, and liked the second, but think that Robinson really ran out of steam in the last volume. Hardcore environmentalists and socialists will probably approve of the didactic tone of the last book, which devolves from scientific fact to moralizing. I agree with Robinson that Global Warming is a critical issue that still isn’t being addressed adequately; and I further agree with much of his description of why that is so, but he makes those points adequately earlier in the trilogy without seeming shrill.

Second Corollary to the Technological Singularity’s event horizon

If the technological singularity has an event horizon, as I suggested yesterday, there exists a second interesting corollary:

Because it’s impossible to see the future at even a short distance, speculative fiction becomes ever more difficult to produce. As William Gibson noted in multiple interviews for Spook Country, his novels used to be science fiction, but are now contemporary. As he says,

[ . . . ] writing about the world today as I perceive it would probably be more challenging, in the real sense of science fiction, than continuing just to make things up. And I found that to absolutely be the case. If I’m going to write fiction set in an imaginary future now, I’m going to need a yardstick that gives me some accurate sense of how weird things are now. ‘Cause I’m going to have to go beyond that. And I think over the course of these last two books–I don’t think I’m done yet–I’ve been getting a yardstick together. But I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it again. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make up an imaginary future in the same way.

Have we already entered the singularity? Is William Gibson our canary in the future’s coal mine?

Perhaps the future will see the end of the historical novel, as it’s impossible to see behind you once you’ve passed the event horizon. Or perhaps that’s stretching the metaphor until it’s good and torn, and in the future all novels will be historical novels, because the present will be as incomprehensible to us as the future is rapidly becoming.