The collision of the present and the future, of the already is and the
could be, is a difficult moment to capture. Kim Stanley Robinson's
Science in the Capital trilogy, comprised of 'Forty
Signs of Rain',
Below' and his newest novel, 'Sixty Days and Counting',
manages to do so in a manner that is in every way unexpected. Funny
when you expect it to be grim and powerful at the peripheries as
well as the core, 'Sixty Days and Counting' is a thoroughly satisfying
finish to a series that successfully captures the now and the next.
Robinson's story is not a grim glimpse of the coming apocalypse,
but a refreshingly positive and human story of how the mundane details
of our everyday lives accrete to create a narrative much larger than
The three novels tell a single story, and should be read as such. Robinson
offers readers science fiction as social realism to tell how science
actually works in the United States and the world at large in this moment.
In the first two novels of the series, we meet Charlie and Anna Quibler
and Frank Vanderwal as well as their friends and families. Anna Quibler
is a cog in the National Science Foundation, while Charlie is a science
advisor to Phil Chase, a well-placed senator. Frank Vanderwahl is a scientist
on leave from UCSD, working with Anna in the capital. ''Forty Signs of
Rain'' took readers through events that bring the problems of global
climate change into the lives of its characters, and 'Fifty Degrees Below'
sees Chase elected President as the US population and government begins
to realize that radical action will be required to avert global catastrophe.
'Sixty Days and Counting' follows the first sixty days of Chase's Presidency
and beyond, as the Quiblers try to sort out their home life, Frank his
love life and the world this little problem concerning a forthcoming
species extinction event. Of the human race.
It is the human that the important aspect here. In 'Sixty Days and Counting',
Robinson's story focuses on the characters and the effects of their individual
actions as part of the enormous and creaking technology that the United
States calls the Federal Government. He deftly combines domestic comedy
with human comedy in the broadest sense in an environment chock-a-block
with intriguing cutting-edge, current science. The novel does everything
a great science fiction novel should do, but in a very unconventional
manner. On one hand, the book does read like a low-key, current day domestic
comedy. But the nuts and bolts of that comedy are no less than The End
of the World As We Know It, both environmentally and politically.
Robinson works on a grand canvas through specific details. Readers watch
Charlie Quibler play Mr. Mom until duty calls from a power no less than
that of his friend, now-President Phil Chase. Frank Vanderwal's seriously
odd love life involves a woman implicated in Presidential election fraud.
The Quiblers and Vanderwal engage in bureaucratic infighting and get
real science done to avert global catastrophe. Robinson offers passionate
rants and inspired heights of invention that are both funny and thought-provoking.
As science fiction, 'Sixty Days and Counting' and the entire Science
in the Capital trilogy operate in a subtle and subversive manner. Robinson
is gritty and realistic in portraying the day-today practice of science,
but within these boundaries, he tosses off speculative notions that create
a sense of wonder about the here and now. He explores our understanding
of humans as social animals, small-scale, cutting-edge genetic engineering
and huge-scale environmental amelioration with equal aplomb. But these
speculations are embedded in scenes of domestic and workplace comedy.
Everything is pretty complicated. For this reader, the scenes detailing
the effects and symptoms of Vanderwahl's brain injury were toe-tapping
bits of terror. Nothing is more frightening than brain damage. Charlie,
on the other hand is worried about the state of his son's soul. A ritual
performed by the monks in 'Forty Signs of Rain' has left Joe preternaturally
calm. As much as the science geek in Charlie wants to deny that it could
have something to do with rogue spirits and reincarnation, he finds Joe's
behavior good to the point of being unsettling and opts for a very unscientific
solution. It's fascinating to watch Robinson balance these approaches
to our spiritual lives. He works both sides of the aisle with equal ease,
and even revels in childhood hissy fits. He makes the reader revel as
well, quite an accomplishment.
'Sixty Days and Counting' is something of a paradox. Robinson engages
in fantastic and head-spinning speculation while telling a very realistic
and rather funny story about characters we really like. He shows the
world going to hell in a handbasket and yet there's an aura of almost
sunny positivism. There are plenty of reasons to worry, but there are
even more possibilities for change.