My first dose of KSR (as the author is usually abbreviated) was in 2009 when I read is Alternate History novel The Years of Rice and Salt. Looking back, it feels very strange, that of all things it’s been this novel instead of his far better known CliFi novels or his Mars trilogy that got me introduced to his work. From there on, I dug my way very slowly through his works, mostly a novel each year. Green Earth waited quite a long time on my shelf. I bought it when it’s been published, six years ago in 2015, not long after I’ve read his Aurora (review). But then, a reading slump hit me hard and it got pushed back each time a new kid from KSR was on the block.
It felt daunting to start this 1100 pages doorstopper of a book, and the reviews didn’t indicate a must-read page-turner. The original “Science in the Capital” trilogy consisted of Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). The author cut 300 pages from these books, updated it with current facts (you can find an essay by him about that process at io9) and revised it as the title at hand.
The novel couldn’t read more relevant, more timely, more precisely: like last year’s U.S. election, and the breaking off of a huge part off West Antarctica (which really happened).
The core of the book lets a scientist face radical climate change as part of the political swamp of Washington D.C. Officially set somewhere in the nearest future, it doesn’t feel like SF, but reads like it could happen right now. As often, KSR throws in additional balls in this juggling:
Buddhism, biotechnology and investment capital, homelessness, sociobiology, surveillance, life in Washington D.C., life in a treehouse, life with a fractious toddler.
The cast is limited to a few people: main protagonist is scientist Frank Vanderwal working at the National Science Foundation in the capital. Frank faces a very interesting character development, turning from grumpy scientist who doesn’t come along well with people to a nature loving altruist going off-grid, caring for run-away zoo animals and people at the edge of society. He’s driven by a kind of awaking during a Buddhist talk, and a romantic encounter in an elevator where he falls in love with a mysterious woman.
That encounter exposes him to a spy thriller with ever present surveillance which Charles Stross couldn’t have done better.
That fractious toddler is the son of another protagonist, Charlie Quibler, working for senator Phil Chase (who you might know as a background voice in Antarctica) who is soon to become President. Charlie drives the senator’s climatic agenda.
This might be the most biographic novel of KSR: The author spreads out a good part of his own experiences across these two characters: as “Mr. Mom”, he cared for his own children. He knows every pebble around Frank’s home San Diego and often enough hiked the Sierra Nevada.
Other novels from him are weak in characters, but this one couldn’t be stronger with its super-detailed, tight third person narration.
And there is a lot of climatic action, as one might expect: the Gulf Stream was stalled by a huge intake from Greenland’s sweet water. This led very fast to weather phenomena like a flooded capital, and later on the literal “Fifty Degrees Below” in Washington D.C., freezing everything. Add to that the breaking away of the West Antarctic, as already started in Antarctica, and you get a doomsday scenario with raising sea level, failing crops, and weather catastrophes.
Counter that with large scale Terraforming, like pulling a fleet of ships filled with 500,000,000 tons of salt to restart the Gulf Stream or happily pumping sea water back to the Antarctic.
„You put salt in the ocean?“ [..] Rudra laughed his helpless deep belly laugh.
That’s also very typical for KSR, as he doesn’t write dystopian novels but always positive, hopeful CliFis. Which is exactly what I need, because I’m very pessimistic about my children’s (climatic) future.
This is also one of the most U.S. centric novels from KSR. The rest of the world is mostly mentioned in side-notes. He cites long passages of transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Main protagonist Frank reads his daily Emerson, and Thoreau’s famous Walden is a kind of role-model for Frank’s relocating to a tree-house in a nearby park. I have to confess, that my eyes got crossed every time I read those passages and I soon started skip-reading. I understand, that both were immensely influential. Especially the concept “Civil Disobedience” would lead to a kind of political science revolution in the book. But it was the first time that I’ve been exposed to those two philosophers – here in Germany they feel more like a local U.S. phenomenon, and they aren’t mentioned in school or politics – and that kind of reading is just not my thing at all. I’m more into Buddhistic summaries like:
„It is easy to live multiple lives. What is hard is to be a whole person.“
For sure, the novel is not a light read, not a page-turner. It took me a good while to read through it. But I always felt entertained, never trivialized, the book is well-researched, keeps an optimistic perspective and is often enough funny.
Yes, there are better KSR novels around, but I’m really glad to have read it, as it fits into the whole picture of KSR’s works and complements it very well.
If you’re interested in other works by KSR, I’ve some reviews up:
- CliFi novel The Ministry of the Future
- CliFi novel Antarctica
- Generation ship SF novel Aurora
- Time travel novel Galileo’s Dream
- Magical futurism short story Ein Hundert
- SF short story Before I Wake
and some more sloppy reviews on GoodReads: