Enough is as good as feast.
Green Earth is a revised version of The Science In The Capital-trilogy, a near future series on climate change, American politics and science. The original trilogy consists of Forty Signs Of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005) and Sixty Days And Counting (2007). They were meant to be one long novel all along. In movies, most director’s cuts are longer, but not here so… Robinson cut about 300 pages, still leaving Green Earth to be a mammoth of 1069 pages. It’s unclear how much updating took place, if any – there’s about a decade of extra research and data on climate change since the first volume was published, so it’s not unthinkable that KSR tinkered a bit with some of the data in the original books too.
You can read the 6 page introduction of the book on io9 here. It is an excellent text by KSR himself on the reasons for this revision, and he tackles some other interesting topics too. His take on the ethics of contemporary literature & science fiction is bold, and rings very true to these ears.
Also, my original idea had been to write a realist novel as if it were science fiction. This approach struck me as funny, and also appropriate, because these days we live in a big science fiction novel we are all writing together. If you want to write a novel about our world now, you’d better write science fiction, or you will be doing some kind of inadvertent nostalgia piece; you will lack depth, miss the point, and remain confused.
I’ll start with some remarks about the book in general, and afterwards zoom in a bit on the 3 parts. I should probably mention that I made about 7 times as many notes while reading as I do for most reviews. Some of that is surely on behalf of the 1000+ page count, but still. Green Earth is an extremely rich book, and this review should have been at least twice as long to do justice to the scope of its ideas: I’ll leave a lot unsaid. So, don’t forget to read the book too!
Green Earth is set in Washington D.C. in a not so distant 21st century future: conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh (°1951) is still active, and the book features several Vietnam veterans that are very much alive & kicking.
The main thematic focal point of the book’s setting is climate change: as the original books’ titles hint at, pretty damaging flooding happens in the first part, and a crippling winter in the second. Contrary to what you might think, the book doesn’t have a broad time scope: only about 3 years pass. Yet climate change ultimately is only the backdrop to a much broader story Robinson wants to tell, and so the themes of Green Earth are diverse. KSR identifies a few in the introduction himself: “climate change, science administration and politics, Buddhism, biotechnology and investment capital, homelessness, sociobiology, surveillance, life in Washington D.C., life in a treehouse, life with a fractious toddler.” And since Green Earth is first and foremost a realist novel, all that results in “a peculiar mix of historical fiction, contemporary fiction, and science fiction, in the sense that some of it has already happened, some is happening now, and some of it will happen soon.”
Reading that list of themes might leave readers with a couple of wrong impressions.
One. While Green Earth – as the bulk of KSR’s other books – is extremely well researched, and obviously features a lot of scientific stuff, it mainly is a book about characters and their lives. Not that many characters even. The cast is rather limited: there’s about ten important characters, with a focus on just two of those. There’s Charlie Quibler, a White House staffer with two young children, and Frank Vanderwal, a scientist from San Diego who works at the National Science Foundation. I cared about every character. They all have depth, they all are real persons, and none are too obviously flawed-as-a-token like in the work of lesser writers trying for complexity. But, all that doesn’t make Green Earth a 100% success on the character front: there’s one major quibble which I’ll point out when I get to Fifty Degrees Below.
Two. While that list of themes I quoted is extensive, it lacks what maybe is Green Earth‘s most important theme: America. Green Earth is one of the great American Novels. Simple as that. It his heavily steeped in American history, American thinking and American literature. And while Green Earth is definitely a book about the climate systems of our entire planet, it focuses almost solely on what climate change means for America: catastrophic extinction events in China are mentioned, and a disastrous flooding of Prague too, but that’s about it. That’s not critique by the way: I think it’s one of this book’s many strengths that it doesn’t try to be all-encompassing.
It is no secret that Kim Stanley Robinson is a progressive thinker. People who have watched his great 2011 talk Valuing the Earth and Future Generations: Imagining Post-Capitalism on YouTube (it’s over an hour) will find a lot to recognize in Green Earth. The book’s both nuanced and broad analysis of the faults of the political and economical system faults is dead on and scorching.
Most readers of KSR’s work probably don’t need convincing on climate change. As such, this book could be accused of only preaching to the choir. And while that may be true, it also misses the point. As Robinson himself hints at in his introduction (“fiction doesn’t have to come true to make it useful”) still has an ethical “use”. As I experienced it, the purpose of Green Earth is to offer hope. Robinson is an optimistic writer – not the easiest choice in these cynical times. That alone deserves applause.
It is all too easy to become depressed reading the papers – this week alone I came across 3 pretty alarming articles on that state of our biosphere in a mainstream newspaper. It is also easy to become afraid watching the ever widening rift between the “two Americas”, and the economical system’s dysfunctions are becoming obvious in Europe too. The myth of apathy is a real danger.
While Green Earth doesn’t offer quick fixes or a naive silver bullet solution to Earth’s problems, it does sketch hints of a possible future in which humanity will get on the right tracks eventually – but not without the loss of an enormous amount of biodiversity: the coral reefs have all died in the book, and polar bears have gone extinct. We can all use a bit of realistic hope, even need it. Green Earth supplies in that need. It is very much a novel for this day and age: a hopeful call to arms.
Robinson’s optimism echoes a feeling I have held for a long time myself: I’m pretty pessimistic about humanity’s near future, but I am a hopeful optimist about the long run. Just look at what giant steps we have made (both bad and good) the last 400 years – science and rational thought have proved to be helpful, and will continue to do so. Green Earth is a solid and convincing defense of the scientific method. Its main message is probably this: the sciences should urgently get involved in politics.
“You’re suggesting we need a paradigm shift in how science interacts with society.” “Yes I am.”
Green Earth might be preaching to the choir, but it enhances the choir’s awareness nonetheless. It sharpens existing insights, refreshes theory, adds stuff you didn’t know, deepens the understanding. It’s a feast for the inquiring mind.
Before I zoom in, a bit about those 300 cut pages. I didn’t miss them. On the contrary. I think KSR should have trimmed a bit more. At times Green Earth was repetitive, I hate to say. Somewhere between page 500 and 800 it had me bogged down, it truly dragged. 300 pages more of that might have worked when the 3 parts were published separately, with some years in-between reading, but read cover to cover even this trimmed version was work. 850 pages would have been better than Green Earth‘s 1069.
Still, Robinson’s prose is extremely readable, light and clear throughout, funny at times. It might seem easy, but it’s a stunning feat not a lot of writers achieve.