APRIL 19, 2016
MARXIST LITERARY CRITIC Fredric Jameson’s suggestion that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism has become a commonplace among science fiction fans and scholars. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth reverses this comparison: perhaps we could chip away at capitalism, Green Earth suggests, if only it became obvious that the world was beginning to end. As one character says, echoing the sentiments of Naomi Klein and Margaret Atwood, “They’re trying to pretend it’s only about climate! When really it’s about everything — it’s everything change.”
Green Earth, an omnibus of Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy — Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007) — chronicles the catastrophic effects of abrupt climate change on a near-future Washington, DC. The series received critical and popular attention when it was first released, but, as Robinson notes in his introduction, in the decade since, “our culture’s awareness of climate change has grown by magnitudes.” “In this changed context,” he writes, “I had the feeling that quite a few of my trilogy’s pages now spent time telling readers things they already knew.” The omnibus is thus several hundred pages shorter than the original trilogy, yet it is no less informative for the loss. Among Robinson’s many strengths as a science fiction writer is his profound knowledge of not only science, but also scientific culture. Like Science in the Capital, Green Earth is bursting with carefully casual asides, a sort of narrativized lecture series on topics of note to science-minded but literature-reliant autodidacts: how freshwater from melting ice sheets might stall the Gulf Stream, how the creation of inland salt seas might affect both global sea levels and rain patterns in drought-stricken regions, the philosophical similarities between Tibetan Buddhism and Western scientific practice, and how the National Science Foundation receives and allocates funding.
Robinson’s capacious intellectual curiosity creates a narrative that casts an extraordinarily wide net. While focusing primarily on two major characters — Frank Vanderwal, a biomathematician recently transplanted from UC San Diego to DC to spend a year reviewing proposals at the NSF, and Charlie Quibler, a science policy adviser to the improbably cheerful and energetic Democratic senator who will become president by the series’ end — Green Earth capably weaves a multitude of plotlines into an almost always coherent whole. The central narrative concern, of course, is the looming threat of climate change, which Robinson imagines less as a slow-moving process than as an abrupt series of catastrophes. These include a violent rainstorm that leaves DC flooded and devastated (an event now hauntingly evocative of Hurricane Katrina), a deep freeze that strikes on both sides of the Atlantic, and the catastrophic collapse of Antarctic ice sheets (along with the subsequent rapid increase in sea level that results). Peering over Frank’s and Charlie’s shoulders allows the reader multivalent access to these climatic events and their aftermaths. We learn about scientists’ consternation regarding the largely toothless role of science in contemporary American politics (and the gleeful mutiny within the NSF that frees science from its anti-political ghetto and allows it to start making national and global waves); we also eavesdrop on liberal frustrations with the right-wing refusal to reckon with climate change (“Let’s calm down about this,” the incompetent Republican president says to Charlie; “we’d be sucking the life out of the economy if we were to go too far”). Additionally, we follow the rise of a globally and scientifically savvy new American left that elects Charlie’s boss president, looks on with interest as Russia releases an engineered lichen in the Siberian forest to radically accelerate carbon drawdown, cooperates with China to transition to renewable energy, and spearheads an international effort to curtail rising sea levels by using clean energy to pump the rising seas back to the Antarctic in order to re-freeze on the ice cap.
Robinson’s protagonists also lead us down less predictable and even wider-ranging paths, such as the story of their growing friendship, forged through their mutual connection to Anna Quibler, Charlie’s wife and Frank’s colleague at the NSF. Indeed, many of Green Earth’s plotlines follow personal concerns such as Charlie’s ongoing struggle to reconcile his status as a part-time policy advisor and full-time stay-at-home father (“Mr. Mom,” he calls himself) and Frank’s exploration of alternative communities within DC — from Frisbee golfers to “freegans” to the neo-naturalists dedicated to tracking zoo animals released for their own survival during the first book’s catastrophic flood. Other narrative threads are more thematic than interpersonal: Frank’s growing investment in Paleolithic lifestyles and intermittent encounters with a homeless group of veterans leads him to explore strategic homelessness, living between a tricked-out VW van and a carefully engineered treehouse in Rock Creek Park. (I must confess that Frank’s affection for sociobiology never endeared him to me, particularly given the frequency with which his penchant for deep evolutionary explanations devolves into unapologetic sexual assessments of his female colleagues. Indeed, one of the few aspects of the omnibus that seems dated is Frank’s lack of affiliation with the “paleo” movement, about which I suspect he would have a number of strong opinions had the character been written after 2010.)
Still other plotlines plunge our protagonists into a range of improbable-to-fantastical situations; this certainly falls within the purview of speculative fiction, but it feels occasionally out of place in a narrative that Robinson describes as “a realist novel [written] as if it were science fiction.” For instance, Frank’s primary romantic entanglement is with a femme fatale named Caroline, who turns out to be a black-ops spy. Assigned to track Frank by an enigmatic surveillance program, Caroline goes rogue and falls in love with Frank while seeking to avoid the suspicions of her corrupt spy husband, which prompts passionate sexual encounters, paranoid investigations of tracking technologies, and tangled political scandals. Meanwhile, as both Frank and Charlie grow closer to a displaced group of Buddhist monks who have come to D.C. from the island nation of Khembalung (a variation on Shambhala) to seek American intervention in the face of rising sea levels, Charlie explores the possibility of wandering spirits inhabiting humans. (The monks eventually introduce everybody to the Dalai Lama, who gives a marriage blessing to the union of the American president and his national science adviser: Scenes like this are perhaps why Robinson has a well-earned reputation as one of the last great utopian writers.)
These sprawling plotlines ultimately contribute to, rather than detract from, the novel’s appeal: Green Earth sets out not only to educate its readers about climate change, but also to entertain, and Robinson’s remarkable intellectual breadth means that these plotlines are rendered with affectionately careful detail. Indeed, Green Earth’s sheer narrative variety makes it exemplary among works of “cli-fi” (or climate fiction), a genre that has garnered increasing attention in the last few years. Critics have hailed cli-fi as literature’s contribution to the fight against climate change, praising the genre for combining narrative thrills with practical scientific information and profound ethical interrogations. In this light, the release of Green Earth seems remarkably well timed. Robinson is unique among cli-fi writers for his ability to make comprehensible not only the devastating ecological effects of anthropogenic climate change, but also the radical forms of political, scientific, and intellectual reorganization that a comprehensive response to it would require. Cli-fi is often, and understandably, a dystopian if not apocalyptic genre; considered as a whole, its mission seems less to suggest or model particular responses than simply to dramatize what will happen if we do not act.
It seems strange to label Green Earth a utopian narrative, given that its pages encompass the waterlogging of the American capital, the catastrophic disruption of global climates, the exposure of long-hidden corruption and overreach within American intelligence, and the displacement of an island nation in the Bay of Bengal. Yet Green Earth stands out among works of cli-fi for its determined commitment to solutions, political as well as ecological. In Robinson’s pages, the onset of abrupt climate change actually enables more than it destroys, setting off a New Deal for the 21st century — an era of sustainable and globally cooperative (rather than imperialist) American exceptionalism in which sound ecological science prevails over the interests of global capital, the military recognizes climate change as a threat to national security and commits to international cooperation in the quest for economic equity, global technoscience comes together to geoengineer a stable Earth, and political leaders cheerfully blog about the failures of neoliberalism as they call for federally subsidized full employment, guaranteed health insurance, and the stabilization of global populations through a commitment to women’s education and reproductive rights. Above all, then, Green Earth’s wide-ranging missions of education and entertainment are tied to the utopian hope that learning more will help us change. As Robinson writes, Green Earth offers readers “one version” of what it might look like to start to build a “sustainable civilization.”
This utopianism occasionally rankles, as Robinson breezes past the major claim of climate justice scholars and activists: namely, that climate change does not necessarily change everything. Instead, they point out, it threatens to exacerbate global inequality by wreaking havoc on the vulnerable populations who are both least responsible for and most susceptible to environmental chaos. The scene of the cheerful evacuation of Khembalung due to catastrophic sea level rise is particularly galling in this light, as helicopters and boats efficiently relocate the entire island in a matter of hours; later, the monks use their funds to establish an idyllic new home, and reassuringly explain that their nation has always traveled between different sites. I remain torn over whether the novel should be praised for the mere fact of depicting climate refugees or taken to task for framing their displacement as so easily resolved. Does the end of the world seem likely to inspire the end of capitalism, or the shoring up of its most devastating effects? Robinson’s book is most reasonably read not as a confident endorsement of the former outcome, but rather as an attempt to tip the balance in its favor.