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Sixty Days and Counting
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B : fine, but really laid-back -- almost anti-climactic
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
Sixty Days and Counting is the final installment in Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capital-trilogy, with progressive politician Phil Chase having won the American presidential election and preparing to take office (in the US there is a roughly ten-week lag between the presidential election and the winner actually taking office). It's pretty late in the day, as readers are reminded in (what is basically) the novel's opening:
By the time Phil Chase was elected president, the world's climate was already far along the way to irrevocable change.So:
The new president had to contemplate drastic action while at the same time being constrained by any number of economic and political factors, not least the huge public debt left deliberately by the administration preceding him.He's ambitious, at least, ready to leap into office and power ahead, full steam, from day one. Indeed, he's so eager that he isn't aiming for the traditional 'hundred days' -- the limited period at the beginnings of their term when presidents generally are actually able to get something done -- but rather wants to pack his initial ambitious program into just sixty days. His administration then, however, becomes one in a perpetual state of 'sixty days and beyond', the urgency -- and the willingness to think big -- never letting up. (Chase is eventually helped by an event that he can take advantage of to allow for a second, reïnvigorated surge of sorts.)
Climate change is presented here as the obviously most important issue to tackle head-on -- the weather continues to be extreme, and the Antarctic ice shelf is collapsing in a way that promises a significant and devastating rise in sea level. Two major operations launched in Fifty Degrees Below seem to have taken hold quite well: a massive salt-dump into the ocean to get the Gulf Stream streaming properly again is working out for the moment, while a carbon-capture effort involving the unleashing of lichen in the forests of Russia also seems to be flourishing -- though maybe too well ? Robinson isn't entirely sanguine about what's happening there, but also doesn't explore it too deeply. Science in the Capital-trilogy doesn't try to suggest a comprehensive, final solution; it's a chapter from the early efforts at getting to grips with a problem that threatens to overwhelm the planet; kudos to Robinson for thinking big but not too big.
The major efforts this time around involve dealing with the danger of rising sea levels. First, there's a massive effort to pump ocean water into huge inland areas, playas such as those in China, Central Asia, and Africa: technically feasible, but, on this scale, very demanding -- including of power (which, of course, should be cleanly produced, to avoid exacerbating the fundamental underlying problem of releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere). Second, there's an effort to, basically, re-ice the Antarctic -- pour the melt water back into the colder parts, where it freezes over again. These figure some in the story -- and some of the characters are on site or travel abroad, to have a look at how things are going -- but don't feel very much at the fore. Robinson describes some of the science and engineering (and just a bit of the politics) involved, but doesn't get deep into any nitty-gritty. It's not exactly like he suggests such technical solutions are easy just to go ahead with, but hard-science -- or even just modicum-of-science -- fans would probably enjoy it if these aspects of the story were (much) more detailed.
Politics is largely backdrop, too. The president figures every now and then, but he's far from the main character, and his activities only very occasionally at the fore. Much of the novel again revolves around Frank -- including his continuing obsession with the mystery woman he has had such limited contact with, the now very much on the run (from her husband, employed by some apparently rogue national security agency) Caroline. The husband -- and apparently the agency he works for -- continue to pose a threat, with Frank repeatedly being sent a message (his computer is fried, his kayak sabotaged, his car tampered with). The cat and mouse games continue throughout much of the novel -- though Frank at least has colleagues with connections who can fight the good fight in assisting him. Much is, however, hush-hush, with Frank only aware of some of what is going on; it does come to a final showdown in which Frank plays a crucial role, but even that feels a bit anti-climactic (in no small part because there is no dramatic denouement where the bad force's badness and who is behind it, etc. is explained).
Longtime stay-at-home dad Charlie goes to work fulltime for President Chase, meaning that toddler son Joe has to go to daycare. Joe is perfectly content there -- which bothers Charlie; he misses the rambunctious tyke from yore, before Charlie got his Khembalung-Tibetan friends to basically exorcise him. Among the story arcs of sorts here is Charlie finally deciding to ask the Tibetans to put that old spirit back in Joe; as with pretty much everything else in the novel, at least of a personal nature, this storyline comes to a happy ending.
For a while, Frank is tempted by his boss-in-D.C., Diane -- whom he follows to the White House, from the National Science Foundation, when she takes a position in the Chase administration -- but, for all the small sparks, they never quite have a go at it -- but even she eventually finds love and happiness (with a little push from Frank). And, while there is one significant death, it's not an unexpected one -- and eventually leads to some more revelations about the Khembalung-Tibetans (who work on their new property over the course of the novel, their latest homeland -- even as even the classical Shambhala is unearthed, and visited at one point by Frank); there's also a Dalai Lama cameo.
For a while Frank has trouble with decision-making -- an after-effect of a blow he received -- but he eventually is able to decide to have that taken care of, making life a bit easier. Still, he remains a rambling man, wandering and traveling about, spotting the new wildlife in D.C., even going on a hiking trip with Charlie out in the Sierras. (He also tries to get 'off the grid' as best as possible (even while he has a day-job on the actual White House grounds ...), but admittedly he has a very good additional reason for that.)
Sixty Days and Counting moves along at a pretty relaxed pace, and for a Washington D.C.-based novel in which several of the leading characters work in the White House and others in other parts of government, and where major political decisions have a tremendous effect on American and world life, it's remarkably casual about the actual workings of politics and government; we never even learn, for example, the name of Chase's vice-president (who, for a brief time, is the most powerful person in the world). There are a few political speeches and pronouncements, laying out the Chase basics -- which include a dedication to internationalism (one, one might add, that it seems almost unimaginable the always isolationist-tending United States could ever possibly embrace), including Chase's ambition that:
I intend to make sure that the United States joins the global justice project fully, unequivocally, and without any double standards. This means accepting the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and the jurisdiction of the World Court in the Hague.Robinson's idealism is to be admired -- he's mostly on the right track with Chase's ambitious plans -- but even before the catastrophe of Trumpian Republicanism it was hard to imagine a scenario in which the American polity would have accepted becoming such a part of the international order.
Robinson has Chase regularly post to a weblog -- the presidential blog, 'Cut to the Chase' -- similar if also an amusing contrast to present-day politicians' 'tweeting'. (Twitter was still in its infancy when Sixty Days and Counting was first published.)
Frank also finds reading Emerson and Thoreau helpful, and they and their thoughts accompany him through much of the novel -- albeit often only in bite-size bits (part of his routine is checking emersonfortheday.com for the latest quotes ...). It's appropriate: Robinson is very concerned with nature as (under-appreciated) part of the human experience -- both as physical necessity (the world, in its delicate balance) but also for the spiritual. Frank communes with nature more than most, and Robinson presents many scenes of this -- quite well, mostly.
For a climate-change disaster novel -- and what the world is dealing with here is true disaster, not the currently merely creeping one (anno 2020 -- who knows about next year ...) -- Sixty Days and Counting and indeed the whole Science in the Capital-trilogy is really laid back. There are some information dumps of sorts, but basically the big ideas -- and some of these are huge -- and what is put into practice is tidily summed up in a short space. The technical specs are there, in outline, but Robinson doesn't waste much time detailing either the science (and engineering) or the political decision-making. There is a rosy-optimist outlook here -- especially in believing national and international politics can tackle these issues this easily -- that becomes almost too simplistic. (For heaven's sake, Robinson even has China and Tibet resolve their differences to mutual satisfaction, with the Dalai Lama able to return to Lhasa; sorry, but Tibetan autonomy of the sort envisioned here is not in the cards as long as anything resembling present-day Communist Party rule continues.)
This and the whole trilogy are enjoyable enough easy-going reads, with a neat range of subject matter -- Robinson does subtly stuff a lot in, from technologies to addressing climate change to nature, wildlife, and much rumination about human life in all its facets, physical but also very much spiritual. Frank is Californian, and a free-spirit of the kind that drives and occasionally lives in a VW van, and it's that spirit that permeates the entire Science in the Capital-trilogy. This installment -- and the whole trilogy -- are not East Coast books, and definitely not Beltway books; Robinson starts out reasonably well early on, describing the work/bureaucracy of the National Science Foundation as well as a bit of the lobbying-industry and legislative-support staffing, but there's less, rather than more, as the characters actually come to wielding the levers of power. Even though by this point, in Sixty Days and Counting, many of the main characters are, in one way or another, either in power or much better positioned to influence and determine policy, the actual meat-grinder details of how the wheels of government turn is very casually dealt with. Things simply get done, for the most part -- solutions whose consequences Robinson allows to remain open-ended, but which seem like steps in the right direction. It comes to feel rather facile -- as real-world experience, where efforts towards finding solutions to these obviously looming problems (even if they haven't reached the same critical points they have in the trilogy) in the years since the book was published also suggest. Technological solutions might be feasible -- though Robinson also makes some of them, especially at this scale, seem easier than they likely are -- but political will and capability are a whole different ballgame, and whether or not an FDR-like moment and movement can be recreated seems not just unlikely but increasingly unlikely. Robinson triggers events with catastrophe -- bad, but not truly catastrophic; reactions in the years since publication of the book to a near-collapse of the financial system and now a low-grade pandemic (with a swelling economic downturn along for the ride) suggests that at least the American public needs a hell of a bigger shake-up to even contemplate the necessary courses of (re)action.
Sixty Days and Counting is a solid read, and engaging enough -- though probably not the book to start with: it is very much the final volume of a trilogy. There's something to be said for focusing so very much on the personal, human element, but many readers -- certainly this one -- would have preferred much more of a focus on the impersonal, the hard science and the engineering, as well as the political debates. (And for all the focus on the human, the sub-plot of nefarious black ops rogue intelligence services and the threat(s) they pose feels both rather out of place as well as, like so many of the other sub-plots, underdeveloped.) Robinson's easy take too simply suggests that practically anything can be managed well enough, an admirably laid-back optimistic outlook that probably does not accurately reflect how the general population would react to similarly extreme circumstances. (The lack of hysteria in the novel, when compared with the evening news every damn day, suggests Robinson really sees things far, far too rosily.)
- M.A.Orthofer, 21 July 2020
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American author Kim Stanley Robinson has written several highly acclaimed works of science fiction.
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