Fifty Degrees Below takes over more or less exactly where Forty Signs Of Rain leaves off, but it shifts focus slightly, both in terms of which of its characters are given the most time, and in the way it examines the impacts of climate change. This time, we are still in Washington D.C., but we get to see how it is for poor people when catastrophic change hits. In the previous book a ‘Hyperniño’ caused widespread storms and flooding, on both seaboards of the United States; in this one, there has been so much fresh water dumped into the north Atlantic Ocean, by the storms and by glacial melt in Greenland, that the thermohaline circulation gets stalled. This circulatory system is what drives the Gulf Stream and the rest of the North Atlantic Gyre, and although various theories exist as to what effects its shutdown would have, Kim Stanley Robinson elects to roll with ‘abrupt climate change’. What this translates to is several degrees celsius of immediate temperature drop in Europe and North America, which would not be as catastrophic as depicted in The Day After Tomorrow, for example, but which would have a drastic impact on crop yields, as well as the basic habitability of regions that are used to Mediterranean temperatures, like D.C.
The main protagonist of Fifty Degrees Below has, due to a complex intersection of circumstances and proclivities, taken to living in his van and in a treehouse in one of Washington’s parks, giving him an immediate insight into the impacts of this event—particularly by way of the friendships he has formed with homeless people in the park. He himself is an experienced climber and hiker, and he knows how to deal with the cold weather, but very few people in Washington share his expertise. Some of his homeless friends are Vietnam veterans, which helps us to place a limit on the time in which the book is set. It was published in 2005, seventeen years ago at the time of writing, and I think it’s a fair bet that it’s set fifteen to twenty years in the future—which is to say, about now. Much later and these guys would all be dead, or have been forced into shelters by their age. Reading SF books set at the time of reading is a pastime with particular rewards, usually amusement at vastly inflated estimates of technological development. Robinson rarely suffers from such perspectival shortcomings, as he really does his research when he’s setting stories in the near future. He’s also in the rare position of being able to check his predictions against reality, so I expect his most recent work will be uncannily accurate!
So this book is not completely on the money. Firstly, nobody could be, but also, looking at what’s happened in the world since around 2016, nobody could be! His interest here is in showing how some of the impacts of climate change would look from the Beltway, from the politics and policy worlds around the U.S. Federal government—as seen by the scientists and political advisors that actually have to shape the response to such events. So that’s the biggest reality gap: Robinson does not predict Trump, post-truth politics, or the deep fractures that have polarised American society. What might seem to some like bigger gaps, such as the fact that these catastrophic events have not yet come to pass, are really by the by: Robinson is not making predictions, but asking questions. In fact the first truly global disaster to be triggered by ecological degradation has been fallout from the biodiversity crisis, rather than climate change, but the answers Robinson postulates to his questions are pretty convincing. Will we be ready? Will we recognise it when it comes? Will we respond fast enough? How will social and economic inequality shape the impact of the disaster? The answers to all of these queries are now pretty much inarguable in respect of the Covid-19 pandemic, and they’re the same ones that Robinson supplies in his speculative climate disasters.
Fifty Degrees Below is not a dry polemic, however. All of these ideas are explored via the representation of human experience. Robinson loves people, and has a deep, heartwarming optimism regarding their capacity to rise to the occasion. He is very realistic in his assessments: he knows that crowds rarely behave rationally, and he doesn’t expect any mass revolutions in popular awareness. But he is equally adamant that such problems can and will be addressed, that there are enough well-informed and committed individuals working in the right fields that they will at least write the policies and show the world what needs to be done. It’s a recurring theme in his books that these tasks dwarf the individuals that choose to address them, but that the important thing is to carry on. The actual meat of this novel is the daily detail of people carrying on. This is represented humanely, imaginatively, and with a finely judged balanced between excitement and plausibility. This is a book about people similar to the ones you may actually know, not about heroes and adventurers, and it is the truthfulness with which Robinson represents them that makes it so involving and so necessary.