This third and final part of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science In The Capital series maintains the very consistent tone established in its predecessors. It is a low-key account of the onset of ecological crisis, and of the responses made by a group of scientists, science policy wonks, and politicians, largely inside Washington D.C.’s Capital Beltway. But of course, being written by a novelist with a pronounced sense of responsibility towards his characters, and towards the question of human experience in general, it is not so much about the things that happen and the things that they do, as it is about what it is like to be them and to experience these events. I say it is low-key because it is realistic—there are no Day After Tomorrow style arctic treks across an instant North American ice cap, no heroic rescues, and no simplistic, violence-based solutions to complex problems.
As I’ve read this trilogy, one question that’s kept nagging me is the matter of time: when exactly are these books set. I had assumed that it was some kind of near-future SF, rather like Robinson’s most recent book, The Ministry For The Future. The books were published between 2004 and 2007, and from the first two volumes I got the impression that they might be set about now—climate change has moved along a bit from the time of publication, and there are a few technological developments that imply the passage of some time, such as the high efficiency of photovoltaics and the ubiquity of tiny RFID chips in commercial products. However, reading this final volume has forced me to reassess. The leading character recalls adult experiences from a time when I was two or three years old, and another character, one who doesn’t seem that old, and who has young children, recalls seeing TV coverage of the Kennedy assassination as a young boy. Given that I’m in my fifties, and neither of these characters give the impression of being in their sixties or seventies, I think we can rule out the 2020s as the setting: in fact, also taking into account the number of Vietnam war veterans in the story, I don’t think Robinson set it in the future at all. I think he set it in an alternative version of the early-to-mid noughties, when he was writing it.
Does this really change anything? I don’t think so. Robinson’s postulates remain plausible, and the only area in which his thinking has been overtaken by events is in genetics, where CRISPR Cas-9 DNA editing has rendered moot many of the technical difficulties encountered by his characters. What he nails in particular is the difficulty of mobilising political action in the teeth of a slow-moving disaster. He is optimistic in terms of what he thinks a left-leaning president might do about climate change, but then his version of events has some slightly more dramatic impacts of climate change than the one that has in fact unfolded, such as a collapse of the North Atlantic circulation leading to severe northern hemisphere winters. And in the political realm, he was writing before the resurgence of extreme-right populism that we’ve witnessed in recent years, so although he talks about polarisation, it is relatively minor compared to the situation we’re confronted with today.
What Robinson has most notably achieved with this trilogy, which I will admit is not his most exciting work, but which is excellently constructed and written, is a convincing representation of the realities of our response to climate change. It will come not from politicians or high-profile political conferences, but from ordinary working stiffs—scientists plugging away on limited budgets in poorly supported government departments, to produce the knowledge required to understand what’s happening and to formulate a response. It will come from international collaborations of politically unpopular individuals getting together to articulate politically unpalatable truths. Robinson clearly felt a duty to put those people front-and-centre in his narrative, and while his characters are clearly fictional, they have the particularity that enables his readers to imagine what it would be like for ones life and career to be structured around such work. His protagonist Frank Vanderwal, is interested in primate behaviour as an explanatory framework for human social interactions, although he is not a primatologist—but he is very clearly a reference to the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal, who is particularly interested in the questions of fairness and co-operation in animals. If there is a polemic thrust to this series of scrupulously impartial novels, it is probably an argument for the importance of those qualities to human survival.