When Nature Calls

By Gregory Feeley,
whose most recent novel is "Arabian Wine"
Wednesday, December 21, 2005


By Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam. 405 pp. $25.

Novels of the immediate future tend to be visionary or cautionary, and one of the peculiar characteristics of Kim Stanley Robinson's "Fifty Degrees Below" is how it seeks to be both at once. Such novels also typically range widely over the world they are portraying, but Robinson's novel (the middle volume of a trilogy) is set almost entirely in Washington.

Last year's "Forty Signs of Rain" ended with Washington in ruins after a calamitous tidal surge blocked the Potomac as it swelled from record rains and provoked disastrous flooding. Robinson begins his new novel by wittily explaining how nobody likes Washington enough to pay the enormous costs to repair it: The president, though he vows a firm response to "this act of climactic terrorism," will not push his right-wing allies in Congress to appropriate funds to rebuild a city they hate, while the less powerful left feels that "as a blow to the heart of the galactic imperium," the devastation is hard to regret.

The italicized passage that explains all this -- Robinson begins each of his novel's long chapters with a brief section that sets the scene -- is dry and knowing, while the characters of his large cast are emotional, beleaguered and aware of how little they know. This dual focus, alternating a God's-eye view with the messy consciousnesses of uncertain individuals, reflects Robinson's desire to combine disparate modes: an unabashed novel of ideas that is also a social comedy, a meditation on human nature and an environmental call to arms.

Frank Vanderwal, the visiting scientist at the National Science Foundation who is left homeless in the ferocious renter's market of the storm's aftermath, decides to deal with it by living outdoors. He builds a treehouse in Rock Creek Park, now populated with animals released from the flooded National Zoo, and ponders what it means to be a primate in the 21st century, addicted to city living. "The technological sublime made everything magical," he thinks, though only at the cost of profound estrangement from nature. Never a moderate man (as readers of the first volume will recall), Frank deals with this by embracing the opposite extreme.

The novel is at its best in scenes describing the strange semi-wilderness of the park, where gibbons call to each other from the trees and other, perhaps more dangerous animals, also live, glimpsed occasionally by volunteers for the Feral Observation Group, who log sightings on the National Zoo Web site. When freshwater from the melting polar ice cap finally stalls the Gulf Stream, truly calamitous weather ensues across the Northern Hemisphere, and Frank's idyllic world turns deadly. A February cold front drives the night temperature dozens of degrees below zero, freezing pipes, interrupting power and killing poor people across the metropolitan area. The disaster is ameliorated only when smoke of burning buildings creates a smudge-pot effect over the city.

This extended scene, along with several subplots -- such as the fate of a tiny island nation in the Bay of Bengal, a presidential election and Frank's secretive lover, whose husband works for a "blacker than black" security agency -- seem enough for an engaging read, but Robinson wants to make readers think about issues and problems, and he isn't shy about proposing solutions. Frank's ruminations on the nature of primate behavior in human society are presented with a solemnity that Robinson is only occasionally able to leaven. The "Ooop!" cry that a gibbon makes, and which Frank takes to uttering himself, is a leitmotif, an announcement of the primate theme sounded often enough to test a reader's patience.

Robinson knows the dangers for a novelist in trying to deliver a message, but he seems confident that he can get away with it. His straightforward presentation of alternatives to our present ruinous behavior can threaten to become oppressive, but Robinson's evocation of his imperiled world, the particulars of his frozen, half-feral Washington and the novel's global perspective manage to offer a counterbalance. This is fortunate: When one of your chapters is titled "Is There a Technical Solution?" you had better be at least as good a novelist as you are an environmentalist.

The past few months have shown that Robinson's work cannot, however, be read simply in imaginative terms. His inundation of greater Washington reads differently in the wake of New Orleans than it did when advance copies were sent to reviewers in the summer, and scenes in the novel -- which presupposes that the Army Corps of Engineers has "kept New Orleans dry" and that even an anti-federal administration would run a competent Federal Emergency Management Agency -- have made some of Robinson's assumptions seem unwontedly rosy. In a way, Robinson's near future arrived before his book.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company