The Weird Thing About Green Earth by Kim Stanley Robinson

Mild spoil­ers for a decade-old book tril­o­gy below, along with some slight inco­her­ence due to sleep depri­va­tion.

Final­ly pow­ered through this. Like all Kim Stan­ley Robin­son works, the scope and detail in it are stun­ning; and many tropes you can expect from his writ­ing, like a misty-eyed pas­toral­ism about neo-pale­olith­ic liv­ing, the tech­no­log­i­cal sub­lime, and so on, are all there. And there is no doubt that Robin­son is a sin­gu­lar mind and vision with­in lit­er­a­ture,

How­ev­er, this book falls bad­ly short of his bet­ter work, and I think it is a fail­ure of choos­ing to employ a genre on the sto­ry. In his revised intro­duc­tion, Robin­son says that you can­not write about the mod­ern world with­out also writ­ing sci­ence fic­tion; this is very true, but it is pre­cise­ly that sci­ence fic­tion­al aspect that makes writ­ing *authen­ti­cal­ly* about the mod­ern world so immense­ly dif­fi­cult.

I think the dogged false­ness of this sto­ry rests on two pil­lars: one is Robin­son’s polit­i­cal sophis­ti­ca­tion (which is real­ly not). His ver­sion of pol­i­tics, and how they work, is com­plete­ly blink­ered, to put it gen­tly: he down­plays the role of big mon­ey in pol­i­tics, the media have absolute­ly no sway in any­thing, and despite his great detail about bio­engi­neer­ing and ecol­o­gy and extreme sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy no one uses social media or Face­book. The oth­er pil­lar is Robin­son’s mis­placed mys­ti­cism, which is immense­ly cred­u­lous of Bud­dhist ideas like rein­car­na­tion — to the point of mak­ing it a crit­i­cal plot point for sev­er­al of his major char­ac­ters — while dis­miss­ing oth­er reli­gious ideas as dumb super­sti­tion. He sim­i­lar­ly imbues behav­ior that a nor­mal per­son would con­sid­er a sign of a dis­tinct­ly unhealthy per­son — liv­ing in a tree­house while adopt­ing a nos­tal­gic view of pale­olith­ic lifestyles (to the point of eat­ing food out of a dump­ster and try­ing to make it sound nor­mal by call­ing it free­gan­ism), choos­ing to be home­less, reject­ing nor­mal social ties, and so on — and por­trays it as a quirk born of plot, and not a wor­ry­ing char­ac­ter flaw most peo­ple would judge very harsh­ly, espe­cial­ly peo­ple in high-rank­ing polit­i­cal posi­tions. Cer­tain­ly a per­son like that would not be select­ed to be a high rank­ing advi­sor with direct access to the Pres­i­dent (which, if he had the media involved in any real way, would have made that clear).

So that’s a big part of it. But there are oth­er ways in which Robin­son’s world build­ing just fall short. The sto­ry, which he wrote in 2004 but updat­ed and con­densed in 2014, was­n’t updat­ed very well. It’s easy to deal with ref­er­enc­ing Hu Jin­tao and the MCI Cen­ter, or talk about restau­rants in Bethes­da that are long since shut­tered, but it’s dif­fi­cult to accept how he chose to update his sto­ry. In this uni­verse, New Orleans isn’t flood­ed but DC is; Con­gress stonewalls rebuild­ing the city so vast regions of it lie emp­ty and destroyed. That flood, plus some storms in San Diego and some flood­ed islands near India, sparks the elec­tion of a rad­i­cal envi­ron­men­tal activist who announced his can­di­da­cy on a boat in the arc­tic cir­cle and ran as “pres­i­dent of the world” who promis­es to use Amer­i­can pow­er and instru­men­tal­i­ty to bul­ly small­er coun­tries into doing what he says. This leads to the par­tial dis­man­tling of a free mar­ket econ­o­my in the U.S., the Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion lit­er­al­ly attempt­ing to elec­tion­eer a pres­i­den­tial race but some­how not being dis­band­ed for it, and, even­tu­al­ly, Chi­na mak­ing peace with Tibet and sign­ing a mas­sive debt restruc­tur­ing deal with Amer­i­ca in return for some shared nuclear tech­nol­o­gy.

I mean look, this is a world where Kat­ri­na did­n’t hap­pen, where 9/11 hap­pened but real­ly does­n’t seem to con­cern any­one or draw resources, where the U.S. mil­i­tary eager­ly talks about gut­ting its own capac­i­ty for war fight­ing so it can build dikes to pro­tect coastal areas, where there is no war and no ter­ror­ism only pol­i­tics and peo­ple being mean and states fail­ing through indi­vid­ual choice rather than insti­tu­tion­al fail­ure, where Rus­sia plays nice and buys rather than steals advanced bio­engi­neer­ing tech­nol­o­gy, where Europe is a pas­sive ves­sel of good inten­tions and unlim­it­ed capac­i­ty, where insur­ance com­pa­nies will­ing­ly pay down their own reserves to ame­lio­rate sud­den cat­a­stroph­ic cli­mate change.

In con­trast to the very implau­si­bil­i­ty of these events, the mas­sive geo­engi­neer­ing efforts he describes — min­ing mil­lions of tons of salt to restart the Gulf Stream, pip­ing heat­ed sea­wa­ter onto the Antarc­tic ice cap, delib­er­ate­ly flood­ing poor and low-lying desert coun­tries to alle­vi­ate sea lev­el ris­es — seem almost real­is­tic. Which is a bad thing. And the fact that every­one gets mar­ried at the end to live hap­pi­ly ever after is just insult­ing.

This was basi­cal­ly a wish fan­ta­sy for left wing pol­i­tics — which is fine, there is noth­ing inher­ent­ly wrong with such a thing, but it feels cheap com­ing from an author who is nor­mal­ly much more con­sid­ered, much more delib­er­ate, in craft­ing real­is­tic arcs and char­ac­ters and plots.

I won­der if this is a lim­i­ta­tion of the genre. In futur­is­tic sci-fi, a lot of the invis­i­ble assump­tions that under­pin a world can be filled in by the read­er. If Robin­son were to have described anoth­er plan­et this way (which he almost did in his Mars tril­o­gy!) it would be laud­ed for being deep, com­plex, and real­is­tic. But when held up next to the real world, it feels life­less, almost painful­ly didac­tic: if only peo­ple would just think like I do, then we could solve our prob­lems! Sci­ence will solve all of our think­ing prob­lem!

Sci­en­cism, for lack of a bet­ter term, is fine in lim­it­ed con­texts as a sto­ry telling device, or as a foil for high­light­ing human­i­ty. That is, after all, the role Spock and Data played on Star Trek. But pre­tend­ing like a soci­ety like the U.S. would pas­sive­ly accept sci­en­cism as a polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, which he does, because who would­n’t like sci­ence, rings deeply false.

I can see why this tril­o­gy was such a light­ning rod, espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing the time where it was writ­ten, but this sto­ry has not aged very well. The idea of Amer­i­cans in par­tic­u­lar behav­ing the way Robin­son por­trays they real­ly does feel sci­ence fic­tion­al, or per­haps more close­ly as a fan­ta­sy or a satire. But it cer­tain­ly isn’t remote­ly plau­si­ble. I was dis­ap­point­ed by it and found fin­ish­ing dif­fi­cult.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.