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.