There's no magic in Kim Stanley Robinson's FIFTY DEGREES BELOW (Bantam Spectra, $25),
unless you count the way he invests the details of scientific and bureaucratic decision making with high drama.
The second volume of his trilogy on abrupt climatic change, "Fifty Degrees Below" stays close to Frank Vanderwal, who is in his second year as a consultant with the National Science Foundation in Washington. During his first year, a flood inundated the nation's capital, bringing home the problem of global warming to even the most blinkered politicians. (This is described in the trilogy's first volume, "Forty Signs of Rain.") Now the waters have receded, but a "shutdown" of the Gulf Stream threatens to lock the entire region into an Arctic-strength deep freeze.
While working with his colleagues to steer the government toward ameliorative action, Frank has problems of his own. Bumped from his rented apartment after the flood, he decides to live outdoors in a tree house of his own devising in Rock Creek Park. Here he bonds with his fellow creatures, who range from a band of resourceful homeless men to a roaming squad of Frisbee players to assorted animals, small and large, that have escaped from the National Zoo. As a 43-year old primate hungry for a mate, he becomes infatuated with a government spook whose marital and occupational commitments allow the couple only the briefest encounters. When the temperature drops below freezing and keeps dropping, Frank and all those around him are put to the kind of test few humans have faced since the last ice age.
For a writer who deals with world-class disasters, Robinson is incorrigibly optimistic. The most dire problems, he assures us, can be solved by the prompt application of scientific thinking and physical and moral courage. The catch comes in the word "prompt." Even when the remedies are clear, it's not easy to marshal sufficient resources in time. Robinson's impressive body of work - which includes the Mars trilogy (about the problematic terraforming of our planetary neighbor) and the California trilogy (about the dos and don'ts of constructing utopias) - offers sound guidance for scientifically informed social action. I'd feel better about our future if more people were familiar with his ingeniously plotted and gracefully written books.