Review: Green Earth

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth, a revised and consolidated version of what was previously a trilogy (comprising Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting), is a lot of things – spy thriller, romance, novel of ideas, near-future science fiction, West Wing-reminiscent political novel – but fundamentally it’s a novel about change.

An incomplete summary looks like this: in a near-future Washington D.C., climate change is ramping up and the myopic political establishment is refusing to do anything about it. The novel follows a scientist working temporarily for the (real-life) grant-giving body the National Science Foundation, Frank Vanderwal, as he falls in love with a random woman who turns out to be a spy with an abusive husband, also a spy, both of whom are complexly involved with an election-rigging intelligence group; and a political advisor and stay-at-home father, Charlie Quibler, husband to one of the Foundation’s top scientists and aide to environmentally-minded opposition senator Phil Chase, as he simultaneously navigates his changing relationship with his boisterous three-year-old Joe and tries to get environmental legislation through Congress. Along the way it takes in a Buddhist nation, Khembalung, whose island home in the Indian ocean has been lost to sea level rise; the stalling of the Gulf Stream; a group of homeless people living in one of Washington’s parks, dispossessed by a capitalism that cultivates fear of unemployment to keep wages low; freeganism; and feral gibbons.

Green Earth is unusual, perhaps unique, in my experience, in seeing climate change as process. There are plenty of novels set in the aftermath of climate change and ecological collapse, in wasteland dystopias or flooded Earths (Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers, N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix, Robinson’s own 2312); there are novels in which climate change, although ongoing, is presented as a fait accompli, as inescapable and inevitable as the heat death of the universe (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower). All of these see climate change and ecological collapse as a rupture, an apocalypse, a lacuna, literally unspeakable, and thus inevitable. (If we can’t talk about it, how can we do anything about it?) It’s as if climate change is an on/off switch: we have pristine Earth, and we have the ruined planet, and both are essentially stable states, with no transition period between them. The problem with this approach is obvious: seeing climate change as inevitable absolves us of responsibility for doing anything about it; for imagining ways out of the mire. And it’s an approach that flattens the complexity of what climate change means: endless feedback loops as homeostatic systems that have been stable for millennia tip out of balance – feedback loops that are already happening. Climate change is not some unimaginable apocalypse waiting for us in the future. It is our present. If it is unimaginable, it’s because we’re not imagining hard enough.

Enter Green Earth, which posits change as itself the default state of human existence. Which is in itself not that unusual a literary point to make; it’s in the yoking of the vast and terrible truth of ongoing climate change, an apocalypse we’re all living through right now, to human-scale changes like a three-year-old’s development, moving to a different city, taking a new job, the Buddhist philosophy of reincarnation, that Robinson’s novel feels radical. It’s a literary strategy that brings climate change into the realm of the human, making it speakable and thus no longer inevitable. The human changes that happen during the course of the novel – the National Science Foundation gaining considerably greater political power, for example, or the change of administration halfway through the book – mean that the characters can actually make a difference to their environment. The effort is still huge – an effort to restart the stalled Gulf Stream involves thousands of tankers spraying billions of tons of salt into the Atlantic over the course of several weeks – but it’s huge in human terms. It can be measured. It can be talked about.

(Underlying all of this, of course, is the spectre of capitalism, and how its refusal to take the costs of climate change into its accountings of profitability is a central cause of our collective refusal to look at climate change properly.)

In other words: Green Earth‘s characters get shit done. That very fact gives the novel some blind spots: necessarily, it centres power. Its point-of-view characters are white, male and middle-class; more pertinently, they’re all American. We experience climate change as it affects the US: the novel elides the fact that the apocalyptic floods, deep freezes and blackouts that hit Washington in this imagined future are already realities in some developing countries. And the US is portrayed as the solution – the countries disproportionately feeling the effects of climate change nevertheless don’t do anything about it, and, in fact, at one point the US army effectively stages an intervention to prevent ecological collapse in China, sending nuclear warships in to run the country’s essential functions while an intensive programme of environmental rehabilitation is started.

(The very fact that only passing mention is made of this development, and that such overtly colonial behaviour is framed as better than the alternative, is potentially troubling. Potentially: there’s an argument to be made that such action is justified. But it’s worth noting as an indication of where the novel’s priorities perhaps lie.)

That’s not to say the novel’s cast is hopelessly homogenous; in fact, I think Robinson does much better in this respect than a lot of SF. The novel’s large cast list of secondary characters features women, people of colour and queer people, most of them scientists. Frank is friends with a number of homeless veterans, who are themselves disproportionately affected by climate change in Washington. And, of course, there are the Khembalis, exiled first from Tibet by China and then from their island nation by climate change: their Buddhist philosophy underlies the novel’s thinking about change in general, and their ongoing presence makes sure we as readers don’t forget that climate change isn’t just a phenomenon that affects America.

Green Earth runs to over 1000 pages. It would be surprising if it didn’t have blind spots and weak links. (On a purely personal level, I wasn’t convinced by Frank’s feelings for his on-off spy girlfriend Caroline. But I’m rarely convinced by fictional romances, so.) And I think that what it does manage to do – that willingness to speak about climate change, to make it a thing we can try to affect, even if we fail, even if the results are inconclusive – is important and radical and unusual enough that it’s worth reading despite those blind spots. We need writers like Robinson to shake us out of our complacency and apathy, to help us find better solutions.

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