Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2017 Evelyn C. Leeper.


2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/21/2013]

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (ISBN 978-0-316-09812-0) is full of all sorts of technical details (a.k.a. "infodump") about terraforming and other sciences, so it is somewhat surprising that Robinson makes an elementary mistake, when he says: "Charon, half the size of Pluto, has a surface temperature of fifty K. The Next closest moon-to-planet size ratio is Luna to Earth, with Luna one-fourth the size of Earth. Pluto has a 2,300-kilometer diameter; Charon, 1,200 kilometers." [page 327]

Charon is not half the size of Pluto--it is one-eighth the size of Pluto. And Luna is one-sixty-fourth the size of Earth.

Other than that, my main problem was that stripped of all the infodumps, extracts, lists, and other stylistic elements, the plot was extremely minimal, and of the sort that one might have found in ANALOG back in the 1940s--in a novella, not a 561-page novel. (And though the main character is female, she is the only female I noticed in the book, which would also be in keeping with the 1940s.) I know it won the Nebula, but I can only assume that is because the SFWA gives it more points for style than I do.

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ANTARCTICA by Kim Stanley Robinson (Bantam, ISBN 0-553-10063-7, 1998, 508pp, hardback):

Robinson is certainly best known for his "Mars" series (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars). Antarctica reads like White Mars. It has what seemed like even more expository lumps, nay, expository mountains, about geology et al. And the only hint that this attempt to get us all to live a more ecologically sustainable lifestyle might not be paradisical is a passing reference to three attempts at single-child families in China, a plan that sounds good in theory but has turned out to be quite otherwise in practice. (Robinson's character who refers to this seems to think it was a good thing; Robinson's opinion is of course unknown.)

If Robinson is not the leading "ecological science fiction" writer these days, I must be really out of touch with the field. But even though I agree with his goals (or what I think his goals are), I am starting to find his didacticism wearing. To be fair, he does not draw obvious villains, intent on killing all the whales or some such and hang the consequences. But the parade of scientists and just plain folks who get to stand up and "speechify" about their philosophies is not what I am looking for in a novel.

The most interesting part of Antarctica, in fact, was the recounting of the early exploration of the continent and the people involved in that. Here Robinson's long expository passages didn't bother me, maybe because the explorers had more personality than mountains and glaciers. At least with them I felt I was reading a story rather than a textbook.

If you liked the "Mars" trilogy, you will almost definitely like Antarctica. But if you preferred the sparser, earlier Robinson, and were hoping for a return to that style, this will be a disappointment.

[Though the copyright date listed in the book is 1998, the book was actually published in Britain in 1997.]

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AURORA by Kim Stanley Robinson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/24/2015]

I got to read AURORA by Kim Stanley Robinson (ISBN 978-0-316-09810-6) immediately after it was published, because I was ordering a hub from Amazon the very day it was released, so with free shipping, how could I pass it up? (Yes, I know about Amazon Prime, but most of my purchases are from third-party sellers who fulfill their own orders and so are not eligible for Amazon Prime.) With such an opportunity, I abandoned my general FIFO rule and moved AURORA to the front of the queue. And reading about a generation starship was especially apposite, because our discussion group this month was reading Robert A. Heinlein's UNIVERSE.

Warning: There will be some spoilers, mostly implied, but if you don't like spoilers, stop now, read the book, and then come back here.

My first observation is that while Robinson's "Science in the Capitol" trilogy was ultimately optimistic, AURORA seems ultimately pessimistic. Throughout AURORA, characters speak of limitations:

"It's not me being negative. It's the universe obeying its laws. Science isn't magic! We aren't fantasy creatures! We have been dealt a hand." [page 195]

"When you discover that you are living in a fantasy that cannot endure, a fantasy that will destroy your world, and your children, what do you do? [page 211]

No one ever accused Robinson of subtlety in his message. And while the message has not changed, the emphasis seems more on what we will have to give up.

Robinson draws on previous science fiction works. The actions of the AI that is the ship ("Ship") echo both D. F. Jones's COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT and Isaac Asimov's "The Evitable Conflict" (as well as "With Folded Hands" by Jack Williamson and many other stories). The first two works take opposite views of the same scenario, and Robinson does not take a stand, so the reader has to make up his own mind. One character expresses part of the problem of needing to make a decision at the end of the voyage: "Suspended in their voyage as they had been, there had never been anything to choose, except methods of homeostasis." [page 200] But the question becomes whether it is better to have a computer/AI make decisions for you, even if those decisions are guaranteed to be the best (i.e., most rational) decisions, or whether it is more important for people to have free will. This is not a new question, though--substitute "God" for the AI and you get the classic question of why an omniscient and omnipotent God permits evil. The answer is usually that God wants us to have free will so that we can freely choose good, but I will grant that one can hardly attribute this motivation to an AI.

Another reference is not one likely to be noticed by most readers. It is to Isaac Asimov's THE NAKED SUN, which takes place on a world orbiting Tau Ceti, a world named Aurora.

And while I do not think Robinson was necessarily consciously inspired by Joe Haldeman's THE FOREVER WAR, that is the book I first think of when I read about culture shock between people temporally displaced by relativistic effects and their originating society.

As I have already said, the central conceit of AURORA is the generational starship. (For the sake of brevity, I will use the term "space ark" from here on out.) Robinson takes direct aim at the two motivations that have inspired the space arks of the science fiction from the 1940s to the present. The first is the "Cradle Metaphor" of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: "The Earth is the cradle of mankind, but humanity cannot live in the cradle forever."

[translations vary] And the second is the "don't-put-all-your-eggs-in-one-basket" philosophy, which Robinson in interviews has said leads people to believe that if they destroy Earth's environment, they can just move somewhere else.

These rationales were supported by science fiction that for decades concentrated almost entirely on the problems of propulsion (and deceleration). However, hardly anyone considered the biological, ecological, psychological, or sociological constraints or problems until recently, and these are considerably more intractable. A space ark--a self-sustaining biome--needs to be really big. (Indeed, there are some who think even the Earth itself is too small!) But most space arks in fiction are about one-trillionth the size of Earth or smaller.

For example, one factor that Robinson addresses that no one seems to have thought of before is that (because of their life spans) bacteria and viruses evolve faster than humans. In a limited ecosystem, this means that a deadly disease is much more likely to develop than in a wider and more robust environment.

Obviously the space ark is the main focus of the story, but part of the space ark is the computer that runs it--or rather, the AI, since it is far more than a computer. After a brief prelude, the novel opens with the AI being given instructions to tell the story of the voyage. Robinson has said that he found this one of the most interesting parts to write, since in effect he had to develop an algorithm for writing a novel: The AI starts with a list of statistics. It (she?) is told, no, you need to have people (characters). So it starts listing all two thousand inhabitants. No, no, no--you need character development. And so on. (Apparently, Robinson actually created names for all the inhabitants and listed them in the book. He was a bit unsure, though, of whether a dozen pages of names was a good idea, but his editor provided the clincher: consider how this would read in the audiobook! Robinson settled for an initial subset.)

Later the AI says that it has learned what love looks like (what its external manifestations are), but not what it is (what its essence is). This is reminiscent of one of the aspects of the film EX MACHINA, and to some extent of the Turing Test in general. If an AI exhibits the external signs of an inner emotional life, does that really prove anything? (For that matter, the same could be asked of other people--how do we know that they aren't all faking it? Shades of "Invasion of The Body Snatchers"!)

As usual with Robinson's works, there are plenty of expository lumps, and an assumption that his readers are well-read. For example, he talks about cognitive errors such as the ease of representation, probability blindness, overconfidence, and anchoring. For the average reader, this probably means a trip to Wikipedia (at least).

(In fact, Robinson himself has decided that sometimes he has overdone the expository lumps, and has trimmed 15% of his "Science in the Capitol" preparatory to issuing all three books in a single volume titled GREEN EARTH. What is being cut is apparently a lot of the explanation of things like the polar vortex and other environmental events that he thought needed explanations back in 2004, but now are much more familiar to people.)

AURORA is highly recommended, and sure to be nominated for multiple awards next year.

To order Aurora from amazon.com, click here.


BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson (Bantam Spectra, 0-553-57335-7, 1996, 624pp, mass market paperback):

Well, Kim Stanley Robinson has finally finished his Mars trilogy, and while it maybe heresy to say this, I'm glad it's over. It is possible that if I had read the whole trilogy at one time, I might have enjoyed the third book more, but the fact is that finishing it was more a chore than a pleasure.

Maybe it's just my reaction to massive multi-volume series that take years to finish. Orson Scott Card took so long for his latest Alvin book to come out that I had completely lost interest. The current Turtledove World War series is another one that started out good, but two years later is bogging down, as I try to reconstruct enough of the earlier books to have the current one mean something. And even Robinson, whose work I generally love, cannot overcome this problem.

In the first book (Red Mars), Robinson sets the stage, introduces the characters, and gives us a clear picture of what is happening. Though obviously there was room for a sequel, the book did stand on its own. In Green Mars he continues the story, with even more emphasis on the technical aspects. But because it was a continuation, Green Mars did not stand on its own, having no real beginning and no real end in itself. (In spite of this, it won a Hugo. I was happy to see Robinson win a Hugo--I just wish it had been for one of his other works.)

Now in Blue Mars we have an end. (There is, of course, always room for a sequel set on "blue Mars," but it is not necessary and I doubt Robinson will write one.) However, we still have no beginning per se. We also have tons more technical areological and terraforming discussions and explications, and some characterization, mostly to wrap up the stories of the people we have been following throughout. (With all this technical detail, it's almost inevitable there will be slip-ups. For example, "Hindu" is not a language [page 406].)

I wanted to like this book. But I have to say it was too much of a good thing, too stretched out. I'm not even sure why I am saying this. People who read the first two will probably read this one for a sense of closure in any case, and people who didn't probably wouldn't read this anyway. I suppose if you want to read the entire trilogy through you will appreciate this more, but that's not likely to encompass a large number of readers.

To order Blue Mars from amazon.com, click here.


FIFTY DEGREES BELOW by Kim Stanley Robinson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/17/2006]

FIFTY DEGREES BELOW by Kim Stanley Robinson (ISBN 0-553-80312-3) is a sequel to FORTY SIGNS OF RAIN. The high-concept description for FORTY SIGNS OF RAIN would be "Katrina hits Washington D.C."; for FIFTY DEGREES BELOW is would be "The Day After Tomorrow." Robinson's writing has always has an ecological bent. Unfortunately, it has become more and more a combination of info-dump and agenda, to the extent that I found it impossible to slog through this.

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FORTY SIGNS OF RAIN by Kim Stanley Robinson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/20/2004]

I was really looking forward to Kim Stanley Robinson's FORTY SIGNS OF RAIN (ISBN 0-553-80311-5). The description I read said (or implied) that the island of Khembalung, which had become the nation that was the new house of the Tibetan government in exile, ended up under water due to global warming, and what was left of the nation was the embassy in Washington. Well, it is something like that, sort of. At ConKopelli, John Hertz said, "One of the weaknesses of science fiction is that it is a very tempting disguise for a sermon." And nowhere has this been more evident to me recently than in FORTY SIGNS OF RAIN. Charlie Quibler is a scientist concerned about global warming who cannot get the politicians to listen, and also the care-giving parent in his family. Another character, Frank Vanderwal, thinks of all human actions and interactions in terms of evolutionary characteristics that were beneficial to primitive man on the savannah, but in the course of the novel learns the superiority of the Buddhist approach to science. If I have missed any of Robinson's hot buttons, I would be surprised, because that would mean he had also. To top it off, the plot also comes up with some serendipitous scientific discoveries which make the ending more upbeat than it deserves to be. (But I do think that Robinson has actually found one hard fact that does give me some hope in the real world. I do not want to say more about the ending, because I do not want to give it away.) There is a good book in here, but as with many of his later books, Robinson has gotten too caught up in saving the world to write a novel that doesn't preach. (Note: As with William Ashbless last week, there is fiction presented as fact here--there is not really an island of Khembalung, or a League of Drowning Nations. Since these are given as pre-dating the present, I guess that makes this an alternate history.)

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/25/2009]

In FORTY SIGNS OF RAIN (ISBN-13 978-0-553-58580-3, ISBN-10 0-553-58580-0), Kim Stanley Robinson invented the League of Drowning Nations: nations, mostly small islands, which are threatened with inundation by rising sea levels. There was no such organization--then. But a few weeks ago on PBS's "Now", they were talking about the Alliance of Small Island States. It sounds a bit less pre-determined than the League of Drowning Nations, but it's ultimately the same thing.

AOSIS consists of Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Cape Verde, Comoros, Cook Islands, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, Grenada, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Kiribati, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Singapore, Seychelles, Sao Tome and Principe, Solomon Islands, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

Here are some statistics:

    STATE                       MAX ELEVATION
    Guernsey                    114 m (374 ft) (not a nation)
    Qatar                       103 m (338 ft)
    Kiribati                     81 m (266 ft)
    Bermuda                      76 m (249 ft) (not a member)
    Vatican City                 75 m (246 ft) (not an island)
    Nauru                        71 m (233 ft)
    Bahamas                      63 m (207 ft)
    The Gambia                   53 m (174 ft) (not an island)
    Turks and Caicos Islands     49 m (161 ft)
    Cayman Islands               43 m (141 ft) (not a member)
    Marshall Islands             10 m (33 ft)
    Tuvalu                        5 m (16 ft)
    Maldives                      2 m (7 ft)

And if they take parts of countries, Florida (105 m (345 ft)) and the District of Columbia (125 m (410 ft)) may want to join.

Note that the elevation is a maximum; even if it is not submerged in a sea level rise, most of the populated/arable land may be. I cannot find a table that shows what percentage of land in given countries is under 5 meters but (for example) a one-meter sea level rise could flood 17 percent of Bangladesh and reduce its rice-farming land by 50 percent (according to the UK Royal Society).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_highest_point
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_elevation

To order Forty Signs of Rain from amazon.com, click here.


GALILEO'S DREAM by Kim Stanley Robinson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/05/2010]

GALILEO'S DREAM by Kim Stanley Robinson (ISBN-13 978-0-553-80659-5) is billed as alternate history, but it is really more secret history. I have liked most of Robinson's work up till recently, but starting with his "Capitol Weather" series, he seems to have gotten even more into the "expository lump" mode that characterized his "Mars" trilogy. And in GALILEO'S DREAM, he continues this trend. One is taken back and forth between the minutiae of Galileo's life, and the crash course on math and science from the 17th century on that Galileo is given when he is transported to the moons of Jupiter in the 31st century. Both are way more detail than the average reader wants.

And worse, there are errors (typos rather than factual errors, as far as I could tell). On page 208, it is talking about the quanta of space and time, and says, "... these were true minimums, because further division would break either the speed of light or the exclusion principle. The minimum width established by this principle turned out to be 10/34 of a meter, and traveling at the speed of light a photon would cross this distance in 10/43 of a second." This would make a quantum of space about a foot in length! What was meant was (10 to the minus 34th power) of a meter and (10 to the minus 43rd power) of a second.

Worse, Robinson seems to have sacrificed authenticity. Early on, Galileo and his assistant talk about cardboard (a term not coined until 1858, and the substance itself as a distinct material almost definitely post-dates Galileo). During a party in which all are masked, someone hands Galileo a mask in the form of a wild boar, to which he says, "I may be a boar, but I am never boring." [page 244] Does this pun really work in Italian (or Latin) (especially since both "boar" and "bore" are Germanic in origin)? (In Latin, "boar" is "verres", and "boring", "importunus"; in Italian, "verro" or "cinghiale", and "annoiare", respectively.)

And when a woman from the future asks (on page 255), "That we might find out we are like bacteria on the floor of a world of gods?" how does Galileo understand this? ("Bacterium" is another mid-19th century word.)

This may all seem like nitpicking, but instances like this kept yanking me out of the 17th century in a most abrupt manner. I would have thought I would find the discussions about the philosophy of science interesting, but somehow it failed to engage me.

To order Galileo's Dream from amazon.com, click here.


"A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations" by Kim Stanley Robinson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/27/2014]

In regard to World War I casualties, I have always been struck by Kim Stanley Robinson's image in "A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations", which uses the Vietnam Memorial as a unit of measure: "But at the end of every month or two of the Great War, the British had had a whole Vietnam Memorial's worth of dead. Every month or two, for fifty-one months."

Striking as it is, let me add: "But at the end of every five days of World War II, the Russians had had a whole Vietnam Memorial's worth of dead. Every five days, for seventy-two months."

To order "A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations" n The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson from amazon.com, click here.


NEW YORK 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/05/2017]

NEW YORK 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (ISBN 978-0-316-26234-7) is a typical Robinson novel, full of environmental and social comment, and with plenty of info-dumps. But a few things seemed poorly thought out. For example, will the World Trade Organization and the G-20 still be around in 2140, with those names? And there are other details that also seem just too current to be accurate for 120 years in the future. (The WTO is only a couple of decades old; the G20 is not even that old.) And Robinson has two characters conveniently named Mutt and Jeff (full names Ralph Muttchopf and Jeff Rosen), and another named Charlotte Armstrong. (For those not up on mystery authors, this is like having a character named "Eric Flint".)

The biggest problem is that the novel is not well structured. For three-quarters of it, we get a fairly interesting picture of life in "drowned New York". Then we get an eighth of it describing a monster hurricane, and the last eighth describing the aftermath. At the very end we get two pages of an unbelievably facile economic revolution, and then two pages explaining why it may not last. If Robinson intended this as a blueprint for social change, he is certainly over-simplifying how it would work. (Admittedly there is a lot of economic info-dump before this, but still, everything runs far more smoothly than people should expect.)

To order New York 2140 from amazon.com, click here.


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