Fifty Degrees Below
  • Fifty Degrees Below
  • Fifty Degrees Below

Fifty Degrees Below

3.5 14
by Kim Stanley Robinson

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Bestselling, award-winning, author Kim Stanley Robinson continues his groundbreaking trilogy of eco-thrillers–and propels us deeper into the awesome whirlwind of climatic change. Set in our nation’s capital, here is a chillingly realistic tale of people caught in the collision of science, technology, and the consequences of global warming–which

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Bestselling, award-winning, author Kim Stanley Robinson continues his groundbreaking trilogy of eco-thrillers–and propels us deeper into the awesome whirlwind of climatic change. Set in our nation’s capital, here is a chillingly realistic tale of people caught in the collision of science, technology, and the consequences of global warming–which could trigger another phenomenon: abrupt climate change, resulting in temperatures...

When the storm got bad, scientist Frank Vanderwal was at work, formalizing his return to the National Science Foundation for another year. He’d left the building just in time to help sandbag at Arlington Cemetery. Now that the torrent was over, large chunks of San Diego had eroded into the sea, and D.C. was underwater.

Shallow lakes occupied the most famous parts of the city. Reagan Airport was awash and the Potomac had spilled beyond its banks. Rescue boats dotted the saturated cityscape. Everything Frank and his colleagues in the halls of science and politics feared had culminated in this massive disaster. And now the world looked to them to fix it.

Whatever Frank can do, now that he is homeless, he’ll have to do from his car. He’s not averse to sleeping outdoors. Years of research have made him hyperaware of his status as just another primate. That plus his encounter with a Tibetan Buddhist has left him resolved to live a more authentic life.

Hopefully, this will prepare him for whatever is to come....

For even as D.C. bails out from the flood, a more extreme climate change looms. With the melting of the polar ice caps shutting down the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, another Ice Age could be imminent. The last time it happened, eleven thousand years ago, it took just three years to start.

Once again Kim Stanley Robinson uses his remarkable vision, trademark wry wit, and extraordinary insight into the complexity between man and nature to take us to the brink of disaster–and slightly beyond.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Fifty Degrees Below should be required reading for anyone concerned about our world's future.... it provides perhaps the most realistic portrayal ever created of the environmental changes that are already occurring on our planet."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Fast-paced and exciting.... First-rate ecological speculation."—Kirkus Reviews

"Could give Michael Crichton a run for his money.... should be required reading for government officials and voters."—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Gregory Feeley
The novel is at its best in scenes describing the strange semi-wilderness of the park, where gibbons call to each other from the trees and other, perhaps more dangerous animals, also live, glimpsed occasionally by volunteers for the Feral Observation Group, who log sightings on the National Zoo Web site. When freshwater from the melting polar ice cap finally stalls the Gulf Stream, truly calamitous weather ensues across the Northern Hemisphere, and Frank's idyllic world turns deadly. A February cold front drives the night temperature dozens of degrees below zero, freezing pipes, interrupting power and killing poor people across the metropolitan area. The disaster is ameliorated only when smoke of burning buildings creates a smudge-pot effect over the city.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Earth continues its relentless plunge toward environmental collapse in Robinson's well-done if intensely didactic follow-up to Forty Signs of Rain (2004). As a result of global warming, the Gulf Stream has stalled, and when winter comes, impossibly frigid temperatures hit the Eastern Seaboard and Western Europe. As people starve, multinational corporations explore ways of making a profit from the disaster. When Antarctica's ice shelves collapse, low-lying island nations quite literally slip beneath the rising waters. In Washington, D.C., clear-sighted scientists must overcome government inertia and stupidity to put into effect policies that may begin to salvage the situation. An enormous fleet of ships is dispatched to the North Atlantic to dump millions of tons of salt into the ocean in the hope of restarting the Gulf Stream. This ecological disaster tale is guaranteed to anger political and economic conservatives of every stripe, but it provides perhaps the most realistic portrayal ever created of the environmental changes that are already occurring on our planet. It should be required reading for anyone concerned about our world's future. Agent, Ralph M. Vicinanza. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The second installment in sf writer Robinson's environmental trilogy (after Forty Signs of Rain) focuses on idealistic Frank Vanderwal, a fortysomething sociobiologist working for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Washington, DC. The NSF-with global warming provoking extreme weather episodes and abrupt climate changes (the first novel depicted a devastating flood; this one features extreme cold spells)-has become a leading force for ecological change and climate experimentation. And so we follow Vanderwal as he helps determine science funding at his job, lives in a tree in the now mostly ruined National Zoo, develops a romantic relationship with a mysterious woman who works for one of several sinister government surveillance agencies, and interacts with a variety of other people, many of whom appeared in the first novel. While Robinson's subject matter is interesting, the incremental nature of global climate change also accounts for the novel's weaknesses. Much of the well-researched scientific exposition emerges at inherently nondramatic NSF bureaucratic meetings; the plot lacks the dramatic impact of, say, an alien invasion. Still, this book-and the trilogy as a whole-may offer a welcome antidote to Michael Crichton's recent anti-global warming novel, State of Fear. Recommended for all public libraries and for academic libraries where interest warrants. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/05.]-Roger A. Berger, Everett Community Coll., WA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Picking up where Forty Signs of Rain (Bantam, 2004) leaves off, this second book in a planned trilogy finds Earth about to experience the most intense winter on record. Governments worldwide blithely go about their routines in spite of the monumental recent flooding in Washington, DC, and other areas around the globe. When the record-setting cold sets in, people begin freezing to death and starving due to crop failures. Large corporations and world governments use the crisis to attempt to rig elections and plan other agendas to tighten their hold on the public. Meanwhile scientists, especially those at the National Science Foundation, frantically search for a way to shift the weather patterns. The answer seems to be to jump-start the Gulf Stream to get it flowing again; the world watches as millions of tons of salt pour from ships into the ocean in this attempt. While the major plot of ecological chaos plays out, the subplots show how the effects of the weather changes, ecological turmoil, and governmental and big business assaults affect the various characters as they try to survive. This well-researched and expertly written novel about a future that might be coming true all too soon will hopefully serve as a wake-up call about Earth's current serious situation.-Pam Johnson, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Global warming threatens Washington D.C. in the second installment of Robinson's eco-thriller trilogy. After suffering through a monumental flood in Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Washington is still recovering, but the damage done clearly illustrates the very real danger of global warming to the general public. National Science Foundation researcher Frank Vanderwal hopes that new protocols may help bring the world back from the edge of ecological disaster. But the world is in for a deep freeze, and Frank has other problems besides. Not only is he effectively homeless, but he also discovers that his work at NSF has him under surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies, providing most of the action. Though it is fast-paced and exciting, it does occasionally strain believability. Where the author succeeds is in his fascinating speculation about our ecological future, and the steps we could be taking to repair the world for future generations. First-rate ecological speculation, but a second-rate thriller.

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
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Product dimensions:
4.22(w) x 6.79(h) x 1.60(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

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Nobody likes Washington D.C. Even the people who love it don’t like it. Climate atrocious, traffic worse: an ordinary midsized gridlocked American city, in which the plump white federal buildings make no real difference. Or rather they bring all the politicians and tourists, the lobbyists and diplomats and refugees and all the others who come from somewhere else, often for suspect reasons, and thereafter spend their time clogging the streets and hogging the show, talking endlessly about their nonexistent city on a hill while ignoring the actual city they are in. The bad taste of all that hypocrisy can’t be washed away even by the food and drink of a million very fine restaurants. No—bastion of the world government, locked vault of the World Bank, fortress headquarters of the world police; Rome, in the age of bread and circuses—no one can like that.

So naturally when the great flood washed over the city, wreaking havoc and leaving the capital spluttering in the livid heat of a wet and bedraggled May, the stated reactions were varied, but the underlying subtext often went something like this: HA HA HA. For there were many people around the world who felt that justice had somehow been served. Capital of the world, thoroughly trashed: who wouldn’t love it?

Of course the usual things were said by the usual parties. Disaster area, emergency relief, danger of epidemic, immediate restoration, pride of the nation, etc. Indeed, as capital of the world, the president was firm in his insistence that it was everyone’s patriotic duty to support rebuilding, demonstrating a brave and stalwart response to what he called “this act of climactic terrorism.” “From now on,” the president continued, “we are at a state of war with nature. We will work until we have made this city even more like it was than before.”

But truth to tell, ever since the Reagan era the conservative (or dominant) wing of the Republican party had been coming to Washington explicitly to destroy the federal government. They had talked about “starving the beast,” but flooding would be fine if it came to that; they were flexible, it was results that counted. And how could the federal government continue to burden ordinary Americans when its center of operations was devastated? Why, it would have to struggle just to get back to normal! Obviously the flood was a punishment for daring to tax income and pretending to be a secular nation. One couldn’t help thinking of Sodom and Gomorrah, the prophecies specified in the Book of Revelation, and so on.

Meanwhile, those on the opposite end of the political spectrum likewise did not shed very many tears over the disaster. As a blow to the heart of the galactic imperium it was a hard thing to regret. It might impede the ruling caste for a while, might make them acknowledge, perhaps, that their economic system had changed the climate, and that this was only the first of many catastrophic consequences. If Washington was denied now that it was begging for help, that was only what it had always done to its environmental victims in the past. Nature bats last—poetic justice—level playing field—reap what you sow—rich arrogant bastards—and so on.

Thus the flood brought pleasure to both sides of the aisle. And in the days that followed Congress made it clear in their votes, if not in their words, that they were not going to appropriate anything like the amount of money it would take to clean up the mess. They said it had to be done; they ordered it done; but they did not fund it.

The city therefore had to pin its hopes on either the beggared District of Columbia, which already knew all there was to know about unfunded mandates from Congress, to the extent that for years their license plates had proclaimed “Taxation Without Representation”; or on the federal agencies specifically charged with disaster relief, like FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers and others that could be expected to help in their ordinary course of their missions (and budgets).

Experts from these agencies tried to explain that the flood did not have a moral meaning, that it was merely a practical problem in city management, which had to be solved as a simple matter of public health, safety, and convenience. The Potomac had ballooned into a temporary lake of about a thousand square miles; it had lasted no more than a week, but in that time inflicted great damage to the infrastructure. Much of the public part of the city was trashed. Rock Creek had torn out its banks, and the Mall was covered by mud; the Tidal Basin was now part of the river again, with the Jefferson Memorial standing in the shallows of the current. Many streets were blocked with debris; worse, in transport terms, many Metro tunnels had flooded, and would take months to repair. Alexandria was wrecked. Most of the region’s bridges were knocked out or suspect. The power grid was uncertain, the sewage system likewise; epidemic disease was a distinct possibility.

Given all this, certain repairs simply had to be made, and many were the calls for full restoration. But whether these calls were greeted with genuine agreement, Tartuffian assent, stony indifference, or gloating opposition, the result was the same: not enough money was appropriated to complete the job.

Only the essentials were dealt with. Necessary infrastructure, sure, almost; and of course the nationally famous buildings were cleaned up, the Mall replanted with grass and new cherry trees; the Vietnam Memorial excavated, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials recaptured from their island state. Congress debated a proposal to leave the highwater mark of greenish mud on the sides of the Washington Monument, as a flood-height record and a reminder of what could happen. But few wanted such a reminder, and in the end they rejected the idea. The stone of the great plinth was steam-cleaned, and around it the Mall began to look as if the flood had never happened. Elsewhere in the city, however. . . .

It was not a good time to have to look for a place to live.

And yet this was just what Frank Vanderwal had to do. He had leased his apartment for a year, covering the time he had planned to work for the National Science Foundation; then he had agreed to stay on. Now, only a month after the flood, his apartment had to be turned over to its owner, a State Department foreign-service person he had never met, returning from a stint in Brazil. So he had to find someplace else.

No doubt the decision to stay had been a really bad idea.

This thought had weighed on him as he searched for a new apartment, and as a result he had not persevered as diligently as he ought to have. Very little was available in any case, and everything on offer was prohibitively expensive. Thousands of people had been drawn to D.C. by a flood that had also destroyed thousands of residences, and damaged thousands more beyond immediate repair and reoccupation. It was a real seller’s market, and rents shot up accordingly.

Many of the places Frank had looked at were also physically repulsive in the extreme, including some that had been flooded and not entirely cleaned up: the bottom of the barrel, still coated with sludge. The low point in this regard came in one semibasement hole in Alexandria, a tiny dark place barred for safety at the door and the single high window, so that it looked like a prison for troglodytes; and two thousand a month. After that Frank’s will to hunt was gone.

Now the day of reckoning had come. He had cleared out and cleaned up, the owner was due home that night, and Frank had nowhere to go.

It was a strange sensation. He sat at the kitchen counter in the dusk, strewn with the various sections of the Post. The “Apartments for Rent” section was less than a column long, and Frank had learned enough of its code by now to know that it held nothing for him. More interesting had been an article in the day’s Metro section about Rock Creek Park. Officially closed due to severe flood damage, it was apparently too large for the overextended National Park Service to be able to enforce the edict. As a result the park had become something of a no-man’s land, “a return to wilderness,” as the article had put it.

Frank surveyed the apartment. It held no more memories for him than a hotel room, as he had done nothing but sleep there. That was all he had needed out of a home, his life proper having been put on hold until his return to San Diego. Now, well . . . it was like some kind of premature resuscitation, on a voyage between the stars. Time to wake up, time to leave the deep freeze and find out where he was.

He got up and went down to his car.

Out to the Beltway to circle north and then east, past the elongated Mormon temple and the great overpass graffiti referencing it: go home dorothy! Get off on Wisconsin, drive in toward the city. There was no particular reason for him to visit this part of town. Of course the Quiblers lived over here, but that couldn’t be it.

He kept thinking: Homeless person, homeless person. You are a homeless person. A song from Paul Simon’s Graceland came to him, the one where one of the South African groups kept singing, Homeless; homeless, Da da da, da da da da da da . . . something like, Midnight come, and then you wanna go home. Or maybe it was a Zulu phrase. Or maybe, as he seemed to hear now: Homeless; homeless; he go down to find another home.

Something like that. He came to the intersection at the Bethesda Metro stop, and suddenly it occurred to him why he might be there. Of course—this was where he had met the woman in the elevator. They had gotten stuck together coming up from the Metro: alone together underground, minute after minute, until after a long talk they had started kissing, much to Frank’s surprise. And then when the repair team had arrived and they were let out, the woman had disappeared without Frank learning anything about her, even her name. It made his heart pound just to remember it. Up there on the sidewalk to the right, beyond the red light—there stood the very elevator box they had emerged from. And then she had appeared to him again, on a boat in the Potomac during the height of the great flood. He had called her boat on his cell phone, and she had answered, had said, “I’ll call. I don’t know when.”

The red light turned green. She had not called and yet here he was, driving back to where they had met as if he might catch sight of her. Maybe he had even been thinking that if he found her, he would have a place to stay.

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