Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, July 11, 2016

Green Earth

Another Kim Stanley Robinson novel, and another set of profoundly mixed feelings. Green Earth, which was published last year, is a condensation into a single volume of three novels that appeared in the middle of the last decade and are generally known as the Science in the Capital trilogy.

Robinson is an extraordinarily intelligent writer with a wide-ranging mind, and no one writes about either scientific thinking or the technological implementation of science with the clarity and energy that he evidences. Moreover, he has an especially well thought-out, coherent and consistent understanding of the world — what some people (not me) call a worldview, what used to be called "a philosophy." But that philosophy is also what gets him into trouble, because he has overmuch trust in people who share it and insufficient understanding of, or even curiosity about, people who don’t.

Robinson is a technocratic liberal universalist humanitarian (TLUH), and though Green Earth is in many ways a fascinating novel, an exceptionally well-told story, it is also to a somewhat comical degree a TLUH wish-fulfillment fantasy. I can illustrate this through a brief description of one of the novel's characters: Phil Chase, a senator from Robinson's native California whose internationalist bent is so strong that his many fans call him the World's Senator, who rises to become President, whose integrity is absolute, who owes nothing to any special-interest groups, who listens to distinguished scientists and acts on their recommendations, who even marries a distinguished scientist and — this is the cherry on the sundae — has his marriage blessed by the Dalai Lama. TLUH to the max.

In Green Earth Robinson's scientists tend to be quite literally technocrats, in that they work for, or have close ties to, government agencies, which they influence for good. Only one of them does anything wrong in the course of the book, and that — steering a National Science Foundation panel away from supporting a proposal that only some of them like anyway — is scarcely more than a peccadillo. And that character spends the rest of the book being so uniformly and exceptionally virtuous that, it seems to me, Robinson encourages us to forget that fault.

Robinson's scientists are invariably excellent at what they do, honest, absolutely and invariably committed to the integrity of scientific procedure, kind to and supportive of one another, hospitable to strangers, deeply concerned about climate change and the environment generally. They eat healthily, get plenty of exercise, and drink alcohol on festive occasions but not habitually to excess. They are also all Democrats.

Meanwhile, we see nothing of the inner lives of Republicans, but we learn that they are rigid, without compassion, owned by the big oil companies, practiced in the blackest arts of espionage against law-abiding citizens, and associated in not-minutely-specified ways with weirdo fundamentalist Christian groups who believe in the Rapture.

Green Earth is really good when Robinson describes the effects of accellerated climate change and the various means by which it might be addressed. And I liked his little gang of Virtuous Hero Scientists and wanted good things to happen to them. But the politically Manichaean character of the book gets really tiresome when extended over several hundred pages. Robinson is just so relentless in his flattery of his likely readers' presuppositions — and his own. (The Mars Trilogy is so successful in part because all its characters are scientists and if they were uniformly virtuous as the scientists in Green Earth there would be no story.)

It's fascinating to me that Robinson is so extreme in his caricatures, because in some cases he's quite aware of the dangers of them. Given what I've just reported, it wouldn't be surprising if Robinson were attracted to Neil DeGrasse Tyson's imaginary republic of Rationalia, but he's too smart for that. At one point the wonderfully virtuous scientist I mentioned earlier hears a lecture by a Tibetan Buddhist who says, "An excess of reason is itself a form of madness" — a quote from an ancient sage, and an echo of G.K. Chesterton to boot, though Robinson may not know that. Our scientist instantly rejects this idea — but almost immediately thereafter starts thinking about it and can’t let the notion go; it sets him reading, and eventually he comes across the work of Antonio Damasio, who has shown pretty convincingly that people who operate solely on the basis of "reason" (as usually defined) make poorer decisions than those whose emotions are in good working order and play a part in decision-making.

So Robinson is able to give a subtle and nuanced account of how people think — how scientists think, because one of the subtler themes of the book is the way that scientists think best when their emotions are engaged, especially the emotion of love. Those who love well think well. (But St. Augustine told us that long ago, didn't he?)

Given Robinson's proper emphasis on the role of the whole person in scientific thinking, you'd expect him to have a stronger awareness of the dangers of thinking according to the logic of ingroups and outgroups. But no: in this novel the ingroups are all the way in and the outgroups all the way out. Thus my frustration.

Still, don't take these complaints as reasons not to read Green Earth or anything else by Robinson. I still have more of his work to read and I'm looking forward to it. He always tells a good story and I always learn a lot from reading his books. And I can't say that about very many writers. Anyway, Adam Roberts convinced me that I had under-read one of Robinson's other books, so maybe that'll happen again....


  • Not this time. The Science in the Capital books vie with Galileo's Dream as my least favourite KSR books (and I speak as a squee-prone KSR fanboy). I agree with you he doesn't find a way to integrate his heartfelt environmental concerns with a properly nuanced sense of how people from different ideological backgrounds actually think and work; hence the political caricature you identify here.

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