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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Fifty Degrees Below and The Dark River

Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson. New York: Bantam Books, 2005. ISBN: 978-0-553-80312-9

The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-385-51429-3

So why combine my entries on these two quite disparate books? A couple of reasons. First, they are both the second volume in what is presumed or purported to be a trilogy. Fifty Degrees Below follows Forty Signs of Rain, and The Dark River comes after The Traveler.

Second, and perhaps more compellingly, each involves a near future in which surveillance techniques are expanding, and privacy vanishing. Thirdly, each trilogy has strong Buddhist influences. In Robinson's book, a group of Tibetan refugee monks are among the major secondary characters. The six realms through which Twelve Hawks' “Travelers” travel are said to be modeled on Buddhist cosmology.

Otherwise, the books—and their authors--could hardly be more different. John Twelve Hawks is a pseudonym, his true identity apparently unknown. An early biographical entry on the Random House website consisted of a single line: “John Twelve Hawks lives off the grid.” For more about this intriguing aspect of this elusive author, read the Wikipedia entry on him. The implication, of course, is that whoever John Twelve Hawks really is, he really believes in at least some aspects of the reality on which his story is based. Skeptic that I am, an attempt at garnering publicity for the books seems a more likely motive.

Kim Stanley Robinson, on the other hand, is a distinguished writer of hard science fiction. He has won the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus awards, the most distinguished awards in science fiction writing. His Mars Trilogy is justly famous.

The Twelve Hawks storyline is based on a near future dystopia, in which powerful forces who call themselves “The Brethren” or the Tabula, are working to create a technological version of “Panopticon,” in which everyone is monitored all the time, and complete control of the human race is attained by those in power. Fighting this vision are The Travelers, people with the mystical ability to “travel” to other realms, from which they bring back religious truth and enlightenment. All great religious figures, such as the Buddha, Jesus Christ, etc., are assumed to have been Travelers.

The Brethren see the Travelers as their greatest enemies, who must be brutally stamped out, killed, or captured. The book begins with the brutal slaughter of an entire community in a remote area of Arizona, called New Harmony, because they had previously harbored one of The Travelers that the Tabula are seeking. Only one eleven-year-old girl escapes, and she later joins up with Maya and Gabriel, and their small group of supporters.

Defending the Travelers are a singular group of individuals known as Harlequins, experts in the martial arts, and in detecting and avoiding the increasingly ubiquitous surveillance. In this volume, Maya, our pet Harlequin, must herself travel to the other realms, to attempt the rescue of Gabriel, the Traveler for whom she has assumed protection responsibilities, and his long-lost father, presumed dead, both of whom have traveled to the other realms, and not returned to their bodies, which lie in a coma-like state.

Robinson's books focus on the problem of global warming, and imagine what could happen as its effects begin to make themselves directly felt. In the first volume, the Washington D.C. area undergoes severe flooding. In this one, ice age conditions quickly follow. Frank, our primarly protagonist, works for the NSF (National Science Foundation), which is working hard to ameliorate the effects of global warming, looking at any possible schemes, no matter how far fetched or implausible they may seem.

At the same time, he falls in love with a mysterious woman. They meet when stuck on an elevator together. In time, Frank learns that she is part of the intelligence community, assigned, among her many other cases, to spy on him, monitor the surveillance of his e-mail, cell phone calls, and the like. Further, her husband, from whom she is emotionally estranged (they haven't been intimate for several years), if not physically separated (they still live together, apparently), is higher up in the spook universe than she is, associated with very black, supersensitive intelligence agencies. Thus her liaison's with Frank have to extremely surreptitious, typically in the middle of the night, with very little advance notice.

Robinson's book is filled with scientific information, theories about global warming and ways to ameliorate its effects. Frank himself is living off the grid, more or less, living as a homeless person, with a bed in the back of his van, and another on a tree house sleeping platform he constructed out in the depths of Rock Creek Park.

Both books are definitely recommended for those who read the previous volumes and enjoyed them, but I must confess that I prefer Robinson's version of the future to Twelve Hawks', even though both are more or less dystopian in nature. Plus, you can finish Robinson's trilogy already, as the third volume, Sixty Days and Counting, has already been released.


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