The series is 3 books:
- Forty Signs of Rain
- Fifty Degrees Below
- Sixty Days and Counting
It was subsequently re-edited into a single edition (Green Earth), but I read the originals. They have all the components of a KSR book:
- Someone is smacked in the face
- The last third of the book/series includes a travelogue of terraforming
- Humanity rendered (and pondering) their place as a primates-out-of-forest/fish-out-of-water in a technology-based society.
And some uniquely nice and interesting things
- Child characters. I found them the most interesting, especially toddler Joe. Older Nick is pretty boring and unmotivated (in the literary sense) in stark contrast to Aurora’s Devi.
- Contemporary setting (which does have its problems, like suggesting fictional nano-rods instead of actual CRISPR). This is mainly why I gave it 4 stars; it’s fairly unique as a KSR book goes.
A main theme is “an excess of reason is itself a form of madness” with the various characters navigating contemporary rationalism (politics, bureaucracy, venture science, healthcare, courtship, family) within the constraints of their character’s authentic selves.
“We are animals. Animals whose wisdom has extended so far as to tell us we are mortal creatures. We die. For fifty thousand years we have known this. Much of our mental energy is spent avoiding this knowledge. We do not like to think of it. Then again, we know now that even the cosmos is mortal. Reality is mortal. All things change ceaselessly. Nothing remains the same in time. Nothing can be held on to. The question then becomes, what do we do with this knowledge? How do we live with it? How do we make sense of it?”
Well—indeed. Frank leaned forward, piqued, wondering what Drepung would tell them the old man had said next. That gravelly low voice, growling through its incomprehensible sounds—it was strange to think it was expressing such meanings. Frank suddenly wanted to know what he was saying.
“One of the scientific terms for compassion,” Drepung said, looking around the ceiling as if for the word, “… you say, ‘altruism.’ This is a question in your animal studies. Does true altruism exist, and is it a good adaptation? Does compassion work, in other words? You have done studies that suggest altruism is the best adaptive strategy, if seen from the group context. This then becomes a kind of … admonishment. To practice compassion in order to successfully evolve—this, coming from your science, which claims to be descriptive only! Only describing what has worked to make us what we are. But in Buddhism we have always said, if you want to help others, practice compassion; if you want to help yourself, practice compassion. Now science adds, if you want to help your species, practice compassion.”
This got a laugh, and Frank also chuckled. He started to think about it in terms of prisoners’ dilemma strategies; it was an invocation for all to make the always generous move, for maximum group return, indeed maximum individual return.… Thus he missed what Drepung said next, absorbed in something more like a feeling than a thought: If only I could believe in something, no doubt it would be a relief. All his rationality, all his acid skepticism; suddenly it was hard not to feel that it was really just some kind of disorder.
And at that very moment Rudra Cakrin looked right at him, him alone in all the audience, and Drepung said, “An excess of reason is itself a form of madness.”
Frank sat back in his seat. What had the question been? Rerunning his short-term memory, he could not find it.
Now he was lost to the conversation again. His flesh was tingling, as if he were a bell that had been struck.
“The experience of enlightenment can be sudden.”
He didn’t hear that, not consciously.
“The scattered parts of consciousness occasionally assemble at once into a whole pattern.”
He didn’t hear that either, as he was lost in thought. All his certainties were trembling. He thought, an excess of reason itself a form of madness—it’s the story of my life. And the old man knew.
The biggest problem with the book is that one of the main characters is super creepy. And it goes on too long. I think the latter is fixed in the edited Green Planet edition, but I dunno about the former. Fortunately he doesn’t act on it:
Now he was considering acting in accordance with his beliefs. Something else he had heard the Khembalis say at the Quiblers, this time Drepung: If you don’t act on it, it wasn’t a true feeling. … One can always just walk away. The Dalai Lama had said that for sure. Things you don’t like, things you think are wrong, you can always just walk away. You will be happier. Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. But compassion is not just a feeling. You have to act.
And if you make it to the third book, you’re treated to some good liberal head-canon in the newly elected President’s inauguration speech:
“Fellow Americans,” he said, pacing his speech to the reverb of the loudspeakers, “you have entrusted me with the job of president during a difficult time. The crisis we face now, of abrupt climate change and crippling damage to the biosphere, is a very dangerous one, to be sure. But we are not at war with anyone, and in fact we face a challenge that all humanity has to meet together. On this podium, Franklin Roosevelt said, ‘This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.’ Now it’s true again. We are the generation that has to deal with the profound destruction that will be caused by the global warming that has already been set in motion. The potential disruption of the natural order is so great that scientists warn of a mass extinction event. Losses on that scale would endanger all humanity, and so we cannot fail to address the threat. The lives of our children, and all their descendants, depend on us doing so.
“So, like FDR and his generation, we have to face the great challenge of our time. We have to use our government to organize a total social response to the problem. That took courage then, and we will need courage now. In the years since we used our government to help get us out of the Great Depression, it has sometimes been fashionable to belittle the American government as some kind of foreign burden laid on us. That attitude is nothing more than an attack on American history, deliberately designed to shift power away from the American people. I want us to remember how Abraham Lincoln said it: ‘that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this
Earth.’ This is the crucial concept of American democracy—that government expresses what the majority of us would like to do as a society. It’s us. We do it to us and for us. I believe this reminder is so important that I intend to add the defining phrase ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ every time I use the word ‘government,’ and I intend to do all I can to make that phrase be a true description. It will make me even more long-winded than I was before, but I am willing to pay that price, and you are going to have to pay it with me.
“So, this winter, with your approval and support, I intend to instruct my team in the executive branch of government of the people, by the people, and for the people, to initiate a series of federal actions and changes designed to meet the problem of global climate change head-on. We will deal with it as a society working together, and working with the rest of the world. It’s a global project, and so I will go to the United Nations and tell them that the United States is ready to join the international effort. We will also help the under-developed world to develop using clean technology, so that all the good aspects of development will not be drowned in its bad side effects—often literally drowned. In our own country, meanwhile, we will do all it takes to shift to clean technologies as quickly as possible.” Phil paused to survey the crowd. “My, it’s cold out here today! You can feel right now, right down to the bone, that what I am saying is true. We’re out in the cold, and we need to change the way we do things. And it’s not just a technological problem, having to do with our machinery alone. The devastation of the biosphere is also a result of there being too many human beings for the planet to support over the long haul. If the human population continues to increase as it has risen in the past, all progress we might make will be overwhelmed.
“But what is very striking to observe is that everywhere on this Earth where good standards of justice prevail, the rate of reproduction is about at the replacement rate. While wherever justice, and the full array of rights as described in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, is somehow denied to some portion of the population, especially to women and children, the rate of reproduction either balloons to unsustainably rapid growth rates, or crashes outright. Now you can argue all you want about why this correlation exists, but the correlation itself is striking and undeniable. So this is one of those situations in which what we do for good in one area, helps us again in another. It is a positive feedback loop with the most profound implications. Consider: for the sake of climate stabilization, there must be population stabilization; and for there to be population stabilization, justice must prevail. Every person on the planet must live with the full array of human rights that all nations have already ascribed to when signing the UN Charter. When we achieve that, at that point, and at that point only, we will begin to reproduce at a sustainable rate.
“To help that to happen, I intend to make sure that the United States joins the global justice project fully, unequivocally, and without any double standards. This means accepting the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and the jurisdiction of the World Court in the Hague. It means abiding by all the clauses of the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions, which after all we have already signed. It means supporting UN peacekeeping forces, and supporting the general concept of the UN as the body through which international conflicts get resolved. It means supporting the World Health Organization in all its reproductive rights and population reduction efforts. It means supporting women’s education and women’s rights everywhere, even in cultures where men’s tyrannies are claimed to be some sort of tradition. All these commitments on our part will be crucial if we are serious about building a sustainable world. There are three legs to this effort, folks: technology, environment, and social justice. None of the three can be neglected.
“So, some of what we do may look a little unconventional at first. And it may look more than a little threatening to those few who have been trying, in effect, to buy our government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and use it to line their own pockets while the world goes smash. But you know what? Those people need to change too. They’re out in the cold the same as the rest of us. So we will proceed, and hope those opposed come to see the good in it.
“Ultimately we will be exploring all peaceful means to initiate positive changes in our systems, in order to hand on to the generations to come a world that is as beautiful and bountiful as the one we were born into. We are only the temporary stewards of a mighty trust, which includes the lives of all the future generations to come. We are responsible to our children and theirs. What we do now will reveal much about our character and our values as a people. We have to rise to the occasion, and I think we can and will. I am going to throw myself into the effort wholeheartedly and with a feeling of high excitement, as if beginning a long journey over stormy seas.”