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  • "When a Chance Came for Everything to Change":Messianism and Wilderness in Kim Stanley Robinson's Abrupt Climate Change Trilogy
  • K. Daniel Cho (bio)

Kim Stanley Robinson's third trilogy—Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting—is a disaster narrative: global warming causes melting icecaps to flood the North Atlantic with enough freshwater to stall the massive Gulf Stream current. 1 This stall turns out to be "the major trigger event in Earth's climactic history" (FS, 291), creating extreme weather conditions around the globe. In the United States, the western coastline crumbles into the Pacific while the eastern seaboard is inundated by raging storms, with wild weather erupting everywhere in between. Of course, ecological themes are not unfamiliar to Robinson's readers, as the physical environment is always present in his work, even if that presence sometimes seems secondary to issues of utopian politics. But by centering this narrative on ecological disaster, the Abrupt Climate Change (ACC) trilogy finally brings the environment decisively to the forefront.

It may therefore be tempting to see this trilogy as Robinson's full conversion from Science Fiction writer to ecocritic, fully possessed by what Lawrence Buell calls "the environmental imagination," a form of writing that makes us attentive to the physical environment by making "it feel more or less precious or endangered or disposable." 2 Such a conversion would be cause for trepidation indeed, for ecocriticism, according to such critics as David Harvey, focuses on the particular at the risk of neglecting the whole. And we must always be mindful of the world as a totality, since, as Harvey reminds us, "what happens in the environment today is not only highly dependent upon capitalist behaviors, institutions, activities, and power structures, but its very 'sustainability.'" 3 Without taking the social totality into account, Harvey argues, the language of ecocriticism—above all, the catchphrase sustainability—"can be appropriated by multinational corporations to legitimize a global grab to manage all of the world's resources." 4 [End Page 23]

It may be true that Robinson heightens our attention to the malleability and vulnerability of the biosphere mostly through his meticulous research on the latest science of global warming. But this refocusing of attention is not, I would claim, the primary reason for orienting this trilogy around the theme of global warming. The primary motivation here is to explore the possibility of ecological disaster creating the preconditions for the wholesale transformation of capitalist society. The device of the Gulf Stream stall that Robinson deploys here thus belongs to an entire class of dystopian Science Fiction motifs that Fredric Jameson categorizes as world reduction: disaster events that result in the "destruction of the idols and the sweeping away of an old world in violence and pain," which is necessary "for the reconstruction of something else." 5

The destruction caused by climate changes clears space, creates room, for Utopia to emerge. The role of Utopia in these novels is played by something Robinson calls permaculture, "a culture that can be sustained permanently" (SD, 367). However, what permaculture is exactly never becomes clear as Robinson never fully fleshes it out. Instead, we are given only its basic parameters, which consist of two axioms ("Greatest good for the greatest number" [FD, 214] and the interdependence of the biosphere) and six principles (environmental protection, human welfare, full employment, socialization of surplus value and redistribution of wealth, demilitarization, and population stabilization [FD, 213-17]). Moreover, by trilogy's end, we are told that permaculture (and thus Utopia) was never a product all along but a process, "the long-term work of our species . . . an ongoing project that will never end" (SD, 367).

By postponing Utopia's appearance—perhaps, indefinitely—Robinson is able to focus his energy on the work involved not so much in building Utopia as in ending dystopia. Tom Moylan has shown that, to "inscribe a space for a new form of political opposition," 6 within the bleakest conditions is the defining tendency of the subgenre of Science Fiction called the critical dystopia. Especially relevant for the present discussion is Moylan's additional claim that the critical dystopia always seeks to "refunction a larger, more...