Fifty Degrees Below / by Kim Stanley Robinson

By Kim Stanley Robinson. Bantam, 416 pp, $35, hardcover.

Kim Stanley Robinson has never been a hook-you-on-the-first-page kind of author, but until very recently, his fans have not held this against him. For instance, the fact that the last 300 pages of Red Mars, describing an interplanetary revolution, were among the most exciting in the entire genre of science fiction more than compensated for the grimly factual elaborations of the mechanics of terra-forming that preceded them.

Robinson's latest trilogy, however, is more problematic. Forty Signs of Rain, the first plank in this global-warming triptych, was almost eventless until Washington, D.C., got inundated in the final chapter, and even that flood seemed to follow the old Times of London phlegmatic formula of "Small Earthquake in Peru; Not Many Killed".

If anything, Fifty Degrees Below contains even less of a catastrophic payoff than its predecessor. The American capital is in the process of drying off from its aforesaid flood, and the winters are getting harsher and harsher without quite turning apocalyptic. The book's cast of research boffins, spooks, Buddhist monks, and politicians is continuing its uphill struggle against Republican stupidity/rapacity, being aided from time to time by a bunch of homeless people living off the feral zoo animals they manage to kill in the park. Frank Vanderwal, originally a rather disagreeable scientific careerist, has acquired a new sensibility after a combination of inner and outer circumstances drive him to move to the upper branches of a tree, a shift in abode that, he believes, better attunes him to his primeval origins.

To be fair, Fifty is crisply written, its politics are sound, its heart is in the right place, and most of the characters are three-dimensional (although spiritual anorexia is not uncommon). What's more, the plot is advancing, but at a pace that can only be described as, uh, glacial. To put it another way, the end of Volume 2 leaves us feeling like we're a fifth through a much longer work.

Of course, Robinson could be setting us up for a truly mind-blowing final installment. Still, it would have been nice if he'd figured out how to give us a few more thrills along the way.