Recent Reads: Science in the Capital Trilogy

I’ve just finished reading (for the 3rd time, according to my fairly exhaustive reading list) Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy.

I love this series; I loved it the first time I read it and I think it’s improved with the re-reads. It’d been about five years since I read them last, and I’d forgotten huge swaths of storyline and mentally revised at least one into something that totally didn’t happen. I had not forgotten, and was struck again, by the strength of the nature writing; reading this series has always reminded me of Whitman’s Song of Myself in both its strengths and weaknesses. It’s musical, lyrical, mystical, occasionally droning, repetitive and pedantic. It is not–still–an easy read, although it was much easier the third time than the first time, or even the first two times.

Its dis-ease is still the major thing that breaks my heart about this series, because I think this is an incredibly important, optimistic, intelligent, brave and insightful series that basically everyone in the world should read, but I think it’s too hard for your average casual reader to connect with. It takes work, and that’s not a bad thing, but neither–if you’re trying to change the world–is it a good one.

As always, inevitably, it makes me want to tackle my own climate change series. In, you know, my copious free time.

That, however, is beside the point. What I particularly want to discuss is how in this re-read I was especially struck by the powerful, and I mean that both literally and figuratively, female characters in these books.

This may get long, so I’m going to put it behind a cut.

There are basically 3 POV characters in these books: Frank, Anna and Charlie. It’s primarily Frank’s story, and most of the women, including Anna, are seen through his eyes (we also see Frank through the other POV characters’ eyes, including Anna’s).

Frank sees with an unabashedly what-we-now-call male gaze; it is in fact so frank (as it were) that it loses nearly all titilation, even when he’s being titilated. As a character he’s aware of what he finds attractive and spends time mentally dissecting that, figuring out why, on what he calls a savannah-level, he finds various women appealing. In contrast, I think there are maybe two moments when either Charlie or Anna see Frank in an at all sexual manner: Anna at one point concedes a suspicion (to herself) that possibly Frank has some kind of at-work crush on her (which is kind of true) and Charlie notices once, as if vaguely surprised by it, that Frank is a good-looking guy. I mention this primarily because I want to make it clear that there *is* a bias going on in the book; that it *is* the male gaze as we know it, etc.

But the women, wow. Even if Frank sees them in a sexual light, there is nothing about his viewpoint that in any way sees them as less than stellar in their fields. They are all tremendously competent, even alarmingly competent, while also all having a wide variety of extremely human personalities.

There’s Marta, who falls quite squarely into crazy ex-girlfriend territory, although part of the story is Frank’s recognition that their relationship, while exciting, was always toxic, and that he is indeed heavily responsible for much of her crazy-ex behaviour, so it’s not a question of her simply being batshit because they broke up (or words to that effect; you know, the stereotypical “I don’t know, man, she just went crazy” breakup excuse). She is *also* a brilliant, fast-thinking, deeply emotional scientist, as well as a surfer girl (Frank likes brainy jocks, basically) on top of the crazy (and Marta *is* a little crazy, as evidenced from other stories she features in, not just from Frank’s POV here), and her intensity is extremely real and believable.

Anna, the POV character, is also a scientist, one who loves quantifying things. She’s really the only non-jock woman in the story, and is married to Charlie, which *mostly* puts her into a position, from Frank’s POV, as interesting only for her brains, although that’s doing her and their relationship a disservice. Frank actually is inspired by and aspires to her level of rationality and application of scientific method. She’s the character who brings the (exceedingly disparate and yet highly symbiotic) elements of the books together; without Anna the series wouldn’t exist. She’s *also* the one character in the books who knows herself well enough and comfortably enough to stick to her guns as things change around her and as she is offered opportunities to change her own duties. Absolute confidence in who and what she is.

Then there’s Diane, who is the head of the National Science Foundation and who is not only a scientist but a politician and a person of enormous insight and highly developed interpersonal skills. She’s literally powerful in real-world terms and grows increasingly so (by degrees of magnitude) through the series. I also find her to be easily the most charming of the women in the books–I’m utterly convinced by her characterisation, in other words. Her interpersonal skills work on me. :)

The fourth major female character is Caroline, who is Frank’s primary love interest in the series, and whose story is so complicated I don’t even want to get into it at all in order not to spoil it for people who haven’t read the books and might want to. Interestingly, she may be my least favourite of the women in the books, not because she’s the romantic interest but because (for necessary reasons) she remains something of an enigma. She is also, however, by one reading, fairly literally responsible for saving the world, which does tend to be a man’s job in fiction, so, y’know, enigmatic lady saving the world? I can get behind that.

Anyway, it’s not that there aren’t a lot of equally powerful/interesting male characters, but three of the five (actually, four of the six, really) or so regular and important scientist characters in the series are women, and that, on this reading, really struck me. I think it’s wonderful, and it made me appreciate the series in a different way this time through!

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1 thought on “Recent Reads: Science in the Capital Trilogy

  1. i really like those books. and as a long-time DC-area resident, I appreciate his careful attention to the actual geography.

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