Books: Escape from Kathmandu

Because I haven’t written much this week and have written barely anything about books in a long time, I thought I’d mention Kim Stanley Robinson’s Escape from Kathmandu. I should mention in passing as I do this that Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite science fiction authors and that Escape from Kathmandu is the closest of any of his books to light reading. Ordinarily his books include massive quantities of politics, social questions, and environmentalism.

This one still includes a certain amount of all of the above, but in much smaller doses than usual and he spends much of the time deliberately being funny–and carries it off.

The book is set in Nepal, the country that contains Mt. Everest. The characters are largely US expatriates who live in Nepal, guiding tourists in the Himalayas and climbing mountains in their spare time. The comedy comes from the combination of first world expectations (for example: consistently working utilities, romantic notions about exploration) and third world reality (poverty and bureacracy).

Admittedly, the combination of those elements doesn’t exactly make it sound like a laugh riot.

What makes things work is Kim Stanley Robinson’s sense of absurdity and his ability to create good stories and some wonderful moments. For example:

–the obnoxious tourist who is filming a documentary
–an illegal ascent of Mt. Everest
–the main characters’ attempt to sneak a Yeti past Jimmy Carter
–almost accidentally provoking war between India and China (yes, this was funny)

The book was published in 1989, appearing as novellas in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine before that. Reading the stories now is somewhat bittersweet.

If you follow Nepal at all, you know why. I don’t think that the stories could have the same light tone if they’d been written recently. Between now and then, the Crown Prince gunned down the King, Queen and five others. After that, another member of the family became king, ending the constitutional monarchy and taking all power to himself. In the meantime, a Maoist insurgency began to grow and spread. Relatively recently, the King was stripped of his powers and democracy restored, but things have a long way to go.

Still, if you want to read a funny, contemporary fantasy that includes mountain climbing and yeti, this book is probably your only option. Recent history aside, I recommend it.

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