Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson science fiction book reviewsForty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson

With the quality of special effects improved exponentially, the blockbuster disaster movie appeared in the 90s and hasn’t looked back. Tornadoes (Twister), meteors (Deep Impact and Armageddon), seismic activity (The Core), volcanoes (Dante’s Peak), massive weather events (The Perfect Storm), and, who can forget, Sharknado, have in one way or another tried to capitalize on the potential power of nature to earn a dollar. Opening with a reasonably plausible scientific premise (except in the case of the latter, of course), then quickly cutting to the melodrama and special effects, these films have done nothing to make people aware of the physical laws governing the actualities of our world and the true potential for catastrophe. In writing the SCIENCE IN THE CAPITOL trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson aimed to correct that imbalance. The most realistic look at the intersection of environmentalism and politics the genre has yet produced, Forty Signs of Rain, the first book in the trilogy, is an important book that, while perhaps not possessing the flare many people stereotype sci-fi as having, nevertheless frames the American political situation in a fashion extremely relevant to the modern world and the toll humans are slowly taking on it.

Forty Signs of Rain centers on the lives of two men: Frank Vanderwal, a microbiologist, and Charlie Quibler, house husband and environmental policy advisor, both living in Washington DC. At the outset of the story, Frank is winding down his year at the National Science Foundation and preparing himself to return to the research organization where he is employed in San Diego. A group of Buddhist delegates from the country Khembalung, a fictional waterlogged island off the coast of Kolkota, have recently rented office space in the first floor of their building, and through his colleague Anna Quibler (Charlie’s wife), are introduced. Because Khembalung is drowning as the waters of the ocean rise higher and higher each year, the delegates have come to Washington to plead their case and get assistance for their people, both financially and in political terms that will see a change in global environmental practices. Charlie, though spending most of his time caring for his two year old son Joe, is able to squeeze in negotiations and bill writing for the most environmentally supportive politician, Senator Phil Chase. Charlie is frustrated with cuts and elisions to the bills he proposes, and Frank is frustrated with the NSF’s inability to enact real change. By the end of the novel both get what they want, but have something else, something major in common, to complain about.

Point blank, Forty Signs of Rain is the most politically and environmentally overt novel I’ve read by Robinson. Making no bones about his stance, quotes such as the following underlie the ideology of both Charlie and Frank:

If the Earth were to suffer a catastrophic anthropogenic extinction event over the next ten years, which it will, American business would continue to focus on its quarterly profit and loss. There is no economic mechanism for dealing with catastrophe. And yet government and the scientific community are not tackling this situation, either, indeed both have consented to be run by neoclassical economics, an obvious pseudo-science. We might as well be governed by astrologers.

The novel is thus contentious for those who feel global warming is a myth and that the current system is well equipped to handle environmental disaster were it ever to strike big.

Regardless of the reader’s political stance, Forty Signs of Rain is a novel obviously meant to challenge. Packed to the gills with realistic scenarios involving political negotiation and environmentalism in government, sympathizers will overlook the contrived dialogue, Arthur C. Clarke do-no-wrong scientists, occasional cheesy plot development, and will focus on the integrity of the content. Robinson only partially succeeds in integrating plot and information; mainstream devices alternate with info dumps on behavior theory, climate change, economic models, and, interestingly enough, paradigm shifts.

In the end, Forty Signs of Rain is an anti-capitalist book that does more than point out faults in the system. Pushing melodrama (largely) to the background, the novel is an anti-disaster story for its foregrounding of the realism of the build-up to a disaster scenario, particularly the group negligence which may be the agent. Backed by science, and to some extent Buddhism, Robinson lays the groundwork for a situation that would better meet the long-term goals of humanity. Robinson appears to have a great handle on how science and politics are integrated, and how they might be better integrated — a Kuhnian Glass Bead Game as it were. Bacigalupi got angry in The Windup Girl and started shooting greedy corporate executives. In Forty Signs of Rain, Robinson simply lays bare the reality of the system which supports such executives, then envisions the result. Undoubtedly the next two books in the trilogy, Fifty Degrees and Rising and Sixty Days and Counting will expand the ideas.

Science in the Capitol– (2004-2007) The bestselling author of the classic Mars trilogy and The Years of Rice and Salt returns with a riveting new trilogy of cutting-edge science, international politics, and the real-life ramifications of global warming as they are played out in our nation’s capital—and in the daily lives of those at the center of the action. Hauntingly realistic, here is a novel of the near future that is inspired by scientific facts already making headlines. When the Arctic ice pack was first measured in the 1950s, it averaged thirty feet thick in midwinter. By the end of the century it was down to fifteen. One August the ice broke. The next year the breakup started in July. The third year it began in May. That was last year. It’s an increasingly steamy summer in the nation’s capital as Senate environmental staffer Charlie Quibler cares for his young son and deals with the frustrating politics of global warming. Charlie must find a way to get a skeptical administration to act before it’s too late—and his progeny find themselves living in Swamp World. But the political climate poses almost as great a challenge as the environmental crisis when it comes to putting the public good ahead of private gain. While Charlie struggles to play politics, his wife, Anna, takes a more rational approach to the looming crisis in her work at the National Science Foundation. There a proposal has come in for a revolutionary process that could solve the problem of global warming—if it can be recognized in time. But when a race to control the budding technology begins, the stakes only get higher. As these everyday heroes fight to align the awesome forces of nature with the extraordinary march of modern science, they are unaware that fate is about to put an unusual twist on their work—one that will place them at the heart of an unavoidable storm. With style, wit, and rare insight into our past, present, and possible future, this captivating novel propels us into a world on the verge of unprecedented change—in a time quite like our own. Here is Kim Stanley Robinson at his visionary best, offering a gripping cautionary tale of progress—and its price—as only he can tell it.


  • Jesse Hudson

    JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.