Forty Signs of Rain: A realistic look at environmentalism and politics

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.

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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.

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  1. I don’t question Robinson’s sincerity in trying to explore environmental catastrophe, US politics, and corporate greed in the most realistic way possible, but does this book need to be fiction at all? Lots of Robinson’s themes strike me as more appropriate for non-fiction, discussing future trends along the lines that Alvin Toffler did in Future Shock and Third Wave. Lots of readers complain about his wooden characters and exposition-heavy texts, so perhaps he should consider a new approach.

    • Ryan /

      In his interview in Lucky Strike, he says something like “we are living in a science fiction novel.” I think in his mind, non-fiction and science fiction are still mostly just narrative. I’m probably not explaining it well, but I mostly agreed with him when I read it.

    • Stuart, I don’t know if any form of fiction “needs” to exist. We could live in a world of non-fic only. :) Moreover, all stories, science fiction or otherwise, to some degree are “non-fic” in the sense they possess aspects of reality, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to relate to them. The Lord of the Rings can take your mind to places far, far away, but it’s still grounded in many things we consider physical reality in our world. Robinson’s creations take our minds to places much, much closer due to his emphasis on undisguised physical and social realities, and for that is not as interesting to readers looking for something else.

      I think the point you’re driving at is that Robinson may not synergize his real-world concepts with story due to emphasis on the former. I guess this comes down to preference. Some people enjoy learning about real-world concepts while reading, while others prefer to have them presented, and even speculated upon, in other ways.

      Which leads me to your suggestion that Robinson consider a new approach. The man has thousands of readers who like his exposition-heavy style. It allows him to make a living, in fact. So, why fix something that is broken from one perspective yet functioning perfectly well from another? :) (Unfortunately, I have to use the same argument for popular books I don’t like. Twilight is a load of rubbish to me, but I can’t suggest Meyer change her style as it obviously pleases so many others. I can only criticize her style for what it is.)

  2. Stuart Starosta /

    It definitely comes down to preference, but this series sound like a fictionalized documentary about environmental collapse, political inertia, and greedy corporates (all legitimate subjects), but not fun to read. The same reason why watching too much CNN or global warming documentaries depresses me.

    Having read many reviews of KSR’s books, I note that quite a few readers complain that his exposition and info-dumps overwhelm his stories, whereas others find this the best part of his work. He certainly does a huge amount of homework when researching his topics, and I appreciate that. But every time I think about reading something like his Mars trilogy (which seems to have garnered the most acclaim), Science in the Capitol trilogy, Years of Rice and Salt, 2312 (reviews on GR were very polarized, with a lot of DNFs), and Aurora, I always hesitate since it seems like too onerous an undertaking. But I realize that comes down to taste and mental preparation. I’m quite sure his books are not suited to audio, for example, since I would have to keep close track of all the plot details and science, so if I read them in print it would probably be more rewarding. I want to tackle the Mars trilogy this year or the next, so I can actually have an informed opinion. The only thing I’ve read by him is Escape from Kathmandu, which is much more light-hearted fare.

    • There is an arguable case that The Science in the Capital series is the weakest of Robinson’s novel-length work. The split between fiction and non-fiction is at its most visible. Robinson himself seeming to agree, he revised the whole and re-published it in a single volume as Green Earth in 2015. (Not wanting to steal Aurora’s thunder, publishers chose to release it to zero fanfare.) Regardless, I would still recommend other starting points. Shaman is perhaps Robinson’s most story-oriented novel. Aurora gets a lot of praise for a reason. And indeed, Red Mars is also a good starting point as it is the most dramatic (a relative term for Robinson) of the three Mars books. If you don’t like it, there’s no reason to keep reading the series, the novel self-contained. I have not read Antarctica or 2312, but from what I’ve heard people consider the former a condensed version of the Mars trilogy, and the later an aggregation of Robinson’s ideas to date in a tapestry of story. Maybe also good starting points?

      I cannot argue that Robinson’s style is drier than many other sf writers. But what he lacks in vivacity is more than made up for in intelligence, and, more importantly, intelligent speculation. Not just facts arrayed around thin plot, he has something to say through the sciences about humanity. For this I find him more engaging than many other writers with good characters and story but void of deeper substance. But I do not speak for everybody. :) (Everybody cheers!)

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