Sunday, February 23, 2014

Review of Forty 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 ficitonal 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.  Khembalung 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 frustrated with the cuts and elisions to the bills he proposes, and Frank 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.” (190)

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 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 integrating plot and information, mainstream devices alternate with info dumps on behavior theory, climate change, economic models, and, interestingly enough, paradigm shifts, in telling the story. 

In the end, Forty Signs of Rain is an anti-capitalist book that does more than point out faults in the system.  Melodrama (largely) pushed 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.


  1. Definitely his most politically outspoken novel. Frank in particular can be quite radical. I've always wondered if Robinson would have written the flood scenes differently if he'd written it after hurricane Katrina. With those scenes in mind the events in Washington seem rather... tame.

    1. I read your recent review of the novel and was wondering whether it was worth posting mine as we seem to have a very similar perspective.

      Hadn't thought of the New Orleans parallel, but now that you mention it, Robinson's vision is rather tame in comparison. Not so often mother nature outstrips science fiction... :) If you get the chance, check out a film called Samsara. Not a film in the conventional sense, a couple of filmmakers took HD cameras to various places in the world and set them up for a few days, editing the footage into a coherent collage later in the studio. No dialogue or action, it is simply visuals from strange, interesting, and beautiful places around the world, including post-flood New Orleans.

    2. A similar perspective perhaps the approaches to the review is quite different.

      I'll have a look around for that film, sounds interesting.