Volume 23, Number 01, Fall, 2004

Forty Signs of Rain

By Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam/Spectra, 2004: $25 ISBN 0553803115

Reviewed by Michael Grossberg
November 2005

Global warming is coming. Run for your lives! But fans of Kim Stanley Robinson might prefer to walk, not run, to pick up a copy of his leisurely latest novel. Forty Signs of Rain, the first of a projected global-warming trilogy, might qualify as “fiction about science,” as Robinson has suggested, but it’s not satisfying science fiction.

Robinson, a top-notch talent who explores environmental theses in Antarctica and the award-winning “Mars” trilogy [Red Mars, Blue Mars, and Green Mars—editor], clearly wants to grab readers and shake them into awareness of an imminent environmental catastrophe. Forty Signs of Rain might put them to sleep instead. While the film The Day After Tomorrow exaggerated the effects of global warming for maximum suspense (but minimal scientific accuracy), Forty Signs stretches the threat with more plausibility but less excitement.

Set in Washington, D.C. and California, the novel is best at charting the complex interactions between science and politics with depressing realism. The humdrum focus is on the office politics, turf battles and everyday family lives of scientists-administrators as they try to convince politicians that the threat is serious enough to demand action.

Libertarians will find it easy to interpret Robinson’s clear evidence of the politicization of science as an argument against government funding and government control, but Robinson seems strangely blind to the implications of his own persuasively drawn portrait. The frustratingly slow pace comes partly from an overemphasis on the interior monologues of characters whose largely disconnected stories won't merge until the sequels.

Although the author might be trying to ground the story in strong characterizations before unleashing the forces of nature, it's hard to care much for the three lead characters.

Charlie Quibler is a house husband who cares for his sons while serving as a senator's environmental adviser. His wife, Anna, examines science grants and works for the National Science Foundation, where eligible bachelor Frank Vanderwal, on leave from the University of California, San Diego (Robinson's alma mater), heads a panel that is screening grant proposals.

Neither heroes nor villains, all three are likable but flawed people with relatively boring lives but interesting ideas. Vanderwal interprets human behavior through the prism of sociobiology, while others focus on biology, meteorology or mathematics in monologues that become mini-essays.

The most intriguing and sympathetic characters are the least developed: a group of exiled Tibetan monks who set up an embassy in Washington to gain American help for their transplanted island community, a member of the League of Drowning Nations.

Too often, the characters become thinly veiled mouthpieces for the left-liberal author, while other views are caricatured or ignored. For anyone aware of the many questions about the causes and extent of global warming—and doubts about the conflicting measurements about whether global warming is even occurring—the novel’s deepest assumptions will come across as frustratingly one-sided and undefended. Flooded with Robinson‘s polemics, the novel won‘t convince skeptics.

Robinson‘s dubious effort to combine science fiction and politics provides implicit cautionary lessons for libertarian sci-fi writers about the pitfalls of preaching to the already converted. Warning to disaster-novel fans: No major characters drown in Forty Signs of Rain, although parts of the nation‘s capital are flooded and, clearly, more water is to come.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio), reprinted with permission.

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