Forty Signs of Rain, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Spectra, 2004, 358 pages, C$37.00 hc, ISBN 0-553-80311-5

I have already written about my constant admiration of Kim Stanley Robinson’s work before, and things won’t change with this review of Forty Signs of Rain, a unique novel of science-fiction that conventionally shouldn’t work as well as it does, yet holds its own as a superbly entertaining work of fiction.

Robinson, of course, rarely settles for conventional narratives. So when he decides to tackle the subject of global warming (after first glancing at the subject in Blue Mars), he does so by using the best-informed protagonists he could think of: the scientists at work in Washington at the intersection of science and politics. The novel begins as global warming is starting to have its first catastrophic impacts. Meanwhile, a young iconoclastic scientist named Frank Vanderwal is fed up with the bureaucracy and cautiousness of the National Science Foundation where he is finishing his one-year term. His colleague, Anne Quibbler, is busy balancing the demands of motherhood with those of a career even as her husband, Charlie Quibbler, is a stay-at-home dad who moonlights as a scientific advisor to an influent senator. (This senator, Phil Chase, is carried over from Antarctica, but so slightly as to be imperceptible to those who haven’t read Robinson’s previous book.)

These three viewpoint on the issue having been established in all of their rock-climbing, breast-feeding, telecommuting banality, Robinson does not immediately jumps to the chase. Nearly half of Forty Signs of Rain passes before the first shapes of the overarching plot appear. This is a novel of characters, of good ordinary people engaged in science and all of its messy complexity. The inner workings of the NSF are carefully described (usually by Frank, who can’t stand it any more), while the interface between science and politics is probed. This is not the time for heroics, but for careful action. This is also science-fiction as it’s too rarely written: as an exploration of the facets of science as it’s conducted today in the real world.

In doing so, Robinson also slyly attacks one of the hoariest clichés of bad SF: the mad scientist. The characters in Forty Signs of Rain are morally outstanding citizens who feel a moral and ethical need to contribute to society by their expertise. Their goal is a better world for all; their means are a conscience and the elements of the scientific method. With this uplifting novel, Robinson reclaims some much-needed credibility for the SF label in its purest sense, even if the science-fictional elements of the book are slight and subtle.

Besides a few gadgets here and there, only the ending of the book stands as a bit of extrapolation. Yet the biggest irony of Forty Signs of Rain does happens late in the book, as the climax of the story is set in rain-drenched Washington, as a flood of biblical proportions cover the entire capital in meters of sludge and water. What was pure Science Fiction in 2004 turned out to be the unpleasant portent of the real-life flooding of New Orleans barely a year later. Validation of Robinson’s carefully researched novel never seemed more ominous.

But these thematic elements would be wasted without Robinson’s usually delightful prose, which delves so deep into the character’s inner landscape as to reflect their emotional states. The writing occasionally takes on a quality halfway between internal monologue and typical third-person narration, blending a poetry of science with mundane everyday concerns. Just wait until you read the scene where a squirming child interrupts a head-to-head meeting with the president.

Ultimately, it’s this blend of domesticity, sweeping thematic concerns and good old-fashioned political issues that makes Forty Signs of Rain such an unlikely page-turner. For a book in which little actually happens, it’s a delight-a-page experience. Fans of Robinson’s brainier previous work will be absolutely fulfilled by this latest work. Best of all, though, is the feeling that the real story is about to begin in the follow-up, Fifty Degrees Below.

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