Kim Stanley Robinson Forty Signs of Rain Reviewed by Rick Kleffel

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Forty Signs of Rain

Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Spectra - Bantam Dell/Random House

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-553-80311-5

Publication Date: 06-01-2004

358 Pages; $25.00

Date Reviewed: 06-03-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



Science Fiction, General Fiction, Non-Fiction


Embarrassingly enough, what's all too often missing from science fiction is science itself. Yes, any number of novels speculate one or more advances here and there, around which people, plots and places spin. But science itself -- that nebulous practice of studying the real world and writing down what is observed, with an eye towards understanding the principles that move the world -- science itself is often absent. There are exceptions of course, and Kim Stanley Robinson offers a fine example of science fiction as fiction about the process of science itself in 'Forty Signs of Rain'. Taking the controversial subject of global climate change as its object of study, 'Forty Signs of Rain' tells a tight, focused story. Robinson examines the state of what we call science through complex character studies of the types of people that readers might make an effort to avoid at parties. Bureaucrats, lobbyists and working-stiff scientists are revealed in all their self-conflicted glory. As the first novel in an anticipated trilogy, 'Forty Signs of Rain' offers an insider's introductory view of a largely invisible bureaucracy while introducing the bureaucracy itself to a problem that will not yield to an easy solution. For the reader, it's an exciting glimpse of science entwined with a frightening and convincing speculative plot. 'Forty Signs of Rain' may be the smartest and best disaster novel you'll read.

Charlie and Anna Quibler are Washington wonks with two kids and an unusual home life. Anna is a scientist who works as a bureaucrat for the NSF, helping to decide which proposals get funded by the government and which are sent out to the private sector. Charlie is a work-at-home, stay-at-home Dad to his sons, Nick and Joe; Joe is just getting to the terrible twos. Charlie acts as a science advisor to a highly placed Senator, and as the novel opens, Charlie is hoping that the Senator will be able to introduce an omnibus bill to help study and combat global climate change. Frank Vanderwal is a scientist on leave from UCSD, currently helping Anna decide who gets funding. Frank has some ties to the biotech boom back in San Diego. Every day the Arctic ice pack is melting. So far, we haven't seen any effects observable to the average Joe. As it happens, actual science suggests this won't last long.

Robinson zooms into the heads of his scientific and bureaucratic characters with laser-like clarity. Frank constantly observes the people around him as if they were primates, roaming the African plains. That is, he's a scientist, damn it, and he sees the world as a scientist even when he's just standing in an elevator. But he's also a complex and conflicted character. He's not been wildly successful in either his romantic life or his career. Robinson does an excellent job conveying the shades of a character who is not particularly likable, but certainly interesting. Readers will be shocked to find that Charlie Quibler, stay-at-home Dad, seems more like a character out of Tom Perrotta's 'Little Children' than a science fiction novel. Toting his two-year old around to meetings with Senators, yet still entranced while playing with his kid, he's a lot more rounded than Frank. He's busy enough that he has no time however, for scandalous affairs. And given that Anna Quibler is his wife, little inclination. Anna spends her time trying to make a difference in a bureaucracy that has all the momentum of fifty years in Washington, DC behind it. Anna and Charlie are just flawed and exasperated enough to stay on the right side of readers' patience.

'Forty Signs of Rain' follows two plot lines that show no sign of converging in this novel, though the reader will quickly twig as to precisely how they will converge. On one hand, Charlie and Anna try to fight for some action from the US government to help stem the tide of global climate change. On the other hand, Frank's biotech friends back in San Diego encounter promising experimental math and a lack of funding. Robinson is working on a wide canvas here, so some reader patience for final results will be required. But within the confines of this first entry in the series, you get a nice sense of toe-tapping tension as careers collide with cash and bounce back hopelessly, helplessly in the face of a nearly religious faith in the efficacy of capitalism. Readers need have no fear that the book is pure wonkery, however. Robinson supplies a "trigger event" that's full of nicely scaled, exciting but believable action to propel the plot, even though his scientific shenanigans are in themselves quite gripping.

The practice of science is the real subject here. Robinson shows a once-honored form of human activity now kowtowing to crass capitalism, and he does it with the kind of detail and finesse that makes the whole picture captivating. This is no simple axe grinding, but rather an honest re-assessment of where we are going with the way things currently work. Robinson is not afraid to tackle current politics in his scientific fiction, and here's where the science really works in favor of the narrative and the conclusions that Robinson reaches. It's pretty simple. Science is broken. Anyone who believes that science is an impartial pursuit of truths that will better the lives of common men and women is deluded. Science is now a cog in a machine that makes money. It gets all the lubrication it needs, or at least squeaks loud enough for.

'Forty Signs of Rain' shows a side of science fiction that needs more exposure in the realm of popular fiction. It's by no means escapist fantasy. Robinson takes a strong political stand here, and offers a perspective on science that's refreshing as well as an exciting plot device. It is clearly the first in a series, and readers need to be aware of that going in. But once you start, expect that you're going to finish the series. Robinson puts plenty of science in his science fiction - and makes it exciting enough to ensure that you'll want to come back for more.