Saturday, February 1, 2014

Forty Signs of Rain - Kim Stanley Robinson

Forty Signs of Rain is the first volume in Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capital series. I got my first copy of this book, a mass market paperback, in a book store in Gothenburg, Sweden in June 2005. Unfortunately it turned out to be a misprint, the order of the pages was very mixed up so that the first pages in the book dealt with the storm that was supposed to be the climax of the novel. Of course I was back in the Netherlands by the time I found out and you don't exactly hop on a plane to Sweden to get your money back. I read it anyway but trying to figure out what goes where in the story was a bit of a challenge. A few years later I replaced it with a hardcover, which made for a lot easier reading.

The novel centers on the National Science Foundation, a US government agency that funds all sorts of fundamental research. Thee main characters, all with a connection to the NSF, try to tackle the problem of rapid climate change in their own way. Signs of climate change appear everywhere in the novel and the world has gotten to the point where not acting on it is a luxury that it can no longer afford. While Charlie Quibler tries to get legislation sponsored by Senator Phil Chase to pass, his wife Anna and her colleague Frank Vanderwal realize that science will be pivotal in dealing with the crisis and that the NSF cannot afford to maintain its passive attitude.

Robinson sets the tone early in this novel, indicating that it opens shortly after the Arctic polar ice starts breaking up in summer, one of the many warning signs that the world's climate is about to change drastically. There are no firm indicators as to when this novel is set, although the presence of Phil Chase is a firm link to Robinson's 1997 novel Antarctica, in which he is a minor character. That novel is set two years after the expiration of the Antarctic Treaty which was renewed for 50 years in 1991. That would mean Antarctica is set in 2043. Forty Signs of Rain doesn't have that much of a futuristic feel to it, although cars seem to have come a long way. If it is indeed meant to have been set in the 2040s, it looks like Robinson underestimated the speed with which the Arctic ice cover is breaking up. Since the turn of the century new record lows for the Arctic ice cover had been recorded with depressing frequency. Somehow, setting it sometime in this decade seems more fitting.

What Robinson describes in this trilogy are so called trigger events. Occurrences that suddenly and drastically change the climate in a matter of years rather than the long time frames we are used to when dealing with climate. A lot of possibilities are mentioned in the book but there are two that stand out. The first is what Robinson calls a Hyperniño, an extended El Niño event that in the novel sends big storms barrelling into the coast of California. The most important one is the stalling of the oceanic conveyor belt. A system of currents in the worlds ocean driven by differences in water temperature and salinity. Without the Arctic ice cover to provide a sinking of cold and saline water, the system stalls, severely distorting the heat distribution in many places on Earth. This last threat is noticed at the end of the first novel and will be an important element in the following books.

Climate is a notoriously complex scientific issue and changes to it are surrounded by uncertainties. Just about all available evidence points in the direction that the world is warming up however, and the world is currently ignoring the problem at its peril. Without a decent education in the natural sciences it is very easy to fall for misinformation being spread about the issue. One persistent and to scientists intensely annoying error is to mistake weather for climate. I think this XKCD comic illustrates it perfectly.  The point Robinson makes in this book is that policy surrounding this issue should be based on scientific observation and evidence rather than be dictated by the short term interests of capitalism. It is quite a bold statement given the current political climate. One that probably would sent more than one US senator into a rage.

One could say the attitudes of both Frank and Charlie border on being undemocratic at times. There is a sense of frustration in these characters at the political process and what they perceive as the sheer stupidity of people refusing to re-examine their convictions in the light of scientific evidence. Robinson's characters are great believers in the scientific method, something that returns time and again in his entire body of work. Where the scientists in Red Mars have a blank slate (or at least that is how Sax would see it) to work with and politics are months of space travel away, scientists in the capital run into the political realities of Washington on a daily basis. Although the thoughts of the characters can be quite vehement in opinion of the way politics deals with climate change, the novel as a whole advocates a different role for science in a more diplomatic way.

Robinson also includes different fields of science. Frank's sections in particular focus on them. He is very much into game theory and a sociobiology, often seeing real world situations in terms of either discipline. On the one hand it is enlightening at times, but he also tends overlook the limitations of game theory in particular. The novel also includes brief descriptions of scientific knowledge, usually related to climate at the front of each part that help the reader understand the issue at hand. With those he manages to avoid having to include too much information in the issue into the thoughts or discussions of his characters. Interior monologues are still very common in this book but they don't tend to contain as much information as the ones in the Mars trilogy do.

That doesn't mean this book is all ratio. Robinson introduces a group of Tibetan monks, living in exile on the fictional  island of Kembalung into the story. They are both the window on the rest of the world in a city that is very focused on the US and American interests, as well as the spiritual part of the novel. Robinson has included Tibetan Buddhism in his work before. Most notably in his alternative history The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), which is based on the Buddhist concept of reincarnation. The plight of the Tibetans, whose new home is threatened by sea level rise, runs parallel to that of the inhabitants of Washington, getting their first taste of the radical changes climate change in the closing pages of this novel. Their response is one of the many ways in which people adapt in this novel. Despite the grimness of the situation no book of Robinson would be complete with a healthy dose of optimism.

Like the Mars trilogy, the Science in the Capital series is more of a long novel than a trilogy in the classical sense. Robinson is building in this novel and some readers my find the story arc in this novel somewhat unsatisfying. Robinson is outlining the threat, building his characters, setting the stage. Personally I enjoyed reading it but that is partly because for me, this was a reread and I know where he is taking it. I very much enjoyed reading Frank's sections for instance because I can already see some of this paranoid traits starting to appear that wil become important in the next novel. Charlie's part on the other hand became less enjoyable as I think the eventual resolution of his storyline is unrealistically optimistic. An opinion that has been shaped in part by the Obama presidency, which of course Robinson didn't know about in 2004.

After my first read of this trilogy I didn't think this was Robinson's best work. After this reread of Forty Signs of Rain I'm still of that opinion. The novel deals with a challenge humanity is facing and at the moment refusing to address in any meaningful way. In that sense I appreciate this work. On the other hand I can't really share Robinson's optimism that the various parts of government in Washington can be made to disengage from the financial interests of those who wish to downplay the problem. I do not doubt that humanity can tackle the problem through science, I just don't see it happening any time soon. The world is not made up of Robinson's highly intelligent characters, resistance to the radical change in thinking he advocates is fierce. Somehow it is easier to see Robinson's optimism and social ideas put into practice in space than in the world of dirty politics we're familiar with. That doesn't mean we should stop trying though, and it most certainly doesn't mean you shouldn't read this book. The ideas it contains are fascinating. Despite my reservations, I am looking forward to my reread of Fifty Degrees Below.

Book Details
Title: Forty Signs of Rain
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Pages: 358
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-553-80311-5
First published: 2004

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