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the complete review - fiction
Forty Signs of Rain
Kim Stanley Robinson
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- The first volume in the Science in the Capital-trilogy
- The trilogy has also been published, in revised and somewhat abridged form, in a single volume, as: Green Earth (2015)
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B : enjoyable enough, but feels very much like the beginning of a work rather than a complete one
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "A realistic look at scientists, but the dry story line offers a creaky start to a planned trilogy." - Noah Robischon, Entertainment Weekly
- "Forty Signs of Rain depicts a society sleep-walking towards the abyss. (...) Robinson has written a slow-moving yet absorbing narrative; it's clear he is pacing himself for the long run of a trilogy. His great achievement here is to bring the practice of science alive - from the supposedly objective peer review process, to the day-to-day work of researchers in the lab - and to place this in an all-too familiar world of greedy capitalists and unprincipled politicians. Robinson's critique of science is heartfelt, and one McKibben would no doubt echo: scientists should stop being tools in someone's else's endgame. But his message to us all is no less challenging and urgent." - P.D.Smith, The Guardian
- "(I)t's a surprise that Forty Signs of Rain deals not with the coming cataclysm itself, although a few modest disasters edge into the final chapters. Rather, it is concerned with people scurrying around in the lead-up to the deluge, juggling their own ordinarily intricate lives with demanding jobs in science, politics, bio-technology, and their messy interfaces. (...) This is not a novel strangled by a need to info-dump its meticulous research, although it seeds editorials and points of information throughout, and keeps slipping in overheard weather reports. Robinson shows how frustratingly difficult it is for any situation to improve when the abstractions of power count for more than the realities of suffering. It's a funny, convincing, intelligent book, and avoids too much caricature of its "villains"" - Kim Newman, The Independent
- "Ce qui est particulièrement fascinant dans ces Quarante Signes de la pluie, c'est la façon dont Kim Stanley Robinson s'empare de ce thème et l'incorpore à une trame romanesque plus vaste, sans aucunement le diluer. Il y a là une remarquable démonstration de ce qu'est le travail d'un romancier." - Jacques Baudou, Le Monde
- "I found the depiction of life both at the NSF and in a struggling biotech start-up absorbing and convincing; the material on climate change seems less realistic. (...) This book is aimed at the airport bookstall, and I imagine that many bookstall browsers would share the twin misconceptions that sudden and dramatic climate change is just around the corner, and that US government and Big Business could avert it if only they felt like doing so. (...) The missing figure in Robinson's book would be much less sympathetic: a well-heeled class-action lawyer representing Florida's coastal real-estate owners. For outside the world of science fiction, it's the lawyers that will sort it out in the end." - Myles Allen, Nature
- "Forty Signs of Rain is the first book of a promised trilogy. Unlike the separate volumes of the Mars series, it doesn't stand on its own. There's a Perils of Pauline quality to the ending, in which the whole world stares over the abyss, waiting for science to come to the rescue. Does Robinson succeed in making bureaucratic inertia exciting? Not quite. But he comes close to making mathematics the stuff of drama." - Gerald Jonas, The Ndew York Times Book Review
- "Categorize Forty Signs of Rain under "wonk fiction." Full of phone conversations, board meetings and the internal ruminations of biometricians, the narrative is not what you'd call action packed. That doesn't, however, mean it is boring or lacking in drama. Robinson knows how to juxtapose the quotidian details of urban life with really big, really scary environmental disasters." - Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Forty Signs of Rain is the first -- and shortest -- volume in the Science in the Capital-trilogy and very much feels like just the beginning of a/the story, introducing, at a leisurely pace, the characters and their day-to-day lives.
The action is fairly limited, culminating only in massive storms battering both the American East and West Coasts, and while the effects of these are quite dramatic -- especially in the flooding of Washington D.C. -- Robinson offer scenes of portents of disaster rather than outright disaster-fiction here; in fact, post-Katrina (2005) and Sandy (2012), readers have a living memory of similar scenes and worse.
(Forty Signs of Rain was published in 2004, before these two mass-urban-flooding events occurred.)
In fact, Forty Signs of Rain is more workplace -- including government-bureaucracy -- and domestic-life novel than apocalyptic vision, with the warning signs that are blinking barely any different from the ones flashing similarly brightly (and seemingly futilely ...) in the present-day.
The time when the novel is set is not specified, but it is the near future; atmospheric CO₂ levels are at 440 ppm (higher than in 2004 -- when they peaked at 380 -- or currently (ca. 415)) and: "predicted to hit six hundred ppm within a decade".
The make-up of the government is almost exactly split: "The Democrats had come out of the recent election with a one-vote advantage in the Senate, a two-vote disadvantage in the House, and the President was still a Republican".
The President is on the Bush jr.-to-Trump spectrum of science and especially climate change denialism, where: "the administration's first science advisor had been sent packing for saying that global warming might be real and not only that, amenable to human mitigation. That went too far for this administration".
Meanwhile, the new science advisor, Dr. Zacharias Strengloft, is called 'Doctor Strangelove' behind his back .....
Each of the ten sections the novel is divided into begins with what is essentially a short state-of-the-world summary, facts about the earth and life on it, and the gentle balance it is all in.
The narrative itself then seems almost mundane and often trivial -- day-to-day life -- by comparison, but the shadow of the facts Robinson presents looms ominously over the story, the skies eventually literally darkening with the consequences.
The novel shifts around between a number of characters.
The most prominent are those that make up the Quibler family.
Charlie is the environmental policy advisor to prominent Senator Phil Chase, while his wife Anna runs the Bioinformatics Division of the National Science Foundation (NSF).
They have two children, school-age Nick and toddler Joe -- and it is Charlie who is the stay-at-home dad.
He can do most of his work away from his office, while Anna has to be on-site, and so they've had this arrangement since Nick was born; it is still unusual within the Beltway at the time.
This domestic arrangement and how it plays out takes up a surprising amount of the story -- there's more here about breast-milk, from expression to handling, than in the average guide-for-new-mothers -- with an interesting focus on Charlie wrangling the toddler (not all of it entirely plausible, like that meeting with the president with Charlie on his back ...).
Part of Robinson's point, here and in other instances, is the evolutionary process, and how humankind is wired -- his focus here interestingly not so much on the traditional maternal/paternal roles (which prove elastic enough in contemporary times to function in this slightly realigned way) than on man-as-primal -- or, in this case especially, toddler as primal: Charlie acts, and acts out, on instinct, and Robinson shows how that can be channeled and handled to some extent by his parents, but also how many aspects of it are largely out of their control.
Though not even able to talk yet, Charlie is certainly one of the central figures in the story -- playing a much more significant role than his older and much more subdued brother.
Among Anna's colleagues at the NSF is University of California, San Diego academic Frank Vanderwal, doing a one-year stint in Washington where he spends his time considering grant applications, culminating in the panel he assembles to make the final recommendations on this year's batch.
Frank helped start up a San Diego biotech firm called Torrey Pines Generique, and one of the grant applications he reviews is from a biomathematician on a temporary contract at the firm, Yann Pierzinski, which looks like it has some promising applications.
Meanwhile, a relatively new nation called Khembalung -- a fifty-two square-kilometer island-state in the Bay of Bengal, populated by exiled Tibetans -- opens their embassy in Washington in the building where Anna works, and Anna, curious about them, befriends them.
A charter member of the League of Drowning Nations (it's a flat island-nation that gets flooded ever more regularly), Khembalung is hoping to lobby the American government for assistance in their cause(s) -- and Anna puts them in touch with her husband, who is familiar with this terrain.
Some of the action also takes place on the West Coast, specifically surrounding Torrey Pines Generique, where Leo Mulhouse is a lead scientist.
Leo lives in a spectacular cliffside house in Leucadia -- his wife inherited it -- which is situated maybe a bit close to the edge .....
Quite a bit of Forty Signs of Rain involves the practice of science -- less the actual hands-on work than the bureaucracies, corporate and governmental, surrounding it.
The NSF's role in funding projects, and what that involves, is presented in quite some detail, while the interplay of money and science demonstrated in the example of Torrey Pines Generique, with its eager boss -- somewhat removed from the actual science -- and efforts to get more venture capital and swallowing of other firms; eventually Torrey Pines Generique itself gets bought (and then shelled) out.
Mathematician Yann Pierzinski plays a mostly peripheral role, his contract up when his grant application comes up, but the re-hired at Frank's urging; he and his work are some of the things that simmer in the background here in a way that suggests they'll be significant at some point in the trilogy, but are only incidental here.
Frank is frustrated by his NSF experiences.
He doesn't think the small-potatoes approach -- and limited to grant proposals (rather than actively seeking out projects to fund) -- is the right one, especially given the issues the world faces.
Trying to formulate his thoughts, he argues about the NSF:
It should be charting worldwide scientific policy and forcing certain kinds of climate mitigation and biosphere management, insisting on them as emergency necessities, it should be working Congress like the fucking NRA to get the budget it deserves, which is a much bigger budget, as big as the Pentagon's, really those two budgets should be reversed to get them to their proper level of funding
(He notes the NSF's budget: "has never surpassed ten billion dollars a year [...] It is to be feared that as things stand, NSF is simply too small to have any real impact".
This fictional plea continues to fall on deaf ears: since Robinson wrote the book, funding has declined in real terms -- and the NSF's own fiscal year 2021 request [pdf] is for a mere US$7.741 billion.)
Frank's one-year stint is up and he's pretty happy to get out of there, but he's kind of restless, looking for more and uncertain about his personal future.
Deciding to go out with a big hurrah, he writes a: "fully substantiated, crushing indictment of NSF" and leaves it in the head of the institution's in-box -- only to have a last minute change of heart (involving, among other things, a mystery-woman he gets stuck in an elevator with).
Among the few action-episodes in the novel are his efforts to retrieve the manila envelope before it can be read; it seems rather over the top and quite unlikely (it involves rappelling ...) but at least Robinson puts a nice spin on it and its outcome; in a double-edged victory Frank ultimately does get what he decides he wants after all: another year at the NSF (and the hopes of being reunited with the mystery woman).
The price is that he gets what he was clamoring for, the opportunity to work towards change, as he is tasked with heading a committee: "building the way to the next paradigm" (i.e. he's saddled with a completely hopeless-sounding project).
Anna and the Tibetans-from-Khembalung get to know each other better, and they're an interesting contrast to all the scientific and political-game-playing figures -- though also very much with their own agenda.
Though they have a different way of seeing many things, they're not completely other-worldly, and fairly well-grounded in some respects.
Forty Signs of Rain comes, very slowly, to a simmer over its nearly four hundred pages.
Much of the detail is mundane background stuff, involving childcare, travel, and different levels of social and professional interaction.
Even bringing in the American president for a short scene doesn't really make much of a mark, and for a long time the closest there is to any real sense of excitement is when little Joe nearly runs into traffic.
In fact, the action is so slow there's even relatively little sense of build-up.
Yes, the clouds are building in the background, and there are mentions of catastrophe looming -- but it's cleverly and intentionally just built into the presentation of the everyday, reflecting our own experiences: we read the terrible news, but then also turn to the next thing in our busy lives.
As Charlie notes, reading a report about a chunk breaking off the Ross Ice Shelf: "So many pieces of Antarctica had fallen off that it wasn't big news anymore".
Yes, at times Robinson does try to make his warnings starker and more portentous:
Clouds over the White House were billowing up like the spirits of the building's feisty inhabitant, round, dense, shiny, white.
In the other direction, over the Supreme Court's neighborhood, stood a black nine-lobed cloud, dangerously laden with incipient lightning.
Yes, the powers of Washington were casting up thermals and forming clouds over themselves, clouds that filled out precisely the shapes and colors of their spirits.
Charlie saw that each cumulobureaucracy transcended the individuals who temporarily performed its functions in the world.
[Note: the term/expression/coinage 'cumulobureaucracy' does not appear to have caught on.]
But despite an increasingly ominous feel, Robinson has life go on more or less as usual for his characters.
This works well -- though perhaps too well for readers who want a bit more pace and action in their fiction: really, very little happens here.
Yes, readers sense that 'the stall' is coming, and that the consequences will be horrific -- but in the meantime might feel somewhat caught up in a narrative stall of sorts themselves.
Eventually, the storms come, and some of the action, on both coasts, is moderately exciting -- Leo has that cliffside-house .....
The Tibetans are, conveniently, at the Washington zoo, and help save the animals -- including the two tigers they had brought, which they now take with them as they make good their own escape to higher ground, the Quibler house.
Charlie, meanwhile, is, for once, having a day in the office, where he gets a first-hand view of the flooding.
But even all this isn't climax but rather merely slowly rising water -- annoyance and inconvenience, but, mostly, far from full-blown disaster: beyond some flooded roads and buildings and some serious cliff-erosion -- and a tiger in the basement -- it doesn't look that bad.
(Again: this probably reads differently post-Katrina and Sandy -- both of which wreaked more havoc than what we get to see here.)
For those that enjoy a leisurely-paced novel on serious issues, with a varied cast of characters and quite a bit of the workings of bureaucracies, Forty Signs of Rain is an enjoyable read -- but there's no denying that it falls quite a bit short as a stand-alone.
If you stop here you didn't really get very far; obviously, this is just build-up to the rest of the story -- with an emphasis on foundational build-up and relatively little actual story.
Less patient readers might get frustrated -- but even those who are fine with this approach will probably want to have the next volumes in the trilogy ready at hand.
- M.A.Orthofer, 4 June 2020
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Forty Signs of Rain:
Reviews (* review of Green Earth (an abridged edition of the entire trilogy)):
Kim Stanley Robinson:
Other books by Kim Stanley Robinson under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
American author Kim Stanley Robinson has written several highly acclaimed works of science fiction.
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© 2020-2022 the complete review
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