New York, Bantam, 2004, $25, 368pp
reviewed in New York Review of Science Fiction 193, September 2004
Today, while George W. Bush still refuses to accept the climate control regulations agreed at Kyoto, there are signs that Vladimir Putin will finally sign the Kyoto agreement and so bring the international treaty into force. Meanwhile James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia hypothesis, has declared that global warming is now so far out of control that the environmental movement must accept a massive expansion in nuclear energy if we are to reduce CO2 emissions sufficiently to make any difference. At the same time photographs are published showing the torrential rivers of meltwater from what was the Greenland icecap. This is, if you will pardon the expression, a hot potato in terms of science, politics and our collective futures. Nevertheless, although science fiction writers have been more than happy to set their stories in the after-effects of global warming — Los Angeles reduced to a tropical forest, vast swathes of the United Kingdom under water — few have dared to confront the issue head on.
If any science fiction writer was going to do so, of course, it was bound to be Kim Stanley Robinson. Fresh from terraforming Mars (and incidentally rewriting global history), he is used to taking the long view, the patient accumulation of small effects, that such a subject requires. So it is no real surprise that Forty Signs of Rain should be the first part of a new trilogy devoted to just this issue.
However, although we can applaud his acute liberal instincts (instincts which are always in plain view throughout everything he writes), we should be far more hesitant about welcoming what he has done with those instincts. Forty Signs of Rain is, of course, beautifully written and there are some wonderful set pieces, but you’ve reached page 300 of this 368-page novel before you get the first clues that there might actually be a story going on in this book. There is a great deal of setting the scene, and I suspect the next two volumes could be highly dramatic, but Robinson could have set the scene far more succinctly and allowed room for something to actually happen in the first two-thirds of this novel.
Anyone who read Blue Mars or the latter parts of The Year’s of Rice and Salt will recognise in Robinson a fondness for committees and debates, long arguments in which characters of impeccable liberal sensibilities discuss the exact consequences of their actions — often at the expense of actually acting. Robinson can produce multi-sided arguments more convincingly than any other writer of fiction I know, and the intellectual exercise of these passages can be invigorating as we confront and challenge our own dearly-held prejudices. Unfortunately, they can also get in the way of story, as if Robinson has been temporarily seduced into producing a think-piece rather than a work of fiction. He gets away with it in part because he writes so well, in part because we are pleased to see anyone putting forward our own liberal perspectives on things as if they might actually work, and in part because he surrounds the debates with grand vistas of space or time that take the breath away. Alas, in Forty Signs of Rain the vistas are absent until the last sixty or seventy pages, and it is an act of faith to keep reading on through debate after debate with little clue that there might be any real-world effect from all their discussions. You wonder, often, how much the cause of global warming is helped by this much hot air.
One character, Frank Vanderwal, argues with himself so obsessively and applies scattergun anthropological theories to all he sees with such abandon that he is an entire Robinsonian debating society in himself. Frank is that archetypal Robinson hero, a Californian rock climber and surfer dude who also happens to be a top scientist, coming to the end of a year’s secondment in Washington at the National Science Foundation where he’s involved in assessing research funding applications. This is the scientist as committee creature (though most of the characters in the novel are scientists we see remarkably little real science), and one strand of the story involves Frank attending a lecture on the Buddhist approach to science, having a vaguely erotic encounter with a stranger, and proposing a radical rethink of the way NSF works, which eventually results in him staying on in the uncongenial environment of Washington for another year. And this is the strand that involves our most action-packed hero.
Frank’s colleague, Anna Quibler (a surname seemingly chosen only to allow a weak and obvious pun at one point), befriends a bunch of exiled Tibetans who are now forming an embassy for a tiny island realm in the mouth of the Ganges that is now threatened by rising sea levels. Towards the end of the novel there is an indirect suggestion that they may be seeking a new incarnation of the Buddha as well as help for their drowning home; but for most of the book their job is simply to provide the lecture that affects Frank, and to be wise, calm and reasonable in every circumstance.
Anne’s husband, Charlie, meanwhile, is advising a senator on the introduction of new environmental legislation. However, Charlie works from home to look after their infant son, Joe, and far more pages are devoted to the joys of feeding baby or playing with it or having it suck on your neck than there are devoted to the political realities of Charlie’s job. Even when Charlie has a meeting with a George Bush-like president and his Dr Strangelove scientific advisor (the closest Robinson can bring himself to creating a villain) our focus is more upon the baby sleeping on Charlie’s back than it is upon the potentially vital debate that is taking place. And when political opposition leads the senator to drop the most important provisions of Charlie’s bill, a bit of political wheeler-dealing that would have made for a gripping episode of The West Wing, it barely disturbs the placid surface of Charlie’s care for Joe.
All of this is the calm before the storm, and it is surely intentional, this long, hot summer barely raising a flicker of emotion before the heaven’s open. But it’s a risky strategy, and long stretches of this serene inertia are simply dreary. Then a wild storm starts to eat away at the cliffs along California’s coast, and unprecedented rain floods Washington so dramatically that even the Lincoln Memorial has his feet dipped in the turbid water. This is climate change of a startling ferocity, the languor of the first 300 pages is abruptly replaced by turbulence and drama. This is really terrific writing, as chains of volunteers battle against lashing rain to save California’s crumbling coastline, or Washington DC is transformed into a vast and unlikely lake, and it make you recognise how good this whole novel could have been had some of the physical and human consequences of climate change been signalled earlier. But this first volume, in the end, fails. It fails because Robinson allows his discursiveness, his scene setting, and his sentimentality, get between him and the story he wants to tell. It’s a wonderful story, a major and vitally important topic, but it looks as if we are going to have to wait until the second volume for him start telling this story as it needs to be told.