Fiction Reviews

Forty Signs of Rain

(2004) Kim Stanley Robinson, Harper Collins, 6.99, pbk, 359 pp, ISBN 0-007-14888-7


This is the 2005 UK paperback edition of last year's US hardback. A young father is a policy analyst for a US Senator, his wife a science administrator. He is trying to get his Senator to adopt greenhouse climate policies, but the President's competing pressures do not make the issue a priority. Meanwhile monks arrive in Washington, from the new but sinking island state of Khemblung, to lobby the US. They take climate change seriously. Perhaps the politicians should too, because the weather outside is beginning to look a tad chancey...

Robinson has crafted a quietly powerful novel of our sleepwalking into the beginnings of profound global change. Quiet, just as the World really is almost sleepwalking into a climate change scenario that it has yet to fully comprehend (even by those of us working on the problem). Powerful because the whole energy climate change scene is going to change our global civilization in ways that we are only just beginning to comprehend.

Robinson has obviously looked around and seen that though we have an inkling of the climate nightmare (and I use that word without hype given the climate change east Africa experienced in the 1980s-90s to cite but one example), we are actually doing very little about it. True, the US is (currently?) more blinkered than most, but even the UK -- which is (currently?) prominent among those developed nations proposing climate policies -- is failing to achieve its own modest energy-climate goals. (So no smug Europeans please.)

Robinson's story concerns a young family bringing in the next generation and, though in once sense this is the novel's periphery setting, this is central to the plot for it is this next generation that is going to inherit the global environment we decide to bequeath. Along the way mundane incidents (such as abusing single car occupancy road lanes) illuminate. Meanwhile the politicians just smile and say that they will see what they can do... And then there is just the vaguest hint towards the end that the monks have been involved in human destiny for ages.

It would be cheap to bill this work as the novel equivalent of the 2004 film Day After Tomorrow. I really am not sure what films like Day After Tomorrow do for public awareness, though they certainly raise the debate's profile judging from the number of discussions it has prompted that I have seen on TV, in the press and heard on the radio. However it has to be said that that film was, well, a tad crass even if passably enjoyable. So I await with interest to see what effect if any Forty Signs has on the SF book-reading community.

The Day After Tomorrow film, for all its merits and flaws, did deliberately distort science for dramatic purposes. On the other hand Robinson in his book has realised that you do not need to do this. Anyone living low by the sea, or on top of an eroding sea side cliff, or who has noticed an increase frequency of storm rain bursts and inland flooding affecting their homes (to take examples from real life reflected in the book), knows that there is drama enough.   It has to be said that the hard science in Forty Signs is light, instead there is the soft science of science administration/lobbying and science policy. I have to declare a special interest here as for several years recently I was active in UK lobbying of science policy for British bioscientists and - separate but relatedly - I have an interest in energy as well as biosphere evolution which comes together in the form of climate change issues. In short, I am intimately familiar with the issue and as I type this have the InterGovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports literally within arms reach (not to mention x thousand related papers in my study). So I do know of some of the US reports that Robinson mentions as well as the US research stations he cites. (Quick personal praise for the (US) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who unlike their UK counterparts actually post their raw data on the internet. Meanwhile back to the review...) I can say that not only is the subject of Robinson's plot is vitally important and that he has approached with a maturity the issue warrants, but that he has also done some legwork researching aspects of the novel's background.

Meanwhile I have written this in January (2005) and so have yet to see what much of the year will offer. But if I come across a better environmental SF book at any time in the rest of the year then I really will be positively delighted: Forty Signs has set a sound standard. This is not really Science Fiction, it is more Science Faction. Get this book, and if you like it get another copy for a non-SF-reading friend and recommend it to others too. Not to mention sequester that carbon and insulate your walls with books...

Jonathan Cowie

Other books by Kim Stanley Robinson on this site include: Blue Mars.

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