Kim Stanley Robinson,
Forty Signs of Rain
(Bantam Spectra, 2004)

A book with an ecological slant is nothing new for Kim Stanley Robinson. Much of what I've read of his work has tackled environmental issues in one form or another. Pacific Edge posited a utopian future California built on a foundation of environmentalism. In his best-selling Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars), Robinson explored, in great detail, the transformation of the Martian environment through a human-benevolent terraforming project that nonetheless demonstrated the extent to which human activity can rapidly alter a world's ecology. Antarctica also examined humanity's impact on a global environment; but in this case the world in question was Earth.

Robinson struck out in a very different direction with his novel The Years of Rice & Salt (2002), an alternative history in which a more virulent strain of the Black Death completely wipes out Europe leaving a world in which Asian religion, culture and science come to dominate. Although Conor O'Connor, in his Rambles.NET review, wrote that the book was, "a wonder to behold and should not to be missed," I was much less enthralled.

But Robinson is most definitely back on track with Forty Signs of Rain. Global warming and its impact on the world's weather patterns are the eco-issues at the center of this drama. But, as with his previous books, Robinson attempts to avoid the soapbox by crafting characters passionate about the issues he wants to explore. Thus we have Dr. Frank Vanderwal, a UCSD professor working for a year with the Bioinformatics team at the National Science Foundation in Washington D.C.; Charlie Quibler, a stay-at-home father who works part-time as an environmental policy adviser to U.S. Senator Phil Chase; and Drepung, a Tibetan monk and ambassadorial assistant from the island nation of Khembalung.

Each of these characters is deeply committed to the task of getting the U.S. government to recognize the need to take action on global warming. But with an administration that believes the economics of ecologically responsible policy are politically unsound, and that situations such as the rising ocean levels threatening Khembalung are primarily a foreign problem, Robinson's characters are faced with a daunting task.

Forty Signs of Rain is set in Washington and San Diego, and these two locations provide Robinson with a pair of geographically disparate stages upon which to loose the extreme weather to which our current attitudes toward global warming could lead. Robinson's skills as a writer shine brightest amidst the ominous clouds, raging winds and torrential rain that batter D.C. and the southern California coastline in the back half of this novel. But it's the interplay between the big issues and the small human dramas affecting his central characters that really make this book click.

Frank Vanderwal may be convinced that the NSF needs to stand up to Congress and demand that appropriate funds be allocated to finding solutions to global warming, but he isn't willing to commit himself to spending another year in D.C. to take up this fight. That is, until his personal life is turned on its head by a chance encounter with an attractive tri-athlete. His obsession with this mysterious woman gives Frank a three-dimensionality that provides some necessary depth to his portion of the novel.

Similarly, Charlie Quibler's interactions with his not yet 2-year-old son Joe, his need to split his attentions between his parenting and politicking, make his moments at center stage all the more interesting. Charlie's distress over his perceived intent when he chats with a young mother at Gymboree is given equal import to his frustrations in dealing with the president's science adviser.

Where Forty Signs of Rain doesn't quite work is in its San Diego sequences. There isn't enough focus on this locale during Frank's brief visit to his hometown, and Robinson hasn't committed enough time to the development of his other San Diego viewpoint character, Leo Mulhouse. Mulhouse is a research scientist with the biotech start-up Torrey Pines Generique, a company Frank Vanderwal helped found. But Robinson might have been better served by making Frank's ex, Marta, a lab assistant on Mulhouse's team at Torrey Pines, the viewpoint character. The relationship between Marta and Frank is as stormy as the weather and it would have been revealing to see Frank from her perspective.

As it stands, San Diego provides the backdrop to some of the most dynamic chapters pitting people against the elements. While these chapters feel insufficiently integrated into the story as a whole, they do provide a useful counterpoint to the D.C. portions of the novel.

In the end Forty Signs of Rain succeeds because it's a novel about intriguing people. Robinson balances the fact that these particular people are working passionately to rescue the planet from ecological collapse with a focus on the day-to-day concerns of their private lives. He breathes life into the issues by anchoring them to complex, multi-layered characters. And so Forty Signs of Rain is a book I'd certainly recommend -- not perfect, but thought-provoking, entertaining and skillfully written.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 16 April 2005

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