Forty Signs of Rain…and Questions.

Forty Signs of Rain is a straightforwardly entrancing tale of science and politics that presents a cast of intelligent and interesting characters, all involved in the day to day workings of US government and scientific institutions. Science in the Capitol, as it is aptly described, should very well become required reading for both global climate scientists, and political candidates. This novel does a respectable job of humanizing the scientists throughout, presenting them as real people facing everyday problems even though they spend a majority of their time trying to save the world from deconstructing around them. As Frank is writing the harsh letter to Diane Chang he emphasizes the need for more involvement from the National Science Foundation, “If the Earth were to suffer a catastrophic anthropogenic extinction event over the next ten years, which it will, American business would continue to focus on its quarterly profit and loss.” (210) The problem is, as Mathis Hampel states in his Washington Post article, Want to convince people that climate change is real? Stop talking about the science of it. “We are not dealing with a pollution problem to be solved cost-benefit style. Climate Change is not a hole in the earth’s ozone layer caused by a set of manageable chemicals.”

So how do we go about talking about the issues that are affecting us world-wide in a way that can create meaningful progress? How do we not feel the same frustration Charlie did when was talking to Strengloft? “He was combating liars, people who lied about science for money, thus obscuring the clear signs of the destruction of their present world. So that they would end up passing on to all the children a degraded planet, devoid of animals and forests and coral reefs and all other aspects of a biological support system and home.” (193) How can we aim to tackle climate change when all other aspects are lumped into the movement for progress? Hampel states, “By now, everything from trade policy or global inequality to animal extinctions or indigenous people’s rights has been woven into the tangled knot of climate change politics.” Not only are the politicians positive they are “addressing” the issue (in their own way), but most of the time not taking the issue seriously enough. The President jokes with Charlie in their meeting regarding CO2, and Strengloft comments that isn’t as bad as it seems. “The last time there was a significant rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, human agricultural productivity boomed…” “The end of the black death might account for that,” Charlie pointed out. “Well maybe the rising CO2 levels ended the Black Death.” Earlier in the conversation Charlie tries to explain the reality of what is happening, “There are scenarios in which the general warming causes parts of the Northern Hemisphere to get quite cold, especially in Europe. If that were to happen, Europe could become something like the Yukon of Asia. ”Really!” the president said. “Are we sure that would be a bad thing? Just kidding of course.” (159).

This scene sounds sadly true, and what I expect out of discourse on the subject. Is there really anyway to have an open and active conversation, that results in actual, substantive change within the government? Kim Stanley Robinson speaks to this in his interview, In 300 years, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science Fiction May Not Be Fiction. “This suggests legal changes imposed by democratic government, which are more and more urgently needed. The free market can’t do it because it isn’t free, but in fact a particular legal system completely inadequate to the situation, and the prices we concoct for things are completely unresponsive to physical realities. So, we are in quite a bit of trouble here, because capitalism is a cultural dominant and the current global way of conducting things, world law, and yet inadequate to the situation we face.” We indeed have the money to spend on researching and solutions to our current situation, yet choose to spend it on “immediate action” targets, such as the military as Frank mentions in his speech to the board.

“Tell them they can’t give half a trillion dollars a year to the military and leave the rescue and rebuilding of the world to chance and some kind of free-market religion. It isn’t working, and science is the only way out of this mess.” He goes on to say, “Scientists should take a stand and become a part of the decision making process….Because we are not the military, we are already civilians, and we have the only methods there are to deal with these environmental problems.” (325) Forty Signs of Rain does a successful job contributing to the popularization of current scientific thought. As it currently stands however, climate change is simply an argument about big government. Neomi Oreskes addresses this in, Science vs Politics saying, “For Republicans in Congress and elsewhere, it’s not about climate change, it’s definitely not about science, it’s about government.”

Is the solution to drop the “science says” arguments as Hampel suggests? Will it take a catastrophic event, like what happened in Forty Signs of Rain? It would be amiss not to mention the reaction from Senator Phil Chase after the flood had subsided, “Isn’t this amazing?” as he waves like the grand marshal of a parade (393). Perhaps it really seems to be “amazing” to the Senator, as Washington DC had never experienced an event such as that, in its history. What’s not surprising is that the Khembalis reason for arriving in DC, were that the catastrophic events were not a “one-off” occurrence. Frank remarks, “Meanwhile the Khembalis were essentially multigenerational exiles, occupying a tidal sandbar in near poverty.” (229) This is the situation of many people around the globe, that has gone relatively unaddressed. I want to believe we are more aware than the Guardian Book Review suggests, “Humans have gone from being the smartest animal on the savannah to being ‘experts at denial’. He (Stanley) suggests that the storm clouds are gathering on the horizon, but we can no longer read the danger signs.” However, not much evidence is pointing to the contrary. Even as Charlie asks at the end if the Senator will do anything, now that he sees the catastrophic results, his answer remains the same as always, “I’ll see what I can do.” (393) The more research is presented, the more that answer isn’t good enough. The “near-future sci-fi” novel does a good job at creating believable characters, in the midst of working towards real, fundamental change. This novel has taken two sides that have historically gone in opposite directions, and puts them at the same table. Hopefully, Stanley’s next two novels in the series can shine even more light on the issues that surround the politics of climate change. Forty Signs of Rain explains and dramatizes this in terms even a Tea Party Republican can’t ignore. Whether they will read it or not, is another question.


Washington Post, Mathis Hampel

The Atlantic:

The Guardian:

Naomi Oreskes: Harvard Gazette

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