Forty Signs of Rain: Too Real for Its Own Good?

I wouldn’t say that Forty Signs of Rain is a genre-blending book, but that’s only because I’m not sure I could define the exact elements of each genre involved and where blending occurs. It is a story that rests in its own category and presents a realistic portrait of it’s characters and arcs without following any strict stylistic rules.

Sometimes, this lack of constraints ends up hurting the novels literary pursuits. The plot stalls at some points and jumps abruptly to others. Frank seems to be confused about whether he is an emotionally attached observer or a passionate activist and while this makes sense in the context of human complexity it makes it hard to identify with him. Anna and the rest of the characters all seem to behave similarly, they’re passionate about the research they do, the change they want to see, and the dangers that may occur, but they are always composed to some degree.

The behavior makes sense and the homogenous personalities also seem fitting for a group of people with shared goals and interests. It is realistic and even intuitive and that’s the problem. Characters sometimes take drastic measures (repelling from rooftops and tracking down women that they barely know) but these measures are methodical. If the characters were given dramatized personalities that differed from each other, the book may have seemed a little more cohesive and the pacing may have been more natural and intuitive.

Character consistency does help the plot in a lot of ways that make the themes more prominent and the actual events more tangible. The hard science of the novel and the detached nature of it’s scientists show the problems that the real world has with climate-related policy. The people who are most aware of the dangerous consequences are unable to bend and sacrifice their analytical methods. While, the opposition is untethered to rigor and validity and able to use rhetoric and manipulation in ways that the scientific community either can’t or won’t.

The problem is that we have no idea what the exact outcome of our excess will be and all of our warnings are given theoretically and without the full conviction and vigor that is consistent with today’s political arguments. There is little poetry in the explanations of atmospheric damage and rising sea levels. We aren’t moved to action because we haven’t felt fright or dread on an emotional level. We know what will happen and why we should change, but that kick of pure instinct just hasn’t happened.

Frank would most likely agree with all of the above sentiments which is one of the reasons that I really like the book and don’t consider it’s narrative roadblocks as true mistakes. It is the book that it needs to be and while this approach may not yield the best literature or the most effective tool of propaganda, it makes for a cohesion on an intellectual level that the genre of science fiction needs.

Forty Signs that Frank’s a Creep

This novel certainly had a different perspective than most books about climate change which I appreciated. The multiple points of views helped the reader to understand both the scientific and political aspects of the behind the scenes effort that goes into climate change policies. It really helped that the characters of Anna and Charlie were so realistic and normal. Being a casual couple with two young kids who still maintained their busy work lives was impressive but not totally surprising as it’s something that most parents have to do (though most parents don’t essentially have jobs that entail saving the earth from a climatic catastrophe). From their couple-y nicknames that make you baby barf in your mouth to their constant phone calls expressing their worry and concern, you can’t help but feel the affection in their relationship which strengthens the reader’s bond to the story. These two characters are so realistic that you could probably find a very similar couple on the street in real life. Which brings me to the third main character, Frank, whom I hope nobody could meet in real life.

Frank was a strange character to me from beginning to end. For the first half of the book, I kind of understood his analytical viewpoints since he’s a scientist and he can’t help looking at the world through his scientific lens. Though I must admit, his views romantic relationships took his approach way out of my comfort zone. The way he looked through the section of the newspaper filled with people advertising themselves and their romantic needs was pretty weird and personally unsettling. What really took it too far for me was his encounter with the woman on the metro. He actually had the mindset to follow her out of the metro and into the elevator simply because he liked her physical appearance. I don’t know about anybody else reading that part, but that screamed rapist/stalker to me and made me beyond uncomfortable; uncomfortable enough to start verbally expressing my discomfort to my very confused friend who was sitting next to me. It only got worse, though, when he made extended efforts to get in contact with this woman after his elevator encounter. I know that people who have read this novel often praise Robinson’s realistic portrayals of characters and situations, but I hope the character of Frank is far from realistic.

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

Forty Signs of Climate Change

I really liked this book a lot. I found the book to be incredibly engaging, especially since the characters were relatable and real. I liked that reading it was not a chore, and I actually finished it rather quickly. The parts I liked most about the book were indeed the characters, and not necessarily the actually plot. I found the plot to be rather humdrum in some places, in particular any time we got an “inside look” at NSF, something I never want again. I think that Kim Stanley Robinson does a really good job of setting up a Washington D.C. that is very familiar to us, but at the same time slightly different. He never gives us a date or a time for this story, so there is nothing to say that it isn’t tomorrow. The “near-future” genre of sci-fi that he chooses to work with is interesting to me, this genre allows the reader to feel a part of the story more so than someone reading a book about a time that they may never live through. It is very possibly, practical in fact that we will see climate related weather changes in our life times. That is what makes this book so gripping. There is an interesting interplay amongst the politics and science of the book, and that is interesting to read for someone who knows very little about both.

The book does not however, make science more fun, enjoyable, or entertaining. I found a lot of the scientists in the book to be big headed, and very annoying, for lack of a better word. They all seem to suffer from a complex of “what I’m doing is more important than what you’re doing, and everyone needs to listen to me”, they honestly would be better off not speaking sometimes. The science of the book is interesting, but only to an extent, and when I say interesting I know that makes it sound like it wasn’t boring, as they are opposites, but the science was interesting in the way that a documentary about the production of cheese is interesting, mildly at best. The science-stricken parts did not however turn me off entirely to the book because I liked seeing how different characters reacted to the same stimuli, or facts.

A rather interesting part for me was the wide variety of characters in this book. We have, to name a few, shaman from the island nation of Khembalung, senators, world-renowned scientists, power-couple Anna and Charlie, and Frank the asshole. These characters show a wide variety of opinions and views about the matters discussed in the book, and I’m rather curious as to why Robinson did not make a bigger deal out of the shaman. I found them to be fascinating, perhaps because this is a trilogy, but the information that Charlie uncovers about them towards the end of the book when trapped in his office is one of the most interesting parts of the story, and its forty pages before the end of the book. I would actually consider reading Fifty Degrees Below merely to find out whether or not Joe is a reincarnated shaman with magic powers, because that is certainly the impression I got from the ending of the book. The other characters are all contrasting kinds of scientific expression; we have Frank, the stubborn rationalist who is slightly misogynistic. We also have Anna, who is a wonderful scientist who also cares deeply about the issues at hand and the science behind them, and then we have Charlie, who is more of an extremist or radical, caring almost too much about the issue to actually affect change. These different types of personalities had to be purposeful because they are very well constructed to contrast each other and show the different perspective of the story from.

I think that this book connects most to class when we consider that there is nothing being done about climate change until it is actually at the president’s doorstep. This is what we have been saying in class all along. There will be nothing done until the president has to swim over to air force one to evacuate, and that is the sad truth. This book brings home a lot of the points we’ve discussed and captures the real issues of climate change very well.

Forty Signs of Rain: Boring, or Chillingly Realistic?

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain shows the struggle of politicians and scientists in combating climate change in a world that does not want to believe in it. Attempts to do so are opposed every step of the way by politics and climate deniers. The book also explores the themes of family and the struggle between emotion and reason. The book as a whole depicts a society that is painfully ignorant of oncoming tragedy, commenting on our own similar attitudes toward climate change. It contains a good bit of scientific jargon, but instead of taking away from the story, it adds to the chilling realism.

The novel is slow moving throughout, but depicts a realistic struggle for change. It centers on Anna Quibler, a scientist with the NSF, and her stay-at-home husband and climate lobbyist Charlie. Anna struggles with her logical mindset, and wishes all problems were as quantitative as science. She befriends a group of Khembalis, whose island home is in danger of flooding due to global warming, and attempts to help them get a grant to aid them in their struggle. Her husband, Charlie, struggles with his role as a stay-at-home dad to their young son Joe, while simultaneously attempting to introduce a climate bill into a Congress that does not want to believe in climate change. Frank Vanderwal, an associate of Anna’s, also struggles with connecting logic and emotion, but eventually realizes that scientists must combine the two to inspire the changes necessary to combat climate change. In the end, no one is successful until it is too late.

The novel first and foremost deals with the issue of climate denial. While the family struggles are interesting, the main goal of the novel is painting a picture of a society in which important change is stuck in a gridlock of bureaucracy. This is particularly evident in Charlie’s struggle to get his climate bill introduced to Congress. His meeting with the President (who is clearly meant to represent former president Bush) shows the willingness of even highly intelligent people to ignore important signs in order to remain in power. His climate bill is later watered down and made ineffective by useless compromises. Frank’s realization that the NSF, an organization formerly focused merely on facts and reason, must venture into the realm of activism is a comment on how silent the majority of the scientific community has been in relation to climate change. Robinson issues this call to arms for scientists in order to use their expertise in the fight against climate deniers.

While slow at times, and without much action, Forty Signs of Rain contains an important portrayal of our government and its failings. It shows both what we can do to combat climate change, and what will happen if we continue to do nothing. While slow moving and sometimes difficult to understand due to scientific jargon, it presents a realistic picture of how our government slows down positive change.