September 2004

Lara Apps

fiction

Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson

I read Robinson’s acclaimed Mars trilogy a few years ago, at the urging of a friend. If I hadn’t been expected to share my thoughts on the series with her, I doubt I would have bothered with the second and third volumes. Some of Robinson’s ideas were brilliant, but his style got on my nerves. I have not sought out his work since then, but Forty Signs of Rain fit my current interests, so I decided to give it a shot. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

You will find this novel in the science fiction section of your book store, but it would be equally at home on the mainstream shelves. Forty Signs of Rain is the first installment of a new trilogy. It has the feel of a long, patient, set-up piece; there is very little action and plenty of character description and development as the four main characters go about their daily lives while environmental catastrophe builds up in the background. If you want an intelligent take on environmental change, skip The Day After Tomorrow and read this instead.

We begin with Anna Quibler, who is one of the most realistic female SF characters I have ever encountered. Anna wakes up, gets ready for work, makes lunch for one son, breastfeeds another, then heads to her job as Bioinformatics Director at the National Science Foundation. There, she meets the Buddhist monks who are setting up their new embassy in her building, and takes them for pizza. She also passes an important grant application file to her colleague, Frank Vanderwal. Frank, a microbiologist and rock-climber, is counting the days until his return to San Diego. The least appealing of the main characters, Frank is lonely, pessimistic, prone to interpreting all human behavior in terms of primate sociobiology (this gets pretty irritating after a while), and not above a little unethical manipulation of the NSF grants process. Leo Mulhouse runs a lab for the same California biotech company that Frank consults for. The company is heading for financial disaster as a result of overeager promises by the boss, lack of new funding, and an apparently insoluble scientific problem. Leo and his team are dedicated, but they can see the writing on the wall. Finally, we meet Anna’s husband Charlie, who writes environmental legislation for a US Senator from home, while caring for not-quite-two-year-old Joe. Charlie struggles with the demands of parenting, especially with the stigma of being a stay-at-home dad in a world full of nannies and moms. He also rails against the inertia of a US administration that refuses to acknowledge the dangers of global warming.

Not much ‘happens’ in this novel until the end (when something big happens), but it is an engrossing read nonetheless. One gets the impression that the relatively small events of this first installment are like pebbles starting an avalanche that will rush downhill through the next two books. Robinson’s evocative descriptions of weather add to the strong sense of tension that pervades the narrative; when he writes about the oppressive heat and humidity of Washington DC, the reader feels it. He is also very good at portraying the world of scientific research. Anyone familiar with the process of applying for research grants will appreciate his depiction of the NSF -- and will be shaking their heads over Frank’s behavior.

Robinson is quite clearly trying to wake his readers up to the threat of environmental change and the need to start doing something about it. While this leads to a few overly didactic passages, he manages, for the most part, to stay off the soapbox. The result is a slow-building, educational and entertaining introduction to what promises to be a provocative and exciting trilogy. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens to Anna, Frank, Leo, and Charlie (and the tigers, yes, tigers).

Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam Books
ISBN 0553803115
358 pages