Forty Signs of Rain
Reviewed: May 19, 2010
By: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
432 pages, $10.99
Forty Signs of Rain is the first volume in what Robinson calls his “Science
In The Capital” trilogy. As such, it takes place mostly in Washington,
D.C., unlike his last trilogy, which took place mostly on the planet Mars.
There was a section in one of the Mars books where some of the colonists returned
to an Earth devastated by climate change and global flooding, and I couldn’t
help but wonder, as I read this book, whether this might be the background story
that led to that future. It’s just a speculation on my part, and it doesn’t
matter, because this book doesn’t need to be connected to the “Mars
trilogy” to be effective.
In the not too distant future we meet Charlie and Anna Quibler. (Names in SF
are often symbolic - so I wonder about this surname.) Anna works at the National
Science Foundation and Charlie is an aide to a powerful US Senator. Both are
concerned with climate change. Anna deals with it at work and Charlie drafts
legislation and speeches for Senator Phil Chase. Anna works at the foundation
and Charlie is a house-hubby who is looking after the kids and handling his
We spend a lot of time with the Quiblers - more with Charlie and the kids -
and learn a lot about their values and concerns. They seem to be pretty well
The other major character is Frank Vanderval. He is on temporary secondment
to the NSF from his job at cutting edge research lab in California. At the NSF
he and Anna deal with funding issues - who gets it and who doesn’t - rather
than doing actual science. Frank wants to get back to his lab where they are
working on methods of manipulating DNA in ways that promise amazing medical
breakthroughs, if they can just solve the problem of a delivery agent.
Frank’s not a bad person, but he has a very sterile, rational view of
the world and is quite egocentric. That’s about to change.
Part of the change occurs when he meets the members of a diplomatic delegation
from Khembalung, a nation virtually inundated by the rising Indian Ocean. Their
Buddhist world view - religious, yet rational as they explain it - causes Frank
to have the beginnings of an epiphany.
He is not the only one affected by them, and there’s a lot of back and
forth discussion of theories and implications of theories. Sometimes the book
bogs down a bit in scientific and philosophical minutiae, but much of it is
relevant to what eventually occurs later.
There’s a large secondary cast to this novel, and secondary setting out
in California. This is needed later in order to give us a sense of the scope
of events as they unfold. Also, it helps to give us some people to identify
with and perhaps worry about a bit when the time comes.
Much of the novel does feel like we’re being set up for later events.
Bills get written and modified. Experiments are tried and fail. Relationships
are examined and developed. Hints are dropped. I wasn’t counting, but
there were probably forty signs of rain buried in the text at various points.
Meanwhile, a sizable portion of the Antarctic ice cap slides into the sea and
things begin to happen. There are waves chipping away at the coast of California,
new weather patterns altering the Gulf Stream and rain, oh yes, lots of rain.
The last quarter of the book is all about about the Noah-and-the-Flood level
rainstorm that hits Washington. The city is not permanently flooded. Unlike
New Orleans, where Katrina hit the year after this book was published in hardcover,
the water has somewhere to go and, after it does a lot of damage, it slowly
The story could stop there. Events have matured. Warnings were given and ignored
and look where it got us. There’s no cliffhanger, so if you chose not
to pick up Fifty Degrees Below and find out what happens next, you could do
that. I’ve begun the next book though, and can tell you that it is worth
coming back for part two.