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 job electronically.

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 rounded folks.

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 goes there.

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.