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Waiting for Rain
Jamais Cascio, 28 Jul 04

Among the numerous complaints about The Day After Tomorrow, by far the most justified was the criticism that a process which would take at least a decade or two to unfold (in the worst-case models) was shown taking place over the course of a few days. This was understandable, I suppose, from the perspective of movie-making -- it's hard to tell the story of a multi-decade ecosystem disaster in a summer action-movie. There are few opportunities for edge-of-the-seat excitement in that sort of story, few scenes of panicked crowds, walls of onrushing water, or last-minute heroism. The story of a gradual-but-inexorable environmental collapse would have much more to do with politics than with adventure.

Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel, Forty Signs of Rain,tells just that story.

(Review continues in the extended entry.)

Forty Signs of Rain (we linked to an interview with KSR about the story in January, before the book came out) is the first of a trilogy exploring a near future climate disaster -- a very near future, one which, aside from an offhand reference to a character's fuel cell vehicle, could be tomorrow. Perhaps intentionally, KSR evokes the slow, relentless nature of real-world climate disruption with the leisurely pace of the plot. The only unsettled weather witnessed by the characters in the book happens very late, but all along there are warnings and portents visible to those who look. And when the storm does come, it's not Hollywood's rampaging monster weather shaming politicians into contrition, but the all-too-real somewhat bigger than normal storm which leaves many destroyed homes in its wake, but few conversion experiences.

Despite being the start of a lengthy tale of global warming, the majority of the book has little to do with the unfolding of disaster, instead focusing on the lives of scientists and political analysts in DC and San Diego. Just as Bruce Sterling is a science fiction author fascinated by design, Kim Stanley Robinson is a science fiction author fascinated by politics. If you've read his Mars trilogy, you'll remember the detail he lavished on the proceedings of his provisional Mars government. Forty Signs of Rain is a book suffused with politics, whether on the floor of the Senate, in the offices of the National Science Foundation, or in the labs of a biotech start-up. Even for those fascinated by policy and governance, the book requires some patience. Most science fiction authors would have dispensed with the political back-and-forth in the first few chapters, or as flashbacks during the fury of the heavy weather; KSR chooses, instead, to let us see and become comfortable with the lives of the characters before he casts them into the storms of the rest of the series.

This is both welcome and unfortunate. Welcome because it gives KSR the chance to lay out his worldview about science and society in careful prose. Scientists are heroes, to be sure, but especially those who understand they are not beings of pure reason, but members of the human family. Unfortunate because KSR's strengths as a science fiction writer, in my view, lie in his world-building skills, not in his characterizations. The reason KSR is one of my favorite authors is his unparalleled ability to imagine future worlds which are redolent with plausbility -- I believe in the worlds he builds.

If you are averse to discussions of politics (both global and office varieties), you'll probably want to steer clear of Forty Signs of Rain. But I suspect that many WorldChanging readers will find this book seductive, even while they start to hunger for the "real" story to kick in. The point of this book is to set up the themes of the trilogy; fortunately, they are the kinds of big ideas science fiction is so good at presenting. What is the role of science in modern society? What is the role of altruism? How can humans ever successfully meet the big challenges? I look forward to the continuation of the story which, if KSR's previous books are any guide, will be big and complicated and beautiful and terrifying. In the meantime, Forty Signs of Rain gives us the quiet moment before the storm, a chance to get our selves in order, and a chance to think.

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Comments

I preferred KSR back when he was writing imaginative science fiction. His "SF writer on a quest" persona brings on dry heaves. We learned in the soviet era that politically motivated fiction sucks. KSR is teaching us the same lesson voluntarily, without the KGB breathing down his neck.


Posted by: RB on 29 Jul 04

Did you actually read the book?

From Three Californias to the Mars trilogy to Days of Rice and Salt, politics have always been at the core of KSR's writing. Anyone who claims to be familiar with his writing and is surprised by his perspective in 40SoR simply wasn't paying attention.

You want to say the first 3/4 of the book dealing with bureaucracies was boring? Sure, I was irritated until I realized what he was doing with it. You want to say it was poorly-written? As I said in the review, he's not as strong with characters as he is with world-building, and most of the book is very character-driven. But to criticize it for being politically-driven while claiming to like his earlier work is disingenous at best.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 29 Jul 04

I'm one of the few people that LIKES KSR's characterization skills. Sure, the Mars Trilogy has a dramatis personae reminiscent of Pasternak or Tolstoy, but I feel he brings out nuanced bits of motivation and drive from each of his many characters that propel his stories as a whole. I have been avoidin is post-Mars books, but I may have to pick this one up.

Oh, and Jamais is dead on: KSR's writing is totally about the politics and the interplay of the human nature of his many pro/antiprotagonists. So much so that the world-building he is so good at is almost incidental to the political wranglings.


Posted by: Howard on 29 Jul 04

The correct title is "Forty Signs of Rain" .. when you search it makes a diffrence.


Posted by: Stephen Balbach on 30 Jul 04

You're right -- that's fixed now in the review text. Thanks.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 30 Jul 04

Can't wait to read it, myself!

As for politics and fiction, RB, I think that leaving the politics out of creative writing would leave out many of our greatest writers, like Hemmingway, Orwell, Steinbeck, Twain, Dos Passos, Gunter Grass, Brecht, Camus, Upton Sinclair, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Robert Penn Warren, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Milton, Jonathan Swift, Kazantzakis, u.s.w., u.s.w. A great many of our great novels, plays, poems we're not only written about politics, they were written about people with explicit and public political commitments.

The question, to me, is not "is this a political book?" but "is it a good book?"


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 1 Aug 04

I think I understand RB's point. A writer can be "political" without letting the politics crowd out the story. KSR might have forgotten that lesson.


Posted by: Helen on 2 Aug 04



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