Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson

A funny and intelligent view of the future

Last year, Prince Charles weighed in to a scientific debate to parrot the premise of a Michael Crichton novel. The Prince was endorsing the probably nonsensical warning about "grey goo" in Crichton's anti-nanotech thriller, Prey.

In such a world, it would be a very good thing if more people with actual influence read Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain.

One problem of the "if this goes on..." disaster novel is that, often, social collapses and worldwide catastrophes are lent a certain appeal by shock-horror melodrama. As with some ignorant characters in Robinson's new book (one of them the US President), there's a tendency to come out of doom-watching with the idea that global warming - the peril here - might somehow be fun if it transforms Europe into "the Yukon of Asia", or offers Californian surfers ever-more daunting challenges.

This is a novel on the big theme of the weather, a science-fiction perennial well before J G Ballard saw the hypnotically surreal potential of the form in The Drowned World. It comes from an author with experience in big-scale SF (such as his Mars trilogy).

So it's a surprise that Forty Signs of Rain deals not with the coming cataclysm itself, although a few modest disasters edge into the final chapters. Rather, it is concerned with people scurrying around in the lead-up to the deluge, juggling their own ordinarily intricate lives with demanding jobs in science, politics, bio-technology, and their messy interfaces.

We follow Anna Quibler and Frank Vanderwal (Robinson is good at names!), who are working in Washington with the National Science Foundation. They approve grants for various scattered researchers, and cope with the government's undervaluation of scientific enterprise.

Meanwhile, Charlie, Anna's semi-house-husband, looks after two demanding kids and toils part-time as advisor to a senator who is trying to pass legislation to make the US part of the solution to the world's climate problems, rather than their major cause.

Subtly threaded through are credible sub-plots about who will fund (and perhaps own) a new system developed by a young biomathematician; and the polite, strange presence in DC of a group of Tibetan Buddhists from a new-ish country aligned to the League of Drowning Nations.

This is not a novel strangled by a need to info-dump its meticulous research, although it seeds editorials and points of information throughout, and keeps slipping in overheard weather reports. Robinson shows how frustratingly difficult it is for any situation to improve when the abstractions of power count for more than the realities of suffering.

It's a funny, convincing, intelligent book, and avoids too much caricature of its "villains" (although presidential advisor "Dr Strengluft" comes close). However, the characters have contradictions which sometimes make for difficult company.

When the rains come, Robinson still doesn't crank up the horrors. But the last lines deliver a horribly credible vision of how much worse things need to get, before anyone tries to make them better.

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