Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Kim Stanley Robinson, Forty Signs of Rain

It's my own fault for not keeping track of my book purchases, but I'm stuck this week waiting for Bolen Books to come through with the middle volume in Kim Stanley Robinson's climate-change fiction trilogy, Science in the Capital (or Capitol, depending on what link you follow). Apparently I only picked up the series' first and third novel, so with Forty Signs of Rain in the rearview mirror, I'm curbside with the hazards on, waiting for Fifty Degrees Below.

Overall this is a good thing, because it's forcing me to keep thinking about Forty Signs of Rain. I was seriously excited to start the series this summer, because I've enjoyed Robinson's novels so much and because it's so important to get climate change into people's imaginations and out of the uninspiring realm of factuality, so my initial reading of the novel wasn't particularly critical. At least, it wasn't particularly critical until some things started bringing me up short, so it's been helpful not to have been able to dive into the next volume.

Robinson usually gets categorized as an SF writer, and I guess technically this one counts as an alternative present (albeit barely alternative), but this is Science fiction with only the one capital letter, rather than SF or sf. This novel, too, comes out of Robinson's perspective that we need to move as quickly as possible into a postcapitalist future, so maybe it counts on utopian grounds as well.

While the novel uses several characters in order to communicate assorted perspectives on climate change, mostly it's organized around science, loosely orbiting a grants program operated by the National Science Foundation. (No definitive answer on whether Robinson meant the NSF acronym to recall the banking term "non-sufficient funds," but the NSF is a real organization, so presumably it's just a happy accident.) Not all the science is about climate change, I should say, either, so the novel really is about science generally rather than about climate change science tout court. The three key individuals are Anna Quibler, who coordinates some of the NSF's grant evaluation programs; Charlie Quibler, Anna's husband, who works on environmental issues for the leading US Senator on such matters; and Frank Vanderwal, a scientist spending a year vetting grant applications at the NSF.

Tewkesbury, UK (2007)
An important group contribution is made by the newly arrived diplomatic delegation from Khembalung, which takes up residence on the ground floor in the NSF's building. The delegation represents a Tibetan group that has managed to get independent nation status while occupying an island in the Bay of Bengal, at the mouth of the Ganges. With the recent sea-level rise, Khembalung is particularly sensitive to the consequences of climate change. As a Buddhist, largely monastic group, the Khembalese also bring to the book a perspective that's not traditionally scientific, and in consequence they cast shadows over the plot even when they're not immediately present.

I appreciated the funding agency dynamics, and the family issues between Anna and Charlie Quibler. (Quibler - quibbler? Good one, right?) Frank is a usefully conflicted character, too, torn between multiple allegiances personal, professional, and academic, and if I had to guess, I'm expecting the next novel to be mostly his. The key question for all these characters is how a person ought to respond in the face of crisis. Each character responds differently, because of their separate areas of expertise and interest, but they're all on the same side, and in consequence we get to see some of the options we might take ourselves in our response to climate change.

Everything is symbolic in one way or another, too, in a good way, and that's a sign of a finely managed work. I'm not sure that Robinson means for everything to be read that way, but people are constantly putting themselves in danger (sometimes real, sometimes emotional) when it's patently obvious that they're just not thinking about the coming risk. Children, adults, organizations: we're all at risk, and it's largely because we haven't thought carefully or consistently enough about the chances of trouble.

In sum, Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Inches of Rain is well worth your time, if you have interests in climate change (activist or otherwise), academic life, or the role of science in the world.

Mind you, I was brought up short by one particular plot point, so I'll just call a spoiler alert here. We'd just rented the schlocky film New Year's Eve, and in that movie Ashton Kutcher's character ends up trapped in an elevator with Lea Michele's character. (It's a terrible movie. Do not consider watching it.) They'd never met before, but as so often happens, the two wound up falling for each other and a-l-m-o-s-t making out. (It's a terrible movie. Do not consider watching it. Did I mention that already?) That's where I couldn't handle it any longer and started reading a book instead.

Two days later, the same thing happens for one of the characters in this book. I was so, SO disappointed in Robinson.

But it clarified something for me about some persistently cool phrases that Robinson had been dropping throughout the book, like the early remark "Primates in an elevator" (p16). Right up to the elevator scene, I think I'd been seduced by a viewpoint that I hadn't recognized as evolutionary psychology. Usually I'm pretty resistant to it, because it's deployed too often in defense of indefensibly misogynist, racist, colonialist, or homophobic positions, but I hadn't noticed it here. The elevator scene, though, and more than that the character's behaviour before that? Indefensible, and the whole thing left me even MORE disappointed in Robinson.

Now, the novel's still definitely worth your time, but if that sort of thing bugs you, there are going to be a few pages that crank you right up. I think it'll work out in the end, but I'm going to be reading the next two volumes with some caution.

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