When I first heard the word “cli-fi,” this is exactly the sort of novel I envisioned. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 40 Signs of Rain is rife with scientist characters, discussions of global warming, dubious politics, and a sardonic caricature of President George W. Bush. These are all of the ingredients necessary for a perfect work of climate change fiction (Dan Bloom’s terminology of choice). Yet, I am quite ambivalent towards Robinson’s novel, and perhaps towards this genre as a whole. My primary gripes with 40 Signs of Rain are quite similar to some of the problems I addressed with Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior: the lack of significant action and the flat characters.
I really am willing to forgive the slow pacing within cli-fi novels. Realistically, climate change-related disasters are not something we can foresee very ahead, so it only makes sense that novelists within this sub-genre choose to depict disasters as unpredicted surprises rather than easily predictable events for which everyone is already bracing themselves. However, when I read a novel, I really do want some meaningful events to occur. It took over 300 pages before anything truly exciting happened in this novel. Now, I don’t necessarily want all of the books I read to be novelistic forms of Hollywood disaster films, but I want them to have some meaningful action. In Robinson’s first novel in his “Science in the Capital” trilogy, I felt like he was just describing to readers the predictably ordinary lives of predictably ordinary scientists. While the writing quality I quite good, there is just nothing about the first three quarters of this novel that I found to be truly captivating. The only interesting scenes for me were when the politics of science is discussed, and I would have liked to read some more sections about this highly relevant issue of the struggle between bureaucracy and scientific progress.
Another issue I had with 40 Signs of Rain was its characters. I found nearly every character in this book to be utterly stagnant and boring. The only character who really undergoes any sort of drastic change is Frank, and I felt that the romantic scene which serves as the catalyst for Frank’s change of heart was just predictably hackneyed and maudlin. Additionally, both of the Quibler parents seemed to remain the same throughout the novel. I feel like Robinson’s goal was to depict the lives of the ordinary people who are battling against the bureaucracy and struggling to make great strides in the fields of science. This truly is a noble and interesting idea, especially in 200 when this novel was first published. However, I just wish that Robinson had written more likeable and interesting characters to serve as his, for lack of a better phrase, everyday heroes.
As I believe about many contemporary novels, I believe that 40 Signs of Rain could have benefited from a great deal of trimming. Robinson could have cut out all of the fat (i.e.: the elevator romance, the poison ivy, Frank’s love of rock climbing, etc.) and built up upon the struggle between politicians and scientists. If he had done so, I believe 40 Signs of Rain could have been a greatly important and well-written novel about the struggle of science vs. politics vs. climate change. As it stands, Robinson’s novel is quite messy and long-winded, but there are some very interesting themes and ideas at play underneath it all. 40 Signs of Rain’s characters did not captivate me enough to wish to continue reading his “Science in the Capital” series. However, Robinson seems to have some really interesting ideas and a talent as an author. I would certainly consider reading another one of his works in the future.