The strength of Kim Stanley Robinson’s writing is the pristine clarity with which it delivers his narrative. He does not give us any tangled literary devices, but instead focuses on maintaining efficient, almost scientifically exact, loyalty to the realism of his work. While Robinson certainly does not risk anything with this choice, it pays off to the extent that it keeps the reader moving. The problem then, is that where the reader moves is not always as fantastic as the writing that describes it. Robinson gives us the paddle, but we hardly have a creek worth navigating.
The story itself is a decent enough in concept, but it is the same commitment to hard realism, which makes Robinson’s writing so clear, that also drains away the story’s potential for flair. On one hand, the realism of the novel is useful for creating immersion. The ambiguous, but clearly near future or even present setting is highly vivid and relatable. On the other hand, the strictness of the realism means that where the novel attempt to liven up, it feels oddly out of place. Frank’s late night office intrusion, for example, seems somewhat farfetched, and for that reason, a bit melodramatic as well. Meanwhile, when Robinson tries to stay more rooted in plausibility, it becomes anti-dramatic, such as when Charlie discusses climate change with the president. The meeting goes on exactly how we expect it too, and while this is congruent with our realistic expectations, it is also a little boring.
That all aside, Robinson is smart for focusing on the lives and personalities of the scientists themselves, rather than drilling home a tired polemic on the dangers of climate. He offers of us tidbits of this polemic here and there, but his emphasis is on the human drama that involves the people who are so closely tied to the issue of climate change. It is a shame then, that some of these characters are not half as interesting as the conflicts at hand, because 40 Signs of Rain would otherwise be a much more compelling drama. Perhaps the first book in a trilogy is too early to fully judge the development of every character, but even if 40 Signs of Rain is read like an extended introduction to the Science in the Capital series, it would not hurt to have more instances where its characters are really tested or have to make hard choices. Without these telling moments, there simply is not enough urgency in Robinson’s work.