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Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Forty Signs of Rain’

I hesitated blogging this novel—a near-future global disaster story focusing on global warming and set for the most part in the D.C. Metro area—as it’s the first in a trilogy and I’ve yet to get to the other two (the second is on its way to me in the mail as I type). But it was a fun read—and has some things worth bringing into open spaces.

I must admit, I have varied feelings about Kim Stanley Robinson’s work. I discovered Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) in the midst of the Mars Pathfinder landing in the 1997, which left me so enthralled by the fact we were seeing images from the very surface of another planet that I set off to find and read every sci-fi book about Mars I could get my hands on. Robinson’s triology—which chronicles the near-future exploration, settling and terraforming of the Red Planet—is definitely one of the best out there. I loved the blend of science and social/political ideas, even if in the end I don’t agree with Robinson’s utopian style conclusion (or some of the social ideas he uses to get there). I tend to have a bias against utopian sci-fi, and Robinson definitely fits that bill.

Come to find out, that's one of the aspects of his work folks like to discuss. I recently ran across this article profiling Robinson, where he’s quoted as defining utopian stories thus:
"These days [utopian stories] are all about the struggle of getting to a juster society, and then keeping it there, or fending off counter-attacks, or making further progress. Utopia, in other words, is just a name for a positive dynamic in history; history will never stop happening; and so to call for utopia is to call for an increase in justice in the world, and a different economic system that is based on justice and ecological sustainability. This is exactly the subject matter on which science fiction is by definition focused -- science fiction being a matter of imagining fictional histories for the future, some better, some worse, all different -- all therefore challenging the current power system and its attempt to portray itself as inevitable and eternal."
This runs through Forty Signs of Rain as well, along with something else I didn’t remember from the Mars trilogy: a complimentary view of science and religion (in Robinson’s case, Buddhism). It’s been a while since I read the Mars trilogy, so a similar thread may have been there—but even if it was, I don’t think it was as obvious as in this series. According to the same profile above, Buddhism is a personal interest of Robinson’s and a prevalent aspect in his earlier Years of Rice and Salt as well. In a review of Sixty Days and Counting (the third book in this series), the reviewer says that in Years of Rice and Salt, Robinson reflects on religion and science, "not as diametric opposites, but as complementary ways to get a grip on the big enchilada, one using deductive, and the other inductive means.”

At one point in Forty Signs of Rain, one of Robinson’s scientists (who often have the main roles in his novels) attends a lecture by a group of exiled Buddhist Tibetans and has an ephiphany of sorts that changes the way he looks at life. Frank is reason-rules scientist who sees life running, among other things, according the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which Frank describes as a kind of tit-for-tat power struggle. Earlier in the book, Frank reflects:
In traffic, at work, in relationships of every kind—social life was nothing but a series of prisoners’ dilemmas. Compete or cooperate? Be selfish or generous? It would be best if you could always trust other players to cooperate, and safely practice always generous; but in real life people did not turn out to earn that trust. That was one of the great shocks of adolescence, perhaps that realization; which alas came to many at an even younger age. And after that you had to work things out case by case, your strategy a matter of your history, or your personality, who could say.
But in his spiritual epiphany, Frank realizes he’s in the mist of a paradigm shift which he describes as a kind of "kaleidoscope" experience. (Heh, for what it’s worth, I was delighted to run across this metaphor as that is how I’ve been describing epiphanies since college!) Frank reflects then that all things that generally lose in the Prisoners’ Dilemma might have a different value (warning: cursing ahead):

It was more like . . . . dying and being reborn. Altruism, compassion, simple goddamned foolishness, loyalty to people who were not loyal to you, playing the sap for the defectors to take advantage of, competition, adaptation, displace self-interest—or else something real, a real force in the world, a kind of physical constant, like gravity, or a basic attribute of life, like the drive to propagate one’s DNA to subsequent generations. A reason for being. Something beyond DNA. A rage to live, an urge to goodness. Love.
I couldn’t help but circle that last word (heh, I always read with a pen at hand) because, as a follower of Jesus, it resonated with me as an echo of the Way. It doesn’t make sense to folks who walk the world running up points and power by way of the Prisoners’ Dilemma (which is a surprising number of folks—even those in religious circles); but it makes a whole world of sense to a lot of other folks. As I’ve said before, I’ve long appreciated that elements of God's truth can be found in other religions, that there are people in many cultures and religions who are drawn to those truths. If we are made in God’s image, how can we not be drawn to those elements? And for those who have spent time with Jesus, Love is indeed “something real.”

One last comment before this post gets too long: this is the first book I can remember reading that gets life in the D.C. Metro area so dang perfect! Sheesh, Robinson describes D.C. traffic (which he uses to introduce readers to the Prisoner's Dilemma), the “steam bath of the capital” where the heat hits “an upper limit where it just blur[s] out” and the often frustrating madness of the political life like he lives here (he actually lives in Davis, California). I read more than one part of the book out loud to my husband, who spends his days on the Metro, highways and in hallways of D.C. Heh, he laughed and grimaced.

I’ll wait to read the next two in the series before I come to a final conclusion, but right now I’m entralled enough to read the second one. I’ll let you know how it goes.


Ken Brown said…
Great post and review! Timothy Mills, a secular humanist who has been commenting at my blog recently, just recommended Robinson's Mars trilogy to me last week. What's interesting is that you should mention Robinson's giving space to the positive interplay of science and religion (in this newer book), since what Mills was particularly impressed with in Mars was its non-theistic viewpoint!

Perhaps that's a sign of a good writer, if all sorts of readers can find their views represented and engaged?
Carmen Andres said…
frankly, my memory of the Mars trilogy (which is one of my favorite series, btw) wasn't so much "non-theistic" as actually "anti-theistic" (heh, if there is such a word). which is why i was surprised to run across the positive interplay between science and Buddhism in this book. but i hadn't read his other books in between the two series ("Years of Salt and Rice" was one of those, which apparantly plays even stronger with the whole interplay). it would be interesting to go back and read the Mars trilogy now, with what I know about Robinson. let me know what you think if you decide to read them.

For what it's worth, in that profile of Robinson I linked to above, he describes his interest is in "California Buddhism" which seems (imho) to be its own version of the religion with environmental threads woven through. which makes sense as one of the themes Robinson consistently seems to tackle is environmentalism (global warming in this book).

one of the reasons utopia books don't fly for me is because my worldview is soaked in Scripture. many times, utopian authors either ignore our bent towards selfishness or they "fix" that bent by sheer will or choice alone. in the Mars trilogy, Robinson seems to go with that one, that we can set up a society without war and exploitation if we can just get away from earth and start again, this time with "better" social and political systems. that just doesn't fly with me because of our bent towards selfishness, which ultimately (if you embrace a biblical worldview) can't be solved or fixed unless we realize who we were created to be and live with and in the Creator who made us that way.

one of the reasons I like sci-fi authors like Jack McDevitt so much (even though he's plainly stated he doesn't practice or believe in any religion) is that his novels take for granted that human nature will not change but recongizes that we have the pulls towards selfishness (sin) and nobleness (image of God likeness). his future-histories are like our previous thousands of years of history, both good and bad, with good overcoming evil more often than not--which seems fairly biblical to me as well with echoes of the Story too. all this from a man who isn't religious but observant nonetheless. if i were a modern Paul, i'd probably use his work in one of my quotes on a modern Mars Hill, heh.

so, anyway, i was really intrigued to find that Robinson is toying with the interplay between science and religion. that kind of story catches my interest because it at least acknowledges there is more to our existence. i'm one of those that loves science and finds it in harmony with Scripture, so books that even hint at that are usually going to get my interest--as did "Forty Signs of Rain".
Ken Brown said…
Well I'll definitely have to check him out then! If only I had more time to read fiction....

Anyway, you're point about utopias tending to ignore humanity's inalienable bent towards selfishness (and, I would add, pride) is a good one. That's one of the things I like about BSG, how it emphasizes that, no matter how our technology might advance, human nature is still the same. The longer I've thought about their mid-season finale (which, more and more, I'm thinking really did end on Earth), the more I appreciate it--it's the perfect anti-utopia, insisting that no "promised land" will solve our problems for us (any more than it did for the Israelites), for we bring our problems with us. "All this has happened before. All this will happen again." We've always needed redemption and we always will.
Carmen Andres said…
i like your point about there being no promised land to solve our problems - great image! i can't help but think of how it underlines again that God's point isn't a "place" or political kingdom but a "relationship" that inherently fuels the physical breaking out of his Kingdom on earth. without that relationship (which also fuels our relationships with others) there is no new way of life. i'll probably end up borrowing that one (with attribution, of course, heh).
Ken Brown said…
God's point isn't a "place" or political kingdom but a "relationship" that inherently fuels the physical breaking out of his Kingdom of earth.

Yes! I think that was what NT Wright was trying to say on Colbert on Thursday. The Kingdom isn't some disembodied future in "heaven," but a relationship, a way of living, here and now, that anticipates the recreation of the world, heaven and earth.
Carmen Andres said…
in light of your thoughts and the post above i might even now phrase it ". . . the physical breaking out of his future Kingdom now."