I have a tendency to overdose on authors once I discover their books. I get really excited, read way too many of their books in a row, and then gradually lose interest once I realize that my idol has feet of clay. And since no author is perfect, very few of them survive this process of overdose/disenchantment.
Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the writers I always kept reading, and I thought that he could do no wrong… at least until I read Forty Signs of Rain and came away entirely confused. What was this book trying to do?
My experience of Forty Signs of Rain came in several distinct steps. First of all, I heard that Robinson was writing a trilogy about climate change; the pre-publication buzz indicated that he was trying to spread the word about this particular looming disaster. The whole concept of a writer producing a science fiction novel in order to save the world caused me no small amount of anxiety.
I like my science fiction to have a healthy mix of both entertainment and substance, keeping me turning pages and then leaving me something to think about later. Gloss and excitement are important, but it’s only the deeper stuff that makes a work of art (or trash) last, and that’s a tough balance to maintain. If it’s a heaping dose of pure pulp or a heaping dose of pure preachiness, neither of them works for me. Robinson has often been accused of falling into the preachy camp — something that hasn’t bothered me in the past since I’m generally sympatico with his viewpoints. But a book specifically set up to proselytize? That gives me the willies.
And can a novel be an effective tool for convincing others anyways? I end up thinking about this a lot, since I find it interesting to observe how mass changes happen in our culture. For example, the campaign against drunk driving took many years and great effort on the part of many people, but eventually the point sunk in. What used to be a common thing is, by and large, now frowned down upon. But did any novels contribute to the effort? Maybe, but not anything that I would like to read to get that story fix.
The second step came when I actually read the book for myself. I came to realize that Forty Signs of Rain has little to do with climate change. Yes, some of the characters discuss it, but there’s so much else going on, or rather, so little, that the concepts of the book were entirely diffused. The book has domestic details and information about applying for scientific grants, and then ends with a flood of Washington D.C. The lack of sharp focus or narrative drive is remarkable.
So what is this book about, if it’s not climate change per se? One clue is that Forty Signs of Rain is part of a trilogy called Science in the Capital. That’s a pretty broad hook! While some of Robinson’s other books could be labelled in a similar way — Science on Mars or Science on the South Pole for the Mars trilogy and Antarctica respectively — I never encountered the same problem of being baffled by those other books.
(As somewhat of a side note: the reviewers on genre sites loved the book (see SF Site or Agony Column), while the reader reviews on Amazon.com trend toward the unimpressed. I’m not sure why I disagree so vehemently with the sf people!)
If it’s a trilogy, maybe I shouldn’t judge the first book until I’ve read the follow-ups? That’s in fact the next step: I read the subsequent books, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting. Now I could see the grand plan! Or not. Books 2 and 3 were vast improvements over book 1, but there was still not much in the way of resolution. Granted, one person cannot solve something as giant as “climate change” as such; that’s why I was frantically dialling down my expectations all the way through. In the end, the trilogy boils down to something like “we should get some smart people to work on this problem; here’s what their lives might be like in this situation.” If that’s enough for you, you’ll like the trilogy, but it definitely wasn’t enough for me.
All that said, I still have a lot of faith in Robinson. I have only a few authors on my “all-time most-admired” list, and he is one of them, even after the Science in the Capital trilogy. I’ve read (nearly) everything he’s written, and his books have shaped a great deal of my thinking; I’d like to see where he goes next despite this current misstep. He’s done too much right in the past to give up on.
The other authors on my most-admired list are Ursula K. Le Guin — see my Gutter pieces on Earthsea and Gifts — and Robert Charles Wilson. Which authors have remained favourites of yours over the years? Email James or add a comment below.