I discovered the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson a year or so ago through his magnificent Mars trilogy and have become a big fan of his signature blend of speculative science, politics, and character-driven narrative. Forty Signs of Rain is the first in a different and earthbound trilogy about the science, politics, and real-life impacts of global warming. Published the year before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, it’s remarkably prescient and realistic in its portrayal of a similar flood hitting Washington, D.C.
The fact that D.C. is the capital of the United States is not coincidental; in fact, the fact that it’s both the seat of American power and a notably vulnerable city, infamously and ill-advisedly situated in low-lying swampland, is central to the story Robinson has to tell. We tend to think of Washington as an abstraction, the place where the politics happens. Robinson brings home its topographic and meteorological realities vividly and with verve, as only he can do, in the novel’s dramatic final chapters.
The fictional narrative in Forty Signs of Rain calls to mind two first-rate nonfiction books I’ve read recently: Straw Dogs by the British philosopher John Gray – Robinson’s characters reflect often on how human beings are, after all, animals like any other – and Rebecca Solnit’s fascinating A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. One recognizes the behavior of real human beings early in the climactic storm, before the worst has happened, when one of the main characters stops in at an Iranian-owned deli near his office near the National Mall:
The Iranians nodded silently. Five years earlier they would probably have been closing the deli, but this was the fourth “perfect storm” synergistic combination in the last three years, and they, like everyone else, were getting jaded. It was Peter crying wolf at this point, even though the previous three storms had all been major disasters at the time, at least in some places. But never in D.C. Now people just made sure their supplies and equipment were okay and then went about their business, umbrella and phone in hand. Charlie was no different, he realized, even though he had been performing the role of Peter for all he was worth when it came to the global situation. But here he was, getting a pastrami sandwich with the intention of going back to work. It seemed like the best way to deal with it.
“It was strange,” reflects the same character a few pages later about himself and his officemates, “to see how they were directly involved in an obviously historical moment, right in the middle of it in fact, and yet they too were watching it on TV.”
In my review of A Paradise Built in Hell and in my recent speech at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus , I reflected that
Solnit shows that those in power respond to disasters by circling the wagons to protect their own interests both institutional and personal and by sending in the troops, not to rescue victims but to control and even criminalize them, whereas ordinary people often quite spontaneously rescue and comfort each other and assemble themselves into communities of mutual aid and support.
Part of the interest of Forty Signs of Rain lies in how it illustrates how even the powerful are, in the end, hapless and vulnerable creatures like the rest of us. In a scene that directly illustrates a major theme of Solnit’s book, a different Robinson character leaves his office at the National Science Foundation to join the many volunteers trying to protect Arlington National Cemetery from the flooding Potomac:
Frank nodded at anything said his way, not bothering to understand, and worked like a dervish. It was very satisfying. He felt deeply happy, and looking around he could see that everyone else was happy too. That’s what happens, he thought, watching people carry limp sandbags like coolies out of an old Chinese painting. It takes something like this to free people to be always generous.