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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

December 18, 2005

Kim Stanley Robinson, Forty Signs of Rain

With the recent publication of Fifty Degrees Below, a sequel to Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain, I thought it was time to check out Robinson's take on climate change.

As one Amazon reviewer puts it, with this climate change trilogy, Robinson is setting himself up as the Anti-Crichton. Michael Crichton has recently caused controversy with State of Fear, his take on environmental issues, and has been adopted by some elements of the US Congress as a credible sceptic on the issue of global warming.

On this blog, we like to cover the big issues. Which means we don't pay much attention to the whole Iraq thing, which is going to seem very small potatoes indeed should our civilisation come crashing about our ears.

'We can go to them and say, look, the party's over. We need this list of projects funded or civilisation will be hammered for decades to come. Tell them they can't give half a trillion dollars a year to the military and leave the rescue and rebuilding of the world to chance and some kind of free market religion. It isn't working, and science is the only way out of this mess.'" - Forty Signs of Rain, p290

Global warming and climate change can be slippery terms. I believe the latter is probably inevitable, but I think we all know that a phrase like global warming is counter-intuitive, because one of the ways the climate could change is that a lot of us could get very, very cold indeed. Cold enough to consider killing cats and dogs for their fur, perhaps, Mr McCartney.

The issue rests on two questions. Is climate change a result of human activity? And, if so, can human activity do anything about it? I think the answer to the first question is not enough data (which is essentially Michael Crichton's position). And I think the answer to the second is, well, then it's probably too late.

And let's not confuse things by pointing out that the polar ice caps on Mars, as well as those on Earth, are shrinking.

I've never been much of a fan of Kim Stanley Robinson's writing style. He goes in for Hemingwayesque zero-degree narration, which is quite clever, but when the subject matter of the book is a little bit dry, well, it can be a little bit too dry. But it is a sophisticated style, and unless I'm being particularly thick, things aren't necessarily all that they seem. Here, for example, is one Amazon reviewer's take:

this is not as billed - most of the story is lost in the minutia of venture capital funding and the mechanics of scientific research. The most important event in the book (the stopping of the Gulf stream) is disposed of in a short telephone intercept...

Indeed. This reader was certainly reading for the plot, and didn't really enjoy the stuff about venture capital and real-world politics. But, actually, that's the most important thing in Forty Signs of Rain. Robinson's setting it up that way because the way science is conducted, and the way politics works, is precisely why there is not enough data on climate change and why the political will to do something about it is absent.

One of the main characters, Frank Vanderwal, is on secondment to the National Science Foundation in Washington. Just before his year is about to end, he issues a parting shot, complaining that science is conducted wrong, that it shouldn't rely on proposals and response to proposals, and should instead be setting the agenda and demanding funding for certain research. What's wrong with science, and with the politics of global warming, is that it relies entirely on lobbying - on the one hand - and on grant application and review on the other. What governments should be doing, argues Vanderwal, is commissioning research, asking or telling scientists what to research based on what organisations like the NSF - in collaboration with similar organisations all over the world - are saying.

It's quite hard to get your head round, but that's what Forty Signs of Rain is about. First of all, scientists aren't really free to collaborate because of the obsession with capital and money and patents and exploitation of discovery. So there's too much secrecy - and that's within one country, before you even consider the paranoia of governments and security agencies. And research is too dispersed and scattershot, again because scientists are working in commercial environments, looking for breakthroughs that will be profitable.

So scientists aren't really speaking to each other, and they don't really understand each other, and this atomised approach to a huge potential problem like climate change means that nobody is joining the dots, seeing patterns, and identifying possible solutions. And if someone does spot something potentially interesting - as Vanderwal does - then they have too much self-interest for it to be shared with the wider community.

This is one of the cleverest aspects of the book. Vanderwal's internal monologue is sometimes anthropological (we are all primates, fresh from the savannah, and a lot of our behaviour is based on the instincts of primates) and sometimes concerned with game theory, and in particular whether altruism or selfishness will win the game.

This could fool you into thinking that Vanderwal is a good guy, the moral compass to point us through the maze of Washington and scientific politics. Like this Amazon reviewer:

...some fairly poor attempts to inject some excitement in to these scenes of domestic bliss, in the form of an encounter with deadly nightshade and a near miss with the kid and some passing traffic (and with another characters pointless road rage encounter)

The character who has the "pointless" road rage encounter is Vanderwal. Except it's not pointless, obviously. The point is, Vanderwal (observing humanity dispassionately, thinking of us all as primates driven by instinct) is not perfect, and not infallible. He's driving in the multi-occupancy lane and attempts to avoid detection by cutting up a pickup truck in order to hide his car from a patrol car. Clever, he thinks, except the pickup truck driver has an attack of road rage and pursues him through the streets.

In other words, Vanderwal thought he was controlling a situation, but got it badly wrong.

Lesson two. Vanderwal sees a grant application from a mathematician that could have some exciting impact on research into gene therapy. He happens to have connections with a company doing research in gene therapy, so he "cleverly" sees to it that the funding application is refused, in order that the company can make the researcher a job offer and keep his research for themselves.

Except, of course, Vanderwal is outmanoeuvred by another scientist on the funding committee who has exactly the same idea about a company she is connected with, doing research that (it will turn out) is loosely related to gene therapy, but more directly relevant to finding a viable carbon-fixing solution.

As for the deadly nightshade, it was actually poison ivy, and I wouldn't care to suggest that the encounter will prove to be irrelevant.* It might even be interesting, later on.

In any event, Vanderwal is not as clever as he thinks he is, and when he meets a mystery woman later on in the book, you get the feeling he's being played. This is all going to pay off in the sequels to follow.

Forty Signs of Rain lays out the problems with scientific research, the difficulties of political lobbying, and the sometimes awkward human relationships involved in both. The sequel will describe the onset of severe climactic change, when the global temperature plummets. This is set up with two slices of beautiful irony. On the West Coast, an unusually lashing storm (part of a HyperniƱo in its 42nd month) causes massive erosion of sandstone cliffs at Encinitas, near San Diego. This is not a fictional threat. This, from the Las Cruces Sun:
Sand and solitude
Want to escape the hordes that descend upon most San Diego beaches? Go to Encinitas and turn west on D Street. The avenue dead-ends where the land plummets to the ocean, and there you will find a wooden staircase leading to the small, narrow beach about 60 feet below. Down here, you will find no hot-dog stands, no lifeguard and no restrooms. But you will find room to spread out, especially on the weekdays. (The beach can be thick with surfers on the weekends.) Just make sure you plant yourself well away from the cliffs, which look about as solid as Social Security's future. "

Turn west on D Street, it says. The land plummets to the ocean, it says. Where are Streets A, B, and C, I hear you ask? Lost to the sea, in October 1889. Robinson merely points out that what happened once will surely happen again.

And on the other coast, more irony. First victim of the coming catastrophic changes in climate? Why, Washington DC, of course, which is a mere 10 feet above sea level and built on a swamp. A couple of storms converge, coincident with a high tide, and politics-as-usual is under water.

Excellent. I'll read the first sequel in the new year.


*Poison ivy has interesting properties: only a billionth of a gram of the potent Urushiol oil is needed to cause a rash; and only 7 grams of the stuff would be needed to cause a rash in every person on earth. It remains active even on dead plants for at least five years; and samples centuries old have still caused rashes.


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