Friday, November 28, 2008

Reading the Forty Signs of Rain Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

I finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain triology last week, and so I had the odd experience when reading George Monbiot's One Shot Left: The latest science suggests that preventing runaway climate change means total decarbonisation in Tuesday's Guardian of feeling the lines blur between one kind of reading experience and another, between reading fiction and reading nonfiction. This has rarely happened to me before, and so it prompted me to think about why it happened. For those unfamiliar with it, the trilogy consists of three sequential novels: Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting, totaling roughly 1600 pages of near-future science fiction.

The novels' primary setting is Washington D.C., deep in the bowels of the federal government; its primary characters are scientists and politicians. Unlike most scientists depicted in science fiction (the physicists in Carter Scholz's Radiance offer a finely depicted exception), many of the scientists in these novels are also administrators. The crux of the overarching narrative is the administrator-scientists collectively formulating and acting upon what they call "The Frank Principle" (named after one of the books' central characters, Frank Vanderwal): saving the world so that science can proceed. The inception of collective action coincides with the stalling of the Gulf Stream and concomitant onslaught of extreme weather, thus bringing a convincing level of plausibility to Frank's argument that a Kuhnian paradigm shift is necessary. Given the federal government's general disregard for science and scientists, there is very little infrastructure for coordinating such an effort. He therefore proposes that the NSF become the political and organizational means for directing confronting the problem of global warming.

The narrative includes many documents that reminded me of Monbiot's article; the documents are, of course, a part of the fictional narrative. But the sorts of events and statistics they describe are not far off from the flood of such reports to be found in science journals, magazine, and newspapers today. As such, Robinson's documents serve the novels' sense of verisimilitude admirably. But the similarity between the fictional and the real cannot alone account for my sense, reading Monbiot's piece, that because of these books, the lines between fiction and reality have become blurred in my mind. I've been reading narratives that include life-like documents for decades and have never had that experience before now. Something else is at work here, something that speaks to the quality of Robinson's achievement with these books. To see what it is, it helps, I think, to look at the narrative choices Robinson makes.

First and most important, he chose not to write a thriller in which disaster strikes and politicians are made fools of and a lone scientist almost single-handedly saves the day. He could easily have inserted the basic facts and characters of his story into the sf thriller formula. Of course if he had done that, he would have rendered the issues themselves trivial-- since all it takes in such a story is the brilliance and powerful will of one individual to solve a discrete and pressing problem. (The presumption of such a storyline would be that after the scientist had saved the world from the stalling of the Gulf Stream, the book would have ended with everyone realizing that This Can't Go On... and the world would have set about with a will to stop or even reverse global warming. Book over. Warm and fuzzy feeling for readers assured.) Such a narrative would have raced by, speeding from one dramatic moment to the next. The narrative's documents would have provided key information at crucial points and have been used to great dramatic effect. And as if with most thrillers, once finished, the reader would have forgotten most of it within hours of closing the book.

Instead, there are no dramatic moments in these books, though there are numerous events that could have been presented with great dramatic flair. This was a risky strategy for Robinson to take, a strategy few sf writers would even consider (and even fewer editors would be likely to endorse). But it works (mostly). And where it works, it works powerfully. What Robinson does, instead, is weave for the reader the fabric of particular characters' lives-- chiefly, in the first book, that of Senate staffer Charlie Quibler (and, to a lesser extent, his scientist wife, Anna Quibler), and, in the second book, Frank Vanderval. (Robinson drops the pattern in the third book, Sixty Seconds and Counting, which I logically expected to take up the lives of either Diane Chang or Drepung, a displaced Tibetan Buddhist, and I think this accounts for the weakness of that novel and the trilogy's conclusion as a whole.) The events are subsumed to the fabric and take their meaning from the effects it has on the fabric.

Charlie Quibler, while a part-time policy wonk working for liberal Senator Phil Chase (a job he does mostly over the phone and via email), is first and foremost the caretaker of his toddler son, Joe. A significant portion of Forty Signs of Rain is devoted to depicting in unusual and utterly believable detail what being directly responsible for the welfare of an infant is like and, more particularly, a plausible male version of that role. I hasten to add that this is the kind of narrative that is usually open to criticism when produced by a woman-- as it has indeed been done. I'm not signaling this book out for its innovation tout court. But it is rare to see this kind of narrative in a book of hard science fiction. It isn't only that the narrative pays such close attention to the life of caring for a child that matters here: rather, it's the narrative's insistence on viewing all the players in these books as living interconnected lives, where the realms of science, policy, and daily life are inextricable and impossible to view meaningfully in isolation from one another.

In the second book, Fifty Degrees Below, the character whose life is under close examination, Frank Vaderwal, decides that he lives a "parcellated" existence-- one in which he comprises numerous selves living compartmentalized lives. He may think that; he may feel his consciousness is split any number of ways; but the reader can plainly see the interconnections and never forgets them. Frank is the most inconsistent and fluid character in the series, but for me he is the most true-to-life. He is more like the scientists I have known than just about any scientist I've encountered in science fiction. That when he finds himself homeless he builds a tree house in a park and creates a social routine that substitutes for the habits of "home" strikes me as just the sort of thing I could imagine certain scientists I've known doing.

The upshot of the slow, nondramatic pacing and drawn out attention to detail is that the reader ends up knowing the characters to a degree they never get to know the crisply depicted characters in thrillers (or, indeed, in most hard sf novels)-- and by knowing them so well, also cares about what happens to them. Okay, so I'm saying these are good novels. But what do the virtues of Robinson's narrative have to do with my blurring of the documents in the novel with Monbiot's report?

It's this: over the span of 1600 pages, the characters repeatedly read or generate reports about different aspects of global warming. And in showing the characters doing this, the narrative subtly teaches us to read the documents in a particular way. And so, while reading Monbiot's piece, certain key themes popped out at me. For instance, after writing--

But this last binge of vandalism is also the Bush presidency reduced to its essentials. Destruction is not an accidental product of its ideology. Destruction is the ideology. Neoconservatism is power expressed by showing that you can reduce any part of the world to rubble.

--Monbiot then asks:

Is it too late [to stop runaway climate change]? To say so is to make it true. To suggest that there is nothing that can now be done is to ensure that nothing is done. But even a resolute optimist like me finds hope ever harder to summon. A new summary of the science published since last year's Intergovernmental Panel report suggests that - almost a century ahead of schedule - the critical climate processes might have begun.

This question, in the trilogy, is revealed as double-edged and part of the mechanism of denial that prevents governments from doing anything about global warming. As the books' cientists note, merely asking the question plays into the hands of the fatalists who say there's no point in trying to salvage the world-- global destruction is inevitable. But the flip side of that is that as long as scientists say there's still time to do something, then politicians (in the US, anyway) will insist that that means there's no need to do anything.

Monbiot is probably grimmer than the trilogy, though:

The Tyndall paper* points out that annual emission reductions greater than one per cent have "been associated only with economic recession or upheaval." When the Soviet Union collapsed, they fell by some 5% a year. But you can answer these questions only by considering the alternatives. The trajectory both Barack Obama and Gordon Brown have proposed - an 80% cut by 2050 - means reducing emissions by an average of 2% a year. This programme, the figures in the Tyndall paper suggest, is likely to commit the world to at least four or five degrees of warming, which means the likely collapse of human civilisation across much of the planet. Is this acceptable?

* Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, 2008. "Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. Published online. doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0138

Anderson and Bows state that "The framing of climate change policy is typically informed by the 2 degrees C threshold; however, even stabilizing at 450 ppmv CO2e [parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent] offers only a 46 per cent chance of not exceeding 2 degrees C." This estimate is given in the following paper:
Malte Meinshausen, 2006. "What Does a 2°C Target Mean for Greenhouse Gas Concentrations? A Brief Analysis Based on Multi-Gas Emission Pathways and Several Climate Sensitivity Uncertainty Estimates." In Hans Joachim Schellnhuber (Ed in Chief). Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. Cambridge University Press.

Oh, and one last thing: the second novel, Fifty Degrees Below, opens in a Washington D.C. that has been devastated by flooding and has Congress refusing to allocate the funds needed to clean it up and restore the public facilities and private housing that was damaged or destroyed in the storm. The release date for the book was November 2005, just two months after Katrina, which means it was probably at the printers when Katrina struck. Have to say, Robinson sure did nail that one.

ETA: Perhaps I ought to add one more thing: the narrative style of the trilogy reinforces at every level that the disaster story that is global warming is a collective problem (however much it visibly affects individuals differentially) that can have only a collective solution. But even as it approaches the problem collectively, Robinson's narrative focuses our attention through the prism of individuals' life stories. This is something the news media fails at accomplishing, miserably.


harbinger said...

The line is blurred because Monbiot's account is also fiction.

The Tyndal Centre concentrates on the sociology of getting people to accept the global warming paradigm. Taking as their starting point the contested and flawed IPCC reports they weave wondrous "what if" computer simulations.

There is no science here, and the only limits are those of their imagination.

In the real world, a new cooling cycle has started. In the real world the temeprature rises and falls over cycles that do not show cause and effect from CO2 levels.

Vandana Singh said...

Timmi, thanks for this essay and review. I read this trilogy last year and had mostly similar reactions. I've been teaching about climate change in all my classes and have been talking to as many people as possible. It is likely that if we are not already beyond the point for irreversible climate change, we are close (in the December 2007 IPCC report, the chair says we might have only until 2012 to make meaningful change). So our concerns should be to stop making things worse (switch to clean energy on a war footing, massive lifestyle change) and to look into technologies that scrub carbon dioxide from the air (a technological intervention that would, perhaps, eventually slow and reverse the warming).

Scientists I know who've been working on global warming issues feel like Cassandra shouting her prophecies of doom and having to watch while the world does... nothing. Some of them are really depressed. But there are signs of hope as well. One is that people around the world are more aware of the danger than their governments (see this report and the other is that some communities around the world are taking initiative. I wrote about all this in a guest blog at Jeff VanderMeer's this past October:

Here also is an interesting article by Bill McKibben.

I've been calling for a dialog on this subject in the SF community and elsewhere, for the development of --- not a thinktank, but a thinknet, maybe, of people around the world coming up with ideas and putting them into action in a very public way.

Got to do something... now.


Vandana Singh said...

Attempts to do something about climate change are being hampered by those who are either in denial out of ignorance or fear, or are actively sowing confusion in the public mind about this issue.
Since we are running out of time in which to do something to slow global warming, I suggest that we do not engage trolls directly and instead share information and solutions.
It is good to be aware that there is a concerted campaign to discredit the science and scientists associated with global warming data. It is reminiscent of the attempts by tobacco companies to discredit those who blew the whistle about the adverse health effects of tobacco. Here is a link to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (from Jan 2007) about the funding of skeptic groups by Big Oil:
I’m a scientist, among other things, and am among the first to admit that science needs skeptics. That’s how we work. But honest skeptics are one thing, and an army of disinformation-sowers is quite another. Climate scientists are the first to admit that climate models are sadly inadequate, and that is one reason why they use ensembles of climate models to make predictions, rather than individual models. What is scary is that our best climate models actually underestimate what is happening now. In other words, there is more warming (and more melting of ice caps) than our current science predicts. That is why the situation is so dire.
Those who wish to be educated about climate change would do well to peruse the following:
--- an article from the UK Science News Magazine, New Scientist, about the facts of climate change and the most common myths about them, and other references on the site:
--- Real Climate: Climate Change from Climate Scientists, a good reference:

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I, too, was impressed by many things in the Forty Signs of Rain trilogy, not the least of which was the fact that the books held my interest even though they didn't include a lot of action.

I haven't yet read the third book, but I was living in Washington, DC, while reading the first two, and -- responding to Timmi's idea about blending fiction and reality -- found myself being very grateful that I lived significantly uphill from Rock Creek Park (I've ridden a bike from the park to my house, so I know just how uphill it is). When Stan flooded the zoo and the mall, it was totally believable. So was the extreme cold of the second book. Washington may not have experienced either a flood or cold spell as bad as those, but it strikes me as only a matter of time before it does.

I found (via Boingboing) an interesting article on peak population that includes an interesting thought attributed to Robinson: "As Kim Stanley Robinson puts it, empowering women is the best climate change technology."

A drop in population will help, though it's certainly not going to happen fast. I don't see how we get through the next period of time without some serious suffering, no matter who's right and no matter how much effort we expend.