Action stations

Kim Stanley Robinson keeps coming back to what might be described as ‘environmental fiction’, and ecological themes are never far from the surface even in his more fanciful SF writing, but I would guess that it was his Science In The Capital series that put him on the map as an environmental writer. Almost all of his books have been science fiction, and almost all of them are set in the future, but he has set several in the very near future, and used them to explore various possibilities presented by the developing climate and biodiversity emergencies. Forty Signs Of Rain, the first Science In The Capital book, was written nearly twenty years ago, and although a precise date is never specified, I get the idea that it was set roughly now. The near future is a risky proposition for an SF writer, if they’re not writing satire, as their predictions will start to look off-target pretty quickly (and any specific predictions will be off-target). It takes a writer that really knows what they’re talking about, and that is willing to do some serious research, to create a plausible near future. This book, set in Washington D.C. among science and policy professionals, is of course ‘wrong’ in the specifics, but it must have looked extremely plausible at its time of publication, as it’s pretty much bang-on in its generalities. I’m writing at the beginning of 2022 in a world where climate change is starting to directly shape the weather, in various unwelcome ways, costing lives and destroying communities around the world—mostly in poorer countries, but in the developed world as well. Extreme events are increasingly common, and increasingly easy to ascribe to global heating. The precise events that Robinson postulates here are not ones that have occurred, and the two most dramatic ones are more significant than any single emergency that can so far be attributed to climate change, but there’s nothing that feels wide of the mark.

The same can be said for his version of American society—sure, he hasn’t quite foreseen the huge impact that social media would have, the polarisation of politics, or the collapse in the social capital of expert knowledge, but given that his narrative is set largely within the Beltway, it feels pretty plausible; it seems likely that this is the way things feel within the National Science Foundation and the policy communities that orbit it. Partly this is because I trust Robinson as a writer, I know that he will have done his research, and spoken to people who work in the institutions that his characters inhabit; but you don’t have to be a Robinson fan to buy it, because the strong foundations of his story’s plausibility are its characters, and the lives they are leading. Ever consistent in the ways he makes his books, Robinson builds a number of idiosyncratic, deep-thinking individuals, and makes the story about their lives: the big, dramatic things that happen in Forty Signs Of Rain take their places in timelines filled with childcare, cooking, commuting, rock-climbing, sex, celibacy, and a good selection of the other various activities that go together to make up human lives. The result is a very subtle sort of cautionary tale, where some possible terrible consequences of our current lack of action on climate and biodiversity just happen, in an almost low-key way. The world doesn’t end, it just gets on and deals with it the way that it does, piling up sandbags and calling the insurers. Robinson is still writing this kind of book today—his latest, The Ministry For The Future, is one such. Forty Signs Of Rain dramatises, in a very involving and often moving way, the possibility of action in the face of environmental degradation, the importance of individuals in a world apparently sewn up by big bureaucracies, and Robinson’s indefatigable optimism. The novel is an entertainment, but it’s also a compelling call to action.

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