Book Review: Forty Signs of Rain

Forty Signs of Rain
Kim Stanley Robinson 2004
356 pages

Kim Stanley Robinson is not a muppet. That’s important in a human being, and even more so in an author. And in an author trying to help readers exactly how their species got into this dreadful dreadful mess, it’s downright essential. Robinson, probably best known for his “Mars” trilogy, about the colonisation of the Red Planet, here tackles politics, anthropology, bureaucratic in-fighting, biology, the nature and practice of science, economics and… also manages to tell a rollicking story, that ends with a hurricane and flooding in Washington DC that is eerily like Hurricane Katrina (Robinson got their first, btw)

Putting aside a bizarrely inaccurate precis of the current state of atmospheric concentrations of C02 (page 143) there is much for anyone interested in climate science, politics and our collective future to chew on here.

A few quotes –

“… the minute details of the everyday grind involved in any particular bit of scientific practice can be tedious even to the practitioners. A lot of it, as with most work in this world, involves wasted time, false leads, dead ends, faulty equipment, dubious techniques, bad data, and a huge amount of detail work. Only when it is written up in a paper does it tell a tale of things going right, step by step, in meticulous and replicable detail, like a proof in Euclid. That stage is a highly artificial result of a long process of grinding.
Page 78

But tit-for-tat was not the perfect strategy, because it could spiral in either direction, good or bad, and the bad was an endless feud. Thus further trials had found successful variously revised versions of tit-for-tat, like ‘generous tit-for-tat’, in which you gave opponents one defection before turning on them, or ‘always-generous’, which in certain limited circumstances worked well. Or, the most powerful strategy Frank knew of, an irregularly generous tit-for-tat where you forgave defecting opponents once before turning on them, but only about a third of the time, and unpredictably, so you were not regularly taken advantage of by one of the less cooperative strategies, but could still pull out of a death spiral of tit-for-tat feuding if one should arise. Various versions of these ‘firm-but-fair’ irregular strategies appeared to be best if you were dealing with the same opponent over and over.
Page 112

But Frank had seen Stuart Thornton on panels before. He was the kind of scientist who habitually displayed an ultra-pure devotion to the scientific method, in the form of a relentless scepticism about everything. No study was designed tightly enough, no data were clean enough. To Frank it seemed obvious that it was really a kind of insecurity, party of the gestural set of a beta male convincing the group he was tough enough to be an alpha male, and maybe already was.
The problem with these gestures was that in science one’s intellectual power was like the muscle mass of an Australopithecus, there for all to see. You couldn’t fake it. No matter how much you ruffed your fur or exposed your teeth, in the end your intellectual strength was discernible in what you said and how insightful it was. Mere scepticism was like baring teeth; anyone could do it. For that reason Thornton was a bad choice for a panel, because while people could see his attitude and try to discount it, he set a tone that was hard to shake off. If there was an always-defector in the group, one had to be less generous oneself in order not to become a sap.
That was why Frank had invited him….
Page 123

The book in question is the first of a trilogy, and –  hands up – I’ve only read the first two. And I’ve spread that out over so long, I really have to go back and re-read the first two before tackling the final one. It will not be a chore, but a pleasure.

Marc Hudson

mcmonthly@gmail.com

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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