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Turning up the heat

Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, Forty Signs of Rain, depicts U.S. society sleepwalking toward the abyss of global climate change, ALEXANDRA GILL writes

Tuesday, July 13, 2004 - Page R3

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VANCOUVER -- Ah, the dog days of summer have barely begun and already we are beset with the new realities of the season: droughts, forest fires, scorching heat waves and erratic windstorms.

It might be easy to blame careless smokers for some of the nearly 400 forest fires now raging through British Columbia, but eventually we will have to pull our heads out of the sand -- at least temporarily in Vancouver, where everyone is suddenly rushing around trying to install their first air conditioner.

Yes, the signs of environmental doom are all around us. And it's only going to get worse, says Kim Stanley Robinson, author of Forty Signs of Rain, a new science-fiction novel that depicts U.S. society sleepwalking toward the abyss of rapid climate change.

"In Canada you might think it's no big deal, you can grow wheat further north," says the self-described "leftie" from Davis, Calif., who has written 10 previous books, including the award-winning Mars trilogy. "But abrupt climate change could happen so fast, it would be devastating."

Robinson's earlier novels required a fertile imagination. In the trilogy Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars (published in the nineties), he wrote about scientists engineering the Red Planet into a habitable escape from Earth. For The Years of Rice and Salt, he created an alternative history, telling a tale of what might have happened if the plague had wiped out Europe, leaving the world dominated by China and Islam.

Forty Signs of Rain, on the other hand, is set in a very familiar near future, where the world is heating up and creating freakish weather conditions, including a rain storm that floods Washington.

"If the Gulf Stream goes, Europe will be like the Yukon," exclaims the mild-mannered 52-year-old, suddenly all hot and bothered. "They have 650 million people and they feed themselves more or less. It would be a major disaster."

Robinson's speculative plot is based on real scientific discoveries drilled out of Greenland's ice core. According to the data, it could take as little as three years for the Earth to slide into conditions ripe for a short-term ice age.

The trigger for such a change would involve a combination of factors centred around melting polar ice. With less ice, the sun's energy would be reflected away and more heat absorbed by the oceans, while the Earth stews in an atmosphere of greenhouse pollutants. The water from melting glaciers would form a surface layer of freshwater in the North Atlantic that could possibly stall the Gulf Stream, which helps moderate the climate of northern Europe.

"The entire global climate could change in three years," Robinson says. "It's like turning a light switch off."

Some might think his timing is perfect, with the book being published right on the heels of The Day After Tomorrow, the recent disaster flick that had environmental activists suddenly cuddling up with Hollywood. Robinson doesn't see it that way. Describing the film as a "nightmare," he hangs his head and sighs, "It was a really, really crappy movie.

"When I wrote my Mars books through the nineties, there must have been half a dozen crappy Mars movies and that was okay. It was just part of the Zeitgeist and it brought more attention to Mars and I think it probably helped me.

"In this case, I'm concerned. The filmmakers didn't trust the material. They don't just have climate change -- they have tornadoes and tidal waves and wolves in the streets. It's so stupid. It actually reduces the credibility of global warming. People leave the theatre thinking, 'Well that could never happen.' "

Forty Signs of Rain, the first volume of another trilogy, takes an entirely different emotional tack. While the looming crises in the book are certainly chilling -- the U.S. president's seeming indifference, for one -- this is not a thriller. It's more of a domestic novel.

The story revolves around the Quibler family. Anna Quibler is an almost frighteningly rational scientist working with the National Science Foundation, a government agency that disperses independent research grants. Charlie, her husband, is a Mr. Mom who becomes increasingly frustrated at having to juggle feedings with his part-time work as a senator's environmental adviser.

The couple befriend a group of Buddhists who are trying to save their island nation from drowning. Meanwhile, one of Anna's colleagues slowly gets over his obsession with animal behaviour and procreation to discover a young bio-mathematician who is working on a potential solution to global warming - if it can be recognized in time.

"One of the main things I'm trying to do with this book is to suggest to scientists that science itself is a kind of religious activity -- if you look at it right. You study the world, you pay close attention to it, you try to understand how it would work mathematically, and then you have to take that one more step: What's it all for?

"Science often tries to pretend it's only about itself and the rest of it is politics. But if you think the universe is sacred, then you've got to work to save it because if they let other people decide what science is for, it could be just for making money. And that's not good enough, not when we're wrecking the world the way we're wrecking it."

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