Forty Signs of Rain, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Books, 358 pp, $37, hardcover.

If one were asked to choose the adjectival phrase that best describes the literary qualities of Kim Stanley Robinson, it would have to be no-nonsense. Both thematically and stylistically, this contemporary master of science fiction imposes an almost naturalistic rigour on his futuristic speculations. This explains why, in his much-honoured Mars trilogy, the author posited a red planet that was initially even deader than contemporary science suggested. (Although to be fair, Robinson did try to atone for this geographical overkill with The Martians, a volume in which recent hints of extraterrestrial molecular life were finally given their due.)

Forty Signs of Rain, the first installment in his latest trilogy (this one pivoting on the perils of global warming), remains true to form. Most of the major characters are boffins living middle-class lifestyles, and everything they say or do rings with the bone-spare authenticity of a lab report. Robinson clearly knows this world as intimately as any teenager knows the ins and outs of the local mall.

At the centre of the action stands the Quibler family. Charlie is a stay-at-home dad who must convince Congress that something needs to be done about global warming right fucking now. His wife, Anna, meanwhile, must navigate the shoals of Washington's National Science Foundation, where loyalty usually lasts as long as the funding holds out.

As the summer grows ever hotter, their arguments gain added force.

Unlike most volumes in science-fiction trilogies, Forty Signs of Rain doesn't even pretend to be a novel unto itself. Thus, the climactic shit doesn't really start hitting the fan until the reader is six-sevenths of the way through the book. All that has gone before is essentially setup for the next two volumes, introducing us to a large number of characters, including the staff of an obscure Buddhist embassy.

Robinson makes no apologies for this; it's part of his unromantic approach, as is the following blood-chilling quote: "Many of those walking by went to church on Sundays, believed in God, voted Republican, spent their time shopping and watching TV. Obviously nice people. The World was doomed."

To be continued (we hope)...