Kim Stanley Robinson Bears Witness to Our Climate Futures

Kim Stanley Robinson Bears Witness to Our Climate Futures

Kim Stanley Robinson Bears Witness to Our Climate Futures

A conversation with the acclaimed sci-fi novelist about the climate crisis, activism, utopia, and his new novel, The Ministry for the Future.


In his latest book, The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson presents a vision of the coming decades that straddles dystopia and utopia, horror and hope—revealing a near-future Earth of increasingly severe climate effects and humanity’s radical responses to them. Robinson constructs this ambitious bricolage novel from fictionalized eyewitness accounts, including those of climate refugees, interweaving them with essayistic ruminations on finance, power, and the environment. It’s an appropriately sprawling form, anchored around reports by members of a UN organization called the Ministry for the Future, a technocratic body created to safeguard future generations. Mary Murphy, its head and the book’s central protagonist, carries the weight of the novel as an idealistic presence confronting a fast-approaching catastrophe.

With exacting detail, Robinson not only evokes conditions of extreme heat, socioeconomic turmoil, and other grim events but synthesizes a vast amount of scientific, economic, and social research to explore solutions that can enable rapid decarbonization. At times, this is central to the book’s plot, as in the wildlife-filled habitats based on biologist E.O. Wilson’s “half-earth” thesis. At others, remedies are presented in fleeting stand-alone chapters; Spanish worker-owned cooperative Mondragon is showcased as an alternative model to capitalism. Elsewhere, the novel’s warming skies are filled with solar aerosols and zeppelin-like airships, while “invisible revolutions”—legal, technological, and otherwise—exercise less conspicuous but no less profound effects on life. The result is arguably Robinson’s most urgent novel yet: a road map to avoiding worst case scenarios and a clear-eyed call to action.

I spoke to the author while he was residing on an island just off the coast of Maine, what he calls a “giant knob of granite” with trails, peaks, and a thriving wildlife community, including muskrat, river otter, and mink. It is, he says, a far cry from his California home in the central valley, a once teeming landscape that now resembles an “industrial factory floor for making food.” Over the course of our conversation, we discussed the effects of rising temperatures, the work involved in achieving meaningful change, and the importance of extending solidarity to nonhuman beings.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

—Lewis Gordon

Lewis Gordon: Ministry for the Future begins with a deadly heat wave in India. I started reading the book during a weekend of extreme heat in London. The air was dense and oppressive. I could smell melting plastic and rubber; ultimately, the horror you were describing felt closer than ever. How did it feel writing that passage?

Kim Stanley Robinson: It was a terrible, dreadful experience. I’m fearful that something like this will occur pretty soon with increases in wet-bulb temperatures. I think India in particular is in danger, and I wanted the country to be an important part of the novel. After I finished the book, an article appeared in the scientific literature with findings that we were hitting these temperatures increasingly frequently, with a sense that this will continue.

LG: The dread is palpable, and America itself has been subjected to extreme heat this past summer. What has your experience been, either in 2020 or in recent years?

KSR: In California, we’ve had days of 110 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’s a dry heat. Really, it’s the wet-bulb temperature, which I’ve only experienced for a few days, long ago in Florida. But everybody gets air-conditioning, and if your air-conditioning is working, then you become an indoor creature. The problem is solved through mechanical means.

LG: In a 2018 essay for Commune, you describe the idea of dystopia as “perhaps lazy,” “fashionable,” “even complacent. Bearing in mind that the book is set only a few years in the future, do you consider the opening dystopian, or is it something else?

KSR: I think it fits the definition of dystopia quite well. But even in that essay, I hope I made it clear that dystopia and utopia are a dialectical pair which can’t be pulled apart. In the context of Ministry for the Future, we’re teetering on the brink of a dystopia I wanted to slap people with. Nothing’s fixed forever; it’s only in novels where you have these purified essences of historical situations. In fact, it’s going to be a complete mix from now on. I wanted the book to suggest that even if we get dystopian moments, and we’re on the cusp of utter catastrophe and a mass extinction event, we can still pull ourselves out of it by concerted political and social actions.

LG: The book’s structure, initially at least, is disorienting. You’ve described it as an attempt to get all the latest climate change developments into one story. How did the form coalesce?

KSR: Tim Holman has a big part to play in this. He’s been the most marvelous editor, stimulating and encouraging me once I start running with ideas, some of which he’s even planted in my head. Like my 2017 novel, New York 2140, the idea of making it an apartment novel, so to speak, was his, as was setting it in New York when I wanted to discuss global finance. For Ministry for the Future, he suggested the form of a docudrama. I certainly wanted the international scope, I wanted to talk about everything, and I wanted to provide polemical explanations for why things are happening the way they are and how they might change.

So I took his idea, and it was confusing and troublesome until I realized that the eyewitness account is a genre of its own. The eyewitnesses tell you things—they don’t show you things—and it removes itself from the usual rules of fiction. What you get is an enormous amount of compression, and a kind of slashing move towards significance. There are judgments rendered by the eyewitness of what things mean, and often it’s retrospective, even by decades. When I realized I could make up eyewitness accounts, that was the key.

LG: There’s a big emphasis on work and laboring in your novels. Ministry for the Future is about the sheer labor involved in decarbonization, while Red Mars describes in forensic detail the process of establishing a colony. Both feel utopian. In that same Commune essay, you wrote, “Maybe we should just give up entirely on optimism or pessimism—we have to do this work no matter how we feel about it.” Do you think work is an overlooked component of utopia?

KSR: Maybe so. There might be a folk understanding of utopia that relates it back to the Land of Cockaigne and other pre–Thomas More yearnings where you don’t have to work like a farm animal all your life in order to stay fed. In that context, utopia suggests that things would run so well that work would be voluntary, shared, or done by machines. I think the right to work, the dignity to work, and the idea that it’s actually bad not to have work is a post-Marx or 20th century development.

The bourgeois novel is famous for not being able to write about work because it’s too boring. The story of work is the repetition of things that ultimately go right, and only when things go wrong do you have a plot. The novel isn’t well suited to describe the repetition and the interests of work per se. In Red Mars, the idea of building a town has drama to it because it’s on an inhospitable new planet; the work can be described and be of interest as a plot. In Ministry for the Future, the work is everybody shifting their lives to decarbonization, and the technocracy of the ministry itself as a form of work. We’re all working on the project, part of the machine.

LG: Do you think the coronavirus has changed our conception of work?

KSR: One thing I see for sure: My son works in a grocery store and is therefore categorized as an essential worker. He gets a bit of hazard pay because he’s exposed. All of the people who are doing the jobs that keep us going, that are treated as cogs in a machine at minimum wage, our perspective on them has changed. The people doing essential work don’t even get paid enough to live properly; the discrepancy is so stark. If people have to do their own work, or everybody has to get a living wage, the ultimate upshot of that is a form of post-capitalism. Getting to that from where we are now will require some real organization and political guts. It will be a wicked fight.

LG: On that note, protest and civil unrest occur repeatedly in Ministry for the Future. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter protests this year.

KSR: I was surprised and impressed at the intensity, and also at how many suburban white people were joining these protests. I think the sheer awfulness of the murder of George Floyd was a flashpoint. The video brought home something everybody knew but had never had thrust into their eyeballs so horrifically before. There had been discussion but never this sense of travesty. And so, getting real change going forwards out of that moment. I’ve been very interested in the scientific literature that [shows] demonstrations are parties; they’re easy, and then they go away. You feel you’ve expressed your sense of righteous indignation, you’ve done something that’s physical, you’ve been reassured, and then everything goes back to normal.

And the actual work of political change has to do with incredibly tedious and meticulous attending of school board meetings and town council meetings, staying engaged as a citizen, and doing something that feels like a waste of one’s hours that is not very fun. It goes on and on, and you don’t see the changes for years, if ever. This kind of work is hard to stick with. Donna Haraway calls this “staying with the trouble“—and staying with the trouble is hard. Doing that at the University of California, Davis, over a decade ago fighting a land battle, I realized that there are things that are both boring and interesting at the same time. It’s very important to recognize that you’re bored, it’s stupid, but it’s also more interesting than watching your screen at home, even though it’s like slow-motion bad reality TV.

LG: In an interview with the New Statesman last year, you said that “trying to imagine how we redirect the immense inertia of our current system gets quite frightening.” Ministry for the Future does precisely that, particularly with regard to the banking sector, which is reoriented toward environmental and social good through a carbon coin system. How optimistic are you that a change such as this can occur?

KSR: I would reject optimism or pessimism, but this is not my idea. I’ve been reading it in the literature, and it struck me as a plausible mechanism. If you strip it down, capital only really goes for profit, and saving the biosphere is not a profitable exercise, therefore, by straightforward syllogism, we’re doomed. So how can you change that without some highly hypothetical overthrow of the entire system? The central banks have been creating money out of nothing with quantitative easing, but what if that was directed not to private banks to do their usual stupid thing of profit-making but to do useful work that the central banks designate by some simple rubric of carbon sequestration. When I read it, I thought, maybe that’s a way forward: using an existing system but more intelligently, a long-term biosphere, survivalist-type method.

These are not very responsive institutions, except to one thing, which is to control the inflation and deflation rates. What struck me as funny for Ministry for the Future was the idea that in order to keep their money stable, they would have to save the world, and that still strikes me as funny, and not at all implausible. Another thing that kept coming back to me when I was writing the book was how these ideas sound utopian crazy. We have that hegemonic response in our heads—an imitation of common sense—that says, “Well, that couldn’t happen.” And then something radical happens in real history to show the perceived solidity of the system.

LG: You’ll likely have a better perspective on this than me, but it feels as if left-wing thought is beginning to incorporate animals, nature, nonhumans, into a political ideology or worldview where perhaps it was lacking. The coronavirus, in particular, has highlighted the dangers of nonhuman exploitation and its relationship with the spread of zoonotic diseases. What’s your perception of this development within leftist thinking?

KSR: For a long time, it’s been a very vexed topic for me. I’d say that there was a split on the left between environmentalists and human-centric leftists. The one side seemed to regard nature as just the raw material for humans, and that was incredibly anthropocentric, and the other was often accused of being a bourgeois ideology of people comfortable enough to worry about the natural world and the whales. So, on that divide I was always a green, but it seemed to me as a leftist, the two were the same. People talk about the European greens having red roots or there’s watermelon people who are green on the outside but red on the inside. This is to create a distinction that is just a bad split of two forms of anti-capitalism. And when you regard nature as our extended bodies, the first biosphere is the human being. For either to thrive, both have to thrive. Certainly for humans to thrive, the biosphere has to thrive.

Regarding the moral standing of animals, through historical time, and this is a leftist thing, we’ve extended rights outward to more and more people. Then there’s a divide where—and this comes through animal rights starting in the 18th century—if rights go from men to women to children, there are no more slaves. Slowly but surely the idea of personhood expands out. One more step and you get things like Ecuador’s Constitution, where the forest has rights and the personhood of wild animals. We’re in a mass extinction event; it’s dreadful. This needs to be integrated into any leftist program, the idea that animals are citizens too, wild and domestic.

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