“EVERYTHING is happening way faster than it happens in The Ministry for the Future,” says Kim Stanley Robinson of his latest novel, set in a world where an international agency is tasked with fighting for future generations on climate change. That vision was imagined mostly in 2018, which the US science fiction writer says now feels like “another geological age” because so much has happened, from Donald Trump’s election defeat to the covid-19 pandemic.
“Climate change seems to be the main topic on the table now, with all the storms, droughts, fires, freezings – the climate weirdness that has begun and looks like it will never cease in our lifetimes,” he says. Stanley Robinson – or Stan as he is often known – has repeatedly tackled climate change in his work, which is studded with heroic scientists and nods to scientific papers. His focus has increasingly moved beyond the problem of a rapidly warming world to what we should do about it. New York 2140, his 2017 novel, is a salutary warning of the risk of a drowned world if free market economics keep trumping the environment.
The Ministry for the Future hops from Switzerland to India and Antarctica as it mulls every climate fix imaginable, from the titular agency to legal and financial incentives, all the way to activists who are so desperate that they resort to extremism.
Real-world versions of the ministry, such as Wales’s future generations commissioner, have suffered from a lack of clout. Does Stanley Robinson think his fictional one would work in reality?
“It would be a great thing, but it wouldn’t be simple or in any way easy to incorporate, because we’re so present-orientated,” he says. Moreover, it would be no panacea. “People would love to have the idea of a single fix, one thing will make everything right,” he says. “That’s just not going to happen.”
Nor is he comfortable with the answer being violent extremism and illegal “black ops”, which some of the book’s characters resort to. “I’m sure that there’s going to be people around the world who are really angry in coming decades and they will commit violence hoping to make a better situation, calling it resistance,” he says. “I think it would be better if we managed to forestall that with legal reforms that are really fast.”
So where does hope lie? In top-down efforts such as international diplomacy, in grassroots local efforts by citizens and everything in between, says Stanley Robinson. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation. The idea of either/or, or one’s better, one’s worse, all that needs to be thrown over the side,” he says. It is for this reason that Stanley Robinson thinks research into geoengineering methods, such as temporarily reducing the amount of the sun’s energy reaching Earth, is worth pursuing. All that matters is what works and is fast, he says.
He is also clear that our economic systems need reform. “It’s one of the reasons we aren’t reacting faster [on climate] than we are, because we’re locked into an ineffective system,” he says.
Stanley Robinson thinks the “capacious” nature of novels makes the form good at tackling the subject of climate change. He says its two strengths are giving readers time travel – “you are suddenly in a different time and space and really living it” – and telepathy. “You are in someone else’s head,” he says. But there are limits. “You can only push a novel so far. I don’t even believe in futurism or futurology – I’m a novelist.”
Yet he follows new science more closely than most novelists. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report on the state of climate change science was “the ultimate in alarms going off”, he says. “The scientific community has been ringing that alarm since the late 90s. And the response has been slow and the resistance has been high.” But he fears the warning is being drowned by the noise of others, from pandemic disruption to “so-called political divides”, he says.
One of Stanley Robinson’s worries is a real-world equivalent of the deadly heatwave that opens his latest novel. “I fear that something like that is going to happen,” he says. He suspects such an event might topple a government but fail to affect global action. “The rest of the world will say, ‘oh, that’s what happens in the tropics’. We’re very good at ignoring stuff that happens elsewhere and saying ‘it can’t happen to me’.”
Stanley Robinson says he sees opportunity at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, UK, where he will give a speech. “My hopes are high COP26 will come up with something striking. Progress will be made.” He is also a big fan of US president Joe Biden. “He has been surprisingly good on climate. And I say this as a leftist.”
And what next? More climate change-themed novels are in the offing. Stanley Robinson has already written novels set in Antarctica, including The Ministry for the Future, and now he wants to head to the other pole. “I’m looking at the Arctic – can we keep an ice sheet over the Arctic? It’s so important,” he says. If the idea grows into a story, it will explore a melting Arctic’s impact on governance, ecology and culture, not to mention the global climate as the region’s reflectivity changes.
“You can only push a novel so far. I don’t believe in futurism or futurology – I’m a novelist”
Sixteen years ago, Stanley Robinson told New Scientist he liked novels with happy endings. Does he hope for one on climate change? “We could have a good 21st century, we could have a good dealing with climate change, we could have a good Anthropocene,” he says. “This is what I charge the young science fiction writers with: you have to write that story so people can imagine it in advance – and then try for it.”
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