Thirteen months ago I first became aware of this author and this book. Four months ago Robinson showed up on my radar again. I still had not made time for his book. And two weeks ago, another reminder of how my time has and has not been employed, this time posed as a question: Can Science Fiction Wake Us Up to Our Climate Reality? I already feel quite awake to that reality, but the question is still of considerable interest.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels envision the dire problems of the future—but also their solutions.
Last summer, the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson went on a backpacking trip with some friends. They headed into the High Sierra, hiking toward Deadman Canyon—a fifty-mile walk through challenging terrain. Now sixty-nine, Robinson has been hiking and camping in the Sierras for half a century. At home, in Davis, California, he tracks his explorations on a wall-mounted map, its topography thick with ink. He is a devotee of the “ultralight” approach to backpacking and prefers to travel without water, instead gathering it along the way, from lakes and streams. Arriving at the canyon, with its broad, verdant floor cradled in smooth slopes of granite, he planned to fill his bottles with meltwater from the seven glaciers buried in its headwall.
But as the group hiked they found no water. Streams that had once carved elegant oxbows in the canyon floor were now dusty lacerations. Perhaps because of the altitude, one of Robinson’s friends was feeling ill, and the others worried about how he would fare if they had to make a dry camp that night. Eventually, they found a rivulet of water. After his companions replenished their supply, Robinson hiked ahead, tracing the water uphill. He discovered that six of the seven glaciers had melted away completely. This was a new development, not recorded on any map. Only one corner of one glacier remained—a canted block of ice the size of two Olympic swimming pools. “It was the smallest living glacier that you could possibly imagine,” Robinson told me. He broke off a tiny chunk and carried it back to camp for the hikers to use in their Scotch. “It was like a goodbye,” he said. “Like going to a hospice visit.” Recalling the moment, he shivered.
Many of Robinson’s twenty-one science-fiction novels are ecological in theme, and this coming summer he will publish “The High Sierra: A Love Story,” a memoir that is also a rich geological and cultural history of the range. After returning from Deadman, he updated the manuscript to include the vanished glaciers. He told me about them a couple of weeks later, while we were driving through California, toward our own backpacking trip in the Sierras. Tan and trim, with silver hair and wire-rim eyeglasses, Robinson rode in the back seat of the car, looking out at wildfire smoke. The night before, he’d outfitted me with some of his own minimalist backpacking gear; while he’d assembled it, I’d wandered around his house, inspecting his library. Walls of shelves contained British literature, American literature, and science fiction. Other areas were organized by subject (Antarctica, Mars, economics, prehistory, Thoreau). Shelves were dedicated to volumes about Galileo, which Robinson had read while writing “Galileo’s Dream,” a highly detailed historical novel, published in 2009. Mario Biagioli, a historian of science and a Galileo expert who’d helped Robinson with the research, was the third member of our backpacking party; an accomplished giant-slalom skier, endurance cyclist, and transatlantic sailor, he drove us expertly, hugging the curves.
Robinson is often called one of the best living science-fiction writers. He is unique in the degree to which his books envision moral, not merely technological, progress. Their protagonists are often diplomats, scholars, and scientists who fight to keep their future societies from repeating our mistakes. Robinson’s plots turn on international treaties or postcapitalist financial systems. His now classic “Mars” trilogy, published in the nineteen-nineties, describes the terraforming of the Red Planet by scientists seeking to create a “permaculture,” or truly sustainable way of life. A typical Robinson novel ends with an academic conference at which researchers propose ideas for improving civilization. He believes that scholarly and diplomatic meetings are among our species’s highest achievements.
Climate change has long figured in Robinson’s plots. “Antarctica,” a novel from 1997, revolves around glaciologists at a fictional version of McMurdo Station, the principal U.S. outpost in Antarctica. (Robinson researched the book there, exploring ice cathedrals and helping to take the first G.P.S. reading of the South Pole.) In the two-thousands, climate started to become his central subject; his wonky brand of sci-fi turned out to be well suited to a reality in which the future depends on fast, unlikely, and coördinated global reform. “Science in the Capital,” a trilogy of novels published between 2004 and 2007, follows administrators at the National Science Foundation as they fight climate change through grants; “New York 2140,” from 2017, is set in a Venice-like Big Apple and explores efforts to reform the financial system on ecological grounds. With each book, Robinson has revised his deeply researched climate-change scenario, focussing not just on environmental havoc but on solutions that might stop it.
His most recent novel, “The Ministry for the Future,” published in October, 2020, during the second wave of the pandemic, centers on the work of a fictional U.N. agency charged with solving climate change. The book combines science, politics, and economics to present a credible best-case scenario for the next few decades. It’s simultaneously heartening and harrowing. By the end of the story, it’s 2053, and carbon levels in the atmosphere have begun to decline. Yet hundreds of millions of people have died or been displaced. Coastlines have been drowned and landscapes have burned. Economies have been disrupted, refugees have flooded the temperate latitudes, and ecoterrorists from stricken countries have launched campaigns of climate revenge. The controversial practice of geoengineering—including the spraying of chemicals into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight—has bought us time to decarbonize our way of life, and “carbon quantitative easing,” undertaken on a vast scale, has paid for the redesign of our infrastructure. But it’s all haphazard. We just barely escape the worst climate catastrophes, through grudging adjustments that we are forced to make. The rushed, necessary work of responding to the climate crisis defines and, for some, elevates, the twenty-first century.
I’m a longtime reader of Robinson’s, but “The Ministry for the Future” struck me with special force. For decades, I’d worried about climate change in the usual abstract way. Then I had a son, and read David Wallace-Wells’s “The Uninhabitable Earth”—a terrifying survey of worst-case climate scenarios—and grew so alarmed that thinking about the problem became almost unbearable. I live on the North Shore of Long Island, close to the beach, in a village that already seems to be flooding. What did the future hold for my town, and my family? What would my son live through? We have put a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, and so a great deal of what is coming to us is now inevitable; as a species, we are moving into a prefab house. And yet its parts lie scattered, unassembled—we can’t quite picture the home in which we’ll live…
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