Kim Stanley Robinson on his next novel, The Ministry for the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson on his next novel, The Ministry for the Future
Image: Andrew Liptak 

Kim Stanley Robinson will publish his next novel in October: The Ministry for the Future. As with many of his recent novels, like New York 2140, 2312, or Aurora, his focus is firmly on the state of the Earth, and the effect that climate change has on human civilization.

Newsweek recently revealed the cover of the novel, and I chatted with him to learn a little more about what to expect from the book.

In the article, Robinson explains that the book will be set in the very near future: about 30 years from now, and that humanity is dealing with a mass extinction event.

“Since that balance doesn’t exist now, and getting to that balance isn’t what we’ve been prioritizing, and we don’t have a system for designing or enacting the changes necessary to get to that state, it’s bound to be a time of troubles. Science fiction isn’t exactly about prediction, but that one is an easy call.”

Your next novel is Ministry for the Future—what was the origin of this particular story?

I’ve been working for a while on stories having to do with climate change, and I wanted to try to get all the latest about it into one story. In discussion with my editor Tim Holman, I developed this way of going at it.

You’ve explored the impact of climate change in books like New York 2140 and 2312. How does The Ministry for the Future build off of those depictions, and the changes that we’ve seen in the real world?

I guess it’s a backward movement in time, to the very new future, like starting from now, and then describing the best next few decades I could believe in. This book and New York 2140 and 2312 are not from the same future history, but there’s a fair bit of congruence to the thinking.

In some ways I guess you could say that The Ministry for the Future is describing a new few decades that if enacted by the world community, would possibly dodge the bad parts of the futures I wrote about in New York 2140 and 2312. In all three books some people are trying to do things to get people into a better balance with Earth’s biosphere, but the earlier we start doing that in a big way, the less remediation and catching up we’ll have to do.

So the new book has the most intense focus on what we could do right now, and it plays off the creation of the Paris Agreement, which was a major event in world history.

What has you concerned the most in the real world about the impending changes that we’ll see in the next couple of decades?

Shortages, pandemics (easier to imagine now!), loss of political representation everywhere, habitat loss, extinctions. Heat waves.

All these bad events are all too possible, and since we’re living in a pandemic now, which we might be able to cope with successfully by a worldwide response that is many ways has been pretty successful, it might be easier now to imagine what a problem it would be to deal with more than one of these problems at the same time.

We’re already likely facing another fairly big economic recession this year, just from this; what would happen if at the same time this was going on, there were heat waves and food shortages? This is not at all unlikely.

The book is about a ministry tasked with helping mitigate the problem of climate change: what systems need to be put into place to avoid our collective short-term thinking?

Good question! Maybe a ministry for the future? By this I mean some kind of international treaty system that all countries sign on to in an enforceable way. I know there needs to be local efforts too, but there has to be a global aspect to it or it won’t be enough.

Given that this book was written long before the ongoing pandemic crisis, what lessons do you think we can learn from what we’re going through now as we face more crisis in the future?

We’re seeing that people will cooperate for the common good when they’re scared for their lives. We’re seeing that fiscal policy can change drastically to respond to a crisis. It will be interesting to see if we can apply these lessons to the climate problem.

There is enormous pressure from many different directions to return to the old normal, and as quickly as possible. To a certain extent, there won’t be any real physical constraints to that return, and many jobs, and more importantly, profit itself in the world of capital, will depend on that.

But if we just return to normal, we’ll see more of these problems cropping up. It will be really important to pay attention to what happened here and try to learn from it to make improvements in how civilization fits into and supports a healthy biosphere. Hopefully the shock of this will keep people from being complacent. We’ll see.

You told Newsweek that you created “one of the blackest utopias ever written.” Are you optimistic for our future?

Optimism and pessimism are irrelevant really. Now matter how we feel personally, the necessary things have to be done. It’s a moral and political position to declare optimism as a policy and beat people with it till they do the right thing—so to speak.