I Can’t Stop Thinking About the First Chapter of This Climate Change Novel
A conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson about The Ministry for the Future and this summer’s extreme heat.
BY REBECCA ONIONAUG 16, 20215:47 AM
On Tuesday, Aug. 31, at noon Eastern, Future Tense will host an online event to discuss stories about human thriving in more just, sustainable communities and societies, featuring author Kim Stanley Robinson. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
“I feel like my circles have divided between those who’ve read the opening chapter of The Ministry for the Future and those who haven’t,” wrote novelist Monica Byrne on Twitter earlier this month. This book, by beloved science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, came out in 2020, and has haunted my summer in 2021. Ministry opens in a small city in Uttar Pradesh, India, where the character Frank May, an American who works for an unidentified NGO, just barely survives an extreme heat wave that kills millions of people in the country. This opening is so viscerally upsetting that, for days after reading it, I worried at it in my mind, turning it over, trying—and failing—to get it to go away.
“It was getting hotter,” the novel begins, before unfolding like a terrible, claustrophobic dream, over the course of a very hot and humid day, following a stretch of many. In the morning, Frank hears cries rising from the city’s rooftops, as people who’ve tried to grab some nonexistent cool night air by sleeping outside wake up to find old, sick, or young family members dead. Then, the electricity goes off, and the trouble really starts. Frank tries to help some people by bringing them into a clinic with one A/C window unit run by a generator; even in this building that’s been cooled down a bit, an old man dies, followed by a baby. Then, armed men steal the clinic’s generator and A/C unit. Leaving the scene, one of them points a gun at Frank and says, “You”—Westerners—“did this.”
Desperate, Frank and his little group go to the town’s lake, though it’s too warm to provide relief, and get in, alongside everyone else in the town. Some sit in the shallows; others drift on “impromptu rafts of one sort or another.” People die throughout the night, but everyone else, too heat-stressed to cry for them, can only muster the strength to push their bodies away, into the middle of the lake. When Frank wakes up, at the end of this terrible night, his body is wrecked: “He had been poached, slow-boiled, he was a cooked thing.” Everybody else is dead.
The rest of the book is a long thought experiment about how humanity might muddle its way through climate catastrophe. Reviewing the novel for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Gerry Canavan described the approach as “John Dos Passos–inspired polyperspectival writing,” a pastiche of “traditional narrative with other prose forms” like news reports, meeting minutes, prose poems, and more. Through it all, the human arc of the character Frank May serves as a vital anchor. May experiences intense, disabling PTSD and survivor’s guilt, not least because he suspects he may have gotten through that terrible night because he concealed a stash of water from others around him, sipping from it when people weren’t looking. This act of resource-hoarding haunts him, and he becomes a catalyzing force in the global fight to decarbonize.
Recently, as we absorbed the latest awful Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and the Pacific Northwest and New England faced yet another hot stretch, I emailed with Robinson about this first chapter.
Rebecca Onion: This opening brutalized me. (And I know I’m not alone.) I read it without any preparation—I hadn’t been warned—and it gave me insomnia, dominated my thoughts, and led me to put the book down for a few months. Then I picked it back up and found that the remainder of it is actually quite optimistic, for a book about a rolling series of disasters! What were you aiming for, when it comes to readerly emotional response, in starting the book this way?
Kim Stanley Robinson: I wanted pretty much the response you described. Fiction can put people through powerful imaginative experiences; it generates real feelings. So I knew the opening scene would be hard to read, and it was hard to write. It wasn’t a casual decision to try it. I felt that this kind of catastrophe is all too likely to happen in the near future. That prospect frightens me, and I wanted people to understand the danger.
The book contains several other first-person vignettes about human experiences inside climate-caused disasters: a chapter voiced by a woman who sees LA engulfed by floods; chapters set in refugee camps; and so on. Why did you choose a heat wave to be the setting of the opening of the book? Did you consider any alternate ideas for the type of disaster Frank experiences?
No, the first scene came to me first, and was the origin of the novel. I didn’t consider any alternative beginnings.
In 2018, I read some articles in the scientific literature describing the danger to human bodies of “wet-bulb 35” temperatures, that being an index of high heat and high humidity in combination. High-enough combinations can be fatal for people unprotected by air conditioning, which isn’t always available. Such heat waves were already happening, and were sure to become more frequent and more long-lasting.
This finding put new urgency into humanity’s need to decarbonize as fast as possible. People arguing that we could just adapt to any rise in global average temperature had missed a crucial fact. To me this news seemed like something that needed to be pointed out in a vivid way. Thus the beginning of my book.
I think one reason the opening was so effective for me was the physicality of it. The people in the heat wave are badgered by the sun in a way that most people only ever have to experience occasionally and intermittently, before getting some kind of relief. How did you choose which physical details to include?
I don’t experience writing a scene as a matter of choices, to tell the truth. I get an idea, I try to write it in a kind of flow state. Like living it in slow motion, but as fast as I can type. First draft is a quick notation of how it seems to me it would be to live it. After that I do lots of revision, but often, especially as I get older, it’s a question of going with the flow and seeing what happens. Afterward I’m often surprised, in that I don’t remember how it happened.
Of course, this one was different because of its content. My memories were of limited help. I grew up in Southern California, a Mediterranean climate, very comfortable—one of the most human-friendly climates on Earth, even though it can get very hot. But it’s a dry heat that isn’t very uncomfortable. Later I spent a couple of summers on the Florida coast near Pensacola, and I lived for four years in D.C. Those could be very hot and humid places. So was a village in Nepal’s lowlands that I once visited. So I had some experiences to recall, but mostly imagining a scene like that one comes down to asking oneself, “What would it be like?” Saunas might be an analogy, and like my character Frank, I don’t like being in saunas. It was suggestive.
You can hear “high heat and high humidity are dangerous” explained scientifically, but you always kind of assume (as, I suppose, a privileged Westerner!) that “people can go into a government building with air conditioning, if that happens.” The chapter brings home the foolishness of that assumption. You picked a Western character to experience this horrible heat, and I’m presuming that’s on purpose, since part of his experience in this chapter was about letting go of the idea that help would obviously have to come, to this many people in this awful of a situation. He comes out of it traumatized and desiring more—desiring direct action.
Frank’s transformation, and some other stretches of the book where characters point out how difficult it is to convince people of the danger of climate disaster, left me wondering: What in the world can we possibly do to help ourselves truly absorb the scale of suffering that these kinds of events are causing, and the danger they pose—short of going through one ourselves? Or is dwelling on our inability to do that actually counterproductive—like, “Enough thinking, already! Just do!”
More and more people understand the serious dangers of climate change, also biosphere collapse. And the pandemic was a big shock, not just a story or a theory, but the global reality for the last year and a half.
What will it take to turn that growing realization of existential danger into effective change? I wonder that myself. It seems to me it’s not a question with one answer. Some will experience climate trauma, and change. But many more people will have to change in response to their own awareness and foreknowledge. That’s indirect, but what we know can create very strong feelings in us.
Of course there will be a pressing need to create political majorities that will push using our current imperfect system in effective ways to solve these problems as fast as we can. The need is urgent, and there are lots of good ideas and motivated people. It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation.