Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Ministry for the Future,” his 20th book, opens in 2025 when the United Nations forms a new climate-change committee in charge of advocating for the rights of future generations. Then a weeklong heat wave strikes India and kills 20 million people. Alarming yet optimistic, the novel is “a must-read for anyone worried about the future of the planet,” according to Publishers Weekly.
GROWING UP IN 1960s-ERA O.C.
I grew up when it was an agricultural space. It was orange groves and lemon groves and avocado groves, and there were really beautiful, gigantic eucalyptus windbreaks to stop the Santa Ana winds from knocking down the trees. Through my childhood and teenage years, 5 acres of trees per day, every day for 10 years, were torn out. I could see that. It was part of what turned me into a science fiction writer—just the feeling of fast change when cities replace country.
THE NOVEL’S TONE: HOPEFUL OR GRIM?
I was hoping to describe a best-case scenario that was still believable. It seems to me that we aren’t doing the right things yet, and getting on track to do the right things will be a wrenching experience. We’re in for a chaotic decade. If the forces in favor of the biosphere win, then we have a very good-looking prospect going forward. If the defenders of the biosphere lose, then we’re headed for a mass extinction event. So the stakes are really high.
WRITING DURING THE PANDEMIC
It made it easier than ever. Especially since my boys grew up, I basically just work every day. I stopped taking weekends off to be with family, and I just work seven days a week because I live in Davis and there’s nothing else to do. If I lived in Orange County, I would be bodysurfing in Newport Beach every day, and I would have half as many books. And with the pandemic, it killed my travel. Truly, I have one hour of exercise, one hour of gardening, and then I’ve got nothing. So I write.
STRUCTURING THE NOVEL
Because what I wanted to do was describe the next 30 years, globally, I had a problem on my hands immediately. It’s not what the novel typically does; it’s way more diffuse. So I needed a different (storytelling) method, and I began to hunt around for it. The crucial discovery for me was the eyewitness account. It’s a genre, and I read a dozen collections of eyewitness accounts: What was it like in spring 1945 in Germany or in the Armenian march out of Turkey? These are fascinating because people tell their stories differently than a novelist writes a scene. I started with the eyewitness accounts, and I started to think this novel is like what my mom used to say: “Take your castor oil.” You realize the novel is going to be about climate change and scraping through the next 30 years, and it sounds awful. What I realized was the fun in this book is the play of forms. When you start a chapter, what kind of thing are you going to be reading? So that was part of the game of it. It’s more fun for me to write it and for readers to read.