Troy Reimink mug

Troy Reimink

Two of the biggest science-fiction adaptations of 2021 — the “Foundation” series on Apple TV+ and the forthcoming “Dune” film — have an interesting thing in common. They are set in distant futures in which humans have spread across the galaxy, and in both cases, autonomous robots have either been outlawed or eradicated.

Isaac Asimov (“Foundation”) and Frank Herbert (“Dune”) obviously are not the only sci-fi authors to consider artificial intelligence an existential threat to humanity. But in each of those fictional universes, the implication is that humankind could not move forward without collectively addressing what seemed like an urgent danger. In order for there to be a distant future, we need to make it through the near future.

So any piece of far-future fiction presumes humanity will have figured out how not to destroy itself with nuclear weapons, how to avoid huge asteroids and, more immediately, how to survive climate change.

The near-future part of that formula is dramatized in an ambitious piece of storytelling. But the renowned sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson has offered a mighty corrective with the novel “The Ministry For the Future,” a sprawling, engrossing and unnerving look at how the next phase of climate change might unfold, and how humanity might (or might not) rise to the challenge.

The first chapter of “The Ministry For the Future” might be the most upsetting passage of fiction I’ve ever encountered (and I’ve read a lot of Cormac McCarthy.) This is in part a horror story where the monster is revealed on the first page. It describes the experience of a lethal heat wave in India through the eyes of Frank May, an American aid worker, who watches as the people around him are essentially roasted alive by the sun.

“It was getting hotter,” the book begins, before describing a scenario that’s not only scarily plausible but now surely inevitable in many parts of the world: air like a sauna, broken electrical grid, scarce air conditioning, widespread hyperthermia and dehydration, desperation and helplessness across a population that slowly realizes no help is coming.

Each minute there’s another excruciating decision. Should Frank leave with his colleagues to find doctors or stay behind to offer what little firsthand help he can? Should he hoard enough bottled water to keep himself alive or give out tiny amounts to elderly neighbors who are probably doomed anyhow? Should he lead everyone to a nearby lake that might be cooler than the air but might also literally cook them?

“You did this,” a man says to Frank while stealing his generator at gunpoint. You, meaning America, Europe and China, whose carbon footprints have vastly exceeded those of nations on the disproportionate receiving end of climate-related emergencies. This is the opposite of a white-savior narrative.

The heat wave ends up killing 20 million people, enough to galvanize (or shame) the world’s economic powers into action. Frank, both radicalized and traumatized by his experience in India, dabbles in eco-terrorism and eventually collides with Mary Murphy, an Irish ex-politician tasked with leading the United Nations’ bureaucratic response, which is the titular Ministry For the Future.

Meanwhile, disasters keep happening, and desperate governments start pumping water out of glaciers to keep them in place, spraying sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to block sunlight and embarking on even more adventurous geoengineering projects.

More subversive forces start destroying fishing vessels, downing passenger flights and sabotaging the energy supply chain — events Robinson describes, chillingly, with the same bureaucratic detachment as the novel’s extensive policy debates. The implication is that a real effort to mitigate climate change should combine politics with more direct disruptions.

“The Ministry For the Future,” which was published in late 2020 and has generated significant word-of-mouth acclaim in the year since, is an improbably optimistic tribute to human achievement and the power of collective action directed toward a mortal threat. Here’s hoping the possibility of global cooperation isn’t the novel’s most far-fetched idea.

Troy Reimink is a west Michigan writer and musician.

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