The Celebrated Sci-Fi Writer Kim Stanley Robinson Talks About His “Cli-Fi” Novel and Everything Under the Sun

by Maura Kelly

At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), Kim Stanley Robinson was asked what the world would look like in thirty years. Robinson is perhaps America’s most celebrated science fiction writer: The author of more than twenty books—including the international bestselling Mars trilogy, and more recently 2312, a New York Times bestseller nominated for all seven of the major science fiction awards (the first time any author has achieved such recognition)—Robinson was also given the Heinlein Award in 2016 for lifetime achievement in science fiction. But while many readers may equate science fiction with dystopian visions, Robinson’s work tends to reach beyond disaster scenarios—as in his masterpiece of a story, The Ministry for the Future, the unusual and unusually hopeful novel of ideas that got him invited to COP26 in the first place. In Scotland, the vision that he presented was once again optimistic: “Human accomplishment and solidarity” might ultimately win the day, he suggested. 

Robinson’s faith in progress and collective action accompanied him to Boston College on March 29th, where he delivered a mind-bogglingly comprehensive lecture to a hundred people packed into Gasson Hall. That night, as he discussed the climate crisis, geopolitics, the failures of neoliberalism, and just about everything else under the sun, the audience members sat forward in their seats so as not to miss a word; they may also have hoped to catch some of the personal warmth Robinson radiated throughout.  

Anyone who has read only the striking first chapter of The Ministry for the Future—named one of 2020’s best books by President Barack Obama—might be surprised to learn Robinson doesn’t anticipate complete planetary destruction. That chapter, set a few years from now—and much discussed among the chattering classes—opens on the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic Indian heat wave that leaves upwards of twenty million people dead. As Robinson told Slate, his opening was inspired not by pure imagination as much as some scientific articles he’d read, which described: 

the danger to human bodies of “wet-bulb 35” temperatures, that being an index ofhigh heat and high humidity in combination. High-enough combinations can befatal for people unprotected by air conditioning … Such heat waves [are] alreadyhappening, and [are] sure to become more frequent and more long-lasting.

In other words, the book’s massive mass-casualty incident is the kind of thing that we could begin to witness in our lifetime, if global warming continues apace. Indeed, two years after Robinson’s book was published, ninety people in India and Pakistan died due to extreme heat—a small number compared to the estimated 800 people who died in North America during the unprecedented heat that enveloped the Pacific Northwest in June 2021. 

Robinson’s heatwave setpiece unsettled more than a few members of the Schiller Institute book club, which had been discussing The Ministry for the Future in the run-up to Robinson’s arrival in Boston. “People either loved [the first chapter] or hated it,” says Kelly Gray, a book club participant and English PhD student whose focus is on the environmental humanities. “A lot of the conversation was about how depressing it was”—depressing because it was realistic. But that realism was actually part of the appeal of both the opening and the novel for Gray. “A lot of cli-fi—” i.e., climate fiction—”imagines climate change as the future to come in a very apocalyptic way,” she says. “The Ministry for the Future was more interested in climate change as an already apocalyptic situation, which enables a conversation on climate change more based in reality. I think there is hope in that way.” 

Another book club participant deeply impressed by the novel was Associate Professor of the Practice of Philosophy David Storey. The Ministry for the Future “was probably the most impressive thing I’d read on climate,” he says. “It takes the reader through a scenario of what the next few decades might look like and sketches, in story form, a technologically, economically, politically plausible scenario for how humanity might get its arms around the climate crisis. I’d never seen anything like that. It was a very philosophical novel and at the same time very grounded. It was extremely inspiring.” 

As it happened, Storey read the book shortly before attending COP26, where he was part of BC’s inaugural delegation there—dispatched by the college to gather fodder for climate courses and observe how the summit operates. In Glasgow, thanks to what Storey terms his “idiot savant facial recognition powers,” he spotted Robinson ahead of him in the lunchline. After Storey introduced himself, Robinson graciously invited him to have a longer conversation the following day—a meeting that the two men were forced to have while sitting cross-legged on the ground, after being unable to find any other available space at the crowded conference. The camaraderie they found on the floor led to Robinson’s visit to campus. 

Robinson’s talk at BC, like his novel, was grounded in fact-based projections and scientific research; studded with statistics figures and invisible footnotes. Among the papers he cited was an influential 2009 article—co-authored by a group of scientists that included ecologists, meteorologists, biologists, evolutionary historians, and more—about the so-called nine planetary boundaries or thresholds that humanity cannot cross without exposing itself to “non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental- to planetary-scale systems” that could well be cataclysmic. “We estimate that humanity has already transgressed three planetary boundaries: for climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, and changes to the global nitrogen cycle,” the authors noted. But though Robinson acknowledged the bad news in Gasson Hall—and slammed the neoliberal faith in the market, which he blames for putting us in the danger we’re now in—he also argued that, believe it or not, we’re in a sweet spot or a “Goldilocks zone” when it comes to the state of the celestial body we inhabit.“

Climate change was always the next generation’s problem, or someone else’s problem,” Robinson told the BC crowd. But all that passing the buck has changed of late, as increasingly fatal weather-related disasters—like wildfires, floods, and, yes, heat waves—dominate the news year-round. “We are now in the zone of realizing this is our problem.” He went on to say that although we don’t have much time left to act, we do at least have ”a decade or two before we’ve seriously endangered ourselves by way of runaway greenhouse effect.” 

What’s more, politicians and diplomats have recently taken a few big steps in the right direction, not least by agreeing to two landmark treaties, brokered by the United Nations: the so-called “30 by 30,” which aims to halt biodiversity loss by protecting thirty percent of the earth’s land as habitat for wild species by 2030 (thereby protecting human health and the food supply in the process); and the related High Seas Treaty—ten years in the making—which establishes a legal framework for governing and protecting sea waters that lie outside of the jurisdiction of any nation, with the goal of preserving oceanic ecosystems. 

Another high point Robinson cited was an agreement out of Capitol Hill last year: The eleventh-hour passage of the so-called Inflation Reduction Act (described by a New York Times columnist as “mainly a climate change bill with a side helping of health reform”). Though it provides tax credits for clean energy, Robinson was more excited about all the money the legislation will funnel into building out sources of renewable power—cash that will create jobs and fuel the economy. “Three hundred and eighty billion dollars will be spent on good climate work,” he said—an expenditure that will both help the economy and serve as an investment in national security. Robinson compared it to the one trillion dollars that the government hands over annually to the defense industry. He quoted John Maynard Keynes—“Anything we have to do, we can afford to do’”—before adding wryly, “It’s not good for business if the biosphere crashes.” 

A comment that book club member Gray made about the conclusion of Robinson’s novel could also apply to his effect on campus: Both ended “on a strangely hopeful point about finding community and reasons to connect to others.” The book itself was a reason for Gray: Though she’d been hoping to discuss it with her peers, it wasn’t until the Schiller Institute organized the discussion group that she found the opportunity she’d been looking for. She was delighted to “engage in an interdisciplinary conversation about this novel,” she says. “I love that I get to learn about the science of the novel from environmental scientists while also discussing the merits of the text from the environmental community’s perspective.” Professor Noah Snyder, the chair of the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department, enjoyed the group talks for a similar, if simpler, reason: “You don’t often get to read a book”—any book— “and discuss it with a group of academics.” And after a member of the audience asked Robinson, during a question-and-answer session following the lecture, if he could recommend any “bottom-up” ways to do something about climate change, Robinson pointed to Chapter 85 of The Ministry of the Future, which he said was essentially “a list of small groups around the world doing good for the environment. Wherever you live, you can put your shoulder to the wheel and someone already has a group you can join.” He added, “So yes: Let’s do it.”