Kim Stanley Robinson on inventing plausible utopias

Global pandemic. Raging wildfires. Political upheaval. Never-ending Zooms. Twenty-twenty is the dystopia Hollywood has always dreamed of, sans a satisfying narrative arc.

In times like these, nihilism beckons. Just give up, history seems to be saying. There’s nothing you can do. The best you can hope to for is to protect your own as you watch the world burn.

Fuck that.

Some novelists begin a new story by identifying a central theme, and then let the characters, plot, setting, tone, pace, and all the rest unspool from there. That’s never worked for me. Instead, theme is usually something I can identify only after the story is on the page. It’s the shadow cast by the narrative. And if there’s a single theme underlying every novel I’ve written, it’s that even in the face of tremendous complexity and overwhelming odds, agency matters.

Adversity isn’t an ending. There aren’t any endings. Adversity is a challenge. It’s a question to which our actions are the answer. It’s an invitation to find out who we really are.

That’s why I was so thrilled to read Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel. The Ministry for the Future follows the scientists, diplomats, and activists working across decades and continents to forge a future you might actually want to live in from the shattered remains of a civilization on the brink. Like Veil, the story kicks off with a deadly global heat wave that begets a controversial geoengineering scheme—a parallel that inspired a wonderful correspondence between Stan and myself—yet the books ultimately yield wildly different, though complementary, visions of tomorrow. I love so many things about The Ministry for the Future—its sprawling future history, its rigorous picture of institutional change, its structure of feeling, its cascading collisions of big ideas—but what resonates most deeply is that this is a book about and for practical, determined people working to make a messy, complicated world better.

In the following conversation, Stan and I discuss the creative process behind the novel, and in the subsequent exclusive excerpt, you can catch a glimpse of a future California en route to plausible utopia.

Read The Ministry for the Future. Then go build a better future.

What is The Ministry for the Future’s origin story? How did it go from the first glimmer of an idea to the book I’m holding in my hands right now?

I wanted to write a really near-future science fiction novel that described how human civilization might get through the tight spot we’re in now, to a good future. I wanted a utopian novel you could believe in, despite current dire circumstances and doubtful attitudes. I described this desire to my editor Tim Holman one time, and he thought it over and said to me, What about making it some kind of docudrama, like you see on TV? I said, But those are always crap! And he laughed and said, Think about the form, not the content. Think about the potential. I was dubious, but Tim has been a huge help to me ever since 2312, and as I continued to ponder it, slowly the shape for this one came together in my head. The form was crucial. As for the content, it’s just the same stuff we’re all reading about.

What is a “structure of feeling”? How would you describe the moment we’re living through?

The phrase comes from the English critic Raymond Williams. I think his point was that we have basic biological feelings just as animals, that are the same for all of us at all times, but in any given moment, for any individual, we interpret these basic animal feelings by way of language—we give the feelings names, and these come from a particular language and a culture too, and so they are different in different times and places and languages, and the differences can be seen later on as being quite significant. So each culture and moment has its own particular structure of feeling, based on their language and what’s happening in the world at that time.

Twenty-twenty will be remembered as the year of the pandemic. Lots changed, and now we have lots of questions too: When will things “go back to normal”? Will they ever go back to the way they were before? If there are some permanent changes from this year, what will they be? No one can say now. So the moment we’re living through now is a kind of interregnum, the space between two moments with their respective structures of feeling. The in-between can be acutely uncomfortable but also a space of freedom as old habits have ended but new ones not yet been settled. Proust called this the moment of exfoliation, when you shed one skin and grow another. It’s not comfortable, but it is interesting.

Also, it’s hard to destrand the pandemic from the election next month. The tension is palpable. What happens next month and through January will be critical to what happens after that. With luck 2021 will be a really interesting year, full of changes and adjustments in good directions. For now, it’s just very, very tense.

Why does the world need a ministry for the future? What does it mean—and what does it take—to reinvent our institutions?

Capitalism devalues the future, and thus cheats future generations who are not here to represent themselves or fight for their rights. It’s a multi-generational Ponzi scheme that we’re all involved in together. Those of us who want to get out of that and treat the future generations with the regard they deserve, need to create legal standing for future people and for the biosphere in general. Legal standing has been expanding over historical time, successively adding to the defined “legal human” first women, then children, and there’s no more slaves (except in indirect capitalist exploitative forms, of course) and so on—so there is precedent, to stick with this legal language, for expanding the definition of what deserves the protection of the law, and consideration in the present. And there are older traditions of care for the ancestors and descendants, as in the Iroquois’s consideration of the seven generations in each direction, and so on. Given the short-term and exploitative nature of the Ponzi scheme that is capitalism, there’s a need for institutions with legal standing to represent those who don’t yet have it, but need it. That was the thinking behind my Ministry in the novel, which I have originating as a standing subcommittee of the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement does allow for permanent standing subcommittees to be formed to address particular problems not yet addressed elsewhere in our system, so my Ministry is not very far from being something that could happen.

I think the pressure to adapt to reality will include international institutions, because it’s a global existential crisis. And new organizations and even types of organizations are being invented all the time. Now we need this one.

The Ministry for the Future is a sprawling epic that fractionally weaves together a sense of extent, scale, and history. What did writing this novel teach you about the art of fiction? How are you different for having written it?

I’ve always felt that the novel is a capacious form that can hold all kinds of disparate materials, but I’ve never acted on that feeling as much as I did this time. It became the form that expressed the content I had in mind, and when I discovered the form called the eyewitness account—that this is a genre with rules of its own—I realized I could write fictional eyewitness accounts and get the feeling I wanted. I’ve read terms like polyphony or heteroglossia to describe what the novel can do once it leaves the realm of a single narrative voice or style.

For me, once I got into the method for this one, it became more than ever a matter of channeling voices, so to speak. Trying to imagine the other, and seeing what happened. I’m pleased with how the book came out, but more worried than ever about our actual future. Lots of things are going to have to go right for anything as good as this particular future to come to pass. So maybe it’s made me more apprehensive.

How is the relationship between science and fiction changing? How does your work fit into, or how do you hope to contribute to, that evolving relationship?

I have the impression that the scientific community informed the world that climate change was happening and could be devastating, and expected that just telling other people would force change—this around 2000—but that didn’t happen, and so scientists have since then been searching for better or more persuasive ways to convey the warning. One of these is by telling stories about what can happen, so now science is perhaps more aware of fiction as a mode of conveying science itself. In that process my work has added to the demonstration that telling the story of science itself can make good stories, and new stories too. Science fiction is really, to my mind, fiction set in the future, and it doesn’t always have to be about science—in that sense, the name is a bit deceiving. But I think the idea behind the name was that science was going to make such an impact on the future that the two were in some senses the same. That’s not the case, but despite that, fiction about science and scientists in the future is one important wing of the larger genre of science fiction, and I’ve enjoyed trying to work in that wing.

You’ve said that we’re all living in a science-fiction story that we’re writing together. As a science-fiction writer, what lessons have you learned that might apply to everyone now faced with collectively drafting the future?

Good question.

First, no one can predict the future that will really come to pass, so don’t even try to do that.

Think of your postulated futures as hopes and fears, typically, with your hopes being utopian, your fears dystopian. Go ahead and imagine a lot of them, and see how you feel about them, and what you think is realistic in them, in terms of suggesting things you can do now to make a better future for yourself and everyone else.

Don’t get too impressed by any one technology or ideology—we all suffer from a bit of monocausotaxophilia, the love of single causes that explain everything, but reality isn’t really like that, so you have to take a lot of factors into account, and realize they will mix in unexpected ways in your head as in the world.

In that same spirit, give up on wanting to be pure. Stop believing in purity, and abjure the righteousness of that feeling, which so quickly becomes righteous indignation. These feelings are addictive brain drugs, but harmful to clear thought and action. We are mongrels on a mongrel planet, it’s all a mix always swirling together, so go with that and embrace difference and mixtures.

In politics, the front of good work is broad, so pick your special point of interest, but accept others have other points of special interest, and work in solidarity with them rather than arguing which point has priority.

Always try to imagine what other people’s motivations for their actions are—how do they justify what they do? This attempt can leave you mystified and even incredulous, but it’s helpful to try anyway.

These are all notions that have struck me while writing my novels, that also seem applicable to trying to conduct one’s life.

And now, an exclusive excerpt from The Ministry for the Future, courtesy of Hachette Book Group:

The California Forward meeting was an annual summit gathering for several score organizations. California, if it had been a nation, would now constitute the fifth biggest economy on Earth, and yet it also ran at carbon neutrality, having established strong policies early on. They were intent to continue that process, and obviously the people at the meeting felt what they were doing was a model other people could learn from. Mary was happy to be taught.

Esther introduced her to people from the State Water Board, the California Native Plant Society, the University of California’s clean energy group, also its water group; also the head of the department of fish and wildlife, the state’s biodiversity leader, and so on. Together a group of them walked her to a cable car terminus, and they all got on an open-sided cable car and rode it north to Fisherman’s Wharf. Mary was surprised, thinking these quaint cars, canting up and down steep hills like Swiss cable cars attached to slots in the streets, were for tourists only, but her hosts assured her that they were as fast as any other transport across the city, and the cleanest as well. Up and down, up and down, squealing and clanking in the open air, and again she got the sense of a place enjoying its own sublimity. In some ways it was the topological reverse of Zurich. The California Forward crowd, enthusiastic enough already, were now all bright-eyed and red-cheeked, as if on holiday.

From Fisherman’s Wharf they took a small water taxi to Sausalito, where a van drove them to a big warehouse. Inside this building the US Army Corps of Engineers had created a giant model of the California bay area and delta, a 3-D map with active water flows sloshing around on it. Here they could walk over the model landscape on low catwalks to see features better, and as they did that, the Californians told her and showed her how the northern half of the state was now functioning.

The state’s Mediterranean climate, they told her, meant warm dry summers and cool wet winters, nurturing an immense area of fertile farmland, both on the coastal plains and in the state’s great central valley. This central valley was really big, bigger than Ireland, bigger than the Netherlands. One of the chief breadbaskets of the world: but dry. Water had always been the weak link, and now climate change was making it worse. The entire state was now plumbed for water, they moved it around as needed; but when droughts came, there was not much to move. And droughts were coming more and more frequently. Also occasional deluges. Either too little or too much was the new pattern, alternating without warning, with droughts predominating. The upshot would be more forest fires, then more flash floods, and always the threat of the entire state going as dry as the Mojave desert.

Hydrologists pointed at the model below as they explained to Mary the water situation. Typically, the Sierra snowpack held about fifteen million acre-feet of water every spring, releasing it to reservoirs in a slow melt through the long dry summers. The dammed reservoirs in the foothills could hold about forty million acre-feet when full. Then the groundwater basin underneath the central valley could hold around a thousand million acre-feet; and that immense capacity might prove their salvation. In droughts they could pump up groundwater and put it to use; then during flood years they needed to replenish that underground reservoir, by capturing water on the land and not allowing it all to spew out the Golden Gate.

To help accomplish all this they had passed a law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which they called “Sigma.” In effect it had created a new commons, which was water itself, owned by all and managed together. Records were kept, prices were set, allotments were dispensed; parts of the state had been taken out of agricultural production. In drought years they pumped up groundwater, keeping close track, conserving all they could; in flood years they caught water in the valley and helped it to sink into the basin.

How they did this last part was a particular point of pride for them, as they had discovered that the central valley’s floor was variably permeable. Much of it was as hard as a parquet floor, as one of them put it, but they had located several “incised canyons,” created when powerful flows of melted ice had poured off the Sierra ice cap at the end of the last two or three ice ages. These canyons had subsequently filled with Sierra boulders and been slowly covered with dirt, so that they now looked just like the rest of the valley floor; but in fact, if water was trapped over them, they would serve as “gigantic French drains,” allowing water to sink into and through them, thus recharging the groundwater basin much faster than other areas would allow. So California’s state government had bought or otherwise claimed the land over these French drain areas, and built dams, dikes, levees, baffles, and channels to and fro, until now the entire valley was plumbed to direct heavy rainfall floods onto these old incised canyons, holding water there long enough for a lot of it to percolate down rather than run out to sea. Of course there were limits to how much they could retain, but now pretty good flood control was combined with a robust recharge capacity, so they could stock up in wet years and then pump again in the drought years that were sure to follow.

Good in itself; great, in fact. And not only that, this necessity to replumb the great valley for recharge had forced them to return a hefty percentage of the land to the kind of place it had been before Europeans arrived. The industrial agriculture of yesteryear had turned the valley into a giant factory floor, bereft of anything but products grown for sale; unsustainable, ugly, devastated, inhuman, and this in a place that had been called “the Serengeti of North America,” alive with millions of animals, including megafauna like tule elk and grizzly bear and mountain lion and wolves. All those animals had been exterminated along with their habitat, in the first settlers’ frenzied quest to use the valley purely for food production, a kind of secondary gold rush. Now the necessity of dealing with droughts and floods meant that big areas of the valley were restored, and the animals brought back, in a system of wilderness parks or habitat corridors, all running up into the foothills that ringed the central valley on all sides. These hills had always been wilder than the flat valley floor, and now they were being returned to native oak forests, which provided more shelter for wild creatures. Salmon runs had been reestablished, tule marshes filled the old dry lake beds; orchards were now grown that could live through periods of flooded land; rice terracing was also built to retain floodwater, and they had been planted with genetically engineered rice strains that could stay flooded longer than previous strains.

All these changes were part of an integrated system, including major urban and suburban retrofits. California’s first infrastructure had been very shoddy and stupid, they told Mary; cars and suburbs, plywood and profit—another secondary gold rush, which had repeated the ugliness of the first one. Recovering from that crazy rush, redesigning, restoring, rebuilding—all that was going to take another century at least. But they were already a carbon-neutral society of forty million people, headed to carbon negative; this was a work in progress, of course, and they were still grappling with equity issues, being tied to the rest of the world. But those too were being worked on, until it would finally be the Golden State at last.

All this they told Mary while looking down on the pretty model of the landscape filling the warehouse, as if from a small airplane or satellite. Like a three-dimensional quilt, it seemed to her, the Lilliputian valley floor a vivid patchwork of greens, bordered and criss-crossed by what looked like hedgerows but were actually miles-wide habitat corridors, reserved for wild animals. The surrounding foothills were pale blond, dotted densely with dark green forest copses.

“It looks great,” Mary said. “I hope we can do this everywhere.”

“Models always look good,” Esther said cheerfully. But she was proud of it—not just the model, but the state.

Complement with this excerpt exploring Veil‘s geoengineering scenario, imagining new institutions for the internet age, and these conversations with my favorite authors about craft, big ideas, and lessons learned. If you want to stay in touch, the best way to follow my writing is to subscribe to my newsletter.