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How to give the climate story a happy ending

Spoiler alert: Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest science-fiction novel about a coming climate catastrophe, “The Ministry for the Future,” doesn’t end with the collapse of civilization.

Millions of people die. Millions more become climate refugees. And the crisis sparks terrorist acts, against those who are working for change as well as against those who are defending the status quo.

But by the end of the book, there’s hope that humanity will actually be able to keep things from spinning out of control. And that’s in line with what Robinson has come to believe in the process of writing “The Ministry for the Future.”

“We could either crash the biosphere, and thus civilization, or we could actually create a really high-functioning and prosperous permaculture, a sustainable and just civilization on the planet in the biosphere,” he says. “Both the utter disaster and the quite great, semi-utopian historical moment are available to us.”

Robinson talks about “The Ministry for the Future,” and the real-world technological initiatives on which his tale is based, in the latest episode of our Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.

You can hear the entire 46-minute discussion, moderated by science-fiction author Dominica Phetteplace and myself,  via your favorite podcast channel, whether that’s Anchor, Apple, Spotify, GoogleBreaker, Overcast, Pocket Casts or RadioPublic.

Robinson writes meticulously researched “hard” science fiction — that is, stories that rely on plausible physics and engineering rather than flights of fancy such as magic, mind-reading or faster-than-light travel. He’s best known for his Mars Trilogy, a sweeping saga about the settlement of the Red Planet, but the same approach applies to novels such as “Aurora” (about multigenerational interstellar exploration) and “Red Moon” (a murder mystery set in China and on the moon) and “2312” (a thriller that spans the solar system).

The book that’s most like “The Ministry for the Future” is Robinson’s “New York 2140,” which is set in a future version of the Big Apple that’s been inundated due to rising sea levels. “Ministry” follows a different timeline that’s closer to the present day.

The ministry in the title is a sub-agency that’s set up in 2025 as an outgrowth of U.N. climate accords. Soon after the founding of the Zurich-based ministry, a heat wave in South Asia kills millions of people. The ensuing story focuses on Mary Murphy, the Irish-born head of the ministry, as well as Frank May, an American aid worker who survives the heat wave.

“Mary and Frank have a bad meeting,” Robinson said. “This is absolutely not the Hollywood ‘cute meet.’ ”

Kim Stanley Robinson is the author of “The Ministry for the Future.” (Sean Curtin Photo)

Although Mary and Frank are the central characters of the narrative, the tale is also driven forward by eyewitness accounts from those caught up in the crisis.

It could be argued that the main drivers of the overarching plot are the technologies employed to adapt to Earth’s changing climate.

Many of those technologies are ripped from the headlines of geoengineering research: for example, injecting aerosols into the stratosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight hitting Earth’s surface, or adding reflective dyes or microspheres to Arctic waters to keep polar ice from melting.

Robinson said he picked up one idea for the book from a glaciologist.

“The glaciers are sliding in Antarctica, 10 times as fast as they used to,” he explained. “It’s not that the Antarctic is melting, it’s that it’s sliding into the ocean, where it then melts. … And that sliding issue has to do with water lubricating the bottom of the glaciers. It’s not that much water. You can pump it out from there. The ice would bottom out on the rock again, slow back down again just through friction.”

If such a scheme worked, it could eliminate one of the worst effects of climate change. “I think my book is the first introduction of that idea to the world,” Robinson said.

Other technologies facilitate the rise of renewable alternatives to fossil fuels — including less reliance on petroleum-powered airplanes, and more reliance on airships, trains and oceangoing clipper ships that make use of sails as well as solar power.

The most decisive twists in “Ministry” have more to do with public policy and finance than with physics.

That part of the technological arsenal includes Modern Monetary Theory, which would basically loosen up the world banking system’s purse strings for more investment in green technologies; a carbon-coin currency tied to emissions reduction; and a data-trust platform known as YourLock that ends up breaking a social-media stranglehold. (In an earlier Fiction Science podcast, “Cyber Republic” author George Zarkadakis touched upon blockchain-enabled data trusts as well.)

Other concepts, ranging from the Gini index to Nansen passports to the Half-Earth project, also figure in the plot.

The Ministry for the Future
“The Ministry for the Future” is set in the near future. (Orbit Books)

Then there’s the darker side of climate action: In “Ministry,” one of the big drivers for change is a campaign of sabotage and assassination mounted by an eco-terrorist group called Children of Kali. Airplanes, coal-fired power plants and oil tankers fall victim to shadowy “pebble-mob” attacks. (That high-tech guerrilla strategy also makes an appearance in “2312”).

Does Robinson think eco-terrorism will be necessary to bring about a sustainable post-carbon civilization?

“I hope that doesn’t happen. … Partly I write those things to say we should try to avoid these by doing better things right now, and making a future even better than the Ministry for the Future’s future,” he said.

But Robinson said there’s a chance that “we may come into a situation where other people on the planet are so angry that we will see violent things being done, essentially against us.”

“This was the pain of writing the novel … the extreme fear that when you write about political violence, it sounds like you’re approving it, or saying, ‘This is the only way things will happen,’ ” he said. “That’s not the case, but in this novel, I’m saying that it very well could happen if we don’t do even better than this.”

How closely will reality match Robinson’s science-fiction view of the future. Will the true-life tale have a brighter or darker outcome? “The Ministry of the Future” stands out as a case where we won’t have to wait very long to find out.

Reading assignment for next time

The next episode of the Fiction Science podcast will be a Q&A with Ted Chiang, who wrote a novella titled “Story of Your Life” in 1998 that served as the inspiration for the 2016 movie “Arrival.”

Chiang’s latest collection of short stories, “Exhalation,” touches on sci-fi concepts ranging from time travel and predestination to artificial general intelligence.

“Exhalation” was one of our top picks for last year’s annual holiday book roundup, but if you want to do your homework for the next Fiction Science podcast, you can start with two stories from the collection: “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and “The Lifecycle of Software Objects.” Give them a read if you can, and check back in a couple of weeks for the podcast.

Kim Stanley Robinson is due to discuss “Ministry for the Future” during an online talk at 7 p.m. ET (4 p.m. PT) today, presented by the Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor, Maine, and co-sponsored by A Climate to Thrive and Sherman’s Books. Registration is free. Check the Jesup Library website for more information.

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West  Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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