Bookmarked is a column for revisiting the books that make sense of a changing world.
When Kim Stanley Robinson’s sweeping work of speculative fiction, The Ministry for the Future, hit bookshelves in 2020, it was lauded by critics for its astute blend of hard science, geopolitical savvy, and hypothetical but realistic depiction of military strategy. Many also called its portrayal of the climate crisis—and of human society on the verge of collapse—prescient. Three years after its release, and mere weeks after scientists declared June of 2023 the hottest June on record, the accuracy with which Robinson’s predictions are coming true utterly terrifies.
The book is set in the near future, when nations around the globe are driven close to their social and economic breaking points by extreme heat, rising seas, and powerful hurricanes. Such suffering gives rise to an international body named the Ministry for the Future, whose mission is to advocate for the rights and well-being of future generations. And it’s through that organization that humanity finds something like hope.
Indeed, despite the horrors its protagonists face, the novel is quite optimistic: humans come to value collaboration, mitigation, and adaptation over greed and selfishness. But to get to that point, we first must go through hell.
The novel opens on a funereal scene: a record-breaking heat wave rocks a small town in India, leaving its residents desperate for water and shade. This first chapter, like the rest of the book, is a work of fiction, but in 2023, it reads like a news report. As Mark Yon wrote in SFF World, rarely has a novel “ever been more relevant.”
The real world has yet to assemble something like the Ministry for the Future. But next month, global leaders will convene at the United Nations Headquarters for the world’s first Climate Ambition Summit, where they’ll discuss ways to accelerate plans for adaptation and resilience. In the meantime, waves of extreme heat not much cooler than what Robinson predicted in his novel, continue to bake the planet.
Here is Robinson’s first chapter, a horrific vision of what could be if humanity doesn’t act soon.
Excerpted from The Ministry of the Future
It was getting hotter.
Frank May got off his mat and padded over to look out the window. Umber stucco walls and tiles, the color of the local clay. Square apartment blocks like the one he was in, rooftop patios occupied by residents who had moved up there in the night, it being too hot to sleep inside. Now quite a few of them were standing behind their chest-high walls looking east. Sky the color of the buildings, mixed with white where the sun would soon rise. Frank took a deep breath. It reminded him of the air in a sauna. This the coolest part of the day. In his entire life he had spent less than five minutes in saunas, he didn’t like the sensation. Hot water, maybe; hot humid air, no. He didn’t see why anyone would seek out such a stifling sweaty feeling.
Here there was no escaping it. He wouldn’t have agreed to come here if he had thought it through. It was his home town’s sister city, but there were other sister cities, other aid organizations. He could have worked in Alaska. Instead sweat was dripping into his eyes and stinging. He was wet, wearing only a pair of shorts, those too were wet; there were wet patches on his mat where he had tried to sleep. He was thirsty and the jug by his bedside was empty. All over town the stressed hum of windowbox air conditioner fans buzzed like giant mosquitoes.
And then the sun cracked the eastern horizon. It blazed like an atomic bomb, which of course it was. The fields and buildings underneath that brilliant chip of light went dark, then darker still as the chip flowed to the sides in a burning line that then bulged to a crescent he couldn’t look at. The heat coming from it was palpable, a slap to the face. Solar radiation heating the skin of his face, making him blink. Stinging eyes flowing, he couldn’t see much. Everything was tan and beige and a brilliant, unbearable white. Ordinary town in Uttar Pradesh, 6 AM. He looked at his phone: 38 degrees. In Fahrenheit that was—he tapped—103 degrees. Humidity about 35 percent. The combination was the thing. A few years ago it would have been among the hottest wet-bulb temperatures ever recorded. Now just a Wednesday morning.
Wails of dismay cut the air, coming from the rooftop across the street. Cries of distress, a pair of young women leaning over the wall calling down to the street. Someone on that roof was not waking up. Frank tapped at his phone and called the police. No answer. He couldn’t tell if the call had gone through or not. Sirens now cut the air, sounding distant and as if somehow submerged. With the dawn, people were discovering sleepers in distress, finding those who would never wake up from the long hot night. Calling for help. The sirens seemed to indicate some of the calls had worked. Frank checked his phone again. Charged; showing a connection. But no reply at the police station he had had occasion to call several times in his four months here. Two months to go. Fifty-eight days, way too long. July 12, monsoon not yet arrived. Focus on getting through today. One day at a time. Then home to Jacksonville, comically cool after this. He would have stories to tell. But the poor people on the rooftop across the way.
Then the sound of the air conditioners cut off. More cries of distress. His phone no longer showed any bars. Electricity gone. Brownout, or blackout. Sirens like the wails of gods and goddesses, the whole Hindu pantheon in distress.
Generators were already firing up, loud two-stroke engines. Illegal gas, diesel, kerosene, saved for situations like these, when the law requiring use of liquid natural gas gave way to necessity. The air, already bad, would soon be a blanket of exhaust. Like breathing from the exhaust pipe of an old bus.
Frank coughed at the thought of it, tried again to drink from the jug by his bed. It was still empty. He took it downstairs with him, filled it from their filtered tank in the refrigerator in the closet there. Still cold even with power off, and now in his thermos jug, where it would stay cold for a good long while. He dropped an iodine pill in the jug for good measure, sealed it tight. The weight of it was reassuring.
The foundation had a couple of generators here in the closet, and some cans of gasoline, enough to keep the generators going for two or three days. Something to keep in mind.
His colleagues came piling in the door. Hans, Azalee, Heather, all red-eyed and flustered. “Come on,” they said, “we have to go.”
“What do you mean?” Frank asked, confused.
“We need to go get help, the whole district has lost power, we have to tell them in Lucknow. We have to get doctors here.”
“What doctors?” Frank asked.
“We have to try!”
“I’m not leaving,” Frank said.
They stared at him, looked at each other.
“Leave the satellite phone,” he said. “Go get help. I’ll stay and tell people you’re coming.”
Uneasily they nodded, then rushed out.
Frank put on a white shirt that quickly soaked up his sweat. He walked out into the street. Sound of generators, rumbling exhaust into the super-heated air, powering air conditioners he presumed. He suppressed a cough. It was too hot to cough; sucking back in air was like breathing in a furnace, so that one coughed again. Between the intake of steamy air and the effort of coughing, one ended up hotter than ever. People came up to him asking for help. He said it would be coming soon. Two in the afternoon, he told people. Come to the clinic then. For now, take the old ones and the little ones into rooms with air conditioning. The schools would have A/C, the government house. Go to those places. Follow the sound of generators.
Every building had a clutch of desperate mourners in its entryway, waiting for ambulance or hearse. As with coughing, it was too hot to wail very much. It felt dangerous even to talk, one would overheat. And what was there to say anyway? It was too hot to think. Still people approached him. Please sir, help sir.
Go to my clinic at two, Frank said. For now, get to the school. Get inside, find some A/C somewhere. Get the old ones and the little ones out of this.
But there’s nowhere!
Then it came to him. “Go to the lake! Get in the water!”
This didn’t seem to register. Like Kumbh Mela, during which people went to Varanasi and bathed in the Ganges, he told them the best he could. “You can stay cool,” he told them. “The water will keep you more cool.”
A man shook his head. “That water is in the sun. It’s as hot as a bath. It’s worse than the air.”
Curious, alarmed, feeling himself breathing hard, Frank walked down streets toward the lake. People were outside buildings, clustered in doorways. Some eyed him, most didn’t, distracted by their own issues. Round-eyed with distress and fear, red-eyed from the heat and exhaust smoke, the dust. Metal surfaces in the sun burned to the touch, he could see heat waves bouncing over them like air over a barbeque. His muscles were jellied, a wire of dread running down his spinal cord was the only thing keeping him upright. It was impossible to hurry, but he wanted to. He walked in the shade as much as possible. This early in the morning one side of the street was usually shaded. Moving into sunlight was like getting pushed toward a bonfire. One lurched toward the next patch of shade, impelled by the blast.
He came to the lake and was unsurprised to see people in it already, neck deep. Brown faces flushed red with heat. A thick talcum of light hung over the water. He went to the curving concrete road that bordered the lake on this side, crouched and stuck his arm in up to the elbow. It was indeed as warm as a bath, or almost. He kept his arm in, trying to decide if the water was cooler or hotter than his body. In the cooking air it was hard to tell. After a time he concluded the water at the surface was approximately the same temperature as his blood. Which meant it was considerably cooler than the air. But if it was a little warmer than body temperature . . . well, it would still be cooler than the air. It was strangely hard to tell. He looked at the people in the lake. Only a narrow stretch of water was still in the morning shade of buildings and trees, and that stretch would be gone soon. After that the entire lake would be lying there in the sun, until the late afternoon brought shadows on the other side. That was bad. Umbrellas, though; everyone had an umbrella. It was an open question how many of the townspeople could fit in the lake. Not enough. It was said the town’s population was two hundred thousand. Surrounded by fields and small hills, other towns a few or several kilometers away, in every direction. An ancient arrangement.
He went back to the compound, into the clinic on the ground floor. Up to his room on the next floor, huffing and puffing. It would be easiest to lie there and wait it out. He tapped in the combination on his safe and pulled open its door, took out the satellite phone. He turned it on. Battery fully charged.
He called headquarters in Delhi. “We need help,” he said to the woman who answered. “The power has gone out.”
“Power is out here too,” Preeti said. “It’s out everywhere.”
“Most of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bengal. Parts of the west too, in Gujarat, Rajasthan . . .”
“What should we do?”
“Wait for help.”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s the forecast?”
“The heat wave is supposed to last awhile longer. The rising air over the land might pull in cooler air off the ocean.”
“No one knows. The high pressure cell is huge. It’s caught against the Himalaya.”
“Is it better to be in water than in air?”
“Sure. If it’s cooler than body temperature.”
He turned off the phone, returned it to the safe. He checked the particulate meter on the wall: 1300 ppm. This for fine particulates, 25 nanometers and smaller. He went out onto the street again, staying in the shade of buildings. Everyone was doing that; no one stood in the sun now. Gray air lay on the town like smoke. It was too hot to have a smell, there was just a scorched sensation, a smell like heat itself, like flame.
He returned inside, went downstairs and opened the safe again, took out the keys to the closet, opened the closet and pulled out one of the generators and a jerrycan of gas. He tried to fill the generator’s gas tank and found it was already full. He put the can of gas back in the closet, took the generator to the corner of the room where the window with the air conditioner was. The windowbox A/C had a short cord and was plugged into the wall socket under the window. But it wouldn’t do to run a generator in a room, because of the exhaust. But it also wouldn’t do to run the generator out on the street below the window; it would surely be snatched. People were desperate. So . . . He went back to the closet, rooted around, found an extension cord. Up to the building’s roof, which had a patio surrounded by a rampart and was four floors off the street. Extension cord only reached down to the floor below it. He went down and took the A/C unit out of the window on the second floor, hefted it up the stairs, gasping and sweating. For a moment he felt faint, then sweat stung his eyes and a surge of energy coursed through him. He opened the fourth-floor office window, got the A/C unit balanced on the ledge and closed the window on it, pulled out the plastic sidepanels that closed off the parts of the window still open. Up to the rooftop terrace, start the generator, listen to it choke and rattle up to its two-stroke percussion. Initial puff of smoke, after that its exhaust wasn’t visible. It was loud though, people would hear it. He could hear others around the town. Plug in the extension cord, down the stairs to the upper office, plug in the A/C unit, turn it on. Grating hum of the A/C. Inrush of air, ah God, the unit wasn’t working. No, it was. Lowering the temperature of the outer air by 10 or 20 degrees—that left it at about 85 degrees as he thought of it, maybe more. In the shade that was fine, people could do that, even with the humidity. Just rest and be easy. And the cooler air would fall down the stairs and fill the whole place.
Downstairs he tried to close the window where the A/C unit had been, found it was stuck. He slammed it downward with his fists, almost breaking the glass. Finally it gave a jerk and came down. Out onto the street, closing the door. Off to the nearest school. A little shop nearby sold food and drinks to students and their parents. The school was closed, the shop too, but people were there, and he recognized some. “I’ve got air conditioning going at the clinic,” he said to them. “Come on over.”
Silently a group followed him. Seven or eight families, including the shop owners, locking their door after them. They tried to stay in the shade but now there was little shade to find. Men preceded wives who herded children and tried to induce their single file to stay in the shade. Conversations were in Awadhi, Frank thought, or Bhojpuri. He only spoke a little Hindi, as they knew; they would speak in that language to him if they wanted to talk to him, or confer with someone who would speak to him in English. He had never gotten used to trying to help people he couldn’t talk to. Embarrassed, ashamed, he blasted past his reluctance to reveal his bad Hindi and asked them how they felt, where their families were, whether they had anyplace they could go. If indeed he had said those things. They looked at him curiously.
At the clinic he opened up and people filed in. Without instruction they went upstairs to the room where the A/C was running, sat down on the floor. Quickly the room was full. He went back downstairs and stood outside the door and welcomed people in if they showed any interest. Soon the whole building was as full as it could be. After that he locked the door.
People sat sweltering in the relative cool of the rooms. Frank checked the desk computer; temperature on the ground floor 38 degrees. Perhaps cooler in the room with the A/C unit. Humidity now 60 percent. Bad to have both high heat and high humidity, unusual; in the dry season on the Gangetic plain, January through March, it was cooler and drier; then it grew hot, but was still dry; then with the soaking of the monsoon came cooler temperatures, and omnipresent clouds that gave relief from direct sunlight. This heat wave was different. Cloudless heat and yet high humidity. A terrible combination.
The clinic had two bathrooms. At some point the toilets stopped working. Presumably the sewers led to a wastewater treatment plant somewhere that ran on electricity, of course, and might not have the generator capacity to keep working, although that was hard to believe. Anyway it had happened. Now Frank let people out as needed so they could go in the alleys somewhere, as in hill villages in Nepal where there were no toilets at any time. He had been shocked the first time he saw that. Now he took nothing for granted.
Sometimes people began crying and little crowds surrounded them; elders in distress, little children in distress. Quite a few accidents of excretion. He put buckets in the bathrooms and when they were full he took them out into the streets and poured them into the gutters, took them back. An old man died; Frank helped some younger men carry the body up to the rooftop patio, where they wrapped the old one in a thin sheet, maybe a sari. Much worse came later that night, when they did the same thing for an infant. Everyone in every room cried as they carried the little body up to the roof. Frank saw the generator was running out of gas and went down to the closet and got the fuel can and refilled it.
His water jug was empty. The taps had stopped running. There were two big water cans in the refrigerator, but he didn’t talk about those. He refilled his jug from one of them, in the dark; the water was still a bit cool. He went back to work.
Four more people died that night. In the morning the sun again rose like the blazing furnace of heat that it was, blasting the rooftop and its sad cargo of wrapped bodies. Every rooftop and, looking down at the town, every sidewalk too was now a morgue. The town was a morgue, and it was as hot as ever, maybe hotter. The thermometer now said 42 degrees, humidity 60 percent. Frank looked at the screens dully. He had slept about three hours, in snatches. The generator was still chuntering along in its irregular two-stroke, the A/C box was still vibrating like the bad fan it was. The sound of other generators and air conditioners still filled the air. But it wasn’t going to make any difference.
He went downstairs and opened the safe and called Preeti again on the satellite phone. After twenty or forty tries, she picked up. “What is it?”
“Look, we need help here,” he said. “We’re dying here.”
“What do you think?” she said furiously. “Do you think you’re the only ones?”
“No, but we need help.”
“We all need help!” she cried.
Frank paused to ponder this. It was hard to think. Preeti was in Delhi.
“Are you okay there?” he asked.
No answer. Preeti had hung up.
His eyes were stinging again. He wiped them clear, went back upstairs to get the buckets in the bathroom. They were filling more slowly now; people were emptied out. Without a water supply, they would have to move soon, one way or the other.
When he came back from the street and opened his door there was a rush and he was knocked inside. Three young men held him down on the floor, one with a squared-off black handgun as big as his head. He pointed the gun and Frank looked at the round circle of the barrel end pointed at him, the only round part of a squared-off thing of black metal. The whole world contracted to that little circle. His blood pounded through him and he felt his body go rigid. Sweat poured from his face and palms.
“Don’t move,” one of the other men said. “Move and you die.”
Cries from upstairs tracked the intruders’ progress. The muffled sounds of the generator and A/C cut off. The more general mumble of the town came wafting in the open doorway. People passing by stared curiously and moved on. There weren’t very many of them. Frank tried to breathe as shallowly as possible. The stinging in his right eye was ferocious, but he only clamped the eye shut and with the other stared resolutely away. He felt he should resist, but he wanted to live. It was as if he were watching the whole scene from halfway up the stairs, well outside his body and any feelings it might be feeling. All except the stinging in his eye.
The gang of young men clomped downstairs with generator and A/C unit. Out they went into the street. The men holding Frank down let him go. “We need this more than you do,” one of them explained.
The man with the gun scowled as he heard this. He pointed the gun at Frank one last time. “You did this,” he said, and then they slammed the door on him and were gone.
Frank stood, rubbed his arms where the men had grasped him. His heart was still racing. He felt sick to his stomach. Some people from upstairs came down and asked how he was. They were worried about him, they were concerned he had been hurt. This solicitude pierced him, and suddenly he felt more than he could afford to feel. He sat on the lowest stair and hid his face in his hands, racked by a sudden paroxysm. His tears made his eyes sting less.
Finally he stood up. “We have to go to the lake,” he said. “There’s water there, and it will be cooler. Cooler in the water and on the sidewalk.”
Several of the women were looking unhappy at this, and one of them said, “You may be right, but there will be too much sun. We should wait until dark.”
Frank nodded. “That makes sense.”
He went back to the little store with its owner, feeling jittery and light-headed and weak. The sauna feeling hammered him and it was hard to carry a sack of food and canned and bottled drinks back to the clinic. Nevertheless he helped ferry over six loads of supplies. Bad as he felt, it seemed as if he was stronger than many of the others in their little group. Although at times he wondered if some of them could in fact just keep dragging along like this all day. But none of them spoke as they walked, nor even met eyes.
“We can get more later,” the shop owner finally declared.
The day passed. Wails of grief were now muffled to groans. People were too hot and thirsty to make any fuss, even when their children died. Red eyes in brown faces, staring at Frank as he stumbled among them, trying to help get corpses of family members up onto the roof, where they scorched in the sun. Bodies would be rotting, but maybe they would anneal and dry out before that, it was so hot. No odors could survive in this heat, only the smell of scorched steamy air itself. Or maybe not: sudden smell of rotting meat. No one lingered up here now. Frank counted fourteen wrapped bodies, adult and child. Glancing across that rooftop level of the town he saw that other people were similarly engaged, silent, withdrawn, down-gazing, hurrying. No one he could see looked around as he was looking around.
Downstairs the food and drink were already gone. Frank made a count, which he found hard. Something like fifty-two people in the clinic. He sat on the stairs for a while, then went in the closet and stared at its contents. He refilled his water jug, drank deeply, refilled it again. No longer cool, but not hot. There was the can of gas; they could burn the bodies if they had to. There was another generator, but there was nothing to power with it that would do any good. The satellite phone was still charged, but there was no one to call. He wondered if he should call his mom. Hi Mom, I’m dying. No.
The day crawled second by second to its last hour, and then Frank conferred with the store owner and his friends. In murmurs they all agreed; time to go to the lake. They roused the people, explained the plan, helped those who needed it to stand, to get down the stairs. A few couldn’t do it; that presented a quandary. A few old men said they would stay behind as long as they were needed, then come along to the lake. They said goodbye to the people leaving as if things were normal, but their eyes gave it all away. Many wept as they left the clinic.
They made their way in the afternoon shadows to the lake. Hotter than ever. No one on the streets and sidewalks. No wailing from the buildings. Still some generators grumbling, some fans grinding. Sound seemed stunted in the livid air.
At the lake they found a desperate scene. There were many, many people in the lake, heads dotted the surface everywhere around the shores, and out where it was presumably deeper there were still heads, people semi-submerged as they lay on impromptu rafts of one sort or another. But not all of these people were alive. The surface of the lake seemed to have a low miasma rising out of it, and now the stink of death, of rotting meat, could be discerned in one’s torched nostrils.
They agreed it might be best to start by sitting on the low lakeshore walkway or corniche and put their legs in the water. Down at the end of the walkway there was still room to do that, and they trudged down together and sat as a group, in a line. The concrete under them was still radiating the day’s heat. They were all sweating, except for some who weren’t, who were redder than the rest, incandescent in the shadows of the late afternoon. As twilight fell they propped these people up and helped them to die. The water of the lake was as hot as bath water, clearly hotter than body temperature, Frank thought; hotter than the last time he had tested it. It only made sense. He had read that if all the sun’s energy that hit Earth were captured by it rather than some bouncing away, temperatures would rise until the seas boiled. He could well imagine what that would be like. The lake felt only a few degrees from boiling.
And yet sometime after sunset, as the quick twilight passed and darkness fell, they all got in the water. It just felt better. Their bodies told them to do it. They could sit on the shallowest part of the lake bottom, heads out of water, and try to endure.
Sitting next to Frank was a young man he had seen playing the part of Karna in one of the plays at the local mela, and Frank felt his blankness pierced again, as when the people had shown concern for him, by the memory of the young man at the moment Arjuna had rendered Karna helpless with a spoken curse and was about to kill him; at that point the young man had shouted triumphantly, “It’s only fate!” and managed to take one last swing before going down under Arjuna’s impervious sword. Now the young man was sipping the water of the lake, round-eyed with dread and sorrow. Frank had to look the other way.
The heat began to go to his head. His body crawled with the desire to get out of this too-hot bath, run like one would from a sauna into the icy lake that ought to accompany all such saunas, feel that blessed shock of cold smacking the breath out of his lungs as he had felt it once in Finland. People there spoke of trying to maximize the temperature differential, shift a hundred degrees in a second and see what that felt like.
But this train of thought was like scratching an itch and thereby making it worse. He tasted the hot lake water, tasted how foul it was, filled with organics and who knew what. Still he had a thirst that couldn’t be slaked. Hot water in one’s stomach meant there was no refuge anywhere, the world both inside and outside well higher than human body temperature ought to be. They were being poached. Surreptitiously he uncapped his water jug and drank. Its water was now tepid, but not hot, and it was clean. His body craved it and he couldn’t stop himself, he drank it all down.
People were dying faster than ever. There was no coolness to be had. All the children were dead, all the old people were dead. People murmured what should have been screams of grief; those who could still move shoved bodies out of the lake, or out toward the middle where they floated like logs, or sank.
Frank shut his eyes and tried not to listen to the voices around him. He was fully immersed in the shallows, and could rest his head back against the concrete edge of the walkway and the mud just under it. Sink himself until he was stuck in mud and only half his head exposed to the burning air.
The night passed. Only the very brightest stars were visible, blurs swimming overhead. A moonless night. Satellites passing overhead, east to west, west to east, even once north to south. People were watching, they knew what was happening. They knew but they didn’t act. Couldn’t act. Didn’t act. Nothing to do, nothing to say. Many years passed for Frank that night. When the sky lightened, at first to a gray that looked like clouds, but then was revealed to be only a clear and empty sky, he stirred. His fingertips were all pruney. He had been poached, slow-boiled, he was a cooked thing. It was hard to raise his head even an inch. Possibly he would drown here. The thought caused him to exert himself. He dug his elbows in, raised himself up. His limbs were like cooked spaghetti draping his bones, but his bones moved of their own accord. He sat up. The air was still hotter than the water. He watched sunlight strike the tops of the trees on the other side of the lake; it looked like they were bursting into flame. Balancing his head carefully on his spine, he surveyed the scene. Everyone was dead.
Reprinted from Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. ©2020 by Kim Stanley Robinson, with permission from Orbit, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. All rights reserved.