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Ministry For The Future

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It opens like a slow-motion disaster movie. In the near future, a heatwave of unsurvivable “wet-bulb” temperatures (factoring in humidity) in a small Indian town kills nearly all its inhabitants in a week. The Indian government sends up planes to spray sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to mimic the dimming effect of major volcanic eruptions. This does not, naturally, meet with unalloyed approval around the world.

A new international climate-crisis body has been “charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves”, and is quickly dubbed the Ministry for the Future. It is led by our protagonist, Mary Murphy, former foreign minister of Ireland. Her outfit may or may not also have a black ops wing, but a shadowy terrorist network called the “Children of Kali” has no white ops wing: it uses drone swarms to crash passenger jets and container ships in deadly protest at continuing carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, scientists at the poles are trying to pump water out from under the ice caps to prevent them from sliding into the ocean and raising sea levels catastrophically. Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote the classic Red Mars trilogy of novels about geoengineering the red planet to be habitable by humans, now offers a story about whether we can geoengineer Earth back into Earth.

Within these pages there is much hard science, of atmospheric and oceanic physics, usually helpfully explained by a passing expert; but also speculative military strategy – the invention of “pebble mob” missiles, which converge on a target speedily from all directions, renders almost all military hardware redundant – plenty of economic history and much comforting detail about the grey civility of Switzerland in winter.

Robinson shows that an ambitious systems novel about global heating must in fact be an ambitious systems novel about modern civilisation too, because everything is so interdependent. Luckily, when he opens one of his discursive interludes with the claim “Taxes are interesting”, he makes good on it within two pages. There is no shortage of sardonic humour here, a cosmopolitan range of sympathies, and a steely, visionary optimism.

Dark comic relief comes from fragmentary dialogues between unnamed speakers. “Have you heard,” one asks, “that the warming of the oceans means that the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in fish and thus available for human consumption may drop by as much as sixty percent? And that these fatty acids are crucial to signal transduction in the brain, so it’s possible that our collective intelligence is now rapidly dropping because of an ocean-warming-caused diminishment in brain power?” The other replies: “That would explain a lot.” Indeed it would.

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