Last summer, the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson went on a backpacking trip with some friends. They headed into the High Sierra, hiking toward Deadman Canyon—a fifty-mile walk through challenging terrain. Now sixty-nine, Robinson has been hiking and camping in the Sierras for half a century. At home, in Davis, California, he tracks his explorations on a wall-mounted map, its topography thick with ink. He is a devotee of the “ultralight” approach to backpacking and prefers to travel without water, instead gathering it along the way, from lakes and streams. Arriving at the canyon, with its broad, verdant floor cradled in smooth slopes of granite, he planned to fill his bottles with meltwater from the seven glaciers buried in its headwall.
But as the group hiked they found no water. Streams that had once carved elegant oxbows in the canyon floor were now dusty lacerations. Perhaps because of the altitude, one of Robinson’s friends was feeling ill, and the others worried about how he would fare if they had to make a dry camp that night. Eventually, they found a rivulet of water. After his companions replenished their supply, Robinson hiked ahead, tracing the water uphill. He discovered that six of the seven glaciers had melted away completely. This was a new development, not recorded on any map. Only one corner of one glacier remained—a canted block of ice the size of two Olympic swimming pools. “It was the smallest living glacier that you could possibly imagine,” Robinson told me. He broke off a tiny chunk and carried it back to camp for the hikers to use in their Scotch. “It was like a goodbye,” he said. “Like going to a hospice visit.” Recalling the moment, he shivered.
Many of Robinson’s twenty-one science-fiction novels are ecological in theme, and this coming summer he will publish “The High Sierra: A Love Story,” a memoir that is also a rich geological and cultural history of the range. After returning from Deadman, he updated the manuscript to include the vanished glaciers. He told me about them a couple of weeks later, while we were driving through California, toward our own backpacking trip in the Sierras. Tan and trim, with silver hair and wire-rim eyeglasses, Robinson rode in the back seat of the car, looking out at wildfire smoke. The night before, he’d outfitted me with some of his own minimalist backpacking gear; while he’d assembled it, I’d wandered around his house, inspecting his library. Walls of shelves contained British literature, American literature, and science fiction. Other areas were organized by subject (Antarctica, Mars, economics, prehistory, Thoreau). Shelves were dedicated to volumes about Galileo, which Robinson had read while writing “Galileo’s Dream,” a highly detailed historical novel, published in 2009. Mario Biagioli, a historian of science and a Galileo expert who’d helped Robinson with the research, was the third member of our backpacking party; an accomplished giant-slalom skier, endurance cyclist, and transatlantic sailor, he drove us expertly, hugging the curves.
Robinson is often called one of the best living science-fiction writers. He is unique in the degree to which his books envision moral, not merely technological, progress. Their protagonists are often diplomats, scholars, and scientists who fight to keep their future societies from repeating our mistakes. Robinson’s plots turn on international treaties or postcapitalist financial systems. His now classic “Mars” trilogy, published in the nineteen-nineties, describes the terraforming of the Red Planet by scientists seeking to create a “permaculture,” or truly sustainable way of life. A typical Robinson novel ends with an academic conference at which researchers propose ideas for improving civilization. He believes that scholarly and diplomatic meetings are among our species’s highest achievements.
Climate change has long figured in Robinson’s plots. “Antarctica,” a novel from 1997, revolves around glaciologists at a fictional version of McMurdo Station, the principal U.S. outpost in Antarctica. (Robinson researched the book there, exploring ice cathedrals and helping to take the first G.P.S. reading of the South Pole.) In the two-thousands, climate started to become his central subject; his wonky brand of sci-fi turned out to be well suited to a reality in which the future depends on fast, unlikely, and coördinated global reform. “Science in the Capital,” a trilogy of novels published between 2004 and 2007, follows administrators at the National Science Foundation as they fight climate change through grants; “New York 2140,” from 2017, is set in a Venice-like Big Apple and explores efforts to reform the financial system on ecological grounds. With each book, Robinson has revised his deeply researched climate-change scenario, focussing not just on environmental havoc but on solutions that might stop it.
His most recent novel, “The Ministry for the Future,” published in October, 2020, during the second wave of the pandemic, centers on the work of a fictional U.N. agency charged with solving climate change. The book combines science, politics, and economics to present a credible best-case scenario for the next few decades. It’s simultaneously heartening and harrowing. By the end of the story, it’s 2053, and carbon levels in the atmosphere have begun to decline. Yet hundreds of millions of people have died or been displaced. Coastlines have been drowned and landscapes have burned. Economies have been disrupted, refugees have flooded the temperate latitudes, and ecoterrorists from stricken countries have launched campaigns of climate revenge. The controversial practice of geoengineering—including the spraying of chemicals into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight—has bought us time to decarbonize our way of life, and “carbon quantitative easing,” undertaken on a vast scale, has paid for the redesign of our infrastructure. But it’s all haphazard. We just barely escape the worst climate catastrophes, through grudging adjustments that we are forced to make. The rushed, necessary work of responding to the climate crisis defines and, for some, elevates, the twenty-first century.
I’m a longtime reader of Robinson’s, but “The Ministry for the Future” struck me with special force. For decades, I’d worried about climate change in the usual abstract way. Then I had a son, and read David Wallace-Wells’s “The Uninhabitable Earth”—a terrifying survey of worst-case climate scenarios—and grew so alarmed that thinking about the problem became almost unbearable. I live on the North Shore of Long Island, close to the beach, in a village that already seems to be flooding. What did the future hold for my town, and my family? What would my son live through? We have put a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, and so a great deal of what is coming to us is now inevitable; as a species, we are moving into a prefab house. And yet its parts lie scattered, unassembled—we can’t quite picture the home in which we’ll live.
“The Ministry for the Future” gave me a sense of the space. It shows our prospects to be both imaginable and variable: we can still redraw the plans. Perhaps because the novel fills a vital narrative gap, it achieved an unusually wide readership. Barack Obama included it on his list of the best books of the year; the Times columnist Ezra Klein said that all policymakers should read it. Christiana Figueres, the U.N. diplomat who led the effort to create the Paris agreement, listened to the novel in her garden and wept. Robinson was invited to meet with government officials from around the world, including planners at the Pentagon. He became a featured speaker at cop26—the twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties to the Paris Agreement, held this past fall in Glasgow.
After reading the novel, I contacted Robinson to propose writing about him. He immediately suggested that we go backpacking in the Sierras—his “heart’s home.” I’m in good shape but not outdoorsy; I was a little intimidated by what he had in mind, an ultralight off-trail jaunt near twelve thousand feet. But I also liked the idea of entrusting myself to the experience and judgment of the only writer who had offered me some hope about our collective future. He outlined a simple plan: over Bishop Pass into Dusy Basin; over Knapsack Pass into Palisade Basin; then over Thunderbolt Pass—the highest and most difficult of the trip—and back to Dusy, then out. “Youth and fitness will see you through,” he wrote, in an e-mail. I started training by carrying my toddler in a backpack for miles along the shore.
As the car headed east, the sky seemed to be getting darker. Everything was bathed in an orange Kodachrome light.
“We’ve definitely dropped into the smoke,” Robinson said, looking out the window. The fields were blanketed in dun-colored fog.
“Not good,” Biagioli said, removing his sunglasses and turning on the recirculation.
Robinson looked at his phone. “This is terrible,” he said. “Now the air quality is three-ninety-four.” Once, he’d been in Beijing when it had hit four hundred and ninety. “But Davis has reached that a couple of times in these big fires,” he noted. “Hopefully it will be clear in the mountains.” I looked ahead, as though I could see them, toward hills that were suggestions in the haze.
Robinson was born in 1952, and grew up in Orange County, among groves being paved over for suburbs. An athlete by inclination, he recalls his childhood in terms of the sports he played with friends—dodgeball, high jump, volleyball, bodysurfing—and the books he borrowed from his local libraries. His life is characterized by wholesome continuities. He and his gang of “hippie jocks” first ventured into the mountains in college, woefully unprepared, and he still hikes with many of them today. He has lived in Davis for forty years, and, on a walking tour, he showed me the bookstore where he’d worked in his late twenties and the pool where he’d met his wife, Lisa, an environmental chemist who outpaced him at their gruelling evening swim class. Boyish with an edge, he nurtures routines in part to optimize them—he has played Frisbee golf with friends at the same Davis park for so many years that he can now make par blindfolded.
One of Robinson’s first Sierra excursions was over Bishop Pass. We retraced the route on our first day. At ten thousand feet, the air was clear. The seven-mile hike to the pass was easy. A groomed path ascended gently along a series of lakes; the terrain was desktop-background beautiful, with sky shining in the water and morning sun in the pines. Our packs were surreally light. We had no tents, no water, no stoves—I’d carried more with me to work. Our trekking poles tapped rhythmically as we climbed.
Biagioli and I were quiet, adjusting to the altitude. Robinson, who completed a Ph.D. in English, writing a dissertation on Philip K. Dick under the eminent Marxist scholar Fredric Jameson, cheerfully filled the silence by explaining science fiction from a theoretical point of view. He sometimes likens the genre to a pair of old-fashioned 3-D glasses, in which one lens is red, the other blue. Through one lens, sci-fi offers predictions about the future, which we judge on their plausibility; through the other, we see metaphors for our own time, which we judge on how well they capture the feeling of living now.
“The two perspectives combine to create a sense of time stretching out between now and then,” Robinson called, over his shoulder. “It’s a feeling of participating in history.” He set a quick pace: we wanted to get over the pass by noon. As we climbed, the sun grew stronger, and I tucked a bandanna under my hat and collar, covering my neck.
“The Ministry for the Future” begins with a “wet-bulb” heat wave—a deadly coincidence of heat and humidity in which, despite high temperatures, sweat ceases to evaporate. In such conditions, even a healthy person in the shade will cook and die. In recent years, such heat waves have occurred in Australia, India, Mexico, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other places; climate models suggest that, by the end of this century, they could become regular events in the tropical parts of the world. Robinson imagines a big wave, in the year 2025, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Frank, an American aid worker at a clinic, wakes up to find that the temperature is a hundred and three, with humidity of thirty-five per cent—close to the wet-bulb threshold. The sun “blazed like an atomic bomb, which of course it was,” Robinson writes. As the day wears on, inhaling the hot air becomes difficult. The only safe places are air-conditioned, but eventually the power grid buckles under the strain.
Frank invites people from the neighborhood to take shelter inside his clinic, where his generator powers a window A.C. unit. The rooms are soon packed with families. But then armed men steal his generator and air-conditioner. Someone suggests taking refuge in a nearby lake, where crowds have gathered; stepping into the sun-blasted water, Frank can feel that it is hotter than body temperature. He notices that some of the people are “redder than the rest”; they soon die. He sees that “all the children were dead, all the old people were dead.” He closes his eyes and sinks as deep as he can, struggling not to drink the fetid water. In the end, twenty million people perish in the heat wave: it is “the worst week in human history.”
The world is appalled; the U.N. holds a moment of silence. Still, little changes. “Everyone knows everything,” a character complains, but few seem to act on what they know. “They were only really doing things to try to ameliorate the situation they were falling into after it was too late,” Mary Murphy, the chief of the Ministry for the Future, thinks, sometime in the early twenty-forties. “They kept closing the barn door after the horses were out, or after the barn had burned down.” The question for Mary is whether the world has crossed the point of no return. If our collective belatedness entails “something physical, like the Arctic’s permafrost melt, or the ocean’s acidification past the point of life at the bottom of the food chain surviving it, or the Antarctic’s ice sheet collapsing fast—then they were fucked and no denying it.” On the other hand, “there were still people fighting tooth and claw.”
A bureau full of experts, balked and opposed but not giving up—this is the metaphor that the novel offers for our own time. We are the Ministry for the Future. Our job, too, is to act on preëxisting knowledge: many of the solutions to the crisis are also prefab. Robinson researches his novels partly by attending scientific conferences. In 2010, at a meeting of glaciologists, a researcher sidled up to him with an idea for arresting Antarctic glaciers that are sliding into the sea by pumping meltwater out from beneath them at a few crucial locations, settling them back onto the bedrock. In Robinson’s book, the idea is put into practice. It’s speculative, but a paper outlining the procedure was published in Nature, in 2018; the proposal was further analyzed in a climate journal in 2020. “The Ministry for the Future” may be sci-fi, but its science isn’t fictional.
Global finance is an unsexy but important part of the book. Corporations and governments, Robinson writes, have already located vast amounts of fossil fuel that has yet to be extracted; these untapped deposits are “listed as assets by the corporations that have located them,” and are worth hundreds of trillions of dollars. If even a sixth of this carbon hoard is burned, we’ll burn, too. Robinson provides a real-life list of the nineteen largest owners of the deposits (“Saudi Aramco, Chevron, Gazprom, ExxonMobil, National Iranian Oil Company, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Pemex, Petroleos de Venezuela, PetroChina, Peabody Energy, ConocoPhillips, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Kuwait Petroleum Corporation, Iraq National Oil Company, Total SA, Sonatrach, BHP Billiton, and Petrobras”) and narrates a series of meetings at which the world’s central banks find a way to pay them off. The scheme revolves around a new kind of digital currency designed to reward companies and governments for reducing emissions. A version of this idea, known as the Global Carbon Reward, is advocated by a real nonprofit.
The map on the inside of your hotel-room door becomes suddenly riveting once the alarm goes off. This is one reason “The Ministry for the Future” can wring suspense out of financial negotiations. But the novel’s concreteness is also compelling because it puts into relief the strangeness of our outlook. Whenever we stare directly at the mess we’re in, the solutions we think of seem implausible. (A carbon coin? Backed by the world’s central banks?) And yet, because the stakes are so high, our skepticism threatens to become nihilism—an acceptance of the inevitability of civilizational disaster. Ultimately, this nihilism is a kind of sin against the future—a “betrayal,” as Greta Thunberg puts it—and so reading “The Ministry for the Future” is a charged experience. It’s normal, when taking in a science-fiction story, to wonder whether the future it depicts is plausible. It’s unusual for the future we wonder about to be our own.
After a few hours, we neared the bottom of the pass. We filled our water bottles in a large, clear lake set in smooth granite, crossed a stream using stepping stones, and started up a winding path that rose to a series of switchbacks. As we climbed, the landscape changed. Below us, the lake nestled in grasses and pine trees. Above us was a gray, craggy world of rocks and dust—a piece of the moon jutting out of Eden. We passed a section of the slope where, years before, dozens of deer had slipped on ice and fallen to their death. Clavicles and spines were hidden among the stones.
Eventually, we arrived at the switchbacks—steep, narrow, tightly zigzagging cuts in the rock. Biagioli, who’d completed a hundred-kilometre bike race in the Dolomites a few years before, looked up eagerly at the first real challenge of the day.
“Mario, you should go ahead,” Robinson said. “I bet you’ll want to go fast.”
“See you at the top!” Biagioli said, launching himself upward.
Robinson watched, appreciatively. “He’s got that deep cardio conditioning,” he said. Many of Robinson’s novels are essentially love stories in which friends grow enamored of one another and of the landscapes they explore; I could see that the dynamic was taken from life. (“My friends are my heroes, and my heroes are my friends,” he told me later.)
We followed a little more slowly. Robinson, dressed all in khaki, grinned from behind his sunglasses as he climbed. It was fun, fluid work, made easier by our ultralight packing and the leverage of our poles. Soon, the pass came into view—a broad, inclined, rocky field stretching between two peaks. We seemed to hike toward the cloudless sky. Biagioli waited for us, Dusy Basin opening up behind him.
Robinson believes that the novel has expanded with time. The first novels typically focussed on domestic life and its dramas; in the nineteenth century, they took cities and nations as their subjects. Science fiction could go further: being planetary in scale, it could show how a civilization lived within its biosphere—its most fundamental home.
Dusy Basin looked like a still-evolving world. Gray-brown mountains in the distance could have been captured by the Curiosity rover; below them, a granite landscape was spotted with grass and flowers. Huge angular boulders, deposited by glaciers, rested on hillsides, guarding the landscape.
“This is it,” Robinson said. “Say goodbye to the trail.”
In the late nineteen-seventies, when Robinson began publishing his stories, the sci-fi subgenre of “cyberpunk” was ascendant. Its hacker protagonists plugged in to an online virtual “matrix” and prowled smoggy cityscapes ruled by giant corporations. By contrast, Robinson’s first novel, “The Wild Shore,” from 1984, imagined a future California in which neutron bombs have made all electronics inoperative. Its early pages contain elaborate depictions of gardening and fishing. His sci-fi could seem like nature writing, with the Sierras recast as Mercury or Mars—a reflection of his early ambition to become a poet in the vein of Kenneth Rexroth or Gary Snyder. William Gibson, the author of “Neuromancer,” told me that “the cyberpunk crew” didn’t know what to make of Robinson—“this tan, fit, khaki-chinos dude who could’ve made a good living as a shirt model.” They assumed that he was “too straight to get where they were coming from.” But Robinson’s politics were perhaps more radical, since he imagined the possibility of an improved world. His uncool, utopian interests—ecology, equality, democracy, postcapitalism—were prescient.
It isn’t easy to be a utopian science-fiction writer. “Star Trek” is famously optimistic but isn’t in any sense realistic; in general, when sci-fi engages in serious social analysis, it curdles. We may feel that dystopian stories are more plausible, yet Robinson thinks that there’s something a little craven about them. Isn’t it odd, he has written, to enjoy “late-capitalist, advanced-nation schadenfreude about unfortunate fictional citizens whose lives have been trashed by our own political inaction”? It’s better, he believes, to be utopian, or at least “anti-anti-utopian.” Robinson has a sweet and sunny disposition—he writes long, lambent e-mails signed “Your Stan”—that’s pulled taut by a thread of anger. He is especially impatient with those who urge giving up when giving up is against their best interests. What he seeks to practice is, in a phrase popularized by the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”
As we made our descent, a bowl of mountains encircled us. Gentle hills of white granite rolled into the distance. Bridges of rock connected them; reflected light illuminated the hollows. Dwarf trees and tufts of flowers nestled in shelters from the wind. The landscape was fractal: basins within basins, spiralling patterns of white and rust rock. It was fun to wander, finding routes. Jameson, who reads Robinson’s novels in draft—“The Ministry for the Future” is dedicated to him—told me that they stand out not just for their scientific and political rigor, but for their depictions of “athletic, physical joy,” which lighten the mood. “In standard novels, there isn’t any place for play, for physical exertion,” he said; in Robinson’s books, characters hike, climb, and swim through the worlds they hope to save. We walked easily over the rises in search of a lake at which to camp. We’d grown happily silent, lost in the flow of rock.
Robinson learned to write credible utopian fiction in part through a fractal sort of thinking, connecting the personal to the planetary. In graduate school, at the University of California, San Diego, he read Proust, the English Romantics, and Shakespeare while hiking in the Sierras as often as he could. (He calculates that he has camped in the mountains for two years in total.) For a time, he spent his nights in a sleeping bag on the cliffs near campus, overlooking the Pacific, then showering in the gym. (“I felt like I lived on a fifty-million-dollar estate,” he told me.) When he and Lisa had the first of their two sons, in 1989, he became a stay-at-home dad, writing during nap times. The couple bought a house in a progressive Davis development centered on a sprawling village green and a community garden. Robinson cooked for potluck dinners and tended his garden plot; he adopted the habit, which persists, of doing all his writing outdoors, on his front patio, shaded by a tarp, year-round. He eavesdropped on Lisa’s scientific phone calls, listening as she and her colleagues scrutinized and revised their findings about pesticides in the water. They were passionate, sometimes exasperated, but also collaborative, careful, truthful—a model society of their own
He read the philosopher Bruno Latour, who studied how scientists worked together. Latour’s “actor-network theory” held that it wasn’t just individual researchers who mattered but the web in which they were embedded; the web could contain other scientists but also nonhuman entities, such as machines, treaties, institutions, historical events, even elements of the natural world. (In “The High Sierra,” Robinson argues that the mountains themselves are “actors” in a network: they created “Sierra people,” who formed the Sierra Club, which catalyzed the American environmental movement.) In the work of the literary theorist Gérard Genette, Robinson discovered the idea of “pseudo-iterative” writing, in which novelists describe what we do each day with a level of specificity that is not quite sensible. A narrator might say that, every morning, she eats a yogurt smoothie while doomscrolling newsfeeds on her phone. Such a statement may not be literally true—surely not every morning—but routines, loosely grasped, can reveal something about how the world is constructed; our small daily actions, in aggregate, suggest systemic facts.
In the Victorian era, social novels, by Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and others, awakened us to poverty and injustice. Modern “naturalists,” like Émile Zola, took a scientific approach, following the causal chains of everyday life, which might link a kitchen stove to coal miners working underground. Robinson brings these traditions to bear on our future problems, combining them with an unusual narrative style designed to dramatize civilizational transformation. “The Ministry for the Future” contains chapters that describe the daily habits of geologists and encamped climate refugees; one chapter is narrated by a carbon atom, and another by the market—both actors in the networks that shape our world. Other chapters are oral histories of the sort one might find in the work of the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, showing how ordinary people could have their attitudes reshaped by climate disasters. The goal is to capture what the literary critic Raymond Williams calls a “structure of feeling”—an invisible scaffold, unique to its period, on which our emotions hang. In our current structure of feeling, a narrator suggests, the order of things is experienced as “unjust and unsustainable and yet massively entrenched, but also falling apart before your eyes.” Like glaciers, structures of feeling shift with time—that’s how we so readily distinguish between the nineteen-sixties and now.
Such shifts coalesce slowly, one realization after another. In the years since Robinson wrote his Mars novels, for instance, the prospects for human habitation on that planet have changed. Among other things, nasa missions have found perchlorates in the Martian soil—chemicals that are toxic to humans even in small quantities. Martian dust is so pervasive that avoiding contact with the poison may be impossible. In an essay titled “What Can’t Happen Won’t,” from 2015, Robinson concluded that the settlement of Mars was unlikely anytime soon. “Aurora,” a novel he published the same year, envisions an interstellar ship on a mission to settle a moon of a planet orbiting Tau Ceti, a nearby star. When the settlers reach their destination—a rocky world plagued by constant winds—many are killed by prions in its soil. “What’s funny is anyone thinking it would work in the first place,” one settler says.
Later, back on an environmentally damaged Earth, another settler listens to a space-exploration advocate argue that settling other planets is “an evolutionary urge”—the human equivalent of “a dandelion or a thistle releasing its seeds to the winds.” Enraged, she punches him in the face. “Aurora” affronted some readers and sci-fi writers, as it was meant to; its goal was to shift the structure of feeling in science fiction, making it less escapist and more certain that Earth is our only home. “As soon as I read it, I thought, Of course, he’s right,” the science-fiction writer Ted Chiang told me. (The novel, he added, suggests that interstellar settlement is not just “impractical” but “immoral,” since it involves “condemning generations of one’s descendants to lifelong hardship when you cannot possibly get their consent.”) It was all part of the larger shift that Robinson believes will take place in our broader structure of feeling, as more people experience for themselves the symptoms of a warming climate—from off-kilter seasons to wildfires, flooding, and storms.
“When I wrote ‘Aurora,’ I felt like I was taking a model of the Starship Enterprise and smashing it with a hammer,” he said, laughing. We were cresting a rise, coming onto a flat saddle of land, fuzzed with alpine grass, that connected two lakes. Robinson lay down on the ground, stretching his arms to see if there was room for a sleeping pad, or three.
“Maybe this is a good spot,” he said.
The sun was moving behind the mountains, casting long shadows in which it was suddenly cold. We unpacked what we had in the remaining light. Robinson unfolded a lime-green tarp and began staking it into the ground, in order to provide a windbreak for the “rock stove” over which we would boil water for our dinner. He had stumbled upon this retro innovation many years before, when he’d grown tired of lugging a typical camping stove into the mountains.
“What kind of rocks do we need?” I asked.
“You want a rock that’s squared off, and about as big as that stone Mario’s next to,” Robinson said. Biagioli was standing near a shingle-like rock perhaps six inches square. “We want four of ’em.”
We collected the rocks while Robinson finished the windbreak. He used one of his trekking poles to prop up the tarp, then took a small white cube of fuel from his pack and placed it on one of the rocks. He carefully balanced the others to create a small platform that could support a pot of water. Using a Zippo, he tried to light the fuel. But the wind kept evading his windbreak.
Biagioli came over to help, pulling the tarp tight and blocking the wind until the flame caught. Their efforts reminded me of Robinson’s 2013 novel, “Shaman,” set in Neolithic Europe, which opens with the problem of starting a fire using duff, roots, moss, and soft wood scraped from inside a tree trunk. (The research for the book involved a wintertime Sierra trip, which Robinson made alone.)
I was cold that night. The wind slipped under my tarp; my water bottle froze. In the morning, beside the jewel-like lake, I ate a protein bar and watched Robinson watch the sunrise. The sun’s progress was visible in the shadow that the mountains to the east of us threw over the mountains to the west. In “The High Sierra,” Robinson writes that the movement of such shadows reveals “the speed of the planet rolling under your feet.” The movement is “slow, but not so slow that you can’t see it. If you watch a boulder near the sun, but still in shadow, and keep watching it, then the sunlight will hit the top of the boulder, then move down the boulder—also the whole slope—slowly, slowly, but not imperceptibly, not quite.” He calls the sight “beautiful but disturbing”:
I had read this description before the trip, but being there was different. I felt the world turn beneath me for myself. The ticking of the clock, the smallness of the Earth—more realizations.
We dressed and set out for Knapsack Pass, our climb for the day. The bottom of the pass was a lush meadow, carpeted with grass and small flowers, under which streams flowed; the water sometimes emerged into the sun, and we reached down through breaks in the ground to fill our bottles. Above us, the pass seemed to be a thousand-foot jumble of car-size rocks, with no obvious path up.
“I took Lisa here on our first trip to the Sierras,” Robinson said. He opened a small packet of Cheez-Its and looked meditative. “I totally botched the approach.”
“What happened?” Biagioli asked.
“I went up there, on the left side,” Robinson said, pointing. “And I traversed too high, under those boulders beneath Columbine Peak. She was so fit, so strong—she didn’t even know anything was wrong. But there are sections up there where you start to feel a little desperate.” Since then, he said, he had found the best possible route over Knapsack—a straight shot up the middle, not very difficult, but hard to see because of the way the rocks were arranged.
Just then we heard some sounds from behind us. Two hikers were making their way down into our meadow. As they got closer, they turned into chilled-out, bearded men in their thirties. They were the only other people we had seen since leaving the trail after Bishop Pass.
“You guys going over Knapsack?” one of them asked.
“We’re thinking about the route,” the other said. “Maybe that one, there.” He pointed toward the route Robinson had taken with Lisa—including its troublesome traverse, across the slope of the mountain.
Robinson nodded. “Yeah, I’ve done that one,” he said. “It’ll get you over.”
“Sweet,” one of the hikers said, adjusting his pack.
“It can be tough, but you’re young and fit,” Robinson said. “We’re still getting water, so we’ll let you guys go first.”
As they set off, Biagioli observed, “You didn’t tell them about your route.”
“Well, it’s no fun to hike with other people,” Robinson replied. “And everyone’s got to learn for themselves. That’s the whole point! It took me, I don’t know, seven or eight crossings to stumble into the fact that the straight-line route right up the gut of it works, and none of the other routes work without outrageous effort.”
“It’s path-dependent, as the economists say,” Biagioli joked, referring to the idea that the way things are isn’t necessarily efficient; today’s arrangements reflect the accidents of the past.
“Yes, very much so,” Robinson said, chuckling. He looked up and groaned. “Ah—God, guys. I know that slope well. It’s loose. It’s steep. It’s traversey. It’s hard fuckin’ work. And you can see that when they get around that shoulder, they’re not to the pass. And right now, they can’t see whether between them and the pass is this horrible ravine that they might have to cross, or not. And only by exploring it can they find out.” It was a novelist’s view of the situation—one that subordinated mere knowledge to experience.
There is knowing and knowing. Some knowledge sits inert within us; other knowledge shapes us. This past summer, Robinson and Lisa drove across the country. “In Wyoming, we hit a pall of wildfire smoke so thick that we couldn’t see the mountains just a few miles away on each side of the road,” he wrote, in an article for the Financial Times. “It went on like that for 1,000 miles”—a sign as clear as one of the ten plagues. Among the most disconcerting ideas in “The Ministry for the Future” is that the signs of climate change will have to become unmistakable—and painful—before we really acknowledge what we know. We will learn only with experience.
Is it possible to be reshaped by fiction, so that we can respond more readily to reality? Can we jolt ourselves awake with our imaginations? Diane Cook, whose post-climate-change novel “The New Wilderness” was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2020, told me that she sees Robinson’s fiction as “activism as much as art”; in a less fragmented society, she said, “The Ministry for the Future” could have played a role like that of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” or Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” The book tries to do what a news report can’t. It wants to offer us the experience of crossing the pass before we cross it—to give us a feeling for the routes we might take.
We had a little lunch—nuts, crackers—and then started up, slipping through a gap in the rocks toward a streambed. The climb was steep, at first on grass and then on granite blocks a few feet high. Robinson had told me that Sierra granite breaks naturally into staircase-like chunks rightly sized for a person; I hadn’t believed it, but it turned out to be true. The path, invisible from a distance, revealed itself up close, one step at a time. Most of the climb was easy; occasionally, it was hand over hand. At some moments of confusion, small cairns of stones, left by other hikers, indicated the way forward.
After a long period of sustained work, I stopped and looked back. I was surprised to see how high we’d climbed. The lakes we’d explored the day before lay in a chain far below. When we reached the top, I saw that the light on the other side was different—it reflected the color of Palisade Basin, a world of iron-gray boulders and rust-colored ravines. A series of steep drops led downward, like the seats in an amphitheatre.
I sat on a rock and drank some water while Robinson and Biagioli talked about Galileo. Looking ahead across the basin at the ridgeline of the Palisades, I enjoyed the sense of being higher than a mountain range. In the distance was Potluck Pass, so-called because there was no obvious route—everyone had to invent one for himself.
“This pass is really striking,” Biagioli said. “I really like it—the giant steps.” I thought of one of Robinson’s painstakingly imagined Martian vistas. His scientists move through fields of rock sculpted into dolmens and cross deserts sifted into vast, patterned mandalas. Mars, they find, speaks “the visible language of nature’s mineral existence”; it is “beautiful, or harsher than that: spare, austere, stripped down, silent, stoic, rocky, changeless. Sublime.”
I saw movement to my left. It was the two hikers, looking pleased with themselves. There had been some hairy sections, they said. Now they had a question for Robinson, whom they recognized as being experienced in the mountains. Their camp was back in Dusy Basin. Did he think they could take a circular route, traversing to Potluck Pass, then climbing over and descending back to their campsite before nightfall?
Robinson mulled this over. He seemed reluctant to make promises. Then he outlined a complex itinerary that would get them back before dark, if they moved fast, if nothing went wrong.