It’s been a few years since I imagined India as a world leader. The question follows, darkly, Leading towards what? But reading The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson, the question was answered – and my memory refreshed about this country’s promise, and its relevance in the year 2021.
The novel, which the New York Times’ Ezra Klein called “the most important book I’ve read this year”, is a muscular effort by a master of science fiction to see a way through the climate crisis: the hard road to a happier global equilibrium. In chapter one, a heat-wave combines with deadly humidity over Uttar Pradesh, leaving a “wet-bulb” temperature at which bodies can no longer cool themselves. The result is a catastrophic mass-death from the heat – but also a national rising, and the start of a climate revolution.
India now emerges as a hero, pulling the world to its feet on decarbonisation and ecological rehabilitation. “We’ve been looking at what India is doing,” China’s finance minister confides, in one later passage. “They’re leading now in all kinds of things.” Robinson’s aim is ultimately to invigorate readers with a vision of “all kinds of things”: An abundance of wonky strategies, social alliances, scientific moonshots and radical-flank operations, all working together to take down the carbon economy. He locates many of these ideas and actors in India’s current landscape, and others in its future. A picture forms, of India as a moral and political example – just as it was 75 years ago, and at times since then – accepting its new tryst with destiny, its dharma in the Anthropocene.
Reading The Ministry for the Future in Delhi, ahead of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, I found this picture startling – and suddenly convincing. I talked to Robinson about scripting a future for India, at the forefront of the fight for the future of the world.
India is not the only ‘hero’ in the book’s future – but you’ve selected it as the society to rise from disaster, and lead the charge through the crisis. Why India? Is it the country’s sheer exposure to climate disaster? Or was there a positive association that guided your choice?
Maybe it was a little of both. For sure the vulnerability is there: the Gangetic plain, the back wall of the Himalaya to try a high-pressure cell; also, the dense population, and the stressed electrical grid. It could add up to disaster. I don’t think this is news to anyone paying attention. But the positive idea of India as a rising superpower was just as important to me. Along with China, it’s one of the super-giant countries that are crucial to human history in this century.
The book draws out a national quality I’d lost sight of in recent years: India’s progressive, proactive interest and creative role in the world. Did any of this cultural, historical legacy guide your writing?
Yes, they did. Ever since my college years in the early 1970s, I’ve been reading and to an extent practicing a Californian form of Buddhism. That’s a long road which eventually leads back to India. And I’m a close student of Henry David Thoreau – he was one of the first Americans to learn from Indian philosophy, and it’s nice he had an influence on Gandhi as well.
Of course, it is difficult or even impossible to speak with any insight about other countries; they are always so complex that even the citizens of that country can’t keep good track of everything going on. America, for instance, is now an incomprehensible mess; but with lots of hope for better times. But no matter what party governs, they all will have to join this effort, or else they’ll suffer. And the closer to the equator, the sooner the suffering will begin.
The political changes you script for India suggest that histrionic nationalism is a serious obstacle to climate action. But the book also offers the prospect of countries – China, Russia, the US, and the rest – coming to see climate action as crucial to national interest, or national survival.
All national leaderships are devoted to defending the interests of their nation first; the world at large comes after that, if ever. This is a great danger in our time. What I think has to happen is for national leaderships to understand that the sooner their country’s policies and industries are greened, the more relative advantage they are going to have in the new world of technology that has to come, if anyone is to survive well.
In other words, dragging one’s heels, and burning all the fossil fuels that you possibly can, while other nations leap ahead in the development of green technologies, is a recipe for national failure. The boldest countries will be the most successful later in the twenty-first century. It can’t be emphasized enough: the first to go green will do the best afterward.
I’m curious how you did the research to visualise India’s redemptive future.
It was mostly by reading, which I do for many hours every day. Also, some help from acquaintances in the tech world, who read the manuscript in early drafts. My readings in Indian history went back to the time when I wrote The Years of Rice and Salt, an alternative history with a big Indian component; that reading happened in 1998 to 2001. That reading took me to The Wonder That Was India, by A. L. Basham, and Nirad Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, and Stanley Wolpert’s New History of India, among other books I kept from that time.
Through the years I’ve also done lots of reading about Kerala, and Sikkim and Ladakh. I know these are not perhaps the main line of Indian society now, but they are illustrative of the great variety India displays politically and socially.
Were you informed by any particular living figures? Vandana Shiva, for instance, gets a shout-out.
I met Vandana Shiva at a conference in California in 1991, and she was very impressive. I still think she is very important for agricultural practices, and equality generally, but I don’t agree with her harsh views against genetically modified organisms — we have been modifying genes for as long as we’ve been human, the methods don’t matter; and we need it going forward; and it’s safe. To complain about science getting involved with genetics is to confuse the good of science with the bad of capitalism. To return to the positive, she has been a huge force for good for most of her career.
Lastly, I want to say a word for Indian science fiction, with the thought that every culture needs a vision of its future to be complete. The stronger Indian science fiction is, the better its vision going forward.
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