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(Photo: Creativ Studio Heinemann / Getty)
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BooksNovember 1, 2020

You do not want to know what ‘wet bulb’ means

(Photo: Creativ Studio Heinemann / Getty)
(Photo: Creativ Studio Heinemann / Getty)

Kim Stanley Robinson is a master of science fiction, and specialises in the climate crisis. His latest novel The Ministry for the Future explores a particularly grim metric. 

A “wet bulb” is exactly what it sounds like: a thermometer wrapped in a wet towel. It’s a measure of both heat and humidity, and it’s also an indicator of the viability of human life. Here’s how it works: let’s say it’s a hot summer’s day, 35 degrees celsius. An unmodified thermometer will measure the ambient air temperature. But if you wrap one in a wet towel, evaporation will lower the local temperature reading. The point at which the cooling stops is the “wet bulb” temperature.

Evaporation is also how humans maintain their temperature when it’s hot. If we’re too hot, we’ll sweat, and the evaporation cools us. But if humidity is high, less water can evaporate, and less cooling results. If humidity is very high, no evaporation is possible, and the temperature stays the same – damp towel or not, sweating or not. So, on our example 35 degree day, if it’s also so humid that wrapping the thermometer in a wet towel doesn’t make its reading go down, we have a serious problem.

At high wet-bulb temperatures, human life is impossible. We can’t sweat, so we cook – slowly, like a sous-vide. Then we die.

If this sounds far-fetched, sorry: science has shown that not only are we already seeing localised, brief wet-bulb events incompatible with human life; but that their incidence has doubled between 1979 and 2017, and that given global climate change, bigger, longer events – likely clustered on centres of dense human habitation – are inevitable.

And that’s how The Ministry for the Future opens. In the very near future, a high-humidity heatwave stalls over Lucknow, India, and 20 million people simply die. We see this event through the eyes of a local aid worker called Frank as he toils furiously to save people, but eventually can only watch as everyone around him dies. First old people and infants, then the sick, then the healthy, then him.

It is one of the most brutal gut-punches I’ve ever experienced in fiction, because it reads less like prophecy and more like documentary. As I was reading, record wildfires raged in California and Colorado, bringing memories of less than 12 months ago when the skies over New Zealand turned an eldritch shade of red from Australian bushfires burning more than 2000 kilometres away. As I wrote this review, the New Zealand Government’s “Our Atmosphere And Climate” report came out, with the news that climate change is already happening, right here, right now. Then came news from NIWA that parts of the country are in for an unusually hot, humid summer, and possibly a marine heatwave, due to a strong La Nina system.

In 2020, it all feels much too close to home. I had to put the book down several times, heart palpitating, short of breath, trapped in my own mental wet-bulb event.

Kim Stanley Robinson (Photo: Supplied)

From this sledgehammer opening, The Ministry for the Future shifts to its main narrative: United Nations bureaucrats in Switzerland working to fix climate change.

This is much, much better than it sounds. The book is many things, but it is never boring. One quote, from a section detailing the struggles, and imagined successes, of Hong Kong activists, sums it all up nicely: “Eventually you have to realise that many necessary things are boring, but also, quite a few things are both boring and interesting at the same time. So we went to meetings … ”

The structure helps to keep things lively. From chapter to chapter, it indulges wild tonal shifts; going from omniscient narrative, to epistolary, to dense info-dumps, to esoteric, poetic riddles (my personal favourites). Here’s one that knocked my socks off, to the point that I took a screenshot and sent it to friends; your mileage may vary.

I am a god and I am not a god. Either way, you are my creatures. I keep you alive. 

Inside I am hot beyond all telling, and yet my outside is even hotter. At my touch you burn, though I spin outside the sky. As I breathe my big slow breaths, you freeze and burn, freeze and burn. 

Someday I will eat you. For now I feed you. Beware my regard. Never look at me.

As you’d expect from a near-future sci-fi dealing with an all-too-real existential problem, the book isn’t exactly hilarious, but beneath all the science-ing there’s still an undercurrent of sly humour. There’s a high-tech, hydrofoiling clipper ship called the Cutting Snark, which will delight readers who are also fans of naval history, an audience which admittedly may only number in the high 10s. A more accessible example is when a bunch of militant climate activists improbably manage to take the annual gathering of elites at Davos hostage. Instead of introducing them to guillotines, the terrorists make the elites watch educational clips on YouTube.

The uber-rich respond to this about as well as you’d expect – with boredom and derision, and, once the nice terrorists let them go, they get straight back to the business of despoiling the biosphere for profit. It’s a neat skewering of a problem many actual activists have: they imagine that the issue driving climate breakdown is a lack of information, when in fact we’re drowning in it – the world has a huge amount of detail on exactly how the climate crisis will unfold, and yet, very little of what needs to happen is being done.

To this point: the titular Ministry, which has nothing to do with the Davos kidnapping, still isn’t exactly nice. Early in the book, Ministry head Mary is convinced (at gunpoint) that their current efforts to re-engineer the global status quo for the continued survival of civilisation are pissing in the wind. So she, without much fuss, sets up a black ops division of the Ministry; it operates behind the scenes, autonomously, and with pin-point brutality, in concert with India-based assassins who are justifiably shitty at the West for abetting the death of 20 million citizens. Private planes are brought down by drone strikes, fossil fuel operations are targeted, cattle are injected with mad cow disease, and climate criminals are murdered in their beds.

The carrot to this stick, and the main focus of the narrative, is a global effort (variously led and aided by the Ministry), to repair the perverse incentives that are sinking society. Efforts to fix problems as diverse as social media, global finance, the patriarchy, and the inequitable distribution of wealth are paired with mammoth geoengineering projects like pumping water from under Antarctic glaciers, and using militaries to release sulfates into the atmosphere to reduce solar radiation.

If any of this comes off as whimsical or starry-eyed, it’s not. Everything in the book is presented as a realistic reaction to global catastrophe, based, as hard sci-fi should be, on plausible or already-existing technology. When it turns to polemic, as it occasionally does on issues like just how cooked economics is, it still remains rooted in reality. Unfortunately, the measures portrayed still occasionally stretch the boundaries of credibility. Somehow, it’s much easier to imagine scaled-up drone-strike climate conflict (mirroring present-day Yemeni drone attacks on Saudi Arabian refineries) than it is to believe in a decentralised social network displacing Facebook, or central bankers embracing a currency based on carbon sequestration.

But even the occasional example of woolly or lofty speculation isn’t enough to detract from this relentless, pacy, utterly absorbing story of our near future. What makes The Ministry for the Future truly compelling is the creeping realisation that the often-awful world of the book is not pessimistic but optimistic. In all of the global upheaval, mass extinction, mass death, and frantic mass scientific experimentation that take place, Robinson is describing a best-case scenario, in which humanity actually achieves CO2 drawdown in enough time to thwart climate change’s most cruel consequences, while maintaining some semblance of justice. It’s a reminder that in reality, the window to achieve this end is closing rapidly.

The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orb $37.99) can be ordered from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland – it is en route but subject to shipping delays

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