The Ministry for the Future opens a few years from now during a historic heat wave in Uttar Pradesh, India—where Frank May, an American aid worker, is doing everything he can to save lives. But it’s not working. As day after day passes without a drop in temperature or humidity, the electric grid eventually gives out, turning life into an inferno for everyone who lives in the north Indian state.

Desperate, many rush to the nearest lake, hoping it will offer some relief—but its water is scorching, too. By the end of the heat wave, more than twenty million people are dead, and Frank has barely survived.

It’s as harrowing a scene as any I’ve read in a science fiction book—because the events depicted in it could very well take place in the real world. I don’t think we’re going to experience heat waves precisely as long or as severe as the one in the book over the next few years. But if we don’t decisively reduce carbon emissions and eventually eliminate them, in the decades ahead we could very well see successive days when there’s a deadly combination of extremely high temperatures and high humidity. (Just last month, parts of northern India experienced temperatures of around 60degrees Celsius, or about 140 degrees Fahrenheit.)

But this is not a hopeless book. Over the course of the novel’s 106 (!) short chapters, Robinson presents a stimulating and engaging story, spanning decades and continents, packed with fascinating ideas and people.