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The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson


[This review originally appeared on my blog on June 29th.]

“Obviously we have to do better,” she said. “The Paris Agreement was created to avoid tragedies like this one. We are all in a single global village now. We share the same air and water, and so this disaster has happened to all of us. Since we can’t undo it, we have to turn it to the good somehow, or two things will happen; the crimes in it will go unatoned, and more such disasters will happen. So we have to act. At long last, we have to take the climate situation seriously, as the reality that overrides everything else. We have to act on what we know.”

It’s a bit strange to talk about a breakout novel for Kim Stanley Robinson, an author in his late sixties who has been publishing prolifically for nearly forty years, and who has won some of science fiction’s most prestigious awards and accolades. Nevertheless, the conversation surrounding The Ministry for the Future has the air of crowning a new it guy, from interviews in Rolling Stone to a spot on former President Obama’s list of favorite 2020 reads.[1]

As someone who has become a full-fledged fan and advocate of Robinson’s writing over the last decade, the increased attention garnered by The Ministry for the Future left me feeling, once I finally got around to reading the book, a little perplexed, uncertain why it was this work in particular that had crossed the threshold between in-genre recognition and mainstream accolades. To be sure, Ministry is as topical as you could possibly get, with Robinson, who has been circling around the issue of climate change and its looming impact in successive novels, each set closer to our time, finally writing about the present and very near future. But it’s also the least novel-like of his novels. For all that I’m a fan, I found this book rather hard going, and ended up resorting to parceling it out into 50-page installments. Even so, I dragged out its reading over nearly a month.

In keeping with Robinson’s recent work, Ministry takes a polyphonic approach to its subject and setting, switching points of view often and discarding traditional narrative techniques. Some chapters take the form of a Socractic dialogue, while others are canned history lessons, analysis of economic systems, and even descriptions of new technologies and techniques for ameliorating climate change. Again, none of this is new, but in this novel the balance feels off. Instead of the freewheeling exhilaration of 2312 or New York 2140, the prevailing impression one forms is of an insistent, slightly dry, very long thinkpiece. I was reminded of Francis Spufford’s experiment in creative non-fiction, Red Plenty, which gets namechecked several times in The Ministry for the Future, and which like it tries to storify history through invented characters and situations. But Red Plenty nevertheless felt warm and invested in its characters in a way that Ministry does not.

The result is a novel that is much more fun to talk about after you’ve finished reading it than it is to read. There’s such a wealth of ideas here, so many things to nod along to and to argue with, that I found myself wishing I could download the book into my brain. A big part of the reason my progress through the book was so slow was that I kept stopping to formulate my arguments with it, wanting some invisible interlocutor that I could rail to about an unsupported assumption or a missing logical leap, or praise an interesting idea or a cool project. So for the rest of this review, I’m going to engage with this book as it seems to want to be engaged with—as a polemic and proposed roadmap for the near future. If you’re looking for my literary judgement, it is: tough read but potentially worth it, if only because I want more people to talk to about it.

Put simply, The Ministry for the Future is a future history of how humanity, over the next few decades of the twenty-first century, fixed climate change—or, at the very least, ameliorated it or slowed it down. Inasmuch as the book has characters, the two most important ones are Mary Murphy, the head of the titular agency, established by the UN as an offshoot of the Paris Climate Agreement, and charged with representing the future generations whose wellbeing and even survival are imperiled by unchecked global warming.[2] And Frank May, an American aid worker in India who, in the novel’s wrenching opening chapter, is caught in a horrific heat wave that leaves twenty million people dead, including everyone else in the town where Frank was stationed.[3]

Frank and Mary meet about a hundred pages into the book when he, now suffering from PTSD and desperate to take some action that will either punish those responsible for the heat wave or ensure that nothing like it ever happens again, kidnaps her and tries to convince her that her agency isn’t doing enough. Specifically, he argues that she should have a black wing, whose tactics should include assassinating polluters and prominent climate change deniers—”There are about a hundred people walking this Earth, who if you judge from the angle of the future like you’re supposed to do, they are mass murderers. If they started to die, if a number of them were killed, the others might get nervous and change their ways.”

The two part ways after this encounter, then meet again when Frank is arrested, forging an awkward friendship throughout his incarceration and after his release. It’s a relationship that spans decades.[4] More importantly, it spans the efforts by Mary’s agency, by other groups both official and extra-legal, and by the people of Earth, to solve the seemingly intractable problem before us.

In a nutshell, The Ministry for the Future proposes a three-pronged approach to combating climate change: science, politics, and ecoterrorism. The last is arguably the novel’s most interesting choice, albeit one that it feels free to pick up and put down as convenient—at one point, literally: near the end of the novel, a powerful figure who may or may not be Mary’s second-in-command Badim approaches the leaders of the Children of Kali, a group founded in the aftermath of the Indian heatwave to punish and warn off polluters and climate change profiteers, and informs them that their services are no longer required; things have gotten good enough that now all progress can be achieved through above-board politics.[5]

Still, the tolerance that the novel displays towards ecoterrorism—which here spans everything from targeted assassinations, to mass drone attacks on jet planes in an attempt to make that mode of transportation seem unsafe, to an announcement by the Children that they have infected random herds of beef cattle with Mad Cow Disease—is intriguing. It reminded me a little of the way that N.K. Jemisin dismantled the pieties that show up in most stories about a persecuted, superpowered minority in her Broken Earth trilogy, replying simply “yes, of course we’re going to try to kill the people who have been killing us”. Robinson, similarly, seems to be arguing that in the face of all-but-guaranteed human extinction, similar pieties about violence begetting violence have no place. That the lives of the surprisingly small number of people who are keeping climate change going and sapping the political will to fight it aren’t, in the grand scheme of things, worth that much. Most importantly, that a majority of people will see it that way.

And to Frank it seemed different than it had when he was a child, when terrorists were universally abhorred. Now it felt different. Many attacks now were on carbon burners, especially those rich enough to burn it conspicuously. Car races and private jets. Yachts and container ships. So now the terrorists involved were perhaps saboteurs, or even resistance warriors, fighting for the Earth itself. Gaia’s Shock Troops, Children of Kali, Defenders of Mother Earth, Earth First, and so on. People read about their violent acts and the frequent resulting deaths, and shrugged.

I have reservations about this claim, but they are part and parcel of my core complaint about the book as a whole, so let’s put a pin in them for now. The Ministry for the Future is not, when it comes down to it, an ecoterrorism novel. Terrorism is, rather, a particular tool in its characters’ toolbox, one that they are able to put down with ease and, more importantly, one that Robinson isn’t that interested in. It’s important to him, I think, to establish both the scope of the looming catastrophe and the criminal indifference of the people responsible for it. But he doesn’t linger on their comeuppance, on the innocents who are caught in the crossfire, or, indeed, on the question of whether a genie like this can truly be put back in the bottle.

On the science front, The Ministry for the Future is full of cool ideas and interesting projects, many of which are taken from real life. The prerequisite to a lot of them is an openness to geoengineering—the Indian government’s response to the heat wave is to seed the upper atmosphere with sulfur dioxide, in the face of a scandalized international response. This resistance is subtly implied to be an artifact of privilege, the hallmark of people whose present is comfortable enough to make large-scale change seem scarier than a dark future. In a way, this is a corollary to the novel’s tolerance of ecoterrorism, the recognition that the time for moderate steps has passed and that some measures will rub against our core assumptions about how a stable society runs.

Other projects include drilling to the bottom of antarctic glaciers and pumping out the melted water there to slow the glaciers’ movement towards the sea, or dyeing the arctic sea yellow to increase its albedo. Technological alternatives to polluting transportation methods like airplanes and container ships include airships and a partial return to the age of sail—”The new versions had sails made of photovoltaic fabrics that captured both wind and light, and the solar-generated electricity created by them transferred down the masts to motors that turned propellers.” And social engineering programs like the 2000-Watt Society, which argues that with a bit of planning and support, humans can live to quite a high standard without crossing that threshold of annual electricity consumption. Or the Half-Earth Project, which calls for the relocation of most people to dense urban centers, leaving the rest of the Earth to be rewilded and repopulated by animals.

The real heart of the book, though, is in politics. Or rather, in economics, Or rather, in the recognition that these two are one and the same. To a certain extent, this involves technocratic solutions: converting all the world’s currencies into blockchain in order to put an end to money laundering and tax evasion[6]; or “carboncoin”, a new currency that can be earned by sequestering carbon or declining to extract fossil fuel resources. But for the most part, saving the world requires a realignment of power. Mary repeatedly muses that the heads of the world’s central banks are the true, albeit unelected, leaders of the planet. And conversely, it’s understood by everyone that the greatest barrier faced by the fight against climate change are the wealthy, those

few so rich that they could imagine surviving the crash of civilization, they and their descendants living on into some poorly imagined gated-community post-apocalypse in which servants and food and fuel and games would still be available to them. No way, she said to the bankers; not a chance that would happen. Shorting civilization and imagining living on in some fortress island of the mind was another fantasy of escape, one of many that rich people entertained, as ridiculous as retreating to Mars. Money was worthless if there was no civilization to back it, no civilization to make things to buy—things like food.

So really, The Ministry for the Future is a novel about remaking the global financial system into a form that is less unequal, less centralized, more focused on workers and local people, less obsessed with growth at all costs. The core argument of the novel is that this transformation is inextricable from the fight against climate change. Because so much of the damage we’ve done to our environment is at the behest of rapacious capitalism, and because the elites (or the rentier class, as Robinson refers to them at one point) will fight tooth and nail against any program that cuts into their already-gargantuan wealth, or makes it possible to limit their power, the only way to save the planet is to create a world where nobody has that much financial and political power.

To be clear, concluding in brief: there is enough for all. So there should be no more people living in poverty. And there should be no more billionaires. Enough should be a human right, a floor below which no one can fall; also a ceiling above which no one can rise. Enough is as good as a feast—or better.

Arranging this situation is left as an exercise for the reader.

And indeed, arranging this situation is the business of the novel, and unsurprisingly it ends up involving a lot of popular action. More disasters, like the catastrophic flooding of Los Angeles, serve to radicalize the population. In the aftermath of the Indian heatwave, nationalists like BJP are voted out and replaced by parties explicitly promising to pursue not only climate remediation, but climate justice, the demand that richer, more polluting countries will shoulder their fair, greater share of the burden of cleaning up the mess. Large scale civil resistance projects, such as a loan repayment strike that causes private banking to teeter, are orchestrated in an attempt to push governments and institutions towards more equitable policies—in the case of the debt strike, the nationalization of the banks.

Throughout this review, I’ve peppered in a lot of skepticism towards the details of Robinson’s roadmap. I’m not convinced that the reaction to thousands of planes being shot down on the same day would be “oh well, guess these guys have a point”. I don’t have an unshakable faith in people’s ability to assign blame for disasters on the government that has failed to cope with them, and punish that government at the ballot box. And the idea that you can solve tax evasion with blockchain sounds wrong, though to be fair I don’t know enough about either blockchain or tax evasion to say that it’s wrong. I’m sure you have your own list of quibbles, and it could be interesting to talk about them. But getting bogged down in that skepticism also feels beside the point. The important argument being made in The Ministry for the Future isn’t “solar sails can replace diesel engines on container ships”. It’s that all of these changes, whatever form they end up taking, can only come from the will of the people, and from their demand that things finally change. If the novel has a theme, it is: climate change is over; if you want it. And both “if” and “want” are the operative words in that sentence. Against the reader’s repeated interjection of “that could never happen!”, the book’s response, unspoken but crystal-clear, is: well, not with that attitude.

It’s a powerful, galvanizing theme, but it’s also where I discover my most trenchant disagreement with the novel, something that runs far deeper than the question of whether I can live on 2000 watts per year. The Ministry for the Future borrows a lot of ideas from Robinson’s previous novel, Red Moon (which I gave a somewhat lukewarm review in Strange Horizons). Like Red Moon, it is enthusiastic about the potential of blockchain to create a world where the rich and powerful can’t conceal their wrongdoing, and sees China as the primary driving force for positive change in the twenty-first century.[7] Most importantly, both books talk a great deal about the concept of a “structure of feeling”, a way of ordering the worldview of an entire society so that it prioritizes certain things and stigmatizes others. The key to stopping climate change, the novel argues, is a new structure of feeling, one that teaches people to see themselves as citizens of the world, responsible for its wellbeing. And one that recognizes that it is the masses who hold the power.

So strangely, in this new utmost financial crisis, people, ordinary people en masse, as the material manifestation of “the public,” now seemed to hold the ultimate power. When push comes to shove, it’s always humans looking at humans; and when a thousand people stand looking at one person, it’s clear who has more power. So it was a matter of realizing that, then acting on that realization. Maybe that shouldn’t have felt strange, but then it did; it felt like free fall. Inventing the parachute after leaping off the cliff.

Which is fine—inspiring, even, and it’s clear that inspiration is what Robinson is aiming for with it—so long as you assume that there can only ever be one structure of feeling at any given time. In the cosmology of The Ministry for the Future, there are the elites, and there are the people. In between there are governments—weak, biddable bodies constantly being tugged between the demands of these two groups; scientists and engineers, ready to solve our problems if we just give them the funding; and institutions—sclerotic, slow-moving things that have to be pushed towards their own survival. But the assumption that the book never examines is that “the people” are an undifferentiated lump who all want the same things. It’s an easy assumption to make, since those things are so obviously good—clean air and water, freedom from fear and want, a better life for your children. And yet, it only takes one look at the world around us to know better. If you brought “the people” together to demand something of their leaders, the odds that they would all demand the same thing—and that it would be the right thing, as opposed to more refugee internment camps or the overturning of a legal election—seem pretty slim.

What’s more, Robinson refuses to consider that structures of feeling can be engineered. He has a lot to say about the elites’ ability to influence banks and governments (unsurprisingly, neoliberalism is a constant bugbear in this book). But the idea that the elites might seek to influence the masses into acting against their own interest is given no space. In one of the book’s most baffling scenes, one of Mary’s underlings presents a new project, an open source social media platform with which they hope to replace all commercial ones. The key advantage of this platform, Mary is told, is that users will “control their data, rather than it being used and mined”. As if that was the problem with Facebook, and not the way that it propagates lies, conspiracy theories, racial hatred. Not the way that it is used by governments and the elites to popularize anti-democratic ideas, to create its own structure of feeling that pits the people against one another.

To be clear, Robinson is not unaware of climate change denial, of the anger aroused by mitigation and rewilding programs, of the violence that some people will resort to rather than accept that their way of life needs to change. The Ministry is subjected to violence, Mary spends much of her career under police protection, and some of her colleagues are killed. And yet the book’s attitude towards this phenomenon is either to dismiss it (“There will always be assholes,” Mary concludes) or pathologize it, treating it as a psychological disorder—”The Götterdämmerung Syndrome, as with most violent pathologies, is more often seen in men than women. It is often interpreted as an example of narcissistic rage”—rather than an engineered, and extremely enticing, alternative structure of feeling.

The Ministry for the Future was published last fall, and thus presumably the manuscript was complete by the time the coronavirus epidemic started having a serious impact on the lives of people in the West. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to read it in 2021 without applying the lessons of the pandemic to its arguments. As we said many times over the last year and a half, coronavirus is climate change in miniature, a test of how prepared our institutions, society, and culture were for a crisis that demanded solidarity, mutual support, and a willingness to question some of the core assumptions about how our systems run. And it’s not just that the answer was “not prepared at all”. It’s that there were so many people who reacted with affront and rage to the very idea that they should change their lives even a little. So many people who were open to the most outlandish conspiracy theories rather than the simple truth.[8] So many people who were willing to take to the streets in defense of their “right” to endanger others and prolong a crisis, and so many people who were eager to exploit and exacerbate that willingness.

When Robinson writes that “When you get one pay amount, and someone doing something easier gets a thousand of that pay amount, that’s a disincentive to care about anything. At that point you throw a rock through a window, or vote for some asshole who is going to break everything”, am I not supposed to think of a woman hanging out the window of a shiny fifty-thousand dollar pickup truck, her face twisted with rage, yelling at a man wearing scrubs and a face mask? As the last year has taught us, there are a large number of people in the world whose response to a crisis is to retreat to selfishness and short-sightedness, to blame those who are weakest rather than those who are actually responsible, and to reflexively assume that the cruelest response is the best, even if it’s counter-productive. You could probably get those people to take to the streets, but what change would they agitate for?

There is, it seems to me, an insistence in this book—which is alternately touching and infuriating—on taking people as purely rational beings, whose motivations are fundamentally good, who want to do good for themselves and others, and are just missing the means, and the social organization, to do that. No space is ever given to the simple fact that there are many, many people whose structure of feeling is the exact opposite of that, and that the first step of creating a mass movement to combat climate change is going to be figuring out how to deal with them. That part of the roadmap has been left as an exercise for the reader.[9]

It probably sounds weird to say that a book that argues that the only way to overcome the greatest challenge our species has ever faced is for the global masses to come together and remake our entire financial and geopolitical system from the ground up is making things easy for itself. But that is what Robinson does when he chooses to ignore the full extent of the powers arrayed against the future he imagines. The result, for me at least, was that the book’s optimism tasted like ashes. Perhaps, in order to be optimistic, you have to believe in humanity and its fundamental goodness. As the book’s final pages insist, “the only catastrophe that can’t be undone is extinction … we can make a good place … people can take their fate in their hands”. I just wish that optimism was rooted in a world that I could recognize.

[1] That last bit of recognition apparently triggered a run on the book’s paper copies, leaving it temporarily out of print. Which is why I’m writing about it now rather than last year. Thanks, Obama.

[2] In his review of the novel in The New York Review of Books, Bill McKibben posits that Mary is a “composite of an actual former UN commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, and Christiana Figueres and Laurence Tubiana, the two diplomats who did more than any others to pull off [the Paris Climate Agreement] talks.”

[3] Frank’s rescuers theorize that his larger body mass, or better baseline health, may have given him the slight advantage that allowed him to survive when everyone around him didn’t. An allegory, in other words, for the way that the countries most responsible for climate change are also the ones more capable of weathering its effects, at least in the short term.

[4] Though it can be hard to convince yourself of this—Mary, who begins the book in early middle age and ends it in her seventies, doesn’t feel as if she’s changed at all over the course of forty years.

[5] I’m pretty sure that’s not how any of this works.

[6] On the subject of blockchain’s own environmental impact, Robinson remains strangely silent. Maria Farrell gets into this question, as well as many other issues with the novel’s approach to tech and the internet, in an excellent and thought-provoking post. It’s part of an online seminar about The Ministry for the Future at Crooked Timber, which is worth reading in its entirety.

[7] To which end it handwaves things like the anti-protest crackdowns in Hong Kong or China’s censorship of the internet, claiming that these will fade away in the face of public pressure. On the matter of the internment and abuse of the Uyghur minority, Robinson continues to have nothing to say.

[8] I sort of understood the COVID deniers, but the vaccine deniers, my god, why.

[9] It’s here that the book’s openness to ecoterrorism might have proven useful, but Robinson doesn’t make that leap, presumably because positing an ecological civil war would run counter to his optimistic project.

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