Review by Brendan Myers.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry For The Future is a 2021 novel about a global diplomatic and humanitarian institution by the same name, commissioned to be the voice of future generations whenever there’s any kind of international trade or legal or diplomatic negotiations going on. Since the most important problems that future generations are likely to face all have to do with climate change, the novel follows the Ministry’s people as they try to persuade the world to do something about it, as soon as possible. Their main obstacles are the climate crisis itself, as well as the apathy of others, some of whom remain apathetic even while a flurry of man-made natural disasters happen all around them, and sometimes to them. It’s a high-concept story painted on a very big canvass, with a lot of moving parts, a highly experimental style, and delivered with a sense of great urgency. It is, to be quite ‘frank’ (you’ll see), a difficult book. It asks the reader for a lot of attention and patience. But being a novel by KSR, you know when you read it that you’re in the hands of a master. So, the big question for the reader has to be: is it worth it to keep reading?
Let’s try some easier questions. What genre is it? Science fiction? Climate fiction? Is it even fiction? It’s rather hard to say. And is that a strength of the novel, or a weakness? Also hard to say. Never mind, those questions were not any easier at all.
So what is it?
First of all, it’s like a master class in all the things your editors and writing coaches told you not to do. Linear-that-feels-like-nonlinear storytelling. Major plot events taking place off stage. Unlikeable main characters. Telling and not showing. Whole chapters where nothing happens. Dialogue scenes where we’re not told who is doing the talking. Yet somehow, by the power of KSR, it works.
Science fiction is, among other things, the branch of literature where some kind of plausible but as-yet-nonexistent science and technology figures into the plot in some important way. The featured science is usually physics, chemistry, biology, or engineering, corresponding to the four most common themes of science fiction: space travel, time travel, artificial intelligence, and aliens. But it can be any kind of science. The featured science at the centre of Asimov’s Foundation, for instance, is sociology. At the centre of Dune, it’s political science, and ecology. So, what is it in KSR’s The Ministry For The Future? It’s economics, with a dash of glaciology. That caught me by surprise.
Good SF surprises. In Rob Sawyer’s Calculating God, the featured science is paleontology.
But science fiction is ultimately about people— like all good fiction, of any kind. And in The Ministry For The Future, there’s a lot of people. The first major character we meet is called Frank—
Don’t all of KSR’s novels have a Frank in it?
All the ones I’ve read so far. Who are you, and what are you doing in my book review?
I’m your co-reviewer. A part of your brain that we segmented like a hard drive, so you could have someone to riff with you. Hey, if KSR can write a book like this, you can write the review this way too.
Okay, But everyone will think I’m being pretentious.
And they’d be right. But never mind them. Now, what were you saying about Frank?
He goes from being a sympathetic well-meaning fellow trying to help his neighbours survive an unsurvivable situation, to being a traumatised and unlikeable wildman with very little agency and not much personality. Things mostly happen to him, and he adapts, or fails to adapt, as the case may be.
The next major character we meet is Mary, the head of an international scientific and diplomatic organization, the very Ministry named in the book’s title, who also has rather little agency— because her Ministry has rather little agency. At least at first. Her job is not so much to come up with the plan, as to bring the people with the plan together with the people who can make the plan happen. Her story was the backbone of the novel: on her rested the possibility of an answer to the novel’s dramatic question.
“Will the Ministry find a way to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and persuade the world to do it?”
I thought good novels are about people, not institutions.
They can be about both. This one is about both. But it’s mostly about people.
Who else, then?
There’s maybe a dozen others who appear in only one or two chapters. Refugees, trapped in a refugee camp, some of them after fleeing a fishing ship where they were slaves in all but name. A waitress in LA, when the city is drowned in a flood. Various scientists in Antarctica, testing the water beneath an ice sheet. A photon, leaving the sun and coming to Earth. The global market, introducing itself to the reader like a kind of mortal god. It seems KSR wants to tell a global story, since the climate crisis is itself a global story: decentralized, widely distributed across space and time, showing different faces to different people. The Ministry gives you the big picture, these vignettes and walk-on characters show you the small.
And it shows how the climate crisis wrecks their lives in different ways?
Absolutely wrecks them. That’s just about the correct word here. The first chapter itself— I can spoil it because it’s been given away as a preview in lots of places on the web— shows Frank surviving a horrific heat wave in India. And I mean horrific. Like, the scene is inflicted on the reader.
Like the climate crisis itself, then.
Nor is it the only such unnatural-natural disaster we get thrown into.
When science fiction looks into the future, it does so either in the mode of aspiration, or in the mode of warning. It’s either Star Trek, or it’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Most of this book is warning. All good writing is activist writing: that is, writing that wants to change something about the real world we live in. KSR wants no more climate skeptics and climate agnostics. No more fence sitters. We can’t roll dice with humanity’s future anymore. So, to drive that point home, he gives us a warning. But also an aspiration. A stick, but also a carrot.
So if the climate disaster scenes are the sticks, what is the carrot?
Carbon quantitative easing.
Like I said.
I was expecting giant space mirrors. Or some kind of tech-magic that sucks carbon out of the air and turns it into gold. Or a fleet of rockets that carries the human race to another planet.
The era of the pulps was a long time ago. And anyway, one-shot solutions to distributed problems do not exist.
So, no dashing Heinlein-esque heroes fighting alien monsters then?
Well, there is the guy who runs the Ministry’s black-ops wing. But we don’t see much of him, nor much of what he does. It all happens behind the curtain. Of our main heroes: one of them is a basket case, the other is a diplomat. The rest are just trying to get by.
And the alien monster?
Is the climate crisis itself.
Do Mary and Frank defeat it?
Not telling, because spoilers.
Shit. Well, then. What did you say that carrot was?
Carbon quantitative easing.
A kind of global cryptocurrency that pays you for doing things that suck carbon out of the atmosphere, or that prevent its release. The novel will explain it for you.
So, is it a novel, or an an economics textbook?
It’s a kind of history textbook from the future. Both fiction and nonfiction, both story and textbook.
Maybe that’s why rather a lot of nonfiction publishers are promoting the author these days. The Economist. SETI. The Long Now Foundation. Bioneers. Wired. Jacobin. The Guardian. It’s as though his marketing team is securing his stature as a one of the top public intellectuals of our time. A kind of influencer for activists and policy wonks instead of for fashionistas on Instagram.
Jealous, are we?
No. I don’t begrudge him success. I just want to know when my turn is coming.
So, envious, then.
Maybe a little. But let’s get back to the book.
Yes. Did you even like it? Given all the things you’ve said so far, I can’t really tell.
Yes, I liked it. I’m glad I read it. In fact I gave a copy to my partner, so she could read it too. But I probably won’t read it twice. For one thing, it’s very dark. Who in this Coronavirus-exhausted, anti-intellectual culture of ours wants to read a book that requires a working knowledge of hard fields like economics and climate science, a strong tolerance for disaster journalism and stylistic experimentalism, and some open-mindedness to geo-engineering and global institution-building?
Yeah, but I’m exactly that kind of nerd. Can’t say there are many more such nerds out there like me.
Should I read it, even if I’m not one of those nerds?
Yes, you should. But after you’re done, maybe go read something with more likeable main characters. Phillip Pullman’s The Book Of Dust, for instance.
Doesn’t that novel also include a massive climate disaster? A flood that covers most of England?
Oh yeah, it does. Never mind.