Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future

cover art for Ministry for the FutureI live in the Pacific Northwest. My awareness of and anxiety about climate change have been heightened by recent events. Particularly the cloud of dense, unhealthy smoke that enveloped the region for weeks on end from wildfires in 2019 and 2020, and the deadly heat wave of June 2021 that saw temperatures here reach 115 or more. But nothing has boosted my climate consciousness like The Ministry for the Future. It has left me trembling – simultaneously with anxiety and a tiny bit of hope.

Robinson has long written science fiction on environmental themes. According to a profile of Robinson by Joshua Rothman in the January 24, 2022, issue of The New Yorker (which I encourage you to read right now) he’s a curious creature who loves strenuous minimalist backpacking in the High Sierra and attending scientific conferences and symposia that most mortals would find stultifyingly dull. He often combines aspects of those things in his fiction, and he does so again very effectively in The Ministry for the Future.

I’ve read a lot of SF set in a future, either very or somewhat distant, that takes climate disaster as a given, looking back on bad things that happened. Neal Stephenson in SevenEves used a natural disaster involving the moon that destroyed all life on Earth in a very short timeframe, which can be read as a stand-in for the slower but still very immediate climate catastrophe. But to my knowledge nobody has written a book that is so frighteningly set in the very near future, about the actual disaster that is occurring right now and on into the future.

This is a hefty tome of nearly 600 pages in hard cover, and I had a hard time tearing myself away from it. Much of the reason is its clever structure. It has two major characters, three if you count the Earth itself (and really that’s what Robinson is arguing for). The two people are Mary Murphy, an Irish international diplomat who heads the book’s titular agency, and Frank May, a young American whose violent encounter with Mary changes her life in unexpected ways and also acts as a catalyst for actions she takes that may end up saving the biosphere. The chapters devoted to Mary and Frank are narrated in a near-omniscient third person voice. But they are interspersed with chapters that play with perspective. Some are first person narratives of people around the world who are affected by the climate disaster and by the agency’s efforts to slow it. Some take the form of notes made by an anonymous bureaucrat in Ministry meetings. Some are anonymous conversations between two individuals debating philosophical points of science, history, economics, and politics. Some read like anonymous first person plural reports back from the future, and some of the briefer ones are in the voice of … well, so-called inanimate things and concepts like history, the economy, and photons.

So, it’s a fairly complex narrative that tells a fairly simple tale. How humanity finally comes to realize that they must do something about the climate disaster, and that there are things they actually can do. And that therefore they must. And how that works out in the short term.

The catalyzing event, which forms the first chapter, is a tremendous heat wave in India that kills something like 10 million people. Frank is an aid worker in a town in the hardest hit area, and – due to a bunch of factors that add up to white privilege – is the town’s only survivor. Even he barely survives, and he’s left with severe PTSD, survivor’s guilt, and probably other mental health issues that drive him toward taking extreme action. Frank becomes a microcosm and avatar of the effects of climate change on the planet itself, as his plight, his actions, and his words move Mary and the Ministry toward more extreme actions themselves.

Robinson does a masterful job through his narrative of helping the reader perceive the way everything on earth is interrelated. One very small example is an early visit by Mary to an Italian restaurant in Zurich called Mamma Mia!, and then later, having a character ecstatically chanting those words during a Gaia Day event celebrating some of the movement’s early victories. Lots of little things like that.

There are some problematic aspects of The Ministry for the Future. The biggest is Robinson’s enthusiastic advocacy of blockchain or cryptocurrency. He makes a very strong case for its necessity as a way of fighting corruption and wealth disparity, as well as a means of creating a way of paying businesses, industry, and individuals for reducing the use of carbon or increasing carbon sequestration. But never does he address the insane levels of energy use required to run blockchain currency, not even to gloss it off with a promise that it can be powered by renewables.

Another is his acceptance of petro-nations that switch from creation of fuels to creation of plastics as a more benign use of petroleum. It seems insane to worry about mass extinction of oceanic wildlife on the one hand while being okay with an increase of microplastics in the ocean for those that are still alive.

I wish I could share the even limited sense of optimism that Robinson puts forth in Ministry. I’d like to think that at some point before it’s too late, enough of humanity will decide to do the right thing. Recent political trends do not leave me hopeful that this will happen. (Maybe, just maybe, the younger generation that has begun to mobilize, especially in the global south, will make some headway.) But The Ministry for the Future is an important book to read, if only to wake some of us up and challenge us to take action. It is also a good story well told that I found compellingly readable. And if enough people read it, who knows? Maybe the seeds it plants will grow.

(Orbit/Hachette Book Group, 2020)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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