The Ministry for the Future

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.

This novel by Kim Stanley Robinson begins with the future so many of us dread, a future of climate apocalypse. (A very near future — the book is set mostly in the 2030s.) The biggest disaster is a heat wave in India that kills hundreds of thousands of people. But there also worldwide water shortages and mass extinctions, and a flood eventually wipes out Los Angeles. So the countries that signed the Paris Agreement decide to get it together and start a ministry that will find actual solutions that work. At the same time, climate activists are taking violent action to bring the crisis to the attention of the wealthy who are sheltered from its effects.

This is the first book I’ve read by Kim Stanley Robinson, and I had the impression that his writing was cold and too technical, very hard scifi. Although I would say this book is more idea-driven than character-driven, the ideas are ones that put people at the center. People suffer, people strive, people find solutions, people survive. The tech is always a means to that end. (And there’s not that much tech. When the books gets technical, it’s about things like monetary policy.)

All that said, it took me a while to get into the rhythm of this book. The chapters are very short, and a lot of them don’t do much to advance the story. The main plot, such as it is, involves Mary, the head of the new Ministry for the Future, as she tries to bring together different players to fix all the systems, whether scientific, political, or economic, that contribute to the climate disaster. And her story dovetails with that of Frank, a survivor of the Indian heat wave who is trying to find some way to take action. The chapters about Mary and Frank are interspersed with first person narratives of climate refugees, protesters, and survivors; essays about what different groups are doing and have done to respond to the disaster; an account of an effort to stop glacial melting in Antarctica; and odd little first-person pieces by “the market” or “the photon” and so on. The different narratives aren’t labelled, and the whole thing felt really chaotic. I found myself fascinated by the ideas but annoyed by the format.

Eventually, though, I adapted to the style and started really enjoying it. What I liked best is that Robinson puts a lot more effort and imagination into thinking through possible solutions than in imagining every facet of the disaster. The overall ethos of the society that comes into being around can be summed up by the quote at the top of this post. Everyone will have enough. Some of the specifics include: Regulating businesses so that those at the top of the company do not earn anything more than 10 times those at the bottom, and those at the bottom must earn at least a living wage. Creating a new currency earned by drawing down carbon. Developing wilderness corridors to protect species from extinction. Using wind and solar for sea transport and airships. Urban co-ops. International passports for long-term refugees. Learning from the best of every nation. (India, having been early to the disaster, is a leader in solutions.)

Robinson’s vision may be a pie-in-the-sky dream. (And even within this dream, some problems, like interpersonal racism, persist.) But I think it’s important to have big dreams of what could be done to solve the current crisis. A lot of us have, in recent years, thought a lot about how society could be unmade in the worst possible ways. Robinson presents a vision of how society could be unmade and replaced with something better. I’m sure there are flaws in his system, but I appreciate the willingness to imagine. Because some ideas within these imaginings could be exactly what we need.

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4 Responses to The Ministry for the Future

  1. Jeanne says:

    I like having read this book. I like thinking about the ideas now more than I did right after I read it, and I think of them often as I read the newspapers. Someone in the comments to my post about it pointed out that the short chapters are characteristic of KSR’s style

    • Teresa says:

      I agree with your review that some of it could have been cut out to make the storytelling better. But the ideas were so interesting that I was happy to have the opportunity to think about them, and I’m sure I’ll continue thinking about them.

  2. DoingDewey says:

    This sounds like a fascinating read! The format actually sounds really awesome to me; I love books composed of many different document types. The quote you shared at the top is fantastic and I like that this book focuses on the hopeful possibility for solutions over the details of the disaster.

    • Teresa says:

      I normally love the use of different documents in a book, but without chapter headings, I kept getting thrown off about what I was reading. There are details about how bad it gets at the very beginning, but once you get through that, it’s much more about possibilities, and I loved that.

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