Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)

Author: Kim Stanley Robinson

Title: The Ministry for the Future

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 576

Ola is somewhere in the woods, counting on me posting something this week, so I’m motivated to actually deliver on my resolution to write more in 2021 πŸ˜‰ There are some reviews I planned for weeks, like one of the excellent Lovecraft Country, but that can wait, as I just finished reading something big and quite popular around here. The Ministry for the Future is the latest brick by Kim Stanley Robinson, a serious and prolific author who seems to start with choosing a specific topic and develop his characters and plot from there. It might be a neolithic society he so plausibly depicts in Shaman, or humanity reimagining itself to withstand the climate change – in this one. It was quite favourably reviewed by Andreas and Bart, and so I decided to get it from Book Depository, in what might be my last order there, as they had to pause sending books here due to Brexit.

Shaman wasn’t the most thrilling of novels I’ve ever read. It was rather slow, had a limited cast of characters and a plot to fit the scale of small hunter gatherer societies at the dawn of humanity. But it was amazing! A very rewarding book, immersing the reader in the most ancient history of our species. Was it a reconstruction? No, we will never be able to fully learn how the culture was born, what these people thought and believed in. But this is as close as we can come to it right now, a very believable speculation. And, ultimately, stuff happens, this really is a novel. I’m a patient reader, I loved it!

One other novel dealing with this stage of history that comes to my mind is The Inheritors by William Golding. I really like Golding, and even acknowledge his greatness (Lord of the Flies is among my all-time favourites), but this was just a morality tale decrying the alleged wickedness of Homo sapiens sapiens from the perspective of the Noble Savages that Golding claimed the Neanderthals to be. Not recommended. Robinson approaches the topic with much humility, and research, and gets a result that is not only better as the prehistoric novel, but even, I’d say, more universal in describing human condition.

So it wasn’t hard to convince me to read another one by Robinson. The Ministry for the Future takes on a very important topic that is lately, understandably, overshadowed by the pandemic. Which does not make it any less urgent. It’s a novel and we’re the readers, so we can approach it any way we want, but I see it as a voice in discussion, an optimistic view of what can actually be done to prevent the Anthropocene from being the last epoch of life on this planet. As Andreas wrote: this clifi is (…) less of a plot, more of a speculative extrapolation. Robinson takes the current state of Earth and proposes a scenario of what could be done to decelerate the harmful changes.

That it is, a scenario, with a small group of characters, two main, some recurring, and small chapters (106 in a 576 page book!) some of which tell a short story, some describe a larger event or a process… Robinson focuses on certain places and issues and revisits them regularly, while other, of huge importance, are only mentioned in passing. Reading that was like reconstructing what happened from a fragmentary recollections and newspaper clippings. I enjoyed it immensely, but it’s not for every reader – it’s not a character driven story, nor is it plot driven, but rather an issue driven one.

Plot is centred around an international organization formed after a disastrous heatwave claims lives of millions of people in 2020-ties (!). Ministry for the Future is based in Zurich and led by Mary, an Irish diplomat who is one of the main characters. The other is Frank, an American who barely survived said heatwave.

Places are also heroes of this story. Zurich, a city I’m told is beautiful, if obsessed with order and cleanliness – and that’s how it’s presented here. Antarctic, with its melting glaciers. California, trying to deal with the rising temperatures and a legacy of XX century urban development. India, in this vision able to match its best traditions and current energies to lead the way.

The collective hero is humanity, fighting against a soulless, purposeless – but powerful – antagonist. An accelerating change caused by the actions of its past and present members that might deprive our – and most of the other – species of any future. The fight is costly, and most of the gains will be felt by the future generations. Society, economy and politics are not equipped to deal with it. Technology by itself is, contrary to the hopes, not enough. Robinson questions some of the very basis of our human world and show a reality when they are reformed to meet the challenge.

Reforms are gradual, met by hard resistance from the many people who believe the cost in privileges lost is too high. There are pressures from all sides, long term, careful plans of the Ministry, various nation-states and their institutions. Market crashes and revolutions. Terrorism. Cost in human lives is counted in millions.

Robinson’s solutions are possible. There’s no magic, no help from outer space, no unexpected inventions that would instantly solve any of the big problems we face. Still, it’s optimistic. Utopian. Shows a belief in the strength and ingenuity of the human race and our ability to reinvent ourselves. There is no end to history, no final state some of us used to think we achieved not so long ago. This is its another chapter, with the new institutions and ways of thinking taking shape to replace what proved not to work. Humans here are not destined for extinction, not yet anyway. They are given a new chance.

I learned new things, and I feel better, but I also feel we’re succeeding a bit too easy in Robinson’s scenario. I always preferred dystopias, they usually seem more realistic πŸ˜‰ Something brutal and hopeless like Bacigalupi’s Water Knife… that I, to my own surprise, actually scored a bit lower than this… huh, even an old cynic like myself needs his utopias! I’m happy I read this, as my true utopia of Culture won’t happen in my lifetime…

We could try to view this solely as a work of fiction, of science fiction that only needs to be coherent within its universe, with no necessary relation to the real world. But it’s clearly not the author’s intention and a completely apolitical interpretation would be missing something important about it. I happen to agree with the author and it made me score the book quite highly. I’d be interested in a serious review from a dissenter, but I feel the target audience are people on the same side as Robinson.

Score: 8/10

39 thoughts on “Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)

  1. Thanks for the link! I think you do the book justice, so I can’t offer any other view point. I do think in a way it is unique to KSR’s oeuvre as I try to explain in my own review.

    It would indeed be interesting to read a serious review from a dissenter. Most negative reviews I’ve read so far BASE their judgement on one of two things: either they say the science to solve things is bullshit, or people nag at the ostensibly lacking plot. There’s tons of plot here, I’d say.

    I enjoyed the Water Knife a lot too by the way – even though I DNFed The Wind Up Girl. Curious what he’ll published next, if he does so.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. piotrek

      Thanks πŸ™‚ Well, the structure is not that of a regular novel, and the plot is fragmented. It’s mostly about the issue, the way climate changes and human attempts to slow that down is what moves the story, there’s not that much apart from that.

      Water Knife that I used for comparison, that is a regular, fast-paced story that takes place on the background of climate catastrophe, a design much more palatable for many readers.

      Me? I liked both πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      1. True, but the trauma of Frank and the arc of the director – both her personal live and that of the agency aren’t just to be brushed aside. Also all the stuff with the black ops, the violence, the politics… More than enough plot for me, and it’s not shallow either, especially Frank is heartfelt.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. piotrek

          Not to be brushed aside, but both are pretty short for a novel of this size. And the rest is sketches, good sketches that serve important purpose, mind you πŸ™‚


  2. Good review πŸ™‚
    Two arguments that I’d like to point out:
    1. KSR is always political (far leftist), I don’t think that any work by him can be read without that context.
    2. His SF works are optimistic by default, an “angry optimism” in his own words. Because he thinks that dystopian narrations are depressing and have less impact on society than a solution oriented positive work. He once explained his stance as β€œpessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”
    Maybe that’s why I really like to read his works. They are not depressing (I can do that perfectly well to myself without help of any book, thank you very much), and they address topics that I’m interested in – the role of internet giants in our cyberpunkish world; climate; perverse disbalance in capitalism.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. piotrek

      Thanks! It’s my second book of his, and I don’t know that much about the man himself, although much filters through his novels. Can you recommend a good online resource to learn more, an in-depth profile that would go beyond Wikipedia, or an interview somewhere?

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Sounds good to me and mysterious at that. I can appreciate the optimism and a quest for moving forward in the best way possible. I can look at different viewpoints as unbiasedly as possible, so this could be something I get into later on this year. Thank you for the recommendation, piotrek.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. After a rocky – and failed – start with Red Mars many years ago, I never tried reading anything else by KSR, but your review (after other ones I read about his various works) convinced me I need to give him a second chance one of these days…
    Thanks for sharing! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I guess I should be more careful what I wish for. I wanted more posts by you and then I get one based on KSR.
    The man makes Arthur Clarke look like a far right neocon.

    Whatever. I am glad to see you actually doing a post πŸ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

  6. To be clear, I was never in the woods – camping on the beaches and at lake shores, sure, but not in the woods! πŸ˜€

    This is one of the books I intend to read – though I need to dose KSR’s novels carefully, as it’s easy to get too much of the good thing. A novel of ideas is an apt description of KSR’s oeuvre (at least the portion that I have read) – the characters’ development is not much to speak of at best of times, and the things happening to them can only generously be called a plot. But there is always an overarching plot, where the protagonists usually play a significant yet small role – as the plot concerns whole societies or even planets.

    I wouldn’t call KSR “far leftist,” though – “far left” right now brings for me associations with cancel culture, tribal exclusivity and revolutionary zeal, and KSR is none of these. To me, he’s more of a European liberal Green than anything else. Besides, by calling KSR “far leftist” I’d have to call myself “far leftist,” and that just wouldn’t do πŸ˜›

    Liked by 2 people

    1. piotrek

      Thanks, it’s nice of you to make this offer, but as a rule I don’t. And I’m so far behind with my reading & writing plans…


  7. This was such an interesting review to read! I don’t think this would be the right book for me, but it is interesting and I would keep it in mind if the mood or the moment would call for something like this one. Thanks for sharing!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      You’re welcome & thanks πŸ™‚ It’s definitely catering to a specific group of readers, and I don’t think this is where one should start with this subgenre, or even KSR as an author.

      Liked by 1 person

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  9. I have only read one book by KSR, Red Moon, and found that, apparently in this one too, that he sure loves to keep things grounded in plausible futures rather than hard science-fiction demanding the suspension of belief. In Red Moon, he sort extrapolates on current politico-environmental issues to establish the possibility of living on a moon but his idea was overshadowed by his characters and whatever romance was going on. It is nice to see, however, a scifi writer who writes with optimism rather than depicting a dystopia though! Great review, Piotrek!

    Liked by 1 person

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