Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Title: The Ministry for the Future
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 😉 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 😉 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.