Review of The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit Publishing, 2020)
Kim Stanley Robinson is a “dues-paying member” of DSA, he told an interviewer in 2019. As much or more to the point, he is a brilliant science fiction novelist with two of the trade’s top awards (the Hugo ) to his credit and a canon-deep focus on climate and society. As far back as his initial novels about a post-climate crash California, through his double-Hugo tour de force trilogy about geoengineering Mars from red to green to blue, to his latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, Robinson has put well-crafted human characters into struggle with climate change, its criminally negligent causes and its varied effects. Interspersed with the narrative are vignettes that have the flavor of nonfiction news accounts or encyclopedia articles of the future (thanks, Asimov) and range from accounts of J. M. Keynes’ failed attempt to keep the US dollar from being the global index currency to newsy stories about the not-so-mysterious deaths of climate criminals as their Learjets are brought down by the superior tech of the Children of Kali, climate terrorists extraordinaire.
Most novelists — including Robinson — who tackle any broad theme will nevertheless focus, per the dramatic conventions, on one crucial, pivotal timespan when history changes via human agency. He did this in Forty Signs of Rain, in which unlikely heroes working for the National Science Foundation save the planet from the sudden reversal of the Gulf Stream. In the 2017 novel New York 2140, at which time Manhattan is submerged up to the third floor of most buildings by sea-level rise, the politics of creating change are more granular, beginning with New York City and slowly gaining traction at the national level. Robinson’s novels about climate change and human agency have steadily become more like the history of the future that characterizes the best science fiction, not blue-sky, not hinging on road-to-Damascus reversals of belief by those in power, but programmatic in a way that feels as though it could be imported into a strategy document.
Robinson, in The Ministry of the Future, patterns his narrative and expositive pieces to bring the reader along as a “structure of feeling” (a term borrowed from and credited to Raymond Williams) evolves in response to the drastically deteriorating global environment. The cool desperation of the Children of Kali emerges from the novel’s first set-piece, a devastating heat wave that kills nearly a half-million in northern India inside a week and brings, as well, a radical public rejection of the Modi-like Hindu-nationalist party in power. India becomes a leader among nations aiming to reverse climate change.
Two characters drive the narrative. Mary Murphy, a former top minister in Ireland, is tapped by the UN to lead the Ministry for the Future, a poorly-funded appendage agency of the Paris Agreement tasked to represent on behalf of the people of the future, who have no voice yet. Frank May, an American NGO worker who is the only survivor of that first great Indian heat wave, nearly dies and emerges essentially insane, racked by PTSD and by guilt that it was probably his own body’s resilience, as a product of a US upbringing, that kept him alive when everyone else, less privileged, died around him.
The paths of Murphy and May cross often, notably when he kidnaps her to harangue her about not doing enough to reverse climate change — and their cautious relationship animates the novel further.
Mary Murphy runs a good show and manages to nudge the globe’s energy sources, inch by inch, out of the fossil fuel orbit and into renewables. The Children of Kali (who may or may not be associated with the “Black Wing” of her own agency) do their part to alter the global “structure of feeling” by blowing up the odd airplane (but not “airships,” the buoyant passenger dirigibles that perforce become popular) and knocking off or snatch-terrorizing the Davos Men in no particular order.
The narrative is interspersed with not only gems of exposition but occasional step-back historical accounts that omnisciently cover over a decade or more, outlining successes and failures cross-nationally in the at times desperate struggle to keep conditions from getting worse, climate refugees from sparking full-on conflict in their destinations and commerce from failing before it can be altered to preserve critical supply chains for the essentials. As one might expect from this skilled novelist, some of the escapes from climate disaster are cliffhangers indeed. Murphy and her cohorts in the Ministry, despite setbacks, exemplify the faith in accurate data and analysis (which are sometimes used to deftly subvert institutions that persist in ignoring them). Although the arc of the moral universe does not bend toward justice, the curve of climate disaster is slowly, spasmodically bent. As many readers might expect, the resistance to bending the curve is strongest in the US.
If this review sounds like a recommendation for a policy blueprint, well, yes, it is. At the same time many readers will find that it has the juice of a good novel, science fiction but animated by recognizable characters whose struggle will seem pretty meaningful. A Green New Deal is our immediate goal, but in The Ministry for the Future, we as ecosocialists may recognize a more likely, and strife-filled, path.