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22 October 2020

Review - The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

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The Ministry for the Future
Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, 8 October 2010
Available as: HB, 563pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN: 9780356508832

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of The Ministry for the Future.

There are two things I should make clear about The Ministry for the Future. First, it is a beautiful book, filled with hope and tragedy, and I loved it. 

Secondly, I think some readers will hate it. 

I'll try to explain why.

The Ministry for the Future is a sort of biography of the Earth over the next fifty years or so. Beginning with a cataclysmic heatwave in India in the 2020s - an event in which millions die -  it considers how humanity as a whole might tame its carbon habit. The means chosen in the first place is the creation of an organisation to speak up for the interests of future generations, of animals and plants.  Of course, once established, this organisation runs a risk of being a sop to the planet. It has to be better than that. It must influence, advocate, persuade, even twist arms. The Ministry faces the same problems as exist at the present - vested interests, the superrich, cognitive biases, apathy, fear of change and much of the book is focussed on diagnosing and addressing these.

Based in Zurich, this organisation attracts a talented group of lawyers, scientists, engineers, development workers and others who set about tackling the problem. The Ministry is personified in its head, Mary Murphy, a former Irish Minister for Foreign affairs. Murphy, though one of the most developed characters in the book, is only seen in glimpses - persuading at gatherings of central bankers or world leaders, living her (rather pleasant) life in Zurich, occasionally in meetings at the Ministry or elsewhere. In the final few chapters she does I think approach being a rounded character but for much of the book she's essentially a device to convey a viewpoint, a determination to see the work through, whatever it takes. (Early on, Murphy calls for a "black ops" wing of her organisation to apply pressure in deniable, if not frankly illegal, ways. We see some actions which possibly arise from that - though with this book it's always hard to tell, and there are many actors own this stage).

The other character we spend most time with is Frank May, a development worker caught up in that early heat wave and whose life is shattered afterwards. He becomes a drifter, living rough around Zurich and crossing paths with Murphy. Eventually they becomes friends, of a sort: perhaps he is her conscience. Frank is, though, for the most part rather one dimensional, essentially an embodiment of trauma and perhaps guilt.

There are others who we meet briefly, and sometimes return to. Most are there simply to narrate particular events or illustrate the scale of what's going on. So, there are geological engineers trying to prevent the glaciers from sloughing into the ocean. There are refugees narrating their journeys and eventual stalling in camps. There are privileged movers and shakers, for example at Davos. Protesters on the streets of Paris. And many, many more. Often these people are anonymous. More rarely we get names, and the story revisits some a number of times. Very occasionally they cross paths, and we'll suddenly realise who someone is, seen from a different perspective. I felt most of these characters were good representations of points of view or of happenings, but often little more. In some places, there are attempts, I think, to humanise them - for example by giving one person a tragic accidental death - but the sheer scale of the book and the number of voices involves militates against this, and given the scale of tragedy in the opening section, it's also curiously hard to care about such isolated events. In a different vein, there are even a few short chapters narrated by abstractions such the market, history, a photon, a carbon atom, or the Sun. 

Many sections of the book, though, while they may be loosely presented as analysis or reports by characters, are really articles or essays. The word "we" does a lot of hard work, introducing factual sections of the book as the experiences and offerings of particular populations or groups. There is an entire chapter, towards the end, which is a list, introducing the contributions and projects of a host of nations, alphabetically, to the problems of climate change and societal transformation. Hopeful and inspiring though it may be that these initiatives and approaches exist (and I believe they are all real) I would defy even the most completist of readers to actually, you know, read that chapter word for word.

Which has brought me to the reason some readers will, I think, not get on at all with The Ministry for the Future. It is very much its own type of novel: the author has thrown overboard most expressions of plot, character development or insight and indeed, largely of writing conventional fiction here. It is, in that respect, worlds away from New York 2140 which was similarly focussed on climate change but, recognisably, also a novel driven by its characters' lives and choices. 

For my part, I greatly enjoyed this book. I liked the way that Kim Stanley Robinson draws out an argument that addressing climate change will require not simply the spending of money or the passing of laws, but a complete reordering of society and its values ('What's good for the land is good for us'). At one level that makes it all seem even more daunting: at another it's a radical vision that feels achievable, paradoxically, not in spite of, but because of, the size of the task. 

I also enjoyed Mary Murphy's evolving quest, throughout this book, for the strongholds of power - pursuing the leaders, the legislators, the bankers, the economists (dismissed pretty scathingly) who all seem to shuffle off responsibility to others, combining handwriting with adroit passing on of the problem. To a degree, Murphy's approach correspondingly evolves into a kind of administrative ju-jitsu, using the system's flaws themselves for leverage on the problem. Is that feasible in reality? I don't know, any more than I know whether the idea of pumping out the water from the base of a glacier, to prevent it lubricating the ice and to slow down the rate of flow, is feasible. Thy book seems to have some good ideas which sound plausible, but I'm not a banker, I'm not an engineer, I don't know. 

All this may make The Ministry for the Future sound very dry, and indeed it is overwhelmingly factual, until the last 50 pages or so. But that's not so say there isn't excitement, even drama and danger here. A section towards the middle where Murphy is forced to trek through the alps at night (she's no climber) is a tense and beautifully described mini adventure. There are human-scale tragedies here alongside the planetary ones, even if they play a rather minor role in the book.

Above all I think this book does convey a sense of hope - something we certainly need right now. Remember, revolutions are built on hope - and if there's one thing this book does assume and, I think, go a fair way to establishing, it's the radical, the revolutionary, changes that are needed in the coming decades to avert catastrophe. So let's hang on to our hope!

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here.

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