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The Ministry for the Future

March 1, 2021

I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel The Ministry for the Future because I was curious after reading Stefanie’s mostly positive review at A Stone in the River. My impression is less positive, which is not to say there aren’t good things in this novel. But Robinson can’t rein in his pedantic impulses or his volubility, which means that there might be a good 300-page novel lurking in these 563 pages.

The first thing a good editor would cut are the short “informative” chapters about the fossil fuel industry (Chapter 8) or what “ideology” means (Chapter 11). The worst of these short chapters pretend to be written from the points of view of various nonsentient entities, ideas, or categories. For example, a photon (Chapter 53: “I zing and I ping and I bring and I bling”), carbon (Chapter 66: “you think your birth was hard—my mom exploded”), taxes (Chapter 67: “taxes are interesting”), or history (Chapter 77: “everyone knows me but no one can tell me”).

Robinson is an experienced enough story-teller to begin with his most compelling story, the imagined experience of a young American aid worker who gets caught in an unprecedented heat wave in India and ends up being the only person left alive in a small “ordinary town in Uttar Pradesh,” near Lucknow. After the story, though, the author’s pedantic impulse kicks in and he has to frame the story for us by saying:
“For a while…it looked like the great heat wave would be like mass shootings in the United States—mourned by all, deplored by all, and then immediately forgotten or superseded by the next one, until they came in a daily drumbeat and became the new normal. It looked quite possible that the same thing would happen with this event, the worst week in human history. How long would that stay true, about being the worst week? And what could anyone do about it? Easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism: the old saying had grown teeth and was taking on a literal, vicious accuracy.”

The fictional premise of the novel is that after the heat wave, India takes the lead on climate change action. Robinson has created a character that helps draw a reader through the story, the head of the Ministry for the Future, Mary Murphy. Mary and the people she works with are smart and they have ideals but work towards them in a realistic way, for the most part. As you get to know them, you admire their dedication and enjoy some of their conversations:
“When have people ever told the truth about this particular question?”
“People? Do you mean scientists or politicians?”
“Politicans of course. Scientists aren’t people.”
“I thought it was the reverse!”
“Neither scientists nor politicians are people.”
“Careful now. Mary here is a politician, and I’m a scientist.”
“No. You are both technocrats.”
“So, that means we are scientific politicians?”
“Or political scientists. Which is to say, politicized scientists. Given that political science is a different thing entirely.”
“Political science is a fake thing, if you ask me. Or at least it has a fake name. I mean, where’s the science in it?”
“Statistics, maybe?”
“No. They just want to sound solid. They’re history at best, economics at worst.”
“I sense a poli sci major here, still living the trauma.”
“It’s true!”

Eventually, however, you find out that the ministry has a dark side. After listening to the man who survived the Indian heat wave, Mary decides to encourage a “dark ops” division involved in international terrorism. Some of this is horrifying; the division head in charge believes that “there might be some people who deserve to be killed” and readers are led to believe that he involves the ministry in actions that kill people, starting with “Crash Day,” when “sixty passenger jets crashed in a matter of hours. All over the world, flights of all kinds, although when the analyses were done it became clear that a disproportionate number of these flights had been private of business jets, and the commercial flights that had gone down had mostly been occupied by business travelers. But people, innocent people, flying for all kinds of reasons; all dead. About seven thousand people died that day, ordinary civilians going about their lives….The War for the Earth is often said to have begun on Crash Day. And it was later that same year when container ships began to sink, almost always close to land.” After that, the narrator tells us, a group “announced that mad cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, had been cultured and introduced by drone dart into millions of cattle all over the world….Nothing could stop these cattle from sickening and dying in a few years, and if eaten their disease could migrate into human brains, where it manifested as Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and was invariably fatal.”

Some of the terrorism seems less horrifying, though, like the takeover of the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, when we get a participant’s view of what it was like to be held captive and forced to watch videos about the state of the world:
“The educational materials we were exposed to got universally bad reviews. So many clichés! First films of hungry people in poor places….It was like looking at the longest charity advertisement ever made….And it was despite all a sobering sight to see how the poorest people on Earth still lived….Often statistics appeared on the big screen; yes, PowerPoint shows, a true punishment. That a tenth of one percent of the human population owned half humanity’s wealth—that was us, yay! That half the human population alive at that moment had no assets except their own potential labor power which was much weakened by poor health and education, that was definitely too bad. But blaming this on capitalism was wrong, we told these non-listening boring people; there would be eight billion poor people if it weren’t for capitalism! But whatever. The figures kept coming, graph after graph, repeated in ways that were not even close to compelling….The finale to all the propaganda was a long lecture telling us that the current world order was only working for the elites, and even for us it wouldn’t work for long. We were simply strip-mining the lifeworld, as one Germanic voice from the screen put it.”
The way this episode is told, from the point of view of an attendee who jets off afterwards to “decompress in Tahiti,” makes it funny and sad, a good story with a clear moral but less preachy than the other stories in this very long novel.

Throughout the novel, we get accounts of climate change disasters. The city that ran out of water on September 11, 2034. The entire LA basin flooded by torrential rain in the surrounding mountains. A heat wave “that hit Arizona, then New Mexico and west Texas, then east Texas, then Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and the Florida panhandle.” And the narrator points out that the lack of reaction to these disasters was a manifestation of “a universal cognitive disability, in that people had a very hard time imagining that catastrophe could happen to them, until it did. So until the climate was actually killing them, people had a tendency to deny it could happen. To others, yes; to them no.”

Robinson’s contempt for some of the people he pretends to be concerned about saving is clear. In the Midwest, for example, climate change activists are forced to “go to county supervisors, and town council meetings, and church meetings, and state legislature meetings, and county fairs, and trade shows, and school assemblies, and every kind of meeting, all the meetings no one ever thinks to go to and deeply regrets goin to the moment they do.” His activists make the sacrifice because they are determined to save these ignorant Midwesterners from themselves by moving them to the big coastal cities in order to make room for wildlife corridors.

Some of the most interesting ideas are the “carbon coin” and the internet site “YourLock.” The carbon coin “stimulated many short-term investments in carbon sequestration projects, and many longer-term investments in the coin itself. It had caused some of the biggest carbon owners to cash out and keep fossil carbon in the ground….Coal had become just a black rock you could turn into money by leaving it alone.” The social media site YourLock “was organized as a co-op owned by its users, after which you had secured your data in a quantum-encrypted cage and could use it as a negotiable asset in the global data economy, agreeing to sell your data or not to data-mining operations out there who quickly saw the lay of the land and began to offer people micro-payments for their data, mainly health information, consumption patterns, and finance.”

Another interesting idea that may be too pie-in-the-sky to work is a maximum wage ratio: “who is incentivized to do what in a wage ratio of one to a thousand? Those getting a thousand time more than starting wage earners, what’s their incentive from out of that situation? To hide, I’d say. To hide the fact that they don’t actually do a thousand times more than their employees….And for the lowest income folks, what’s their incentive? ….I hope I win the lottery, or, I’m going to shoot up now, or, The world is sofucked. You hear that kind of thing, right? Maybe incentive isn’t the word here. Disincentive, to keep it in that lingo. When you get one pay amount, and someone doing something easier ets a thousand of that pay amount, that’s a disincentive to care about anything. At that point you throw a rock through a window, or vote for some asshole who is going to break everything, which may give you a chance to start over, and if that doesn’t work then at least you have said fuck you to the thousand-getters.”

Because he wants to solve all the problems, Robinson even has a picture of how refugees could be given “world citizenship.”

One of the failures of imagination in this novel is the way it completely ignores the plight of anyone with limited mobility. Mary Murphy continues to get around her mountainous city on foot until the end of her life, as one guesses the novelist expects everyone to be able to. We’re not all so lucky, however, and there are no ideas about accommodations for those who can’t walk well or negotiate stairs to climb into the idyllic-sounding airships or sailboats in this work of fiction.

I think more fiction and less preaching would get Robinson’s message further, maybe even to those who don’t already agree with him.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. March 1, 2021 12:39 am

    Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Old fans will wonder if this is the line that shouldn’t have been crossed; young ones won’t happen. Preaching invariably turns people off.

    Too bad – the name recognition is amazing, and it will probably be on some awards lists, but fiction still has to entertain – IMNVHO.

    • March 1, 2021 7:47 am

      Oh, I don’t know; this author has been preaching to the choir for a while now. It’s been a while since I read anything by him and I was prepared to give him another chance.

      • March 1, 2021 10:53 am

        Generous of you – I bail much earlier.

        I find myself very impatient with my reading these days: it cuts into writing time, whether I plan on letting it or not, and it has to justify its existence.

        I think the older you get, the less you are willing to waste of what’s left. I am not, anyway. I have a library downstairs, and I have a hard time finding something to read!

  2. March 1, 2021 2:07 am

    Editors won’t dare to cut out those chapters because they are trademark KSR. One kind of expects them from him. But then again, I‘m a fanboi 😁
    I don’t praise each and every book from him (some of them are 3 stars), but I liked this book quite well:

    • March 1, 2021 7:46 am

      I think you’re right that this one is an update of previous novels. I love your description of it as “speculative extrapolation.”

  3. March 1, 2021 7:50 am

    Hahahahha okay, well, this has been a useful answer to my internal question, Should I read a book by KSR just because he’s so well known and maybe I should know him too? Absolutely wild to suggest people don’t enjoy a county fair, KSR!

    • March 1, 2021 7:58 am

      I think that (as we all do) he’s getting more exaggerated in his typical responses as he gets older.
      Don’t like people ignoring climate change? Blow them all up! (Or kill them if they eat the beef you keep telling them is killing the planet.)
      Tired at the thought of how many more city council meetings you and your friends will have to attend to achieve change? Imagine the people in the midwest replaced by deer and coyotes!

  4. March 1, 2021 9:39 am

    Some of those quotes would make me throw the book – like the one by carbon! And it does indeed sound wordy and preachy. I appreciate the thorough review!

    • March 1, 2021 4:32 pm

      I’m willing to be patient while someone imagines a better future, but I think KSR is expecting too much from readers.

  5. March 1, 2021 12:56 pm

    Yeah I bailed on KSR a long time ago for all the reasons you laid out in this book review. Which is a shame because he could still get his message across if he would just reign in his verbosity.

    • March 1, 2021 4:30 pm

      Exactly–who would read this many pages if they don’t already agree with most of what is being said?

  6. March 1, 2021 4:14 pm

    Sorry you didn’t like it very much Jeanne. Like Andreas said, pretty much all the stuff you wanted edited out is classic Robinson. He is very technical and detailed and I have yet to read a book of his that isn’t, so I knew what it would be like before I even started. Not all the terrorism was related to the Ministry though, The Children of Kali were active too and I think they were the ones that blew up the planes. Regardless, I was disappointed that Robinson thought there might need to be terrorism like that to begin with. I have since found out that there was actually a proposal years ago for a carbon coin but it died on the vine so to speak.

    • March 1, 2021 4:29 pm

      Oh but I did like it–I don’t read 563 pages without something keeping me going! I’ve read him before and did know what to expect, but I think he needs to change it up and write something better. Like edj3 says, above, he needs to get his message across.
      Yes the “Children of Kali” were the terrorists, but I thought the Ministry had its fingers everywhere.
      The best part of what the Ministry does is economic, but by itself that might make a pretty dry diatribe.

      • March 2, 2021 2:19 pm

        Heh, yeah how do you make economics interesting? It is actually, the more I learn about it, but as a novel, not so much. It’s a good point about KSR getting his message across, he’s not going to pick up a raft of new readers with his style, but then I’m not sure I want him to be any other way, you know? He’s doing his thing and I have to admire that.

  7. March 2, 2021 5:50 pm

    I actually DNFd this. Too much information, too little action and plot. If the book had continued more in the style of the first chapter, this could have been very entertaining…

    My review:

    • March 3, 2021 8:45 am

      Novelists with a cause need to find ways to integrate information into the story and make it entertaining. When they don’t, they show indifference or even contempt for their audience.

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