The Ministry for the Future
November 30, 2020 11:05 PM - by Kim Stanley Robinson - Subscribe

A fictional future history of solving climate change over the next thirty years, from classic science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson. Recently the subject of discussion on the blue: Imagining the End of Capitalism.

The character-driven narrative is a small part of the book's content, and centers on Mary Murphy, an Irish politician charged with leading a so-far-fictional UN agency, the titular Ministry for the Future, in addressing climate change.

The rest of the book, alongside that narrative, takes a chaotic global approach to describing this global struggle, and skips between different literary forms as easily as it skips from place to place. Intense eyewitness accounts; notes from committee meetings; philosophical dialogues; riddles, and one whimsical chapter from the point of view of a carbon atom.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant (9 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I did the audiobook version of this.

The opening vignette is brutal but gripping. It made the threat of global warming urgent and the momentum kept me going for the first half of the book or so.

But after that the lack of a real narrative started to wear. I vividly remember a half-dozen characters from Red Mars. I just finished this and I could vaguely describe like three people (none of whom are Mary, who I found bland.)

The ideas part, which is the core of the book, is pretty good. It's a comprehensive Green New Deal for global warming, combined with geoengineeering, deployment of various legal philosophies like the rights of the unborn, and the stick of ecoterrorism plays a role. The "try anything and everything" approach helps convey the size of the challenge. Some of it fails stylistically (s senior UN climate bureaucrat who doesn't understand discount rates and needs a kindergarten explainer is probably the worst) but given the amount of it, KSR manages to make it engaging enough.

So I'd probably recommend this if someone was already thinking of reading it. I won't be going around pitching it to people as an important book that will change their mind. (The first chapter? Maybe.)
posted by mark k at 8:22 AM on December 2, 2020

Around a third of the way into this book, I was scratching my head at the meandering plot and not quite sure what to make of the unusual structure. It was only when we started hearing about the black ops stuff that I realised quite where he was going, and that carried me through, along with things getting slowly better.

All of that is to say: I think KSR adds something to the canon here, which is that the use of violence combined with organised and democratic and political pressure might produce outcomes different to what we normally see in climate fiction. In various interviews (e.g. on the Ezra Klein podcast) KSR has been at pains to say he doesn't condone the use of violence, and the fact his protagonist is Irish is a very overt nod to the fact that violence alone cannot solve anything – and yet it's hard to argue that it doesn't accomplish anything useful, at least in his fiction.
posted by adrianhon at 9:11 AM on December 2, 2020

That Ezra Klein interview was really interesting for me too. He says the book is "flailing" around the problem of the violence, which is not what I got at all. I thought the book made a very clear argument that the ecoviolence was a) morally justified and b) very effective.

But in the interview I got the sense he felt (emotionally) that violence is by nature not a good or productive thing, and it was simply going to happen regardless. Because of the pain and rage and trauma - the same dynamics that produced Islamic terrorism. So I guess in the book he's working through different ways that eco violence might be targeted and effective, and therefore productive, and therefore justified.

I think he does a similar working-through-the-options with geoengineering, and both those tactics (violence and geoengineering) are often derided and discarded simply on the face of it, and I think he shows that it's worth looking into the details of specific tactics, and considering specific ideas on their own merits.

The character narrative is indeed the least interesting part of the book, and I feel like it's simply not what the book is about. I really wondered what Frank was doing in the narrative at all, too. It seems like he's just an avatar of climate trauma - placing that trauma in an American white male body, no less.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 11:24 AM on December 2, 2020

Thing is, the violence stuff is really interesting, it leaps off the page, but what's more important and interesting is the central role of finance in ... everything ... I mean, simply placing finance at the center of the solution would have surprised classical conservationists, or environmentalists of the '70s or '90s. It would have surprised me, ten years ago.

The most shallow version of the argument for this would go like

A) any solution has to involve mustering capital and labor at scale and has to be "paid for" with "money" somehow, and Finance is where the "money" is

But the classical way to do this is with taxes, regulation or nationalization to direct resources to a particular end, which is not what happens here

And anyway there's a lot more going on in the book, like

B) the extractive/destructive ecological practices happen because the economic relationships underlying them are extractive and destructive. It's a one-to-one relationship. Not even a mirror image, just the same exact process.

C) this whole extractive mode forms webs of economic relationships and incentives that shape what people do, what people can do

D) this includes political and democratic entities, so the range of action on the political levers is quite limited no matter who you put in the role

E) so all these economic relationships and incentives need to be reorganized on a fundamental level

All of which is not entirely mainstream thought even now.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 1:51 PM on December 2, 2020

Yes, that's all true. I think the reason I keyed into the violence, other than the fact that it jumps off the page, is that it was the first time I'd seen the argument made in this particular almost cold-blooded way, whereas I seem to recall New York 2140 also features mustering capital and labor, though obviously it's much further into the future.
posted by adrianhon at 8:48 AM on December 4, 2020

Finally got to this for Christmas, working my way through it now.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:01 AM on January 2

Finished! I had been scared to read this because I have always gone to KSR for a pragmatic yet utopian view of how the future could go, and I had heard that this one was more pessimistic. Ultimately I actually found MftF to be pretty optimistic in it's take: we get to net zero emissions by around 2050 if I have the timeline right which seems wildly optimistic from where I sit in a United States that can barely hang on to the notion of democracy and rule of law let alone dismantling capitalism. Much of his other work takes massive sea level rise for granted, somehting that is at least mostly avoided in Ministry.

I have been a KSR fan since the late 90s and he has always had this sort of impressionistic style, even if this book takes it farther than some of his others with the interstitial vignettes. I will have to let this one marinate a bit before I really know what I think but I have some first impressions.

I agree with Rainbo and others that the things that stood out for me were the violence and the centering of global finance. Robinson explicitly names the central banks as the shadow rulers of the world and leverages them to get to his utopian outcome. The violence has always been in the periphery of his work; the violent Martian revolution in 2061 fails and they need to redo it later as a Gandhi-style mass movement but the rest of the Mars trilogy's plot is only possible because of what Arkady's crew do with their missiles and Phobos and the rest. Later in the trilogy the plausible threat of bombarding Earth with asteroids is used as a bargaining chip. Still, the notion that a sustained campaign of targeted assassination and asset destruction is necessary to dismantle the worst aspects of capitalism is a starker take than I've seen from Robinson before.

I don't love this book as much of some of his other work, and while I don't mind his style, I do sometimes with the plot was a bit more substantive. I don't think any of the characters will stick with me the way, for example, those in the Mars books have. Maybe Badim? Though we get so little of him. The other thing KSR likes to do is occasionally include callbacks or resonances with his other works; I got hints of the B and K characters from TYORAS swirled into Badim. At one point in Ministry he explicitly calls himself Kali.

So I'd like to think the world might find its way to a future not unlike the one Robinson gives us here. I'll probably have to come back to this one before I decide how I think about it beyond that.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:04 PM on January 4

Ministry is not just unlike his previous work, its unlike any other fiction book I've ever read in my life. (It's probably not totally unprecedented, just unprecedented in my experience.)

It does remind me a LOT of narrative history works - not sure if that's totally the right term for the genre, I can't think of any examples except the "Revolutions" podcast, and a book I'm reading now, "Lawrence in Arabia" by Scott Anderson (which I recommend a lot). Maybe "1491".

Point is these works are structured like a narrative, telling the story of characters making choices, but unlike fiction the point is actually to explain the broader history surrounding these people; instead of using exposition to buttress the narrative, they use the narrative to structure the exposition of history, its context and concepts.

There's so much nonfiction in "Ministry", exposition of economic concepts, scientific, historical, philosophical, etc., that I have to assume that's what the real point of it is. Those concepts are certainly sticking with me. In find it hard to call it a fiction book at all.

Edit: I basically just repeated what I wrote last month, lol
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 11:13 AM on January 6 [1 favorite]

Just finished it this morning. It’s very uneven, I was absolutely hooked in by the heatwave chapter, it also helped that I read that part this summer during an heatwave but it very visceral to me. I liked the spin he took to fix this by leveraging the central banks power to move the economy in different directions.

Absolutely hated his idea of the blockchained carbon coin, because you don’t need a block chain to have a currency especially if you have central banks backing it. Block chains are power hungry solutions in search of a problem, which is kinda ironic for a book about the climate crisis.

His idea of an open/fair alternate social network is good but it seemed to me he was seriously underestimating network effects and barriers to adoption and the difficulty of running such an operation, but that’s probably glossed over because it’s not a book about operating server farms and web startup.

I did think the book was a bit lacking in describing all the chaos that would ensue from the ecoterrorism and the economic crashes, it all seemed a bit too neat/optimistic. I would have preferred more of this than the Mary retirement which really didn’t bring much to the book.
posted by WaterAndPixels at 10:42 AM on September 16

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