This is it. The final big KSR novel. I dreaded starting it, to be honest. Yet another climate book: don’t we know that story? His two previous ones were letdowns: New York 2140 was okay, but ultimately transparent, and Red Moon even formulaic: Stan seemed to have run out of steam.
I think Robinson’s decision to stop writing long novels liberated him. And so his final big one is both a synthesis and a departure, and most importantly: totally unapologetic KSR, and a feast as such. It’s also a paradox, a book that is “desperate and hopeful in equal measure”, as the dust jacket has it. (Update May 2021 – Cory Doctorow claims that KSR changed his mind and is writing novels again.)
Some might think it not enough of a novel – a long essay perhaps. Some might think it boring, or preachy. I think none of that applies. I think it’s brave, fast-paced, and subdued. It’s a story for sure, and it builds on the legacy of that other great science fiction novel: 1930s Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. I loved The Ministry for the Future.
The only criticism I can muster might be that Robinson’s hope might be non-sequiturish, so to say. Aren’t we doomed anyway? Who knows? Who will tell? “There are many realities on a planet this big.”
In the remainder of this review – about 3000 words – I will elaborate on all of the above, backed up by quite a few fragments from various recent interviews with KSR. It’s a joy to have a writer being so open & explicit about his thought process.
DON’T WE KNOW THE STORY?
Turns out, not really. Most utopias describe their utopia as something that happens after a turning point, a cataclysmic event, a fundamental schism with the now – as did New York 2140, after the flood. The Ministry for the Future does it differently: it describes the gradual way, the bridge between now and then, and even that’s not true, as TMFTF isn’t a utopia to begin with: it never arrives at an end point, and the crisis won’t be over any century soon.
It also incorporates something seldom seen in progressive intellectual circles: fighting fire with fire. It’s the focus of Gerry Canavan’s excellent review of the novel in the LA Review of Books: the need for violence. This doesn’t mean KSR has disavowed pacifism. It’s not a call to arms, but future realism. It’s also a clever narrative trick, as Robinson never explains the true organizational mechanisms of said violence, and by doing so injects a fun dosage of mystery in his book.
Maybe that was me chickening out as a bourgeois suburban Californian and pacifist. My wife actually worries that a book that describes political violence will be seen to be advocating political violence, and yet I think it’s coming. We’re going to see actions like the violent actions the book describes. So, if I didn’t include them, it wouldn’t be a realistic book and I wanted to make it realistic. (Entertainment Weekly)
There’s one caveat to that remark though: the pathway to timely solutions seems to actually need a certain amount of violence in Robinson’s projections. I guess Robinson is correct in that violence is coming, and the debate about including it in the book or not isn’t a matter of utopian morals, but pragmatic realism. Either way: if framed as a fight for the rights of future unborn generations, taking the fight to those narcissists who are deliberately causing havoc for their own financial gain now, might even be considered the moral thing to do.
What we’re really talking about is civilization, as such, as a form of biosphere management. So this is what I’m going out there with over and over on this point, because there’s too much hardening of positions, and these positions are being taken on the basis of the situation as it existed in about 1980 or maybe 1990. The positions are behind the curve of the realities. So, as a leftist science fiction writer, it’s my responsibility to be politically incorrect in provocative ways. (Jacobin)
While there is significant novelty to this story, longtime readers of Robinson will also recognize a whole lot they are familiar with. There’s Mondragón, geoengineering, animals, Antarctica, airships and another Frank, and, most importantly, a focus on finance. Since writing New York 2140 Robinson has realized how reforming finance is the key to getting to a better world.
If you don’t want to invest in this book, maybe read his piece on Bloomberg, where Robinson summarizes the financial ideas of The Ministry for the Future – “carbon quantitative easing”.
You can think of this proposal as “carbon quantitative easing,” in tribute to the quantitative easing undertaken by central banks in the teeth of the 2008 recession. All told, central bankers in the U.S. and Europe spent over $5 trillion dollars buying up bonds. That QE was mostly given to the banks without restrictions, and many used it simply to save their asses. The program did maintain liquidity and, by saving the banks, saved the economy. But because of the lack of targeting for this new money, inequality was increased and investment in fossil fuels by big banks continued. This time, QE would have to be specifically directed to save the biosphere itself.
So yes, this is a synthesis, not only of his previous novels, but also of other peoples’ thinking about social change, cognitive errors & the biosphere problem. As he put it in Clarkesworld: “Almost everything got into that novel, it’s a real kitchen sink” – just no Emerson or Thoreau this time.
Longtime KSR readers can be assured: this is a very, very rich, profuse novel. A kaleidoscope. No “monocausotaxophilia” here. Robinson adds enough new stuff and new insights from all over the place. He weaves it all together to keep things interesting, all the more as he – finally – found a narrative voice that really suits him: a wild voice that offers a thrilling & intellectual ride.
LAST AND FIRST MEN: EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS
A synthesis, and a departure. Or not really a departure, but an author finally achieving his full stride. This book is totally unapologetic in the way it uses the info dump with which Robinson is associated – often to deride him. The info dumps used are free form and varied, and Robinson really worked to make them engaging as literature too.
The book’s overal formal modus operandi is brilliant. In brief chapters (106 chapters for 564 pages) we are treated to short, sharp bursts of events and information, that together manage to tell a fast paced story of a few decades. And while the narrators of lots of chapters are anonymous, Robinson does manages to evoke feelings nonetheless.
There’s also two characters that form the backbone of the narrative: Mary Murphy, the director of the Ministry of the Future, the titular transnational agency, and Frank May, a survivor of the harrowing first chapter, set in 2025, which describes a heatwave in India that kills 20 million people – one of the best opening chapters I have ever read, real world slow horror.
In a Clarkesworld interview he describes this formal process, and that’s definitely interesting for both fans of KSR as for people interested in the technicalities of narrative:
What I found is that eyewitnesses don’t dramatize their accounts like fiction writers would. They don’t give you dramatized scenes, in other words, but instead they offer summarized accounts, often made years later, so that a lot of compression happens, but key moments remain, and judgments are made, this is very important; the event is seen as important, and put into the context of the eyewitness’ subsequent life, and so on. In effect it’s telling not showing, and I like that very much; the workshop phrase “show don’t tell” is actually a very silly and simplistic instruction, and much bad fiction has come out of writing workshops because of people trying to enact this command. Eyewitness accounts are often vivid in ways a dramatized scene isn’t.
For this novel, I guess I’d add that solving the formal problem, by way of the eyewitness accounts and all the other modes I used, is my next step, maybe the last step, in a long move toward polyphony—the idea that the novel can take on a huge load of material without sinking—or not completely sinking, maybe submarining along, who knows—anyway, I really enjoyed the feeling this time of channeling voices, of being the telephone operator in one of those 1940s movies, jamming the plugs into the big board and linking up voices of all kinds. That’s the great fun of writing novels, for me, so this one was quite something to write.
I’ve tried various kinds of writing that are like prose poems, often in the form of riddles. About a third of the Anglo-Saxon literature we have is their riddles, often without answers provided, and that was another genre I found very helpful in writing this book. Also, I included mini-essays that can be like prose poems, and conversations between a smooth radio host and a grumpy commentator, and transcripts of meetings, and a few other forms. I wanted a mélange of voices and styles. (…) Then also, my teacher Fredric Jameson, to whom the book is dedicated, read a draft and suggested it was important that the second chapter be as different as possible in form from the first, to show readers what kind of game they were being invited to play. That was a good suggestion, which I took.
In my intro I talked about Olaf Stapledon’s seminal book: as in Last and First Men the narrative in The Ministry is the narrative of history itself. The scope is much smaller here: about 50 years, not 2 billion. But the real difference is the fact that about half of the book deals with Mary & Frank, so a part of the narrative is grounded in individuals. Robinson manages an interesting equilibrium: the essayistic info dumps are necessary for the characters’ development, and the lives of the characters support the lavish cerebral banquet on offer.
Fiction is not self-expression. It’s based on writing the other. This is a shocking thing to try, really, but that’s what fiction tries, that’s what novels are. (…) So, every novelist has to take that leap into the unknown, of writing the other. (…) really even your own sibling, or yourself at an earlier time, is always an other. But I like to try to imagine what other lives might be like. I like that feeling. (Clarkesworld)
And that banquet never feels preachy, because Robinson keeps his cool, and simply writes about facts. His analysis of the problem – our cognitive architecture, late stage capitalism, the way power is brokered, the role of banking, tax havens, inequality, too much carbon being burned, too much habitat destroyed – simply can’t be disputed. How can one disagree with Aldo Leopold’s “what’s good is what’s good for the land” – a dictum that pops up a few times?
(…) almost every story’s been told a few times — but the story of getting to a new and better social system, that’s almost an empty niche in our mental ecology. So I’ve been throwing myself into that attempt. It’s hard, but it’s interesting. (Jacobin)
It was invigorating to see so much spelled out so clearly, even being familiar with lots of what Robinson brings to the table. A pamphlet, sure, yes, but a novel, a story, a continuous discovery that keeps surprising even though the subject matter has been loud and clear for quite some time.
I think all novels inevitably contain a political or social statement, but often it’s just inherent or implied, and that’s fine. They’re works of art, and art is meant to be fun and educational both at once. Aristotle is very clear on this, and Brecht also—that we maybe separate these strands a little bit too much when we discuss them—that education can be fun, and fun can be educational, and what you want is to combine the two to make some kind of delight that is also illuminating or useful. For me, novels are about characters engaged in a plot, which usually means something has gone wrong. Then you have your story. Mainly I want to tell interesting stories. The question then becomes, what’s interesting? (Clarkesworld)
Or as someone in the book says it: “But it’s important also to take this whole question back out of the realm of quantification, sometimes, to the realm of the human and the social. To ask what it all means, what it’s all for. To consider the axioms we are agreeing to live by. To acknowledge the reality of other people, and of the planet itself. To see other people’s faces. To walk outdoors and look around.”
Robinson is great in coupling a scientific ideology (as in Althusser’s “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”) to things, humans, feelings, that are grounded in the reality of living as social mammals on this planetary surface. As such, he always has been a great nature writer.
It’s moving to notice how Robinson – born in 1952 – reflects on his own role via Mary Murphy’s retirement near the end of the book. Again – if you are willing to look, you’ll find much, much more than info dumps.
This novel is not as dirty as John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar – another book formally influenced by John Dos Passos. It’s smoother, seamless even, because there’s a higher conceptual unity among the narrative voices.
Smooth, yes, but The Ministry of the Future will not be for everyone. If you’re unfamiliar with much of the subject matter, it will be a harder, drier, tougher book to digest.
Either way, you need to be of the inquisitive type, the type that’s eager to pull out a dictionary when seeing a word unknown. The type that is in love with the wonders of reality and wants to understand as much as possible about it. Such readers, or readers that have liked KRS before, might notice this novel is a tour de force, a masterpiece of both storytelling and political writing. But it is its own thing, so don’t expect a regular book with regular drama.
NON-SEQUITUR: DESPERATE AND HOPEFUL IN EQUAL MEASURE?
The book is desperate because it brings the hurdles our species needs to take in crystal clear focus. There’s many of them. Some of them have heaps of money that buy muscle, guns and influence – and most of those still believe in the escapist fortress island fantasy, as if “no man is an island” is just a fiction. Things are dire, and the resistance to change is powerful & plenty. I guess enough is as good as a feast? Who doesn’t like a challenge?
Aidan Craigwood wrote a review on Goodreads that lists all the implausibilities in the book: “The problem is that KSR doesn’t actually have a very good idea for how we get there, so he cheats. Repeatedly. Relentlessly.” The problem with the list is that it is both true for the most part, and misses the point – or a couple, actually.
For starters, fully credible backstories for all the solutions Robinson envisions fall outside the scope of this book. Robinson obviously can’t fully invent technologies or methods himself, but who knows what might happen in 20 years? I’m not an optimist on the matter by the way – I think society is pretty much doomed, there, I’ve said it – but to think most of what Robinson writes is impossible is stretching it. As I quoted in my introduction: “There are many realities on a planet this big.” Many realities, many possibilities.
Second, the fact that the book doesn’t talk about certain issues, doesn’t mean they don’t happen in that future universe. Who says that there are no “armies of half-traumatised mods and admins” to police the content of the new social network? As KSR uses the eyewitness report, there is no final auctorial narrator that tells all and sees all. It’s the built-in handwavium mechanism in this tome, it’s very clever, but it’s not cheating.
I guess I’d like to suggest there are ways of going forward in the next few decades that dodge the mass extinction event we’re headed toward now, achievable futures that are not horrible—not fascistic or totally disastrous—livable futures that you might still be able to believe in. So, for a while I was thinking this book would be something like the blackest utopia of all time, but it isn’t really utopian, nor is it all that black, it’s just history, an unholy mess, and the book an attempt to indicate how chaotic the next thirty years are going to feel, even if things go fairly well compared to worse scenarios, which are maybe more likely. But there is a general intellect in civilization itself, and the Paris Agreement exists, which is already quite implausible, so you can see that people really are taking the situation seriously. (Clarkesworld)
And finally, Robinson is aware of most if not all of the objections himself. It is a novel in the utopian tradition: a best possible outcome kind of scenario. As such it provides hope, but that doesn’t mean it is very plausible. Craigwood talks about the improbability of pumping up water from under the glaciers in his review, as if Robinson didn’t do his research. If we know one thing about KSR, it is that he does his research extensively, and he admits the glacier stuff is speculative to the point that it is “a bit of wishful thinking” – but again, not 100% implausible.
We can only hope that “the entire politics of reaction, cultural grievance and zero-sum realpolitik that have led to this moment” that Cragwood points at will indeed change enough when climate change and the sixth mass extinction will further accelerate in the next decade.
It is to Robinson’s credit that his research and his command of plain facts about today’s society, science & state of the world makes readers forget that he writes science fiction, with the emphasis on fiction. Sure, this is a pamphlet and a vague road map, but it is not a detailed instruction manual, and it was never meant to be. It’s entertainment that enlightens – a shimmer of hope in times that are bleak as fuck. A conversation starter, if anything: the part of the battle that’s discursive needs prompting.
It’s a brave book, and it doesn’t submit to the myth of apathy. It stresses we are all in this together. It’s what I needed.