THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE – Kim Stanley Robinson (2020)

The Ministry for the Future Robinson“This discursive battle, it’s very important.”

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. 

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.

The Ministry of the Future (fragment with notes)


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29 responses to “THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE – Kim Stanley Robinson (2020)

  1. You sold me, I just bought a copy. I thought Aurora was a significant novel for the genre. I liked New York 2140 but questioned its optimism. Ditto for 2312.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’ll question the optimism here too, probably, but it is a significant novel for the genre, just as Aurora was indeed. The dust jacket has “one of the most powerful and original books on climate change ever written”, and I don’t think that’s the usual PR hyperbole bullshit.

      I hope you review it too, looking forward!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I understood that most readers are unwilling to step aside from the mantra plot plus character plus setting. They just don’t like any other kind of story. And when preaching „there’s something else, a valuable tale“, then one is either preaching to the choir or to a wall.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Much of what I have written on that matter in my review of Green Earth applies here too, I’ll just quote myself for convenience:

      “Most readers of KSR’s work probably don’t need convincing on climate change. As such, this book could be accused of only preaching to the choir. And while that may be true, it also misses the point. As Robinson himself hints at in his introduction (“fiction doesn’t have to come true to make it useful”) it still has an ethical “use”. As I experienced it, the purpose of Green Earth is to offer hope. Robinson is an optimistic writer – not the easiest choice in these cynical times. That alone deserves applause.

      It is all too easy to become depressed reading the papers – this week alone I came across 3 pretty alarming articles on that state of our biosphere in a mainstream newspaper. It is also easy to become afraid watching the ever widening rift between the “two Americas”, and the economical system’s dysfunctions are becoming obvious in Europe too. The myth of apathy is a real danger.

      While Green Earth doesn’t offer quick fixes or a naive silver bullet solution to Earth’s problems, it does sketch hints of a possible future in which humanity will get on the right tracks eventually – but not without the loss of an enormous amount of biodiversity: the coral reefs have all died in the book, and polar bears have gone extinct. We can all use a bit of realistic hope, even need it. Green Earth supplies in that need. It is very much a novel for this day and age: a hopeful call to arms.

      Robinson’s optimism echoes a feeling I have held for a long time myself: I’m pretty pessimistic about humanity’s near future, but I am a hopeful optimist about the long run. Just look at what giant steps we have made (both bad and good) the last 400 years – science and rational thought have proved to be helpful, and will continue to do so. Green Earth is a solid and convincing defense of the scientific method. Its main message is probably this: the sciences should urgently get involved in politics.

      “You’re suggesting we need a paradigm shift in how science interacts with society.” “Yes I am.”

      Green Earth might be preaching to the choir, but it enhances the choir’s awareness nonetheless. It sharpens existing insights, refreshes theory, adds stuff you didn’t know, deepens the understanding. It’s a feast for the inquiring mind.”

      full review here: https://wp.me/p1tcLv-1Fp

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I posted this review on the Facebook group Science Fiction Book Club hoping to see how many members are reading KSR. I think he’s one of the very few SF writers that explores the cutting edge of the genre.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I didn’t know that group, looking forward to browse it a bit.

      What I like about KRS is that he keeps on pushing the envelope, even though he is well established and born in 1952. There’s much younger authors writing much more generic stuff.

      Like

  4. Oh I don’t know, I don’t know. I did an environmental sciences master and I am so so tired of the endless fight to save the planet and setbacks and people putting their fingers in their ears that I can barely scrape together the energy to engage with the subject anymore. I still can’t bring myself to see the latest Attenborough film. “But it’s important!” yes I know I know. I’ve been hearing it for a decade but I can’t handle any more videos of deforestation and denial. I don’t know what to do with it anymore. I’m not sure I can handle climate fiction.

    And on top of that, I got terribly burned by the two Robinson novels that I’ve read. I disliked Aurora quite a bit for its pessimism and I found 2312 nigh unreadable with awful awful characters and a weak stinky plot. Couldn’t finish it. I skipped New York 2140 because I sensed that I could see the whole novel in my mind even before reading it and that I wouldn’t have anything to tell me that I didn’t already know.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I hear you. I haven’t seen the latest Attenborough for similar reasons. I don’t think I will ever see it.

      The good thing about this book is that it’s not so much about climate change as such, but about society: finance, power structures, etc. In that sense you might still learn a lot.

      Aurora is one of my favorite novels, among other things because of its realistic, upfront pessimism: it’s a kick in the face of all those escapist fantasies that somehow perpetuate the idea that we can get to a planet B. I don’t remember that much about 2312 anymore, except that I liked it – it was the second KSR I read, and I was still in awe of his daring voice and his take particular take on space opera, could very well be I would be less impressed if I’d reread it now because of the reasons you list.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I will admit that I find KSM’s storytelling skills are kind of clunky. He uses his characters like chess pieces to act out his ideas, so they don’t have the emotional appeal of literary writing. It’s a shame he can’t combine the two like George R. Stewart in Earth Abides or Daniel Keyes in Flowers for Algernon or Ken Grimwood in Replay.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Strangely, though, I’ve just read some Asimov and he too uses characters to act out his ideas, but I could still stomach it. The difference with KSR’s 2312 was that I actively disliked its characters, while Asimov tried harder to make his characters sympathetic. And it’s not just KSR’s characters. It’s his plotting too.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’d say give a few of his other books a chance for better plotting. I agree 2312 might not be the best example. I didn’t see the problems with plot in Aurora however, but the device of the AI telling the story might have put you off, for me it was magic, as it was very clever meta on storytelling in an unseen way.

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      • I thought the story arc of Frank in this book was pretty emotional, and I have been moved by characters in Shaman, Aurora, Green Earth, The Wild Shore, … and I have yet to read the Mars Trilogy, the remaining two of his first trilogy, Galileo’s Dream and The Years of Rice and Salt. I don’t agree Robinson can’t write literary characters.

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    • Jeroen, I’m 83-years-old, and have been following this story since the 70s. You don’t know what tired is until you realize you’re looking back at half a century or more and not seeing much light ahead. I could never have imagined that I would spend my last few years watching my world crumble. But I don’t have the right to give up. Neither do you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I may be young in your eyes, but my energy is not endless. If I exhaust myself, I can’t be of use to the rest of the world either. I’ve been sitting sick at home for 1.5 years now, recovering from a somatic symptom disorder caused by exhaustion through stress. I know tired. Only when I am recovered, I can pick up any fight again. But this fight for the planet, for now, only delays my recovery, and delays my ability to do anything useful.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I guess The Ministry of the Future is not for you then, atm. Maybe Shaman might be a good KSR book, there’s a quiet peace to it.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Jeroen, I can understand the need for self-preservation. I’m also tired of the endless argument over climate. We know what we need to do but we don’t do it. My theory is humans are smart but just not smart enough. I don’t know if it’s old age cynicism, but I’ve started giving up hope. Like Catana says, we can’t stop trying, but it’s hard to find hope when half the country doesn’t believe we have a problem. I believe we have all the science and technology to avoid climate change apocalypse but we’re too polarized politically to work together to solve the problem. I’m not sure if science fiction can help.

          Liked by 3 people

  5. A very detailed, very enthusiastic review – count me in, Bart! I’ll read it after I deal with Aurora, I think – both are already on my TBR.
    I think we need a dose of optimism, really. I feel that humanity always puts itself in dire straits, only to somehow get on top of things once more and make it all a tad better than before. So I still hope 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m really curious what you’ll think of Aurora. Start it sooner than later, pretty please!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll order it from library this week – i have Mantel to finish first and Elliot’s Unconquerable Sun, and then on to Aurora!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Are you reading He, Cromwell 3? I’m dreading starting that too, so many pages. I should however, the first 2 were brilliant.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yup, The Mirror and the Light. It’s amazing. I feel that the whole trilogy is the best of what English literature has had to offer those last few decades. I think it will become a perfect classic. But this installment is less sharp, more poignant, more inward, a bit more nostalgic maybe than Bring Up the Bodies. And I’m not finishing it as fast as I could because 1) it’s a literary treat I want to last, and 2) i fear the ending – because I know the ending 😭.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. Seems like another good novel by Stan. I’ve been re-reading his Three Californias, and your review has me interested in checking out his latest.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. How would you rank this one compared to Aurora and Green Earth? I know you rate these fairly highly amongst his work, so how does this stack up?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d say Aurora is better (more story, more adventure, more escapist reading, so to say), but I liked this more than Green Earth. The new one is more daring, focused, clearer in its format and intentions. GE has better characters though.

      Like

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