SUMMARY – The 10-second review
Speculative eco-fiction – Detailed, informative – Helps you understand potential impact of climate change and what can be done about it – Ultimately optimistic.
The Ministry for the Future is an astonishing feat. A ‘history’ of climate change in the coming decades, from the perspective of the mid- to late-21st century, the novel digs deep into climate science, economics and politics. It’s an ultimately optimistic, even inspiring work, focusing not just on the potential disasters ahead but on how they might be averted or mitigated.
The Ministry for the Future follows the story of a Zurich-based international organisation set up in 2025, which would become known as the Ministry for the Future. Its purpose is to “advocate for the world’s future generations and to protect all living creatures, present and future.” The main characters are Mary, the head of the Ministry and Frank, an American aid worker who barely survived a heat wave in India that killed 20 million people.
Epic in scope and ideas
Kim Stanley Robinson is a formidable writer, known for his epic futuristic novels such as the Mars trilogy, about the colonization of Mars. Here, we’re literally on home ground but the scope is as immense: the fate of our planet.
At some 700 pages, The Ministry for the Future is not a light novel in any sense of the word. It’s a novel of ideas, rather than character- or plot-driven. I never thought I’d find myself googling ‘quantitative easing’ and ‘structural adjustment programs’ in order to better understand a novel.
However, while the work is formidable in scope and demands some focus, it’s really not that hard to follow. It’s all held together by the narrative strand following the two main characters.
The pressure builds
Frank, suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, is a wannabe climate activist. He is disillusioned with mainstream organizations but cannot find a sufficiently ‘activist’ activist organization to take him in. He serves as an embodiment of the helplessness, trauma and guilt of most of humanity.
“Everyone alive knew that not enough was being done, and everyone kept doing too little. Repression of course followed, it was all too Freudian, but Freud’s model for the mind was the steam engine, meaning containment, pressure, and release. Repression thus built up internal pressure, then the return of the repressed was a release of that pressure. It could be vented or it could simply blow up the engine. […] and so they staggered on day to day, and the pressure kept building.”The Ministry of the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson
And so, eventually, activists start to “blow up the engine”. Shooting down planes, infecting cows with mad cow disease…
Meanwhile, Mary is also starting to feel helpless and hopeless. When the Ministry experts come up with a radical proposal, it’s Mary’s job to pitch it to the most influential people in the world, in a meeting of the US Federal Reserve and other central banks.
“Because money ruled the world, these people ruled the world. […] Non-democratic, answerable to no one. […] Mary thought of her group back in Zurich. It was composed of experts […] many of them scientists, all with extensive field experience […]. Here, she was looking at a banker, a banker, a banker, a banker, and a banker. One principle for bankers in perilous times was to avoid doing anything radical and untried. And so they were all going to go down.”The Ministry of the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson
Stuff just HAS to change!
Reading this novel is at times like watching a documentary. It’s informative, explaining some basic concepts such as why glaciers are melting so fast. But while based on today’s reality, of course it is fiction, predicting what might happen in the future. Ultimately, the proposed ideas are rather optimistic. People come together to develop more or less plausible technical and economic solutions to heal our world.
Having seen in recent years, and especially in 2020, how polarized people have become, how immovable in their ideology, at this point it’s hard to share the optimism. Time will tell.
I imagine that many people would hate this novel. After all, it’s hardly a ‘novel’ at all; rather a speculative (and very long) essay. But if you share some of the helplessness, trauma and guilt associated with our destruction of our climate, and want to deepen your understanding of what needs to be done, it’s a hell of a lot easier to read this than to dig into the actual science and economics yourself.
What does become clear is that there is no magic bullet, no single miraculous solution. And much of the world, as it is now, will break or will need to be broken before things get better. We may well be at a point where we need a complete rectification of our values, lifestyles and social structures.
Change comes from revolution…
… and revolutions are founded on hope. Hope, in turn, grows from imagination and inspiration.
I’d like to imagine some bankers and other world leaders reading and being inspired by this book. Not to mention ordinary people like you and me. Protecting our home is a shared responsibility.
Find The Ministry for the Future on Amazon and at other bookstores.
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My thanks to the publisher, the author and Netgalley for giving me a free copy of this book. All my reviews are 100% honest and unbiased, regardless of how I acquire the book.