Thursday, December 28, 2023

Review: Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

Our current society is particularly ill-suited to tackle climate change. Fixing climate change will require two things: (1) knowledge spanning disciplines as diverse as economics, agriculture and physics and (2) massive scale and multi-pronged collaboration between teams and countries. This presents a challenge for fictional stories of humanity solving the climate crisis: our current mode of storytelling is best suited for internal emotional journeys, following a handful of characters setting out to achieve one goal, with little prior background knowledge required. But we need fiction to handle this topic: fiction has long played a role in how humans understand value systems and social expectations, examine complex emotions, and envision large-scale collective achievement. 

In Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson presents a unique way to overcome this writing challenge. Narrative chapters are interspersed with expositions on energy technology, gini coefficients, the Bretton Woods financial system, the carbon cycle and other pertinent topics. The narrative follows two main characters (Mary and Frank) most closely, but we see through the eyes of scores of other characters that are navigating the devastation of climate change (memorably, climate refugees who spend years in camps, a lone survivor of a village wiped out by a heat wave, and a kayaker who rescues Los Angelinos during a record flood) or trying to fix it (memorably, farmers in India and scientists in antarctica). In this way, the book succeeds at conveying information the author feels is necessary to prevent humanity’s pending extinction (addressing point 1 above) and presents a realistic and collective effort at harnessing all the tools available to society towards this end (addressing point 2).

Because of this unusual structure, I hesitate to call it a novel; Tolstoy rejected the label for War and Peace, which intersperses philosophy and history with narrative, if less disjointedly than Robinson’s work. I was a fan of this technique for War and Peace, and I found it to be compelling and enjoyable in Robinson’s less deft hands too. However, from discussions with others and from perusing book reviews for both literary efforts, I might be the only reader with this opinion. Climate change sci-fi authors are therefore recommended to further innovate on this approach to achieve broader appeal.

Robinson has clearly thought through possible paths towards maintaining a livable planet, and therefore I think his political and technological solution deserves some commentary: it sucks.

Briefly, his solution rests on blockchain financial instruments funded by modern monetary theory, although he engages with none of the critiques of MMT (and there are many). Through a convoluted system of privacy-focused social media networks (really!) and carbon coins, technological solutions arise magically due to competition. Sure, a weird techno-utopian neoliberal solution, I could have anticipated that much based on my reading of Red Mars. But what surprised me was its full-throated defense of terrorism (and the lack of mainstream critique he has received for this!).

The story begins when Frank kidnaps Mary at gunpoint, and this event causes her to radically shift her view on her role as a high-ranking official in the branch of the UN charged with addressing climate change (the Ministry for the Future). It is quite clear that without this act of terrorism, the reforms she ultimately implements would never have come to pass. Several chapters center around the actions of the Children of Kali, a terrorist group who, by attacking cattle and airplanes, very effectively terrorize the planet into no longer eating carbon-intensive foods or flying in carbon-emitting planes. This terrorist organization is even secretly supported by the UN itself! These terrorists are portrayed with bottomless empathy, and are largely rewarded for their actions, which are presented as critical for humanity addressing climate change. It is hard to imagine what a more pro-terrorist science fiction work would look like, and that others don’t seem to view this political work in the same way leaves me feeling a little rattled.

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