The Ministry for the Future
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit Books, 2020
Some images from the recent present: A video clip of a German woman beside a flood-swollen river through a devastated town saying, “you don’t think of this kind of thing happening here, in Europe.” Twitter posts of a video showing a recent wildfire in Greece blazing through the windows of a passenger ferry, captioned “what our future looks like” or “like a scene from a disaster movie.” The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledging fully for the first time that human activity is the cause of global warming. It may be that the ongoing material reality of climate disaster is at last hitting home for those in Europe and North America, who have had the means to not notice it until now. But this realization is not only belated, it also remains oddly displaced, imagined as an apocalyptic movie, “our future,” not the lived present.
Into this scene of temporal displacement comes Kim Stanley Robinson’s near-future science fiction novel, The Ministry for the Future. Robinson has engaged problems of ecology and environment under capitalism throughout his career, most famously in his 1990s Mars trilogy, where debates over whether to terraform Mars become a rigorous exploration of environmentalist politics. His Science in the Capital sequence of books (2004-2007, republished and revised as Green Earth in 2015) tackles unchecked climate change explicitly, as a problem of daily life, already present and active, even as many things (like getting up and going to work) seem utterly unchanged. The Science in the Capital novels suggest that it is time to recognize that climate change is already here in quotidian American life. In contrast to that domestic, realist frame which asks the reader to look closely, Ministry gives us a fragmented, interrupted narrative, forcing the reader into a standpoint from which to glimpse the planet in its conflicted transformation by global warming and sea-level rise, processes happening everywhere, but with unevenly distributed harms for the many (and even benefits for the few). Central to Ministry’s project is that alongside the destruction and suffering, the reader also sees the struggles, the plans, the active work, both local and global, for a livable, just planetary life for all creatures. Ministry’s very near-future setting, beginning in 2025, tells us also that the future that is in need of ministration could also just be called now.
Central to Ministry’s project is that alongside the destruction and suffering, the reader also sees the struggles, the plans, the active work, both local and global, for a livable, just planetary life for all creatures.
Many readers seem to have taken these glimpses of struggle and possibility to mean that Ministry is a list of prescriptions for, in Robinson’s words, “dodging a mass extinction event,” a recipe book for the environmentalist non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of the near future. On such a reading, the novel’s beginning and ending provide both problem and solution, or rather a menu of solutions to be taken up as your political proclivities suggest, whether they be Keynesian, Maoist, or liberal proceduralist. The harrowing opening, in which Frank, a young American would-be do-gooder working for an NGO in India, survives the mass death brought on by a “wet bulb-35” event (a temperature so hot and humid that the human body loses the ability to regulate its own temperature) gives us a problem (the familiar one that imagines climate change as events that happen elsewhere, to unfortunate others). The rest of the novel, with its thorough engagement with contemporary speculations in economics and geoengineering (in chapters that outline monetary theory and the possibility of using a “carbon coin” to pay people to do good, or that envision drilling through the polar ice caps to pump water to the surface, thus preventing glaciers from further sliding into the sea), suggest a myriad of solutions.
But if Ministry is meant as a kind of a checklist of seventeen Easy Steps to Save the World, it is hard to see why it would need to be a novel at all, much less a science fiction novel, with the genre’s commitment to producing the kind of estrangements that return the reader to the limitations of their own historical world. Indeed, it is striking how hard it is to make the novel’s brief, formally disparate chapters (notes from meetings; extracts from interviews with academics; anonymous first-person narrations from refugee camps; medieval-style riddles; a carbon atom telling its own life story) line up with each other into any kind of neat moral, or prescription, or even point of view. Even the eponymous Ministry for the Future, a small U.N. agency, seemingly the novel’s central institutional presence, makes only intermittent appearances, and its head, Mary Murphy, is less a hero than an effective bureaucrat, committed to the grind. More than this, the Ministry’s appearance of effectiveness in its nudging of central bankers toward backing a carbon coin is complicated by the acts of sabotage, threat, and lethal force against the means and owners of petro-capital that occur before and during these bureaucratic negotiations. Some of these violent acts seem to be coordinated by a kind of shadow ministry within the Ministry itself, a doubling which opens the question of where and what political agency is, exactly, even in a novel which seems committed to the political and the legal as possible arenas of struggle and change.
It may thus be that Ministry gives us a picture of something like distributed agency, functioning both vertically, in existing political and institutional structures, and horizontally, as in the list of the names of local environmental justice projects from around the world that makes up an entire chapter of the book (and is unexpectedly one of the novel’s most moving moments). Or it may be that the novel opens up the possibility for the reader to ask a perhaps harder question about what agency might be at all in relation to the expansive, planetary crisis we face. That suspicion—that rather than a book of solutions, this is a novel that forces consideration of the problem of taking, or not taking, action itself—is reinforced by Ministry’s narrative through-line, which brings together Frank, the survivor of the mass heat death, and Mary, the bureaucrat.
Their relationship, strange, fraught, hard-to-describe as love or even exactly friendship, brings trauma and mourning, states of numbness to the world and temporal suspension, to the center of this otherwise dynamic novel. The relationship between Frank and Mary, both burdened by what they take to be their responsibilities (Frank by climate survivor’s guilt, Mary by her very job description, which suggests that it is her professional responsibility to protect future generations from climate change), both numbed by past events not yet over, is not an allegorical one, not a symbolic representation of the kind of relation readers themselves may well have to the climate crisis. It is too vivid, too specific and eccentric to be that. But it does put the question of what makes it possible to respond, to act, even to feel like something is really happening, really right now, at the heart of a novel apparently about taking action. These strains in the novel, the proliferation of active possibilities and the meditation on stuckness and the difficulty of feeling present to the world, do not resolve themselves neatly into narrative closure or consoling resolution. Indeed, Ministry leaves far more open than it closes off, and for all the prescriptive optimism with which it seems to have been read, it is surprisingly full of scenes of loss: the mass death of the opening chapter; the perhaps irreparable flooding of Los Angeles; the random and unexpected death of a charismatic glaciologist in Antarctica; even the hopeful project of rewilding large swathes of land in the United States, which sadly requires the permanent abandonment of small towns throughout the American West and Midwest.
. . . Ministry leaves far more open than it closes off, and for all the prescriptive optimism with which it seems to have been read, it is surprisingly full of scenes of loss . . .
One thing that we might take from Ministry then is that the problem is not the feeling of being too late, of doom, of loss that leads to seeing wildfires, floods, heat domes, and more as portents or representations of some future. Rather, the problem is to recognize these events as the lived conditions of here and now. The work of stopping fossil fuel use and extraction, protecting land, water, and non-human life, global justice and reparations, and ending capitalism will not be done by heroic agents in or from the future, optimistic and unafraid. It will have to be done by actually existing humans, immiserated, traumatized, mourning a million losses, and prepared for more. The Ministry for the Future gives us the kind of hope that comes out of what feminist theorist Donna Haraway calls staying with the trouble, living with mourning and the further losses that will be necessary for us to build a sustainable world. “History was going to go like this: lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, win,” Mary says, an injunction not only to keep at it, but to recognize that even winning will not come without repeated defeat. If this sounds grim, or hard, or like it would be better to read a book that did have a tidy, loss-free solution, there is some consolation along the way, of the kind Robinson’s novels always provide: vivid, sometimes hilarious riddles; flourishing communism and organic agriculture; scenic and leisurely dirigible travel; beautifully specific renderings of biomes; and even some ecstatic surfing. Like the ravages of climate change, it is important to recognize that such reminders of our necessary lives as planetary creatures alongside other planetary creatures will not be found in the future without first demanding and building the good and the just in the present.
Matt Hauske is an independent scholar whose research focuses on Hollywood cinema and American culture. Hilary Strang is a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago, where she teaches classes on science fiction and directs the MA Program in Humanities. They are the hosts of “Marooned on Mars with Matt and Hilary,” a podcast examining the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson.