The Ministry for the Future
by Kim Stanley Robinson
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 15, 2020 (with later edits)
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Lots to unpack here, and a difficult review to write. I'll start by saying I recommend it highly, but at the same time acknowledge its appeal will be limited. A lot of what I have to say might not be much of an encouragement either. It may have been a mistake for the publishers to include "A Novel" on the cover. Yes, it does have several narrative tracks, but in other ways it's as much a science text as it is science fiction. Many will say it is too preachy. Most SF writers don't claim to be predicting the future, only telling a story, but since Robinson is known for meticulous research it's easy to believe his scenarios are very close to what we can expect in the coming decades. A few of his other recent books have been a step back from previous technological optimism. The Mars Trilogy and 2312 extrapolated from current trends to show a possible terraforming of Mars, later expanding those efforts throughout the solar system. Then Aurora posited a failed extra-solar mission, and since then he has contracted back toward Earth, and to more near-future times, concentrating on the pressing issues of the day, primarily climate change, virulent nationalism, and wealth inequality. The narrator of Aurora was the generation ship's AI consciousness. One thing it pondered was if it was a self-aware organism, and also wondered if humans were. The determining factor was the ability to learn from mistakes. As global climate change has progressed, perhaps Robinson wondered if he needed to learn from new information available since he wrote New York 2140. He echoes many climate scientists who have been saying if we don't act quickly, the situation will get much worse before it gets better.
This book begins around 2025 with a heat wave in India which kills at least two million people. Frank May, an American, who had also lived in Scotland, was a humanitarian aid worker in India, one of the few survivors in his area. He suffers from PTSD and survivor's guilt. His story eventually intersects with the other main character. Mary Murphy is Irish, but living in Zurich, Switzerland. She is the director of an agency which someone in the press nicknamed the Ministry for the Future, although its official designation is never revealed. It is a subsidiary committee created by the Congress of the Parties to the Paris Climate Accords. The agency's task is to encourage cooperation between the member nations, to force compliance with the accords, but many seem to have their reasons for non-compliance, primarily economic in nature. One of the other mandates for the ministry is to act as advocate for the voiceless, the land and the multitude of animal species. Mary finally comes to the realization that the real power lies with the various national and international banks, including the US Federal Reserve, the World Bank, and others. She tries to convince them that if climate change is not dealt with there will be no economy for them to control. The Carbon Coin is established, later nicknamed the carboni. For every ton of carbon that is sequestered (either left in the ground, or removed from the atmosphere), a country or corporation is issued one carboni, a blockchained value that can be accumulated or traded for other currencies. Some realize not producing fossil fuels is as profitable, giving them incentive to invest in alternate energy. Slowly but surely the Keeling Curve begins to drop, but in some areas of the world the change did not come soon enough, and some of the poorer countries are still allowed to burn coal and oil, mainly because their economy is not up to rebuilding their infrastructure. Mary also pushes the bankers to reverse those situations, to free up funds to aid those countries to rebuild and redirect their resources.
Some of those actions by the ministry come after Mary meets Frank. He has come to the end of his rope, but when he learns of the ministry he realizes Mary has the power to make a difference. He kidnaps her off the street, but instead of him taking her to an unknown location, she is able to convince him to go to her apartment to talk. He tells her of a group in India, the Children of Kali, who have vowed to kill all those who are blocking the needed changes. He is despondent because he wants to do the same, but they wouldn't accept him because he wasn't Indian. He tells Mary she has to do more, the ministry has the power to demand change. She later wonders if she is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, because she has taken his plea to heart, doubling down on everyone to comply with the ministry. After his escape from her apartment she does not see him for several years, until he is arrested, not only for her kidnapping, but also a manslaughter charge. She visits him in jail multiple times, and while she realizes it might be traumatizing for him, she still feels compelled to do so. The book covers at least thirty years, including when Frank is eventually released from jail. In the meantime, Mary has marshalled her forces, locking in countries and companies to the new order. The end is slightly positive and encouraging, or it's possibly just the lull before the next storm. We can't assume this alters the course that led to the events in New York 2140, wherein the "First Pulse," the first major sea level rise, occurred in 2061. As with all progress, whether social, political, or scientific, there can always be relapses.
Robinson uses a combination of first, second, and third-person narrative techniques. The majority of the first-person accounts are from different unidentified people around the world, describing the conditions where they live, the catastrophes they've witnessed, and later those who are working on the solutions. The first-person segments where the speaker is identified are all anthropomorphic entites: the sun, a photon, an encryption code, the "market." Mary and Frank's stories are in third-person, the second-person segments mostly informational. We learn how glaciologists are attempting to deal with ice melt and subduction into the oceans; the de-carbonization of the atmosphere; reforestation and rewilding of wilderness areas, bringing back species close to extinction. Also the many relief organizations handling massive numbers of refugees. Industry and transportation are revolutionized, turning to solar and wind-generated electricity. Airships replace airplanes, ocean vessels become electric and/or sail. All of these scenarios could easily be expanded into novels on their own. Many of the solutions depend on policies that are socialistic, cooperative efforts for mutual support. For many that 's' word is a trigger which produces a negative reaction, while even in the US we have to acknowledge there are many examples of that type of organization: public utility districts, cooperative farms and markets, credit unions, and practically every form of public works: highways, police and fire departments, health clinics, libraries. An example of a successful socialist collective is Mondragón in the Basque region of Spain, a cooperative corporation established in 1956, still going strong nearly 75 years later. I need to research that further, along with many other things Robinson addresses. I had read about Mondragón before, within the past few years, but can't recall in which book.
I've always considered myself intelligent, but with limitations. One of those is higher math, another is science beyond what I've gathered from the various popularizers: Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Stephen Jay Gould, etc. And SF authors like KSR and others. I know enough for quite a few proposals in this book to be understandable in context, but I also took a lot of notes throughout. I didn't google while reading because I didn't want to slow down my progress, but did a lot of that afterwards. Other readers are free to do it either way. Robinson doesn't confine it to just climate science, but also economics, political theory, and history, and not just recent history. People more knowledgeable in history are probably aware of the Peace of Westphalia, the Wannsee Conference, the Bretton Woods Conference, all of which helped establish the political and economic landscape for decades and centuries thereafter. I know next to nothing about economics, how fiat money is established, or about encryption codes related to blockchain transactions. All of these details may seem like gigantic info-dumps to most readers, and to a certain extent they did for me too, but they were also fascinating.
Another program instituted by the Ministry for the Future relates to another historical occurrence, one which I either had not heard of, or just forgot. Because of the millions of refugees, the ministry gets all member countries to agree to resettle a set percentage of them, although some might eventually return to their home nations as conditions improve. To facilitate the process they become Citizens of the World, issued passports similar to the Nansen passports created by the League of Nations after WW1, named after the Norwegian statesman Fridtjof Nansen. Nations still have quotas for refugees, but travel to all countries is open, enabling them to discover the best place for them to settle and begin anew. This spirit of openness is dramatized when Mary and her new friend, airship Captain Arthur Nolan, attend Fastnacht festivities. That is similar to other spring festivals around the world, such as Mardi Gras. People don various costumes, not necessarily of their own ethnic group, and engage in music and dance, and celebration of various cuisines. All the world on one stage, embracing each other while still emphasizing the differences. It is a very fitting end for a book that had previously shown so much division.
This is a fictional scenario, but grounded in reality. Some of the events in the book may occur, but we can hope some do not. It's a warning for the perils we face, but could also be used as a roadmap to avoid them. Everything is connected. Unless we all agree that we are in this together, that what affects one affects all, the problems will continue. The pattern has to change. If you want a more traditional narrative then check out New York 2140. But if you're up to the challenge of learning about how our political and economic climate affects atmospheric, oceanic, and geological climate, this is a must read. It reminds me of a cartoon I've shared on Facebook and Twitter several times, where a person in the audience at a Climate Summit wails, "What if it's a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?" It's not for nothing. It's for us, our children, our grandchildren unto multiple generations, and for all the species that share this one and only home we have to cherish and protect.
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