Author:Kim Stanley Robinson
The future history novel is a very specific type of science fiction: relying on a narrative rather than a plot. It’s desperately unfashionable and since Wells and Stapledon novelists have made their histories implicit and revealed through action and plot rather than attempting to write a ‘history of the future’. Kim Stanley Robinson’s work, especially his Mars series, might be seen as tiptoing into this arena. Now with The Ministry of the Future he’s dived straight in. The ecological and political themes that have always driven his work are now front and centre as he tracks the history of the earth over the next thirty years.
The novel starts with an apocalyptic event: an extreme heat event in India that kills millions. Virtually the only survivor is Frank, an American aid worker. He is one of only two characters who have what could be called a storyline. The other is Mary, an Irish politician who is chosen to head the titular Ministry, brought into being in Switzerland to advocate for the generations not yet born in decision-making that affects the planet’s sustainability. Their paths cross when Frank, radicalised by his experience, kidnaps Mary to impress upon her that respectful lobbying and polite advocacy is not enough.
And this is KSR’s central theme: that what politicians, business leaders and international organisations are currently proposing is not enough. So what might be enough? The Ministry of the Future is a future history that looks back to track how a vast cast of characters across the globe could plausibly arrive at a course of action that was enough. He puts this ending upfront, shifting the narrative from focusing on whether to how.
The future history format frees Robinson from even pretending to use his research for anything more creative than informing.This novel will leave most readers knowing much more about carbon sequestration, glacial movement and methane production than they did at the start.
A vast cast: refugees, Presidents, scientists and even non-humans voice a collective oral history of how the world moved, at great cost, from heading towards catastrophe and extinction to sustainability. This may be the only novel where the photon and the market are chapter narrators. And it’s the operation of that market that Robinson sees as lying at the heart of the climate emergency: from offshore tax havens and globalisation to the actions of central banks he sees the economic game is firmly rigged against the implementation of any meaningful change through the current channels.
Mary – with Frank as her prompter and conscience – has a central role in finding new channels, from trying to persuade world central banks to adopt the carboni, a new global currency that would reward carbon capture; to sanctioning a ‘don’t tell, don’t know’ campaign of terrorism by others within her Ministry. Might the death of a few thousand business leaders and populist politicians be the ‘enough’ that will lead to the necessary change? Here they are seen as committing crimes against humanity: their actions not just robbing, but killing, future generations before they are born.
Read this as a novel and I suspect the lack of action and characters will be frustrating. Read it as a roadmap of a future and it challenges us to think about how much we would be prepared to do: and whether that might be enough.
Length of Read:Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
New York 2140, the Mars trilogy, the California trilogy, and KSR’s other stuff. This is not your novel to start in on Kim Stanley Robinson with
One thing you’ve learned
How to stop glaciers shifting into the sea – it’s all to do with the meltwater layer between the glacier and the rock.