Monday, September 06, 2021

Review: The Ministry for the Future

 [Kim Stanley Robinson. The Ministry for the Future: A Novel. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2020.]

Science fiction. Starts fifteen minutes into the future and extends for several decades, focusing on the climate crisis at a global scale. Begins with a powerful chapter describing in an embodied way one character's experience of a devastating heat wave that ultimately kills 20 million people – made all the more gripping and disturbing by how entirely plausible, even likely, such a scenario is quickly becoming. In response to this tragedy, the nations signatory to the Paris
Agreement invoke some mechanism therein to create and fund a new organization tasked with representing future generations and engaging in a wide range of strategies to catalyze action on the climate crisis. Throughout, the book follows the viewpoint character from the first chapter and also the woman who heads this new Ministry for the Future. In order to try and capture at least some of the other key facets of the complex, lengthy, global trajectory at the book's core, though, it has lots of chapters that do other things as well – other perspectives, other modes of writing, other scales, and so on. You could certainly point out plenty of limitations to this approach, largely I think because the task that the author has set himself is ultimately beyond what the novel form can easily do. But aside from a few choices that just struck me as weird – some of the later aspects of one central character's personal journey, some of the transparent authorial pontificating (particularly those bits that I didn't entirely agree with), that one weird section near the end about Hong Kong that seemed to have little to do with anything and to serve no other purpose than to show the author wasn't being too soft on China, and so on – I still think it is cleverly done and quite effective. 
I appreciate the book's portrayal of how institutions work – their logics, their inertia, how they are so often beholden to elites or at least to a status quo that benefits elites. I also appreciate its clarity about the fact that any real path forward in addressing the crisis is going to be messy and is not going to look like any one ideal vision, is not going to be pure. Though even as I like that about the book, it still tweaks my own impulses towards purity through elements that discomfit me, like its acceptance of a role for geoengineering (which I see as a tremendously dangerous idea, for the most part).
I think the choice to begin the book with such a horrific scenario was rhetorically quite clever, because it bought emotional space for the rest of the book to be more optimistic than I think it could have otherwise gotten away with. Though I think it may be too optimistic, to be honest. Not that it portrayed a road without profound bumps and barriers, and certainly many of those bumps and barriers are exactly the ones I would expect, but at this point it feels like the odds of us navigating all of that as effectively as the world does in this book are very, very slim. Even the way that the book included political violence was a strange mix of both greater realism and greater optimism than I would have expected. I think it was kind of a bold choice, for instance, for the book to recognize as matter-of-factly as it does that extensive political violence on the pro-climate side is likely to start happening sooner or later. But almost all of it happens offstage, which seems like it is maybe a way to avoid having to deal with some of its implications, and frankly I think it is shown to be more effective in certain respects than it actually would be. And sadly, I feel like the book rather dramatically underestimates the scale and likelihood of massive reactionary violence if significant change to the status quo starts to look likely, whatever tactics are being used to advance that change.
Ultimately, I would say this is a good book and worth reading. In particular, I would say it is quite a bit better than the earlier world-scale climate change epic *Green Earth* by the same author, both in terms of writing craft and in terms of political insight. But if you are reading fiction to think and feel your way through the crises that confront us, as I think I am maybe starting to do in a limited way, you can't make this your only book – though it is written by someone on the left, someone who is very smart, someone who has exerted great care in thinking through the future that he presents, and though it does a lot more work than *Green Earth* did to connect the perspective of people working in powerful institutions to the experiences of ordinary people situated in many different ways, it is still ultimately a normatively Western, white, relatively privileged imagining of how we might deal with what we face, centred on what it might take for such institutions to be jolted into a course that is more sustainable and just. Which is, certainly, one story I'm happy to read. Frankly, it is good to read something that imagines that such change might be possible, and that does so in a sophisticated and grounded way, when I have trouble imagining that myself. But it isn't enough. We are going to need take up, submerge ourselves in, learn from, be transformed by imaginings from sources that go far beyond white Western leftists, and far beyond course-correcting currently existing institutions, if we want to have a hope of getting through this.

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