The Ministry for the Future
by Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit Books, 2020
Reviewed by Jill Bronfman
It’s the near-future scenarios that grab you and change you. While science fiction set in space or in the far distant future may capture your imagination and provide a welcome distraction, if you are thinking about the mechanics of transformation, look to a work set in the near-future. The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson, is a novel interspersed with a collection of exploratory essays. The novel portions explore several characters in crisis, namely the existential crisis of our day, climate change. One recurring character, aptly named Mary (read: Miriam, Mother, Matriarch) is tasked with leading the international Ministry. She’s appropriately Irish, tapping into the tenuous relationship that the Irish have with colonialism or rule from abroad, as well as their difficult relationship with the land, including famine and territoriality.
Mary is a real woman as well as an archetype, and the reader is invited to sympathize with her travails in attempting to persuade billionaires and world leaders that the world is not only worthy of saving, but that it is not that difficult to save. They have both the funds and the technology to do so. Of course, the earth may well continue without its human inhabitants, but human society is what she is trying to save. There’s a definition of disaster that is culturally constructed and depends not only on the severity of the storm, or heat wave, or water-level rise, but on the degree of development in the affected area. A tidal wave that rushes over uninhabited land is just a wave.
The action begins in India, with a “wet bulb” heat wave, where living outside, or even living inside without air conditioning and food refrigeration, is not survivable. India takes action as a result, delaying but not preventing global climate collapse. It is here where Robinson takes us on an innovative path switching back and forth in style from novel to instructional essay, noting not just what could happen and what is happening, but how to pivot. Climate change, he proposes, over multiple scenarios and scientific adventures, is far from inevitable. Humans can fix what they’ve done to the earth, and perhaps even fix what they’ve done to each other. Robinson has done his research. The book might inspire the reader to join or contribute to an environmental action group, or to read more about the efforts to keep the ice at the poles intact. He has also moved the novel into a new interactive space, one where the reader not only sees what is happening, or what will happen, but one where the reader can imagine their role in a more optimistic future.
Finally, it isn’t an accident that Robinson has published this work as a climax to a career of writing “clifi” or climate change fiction. He began writing space travel, as many science fiction writers do, but he gradually saw that escaping the earth was not a fair solution. This author is engaged with the world rather than consumed with escaping it. He writes sitting outside his home in Davis, California, and he thinks about the effect of climate change on his immediate environment. He wonders what he can do to help world leaders reimagine climate change as a technological rather than a moral challenge. Then he creates a fictional government agency, The Ministry for the Future, and tasks it with his wish list of scientific innovations. Then he puts this novel, this manual for change, out in the world like a message in a bottle. Let’s hope the right people find the bottle and read the message.