Gary K. Wolfe Reviews The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit 978-0-316-30013-1, $28.00, 576pp, hc) October 2020.
Kim Stanley Robinson has famously shown us a post-neutron-bombed USA, inundated and then frozen the DC area, tossed sizeable chunks of California into the Pacific, flooded most of Manhattan, and even wiped out virtually all of Europe with the plague, but the opening chapters of The Ministry of the Future may be the most harrowing single passage I’ve seen in all his fiction. Frank May, one of the novel’s two central characters, is an aid worker in northern India when a massive heat wave sets in. Power fails, children and the elderly begin dying in the streets, and even the local, sun-warmed lake, already dangerously polluted, heats up above human body temperature, so that those seeking respite there, including Frank, instead find themselves literally getting poached. By the time Frank comes around the next morning, “Everyone was dead.” Millions have died and Frank’s freak survival becomes something of a cause celebré, though it leaves him with a crippling case of PTSD that effectively shapes the rest of his life. What makes the chapter especially terrifying, apart from the growing sense of dread that Robinson’s at times almost clinical prose develops, is that the disaster is alarmingly near-term, not long after 2025. It doesn’t ask us to imagine the unlikely 50-foot rise in sea levels of New York 2140 or the superstorms of Bruce Sterling or John Barnes, but rather echoes the dangerous heat waves that already seem like annual disasters in the subcontinent. As with his Science in the Capital trilogy, Robinson wants the points of congruence with the reader’s own experience to seem not only familiar but inescapable, something he accomplishes with chilling effect.
In place of the ineffectual National Science Foundation of that earlier trilogy, though, the institution at the center of the novel is an international climate-action organization, headquartered in Zurich and founded to advance the goals of the Paris Climate Accord. Journalistically dubbed the Ministry of the Future and led by an idealistic but charismatic former Irish lawyer named Mary Murphy, it’s predictably underbudgeted and constrained by red tape, and, despite lots of persuasively detailed ideas, is also at risk of being ineffectual. Meanwhile, the increasingly radicalized Frank, having moved to Glasgow for PTSD therapy, returns to India and unsuccessfully tries to join an ecoterrorist organization called the Children of Kali, then even briefly joins a research team in Antarctica, until he’s sent home when his risky medical history is discovered. In Switzerland, he steals a rifle and plans to assassinate those he views as climate criminals. He can’t do it, but he does accidentally commit a murder and eventually traps Mary at gunpoint in her own apartment, arguing that her ministry will remain ineffective unless it develops what he calls a Black Wing. When Mary, now under police protection, later shares the idea with one of her assistants, she’s surprised to find that it already exists. Throughout the novel, Robinson repeatedly returns to the difficult question of whether necessary mitigation can be achieved within the framework of existing laws and diplomacy; the first successful effort at slightly reducing global temperatures comes when India, in violation of all international agreements, undertakes a massive effort to seed the upper atmosphere with sulfur dioxide in an effort to replicate the effects of the 1991 Pinatubo volcanic eruption.
While the complex relationship between Frank and Mary provides the armature of the novel, there are a few fascinating subplots, such as a huge project led by a scientist named Pete Griffin to slow the slippage of Antarctic glaciers, or a plan by a completely nongendered AI expert named Janus Athena to replace commercial social media sites with a kind of user-owned, open-sourced co-op in which people control their own privacy and can choose to sell their data or not. By far the most striking aspect of The Ministry of the Future is the degree to which Robinson has expanded his use of unconventional narrative resources, to the point of blurring the lines between storytelling and speculation, or even between fiction and nonfiction. Robinson has long been an articulate defender of what beginning-level writing instructors too readily call the “infodump”: his Mars trilogy often paused the action for lengthy debates about governance and environmental ethics; and 2312 interspersed its traditional narrative chapters with collage-like documentary interchapters in the tradition of Dos Passos or Brunner. These were often fascinating in their own right (in fact, many years later, they’re still the bits I most clearly remember about Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy), and to confuse them with those awkward expository lumps that early SF writers used to explain a scientific notion necessary to move the story along is tantamount to confusing context with plot, or to complain that a skilled jazz soloist has left the melody behind.
At times The Ministry of the Future seems bent on exploding the notion of what a novel can be. Of Robinson’s 106 chapters, some are narrated by anonymous characters who never show up again (such as one of the pilots in India’s aerial seeding program), some are essays on everything from carbon sequestration to economic theory and wealth distribution, some are stand-alone stories or testimonies (like one about a climate refugee, another by a sailor enduring slave-like conditions on a corporate ship, still another by a Namibian miner), some are dialogues between unnamed interlocutors, some are straightforward historical exposition, some are meeting notes, some are in the form of childhood riddles (“Some day I will eat you. For now, I feed you,” says the sun in one of the easier ones), some are no more than catalogs. One chapter simply recites some 200 climate mitigation or sustainability projects undertaken by nations all over the world. When Mary complains to an assistant at one point that “this sounds like a litany,” we know how she feels.
There are moments when reading The Ministry of the Future feels like wandering through a conference poster-board session – we learn about the 2000-Watt Society, Raymond Williams’s ideas about the structure of feeling, Jevons’s paradox of efficiency, the Gini coefficient on wealth disparity. And yet none of Robinson’s interpolations feel arbitrary. This is partly because Robinson writes of complex ideas with such offhanded grace that they’re fascinating in their own right, partly it’s because we’re prepared early on to read the novel as a complex agglomerate rather than simply a tale, and partly it’s because, in a kind of high-wire act of pacing, Robinson knows exactly when to return us to the tragic arc of Frank’s life and the more hopeful one of Mary’s. By the end, when Mary attends a music festival with her friend Arthur (whom she originally met through Frank, and who pilots one of the newly resurgent airships), we’re fully back in the messy, sensual world of a deeply humane, character-driven novel, but one that at least has a future. Looking at a sculpture of Ganymede, she wonders what it’s saying. “That there is no other home for us than here. That we will cope no matter how stupid things get. That all couples are odd couples. That the only catastrophe that can’t be undone is extinction. That we can make a good place. That people can take their fate in their hands. That there is no such thing as fate.” The Ministry for the Future is, as this passage suggests, a kind of summing-up of the determined if almost perverse optimism of Robinson’s last several novels – perverse because Robinson sees all too clearly how steep the hill is becoming – but never has he laid out in such complex and precise detail his reasons for hope.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the October 2020 issue of Locus.
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