I am blood in the streets, the catastrophe you can never forget. I am the tide running under the world that no one sees or feels. I happen in the present but am told only in the future, and then they think they speak of the past, but really they are always speaking about the present. I do not exist and yet I am everything. You know what I am. I am History. Now make me good.

There are some novels where you get to the end and are left thinking more about yourself and the world you live in than the actual plot of the story or the characters. The Ministry for the Future is one of those novels. Kim Stanley Robinson imagines how we might save ourselves and the planet from the perils of global warming. This is not a blueprint with all the answers laid out neatly, but rather a provocation that asks many questions that need to be considered.

The story itself is loosely tied together by Mary Murphy, head of the UN Ministry for the Future, a group set up in accordance with Article 14 of the Paris Agreement.

The Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to this Agreement shall keep under regular review the implementation of this Agreement and shall make, within its mandate, the decisions necessary to promote its effective implementation. It shall perform the functions assigned to it by this Agreement and shall: (a) Establish such subsidiary bodies as deemed necessary for the implementation of this Agreement

It follows her journey in putting in place a number of steps and strategies to turn the tide on climate change. Associated with this is Murphy’s relationship with Frank May, a survivor from the extreme heatwave in Uttar Pradesh, the event which dictates the necessity for change. 

However, The Ministry for the Future is really a bricolage of many different voices captured through various texts, whether it be riddles, meeting notes, interviews and accounts. A kind of docudrama. These all combine to provide different perspectives for how things could get done. The reality confronted throughout is that global warming is bigger than a single person or a particular place. It is everywhere and a problem that never really settles. Something Timothy Morton has described elsewhere as a hyperobject.

Global warming is perhaps the most dramatic example of what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects”—entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.

In an interview on the Marooned! on Mars podcast, Robinson describes The Ministry for the Future as a novella between Frank and Mary with everything else hanging off it. Therefore, as a structure, it challenges the conventions of the realist novel as it can never really be folded into a particular character. Instead it provides a perspective about how things could get done collectively from a number of perspectives and voices.

In the end, The Ministry for the Future is an example of near-future anti-dystopian science fiction, what Robinson has described as a shot ahead of a moving object that is the ever present. It is therefore an urgent book for now. A piece of modal schizophrenia that challenges the reader to consider what is and what ought to be. It raises many questions about topics such as violence, sacrifice, wealth, responsibility and what is actually possible. This challenge not only comes through the content grappled, which even at the end of the novel nearing the year 2050, still seems present, but also through the structure of the writing, whether it be the use of riddles to aid in thinking and reflecting or the fractured nature of the narrative that requires the reader to fill in the gaps as they go. I guess this is why Barack Obama included it in his books for 2020?

For a different and shorter perspective on the novel and the challenge of global warming, Kim Stanley Robinson presented a TED video recounting the story from the year 2071.


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Review – The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

5 thoughts on “Review – The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

  1. Reflecting on the extremes of utopian and dystopian imaginings, Mike Caulfield calls for another possibility, Neartopias:

    Neartopias are not utopias. They have problems. They have to have problems because problems are what drive plots. And on another level problems are just interesting in a way that non-problems are not. They also aren’t post-scarcity Star Treks, or visions of a perfect 6030 A.D. They are “near”-utopias both in the sense that they lack perfection and in that they seem near-enough to be achievable.
    Neartopias also have blindspots. Each neartopia pulls from cultural assumptions that will be eventually — like all things — be revealed as problematic. The Golden Age of sci-fi produced some neartopias, for instance, but had a relationship with technological progress and industry, for example, that was — well, let’s say underdeveloped.
    Mike Caulfield https://hapgood.us/2018/05/17/neartopias/

    Reflecting upon The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson reflects upon the break often associated with utopias:

    One weakness I’ve become aware of is how often the authors of utopias set them after a break in history that allows their societies to start from scratch. In the 16th century, Sir Thomas More began the use of this device with a physical symbol: His utopia’s founders dug a Great Trench, cutting a peninsula in two and creating a defensible island. Other kinds of fresh start appear in utopias throughout the centuries, always clearing space for a new social order. Even Le Guin’s Annares is founded by exiles from Urras.
    @TheNation https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/utopian-fiction-climate-literature/

  2. The idea of ‘no no no no no yes to framework no no no yes’ presented by Steven Dennis as the way congress works reminds me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s description of change and time in The Ministry for the Future:

    The world in their time. In all the blooming buzzing confusion of their moment, they would take stock and get some clarity on the situation, and act. And if Badim’s black wing had anything to it, they would act there too. The hidden sheriff; she was ready for that now, that and the hidden prison. The guillotine for that matter. The gun in the night, the drone from nowhere. Whatever it took. Lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, fuck it— win.
    https://www.hachette.com.au/kim-stanley-robinson/the-ministry-for-the-future

    “Susan B. Glasser” in It’s Too Early to Consign Joe Biden to the Ash Heap of History | The New Yorker (09/26/2021 11:40:02)

  3. Kamyar Razavi talks about the importance of giving flesh to the facts when it comes to global warming. Although fear can be a useful tool for mobilising people, storytelling helps with engaging at a more personal level.

    As journalist Dan Gardner succinctly puts it, the challenge for science communicators is to “help System 1 feel what System 2 calculates” — to make climate change feel personal, relatable and local.
    Kamyar Razavi https://theconversation.com/powerful-local-stories-can-inspire-us-to-take-action-on-climate-change-168177

    This has me thinking about Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future and the celebration of the all the different projects occurring around the world:

    We are all here together to share what we are doing, to see each other, and to tell you our stories. We are already out there working hard, everywhere around this Earth. Healing the Earth is our sacred work, our duty to the seven generations. There are many more projects like ours already in existence, look us up on your YourLock account and see, maybe support us, maybe join us. You will find us out there already, now, and then you must also realize we are only about one percent of all the projects out there doing good things. And more still are waiting to be born. Come in, talk to us. Listen to our stories. See where you can help. Build your own project. You will love it as we do. There is no other world.Page 443
    https://www.hachette.com.au/kim-stanley-robinson/the-ministry-for-the-future

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