The Ministry for the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson’s sci-fi prophecy and prescription for human survival

Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR to sci-fi readers) is a master novelist with a penchant for realistic (no space opera, faster-than-light starships, or galactic empire) science fiction dealing with humanity’s prospects over the next few centuries. Much of his work deals with space exploration and settlement. His Mars trilogy—RED MARS, GREEN MARS, and BLUE MARS—is an epic imagination of how humans might claim, fight over, and “humanize” a new world. I loved the Mars books and consider his novel 2312 to be one of the best depictions of human colonization of the solar system I’ve read. His writing can be categorized as “hard” sci-fi in that it is all grounded in realistic projections of current science and technology. Beyond STEM disciplines, his work also draws upon extensive research in social and life sciences. He is a polymath and a humanist.

He has turned his attention to climate change on Earth in two novels: NEW YORK 2140 and most recently THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE (TMFTF). Some critics have found fault with the former work as too optimistic. I doubt that many will say the same about his latest.

TMTF is grimly realistic, even horrifying, in its depictions of climate change and its probable impact on humans and human institutions over the middle decades of this century, which he rightly describes as an evolutionary “bottleneck” and possible extinction event for most life on Earth, including humans. It reads like a collaboration between the late sci-fi master, John Brunner (STAND ON ZANZIBAR, THE SHEEP LOOK UP) and climate activist Bill McKibben (DEEP ECONOMY: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, EAARTH: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, THE END OF NATURE). I have no doubt KSR has read both authors, as have I. The structure and style of the novel—multiple character points-of-view, interwoven storylines, and vignettes—is very much like Brunner’s work. Like McKibben’s books, it is peppered (maybe “seeded” is a better term) with densely factual non-fiction segments about numerous subjects, including the probable near-term consequences of climate change —physical, political, social, and economic—and what can aptly be called “tutorials” on geology, meteorology, monetary theory, capitalism. A recurring theme is that socio-economic inequality lies at the root of climate change and drives our resistance to do anything about it. You will not come away from this book rooting for the 1-10% of humanity that owns 80-90% of the world’s wealth and virtually runs its governments. You may also come away ashamed and embarrassed at how the political economy of the U$A is the worst offender driving climate change and likely the last adapter of any moves to halt and reverse it.

Don’t let any of this put you off! The book is ultimately albeit cautiously optimistic. It describes the many ways that science and technology can be harnessed to slow the movement of the world’s glaciers into the seas, and to reduce and even draw down the build-up of carbon that is cooking our oceans and atmosphere. It describes how the power of the world’s national banks might be harnessed to issue “carbon coins” that encourage and empower those technologies. It describes how the world’s suffering masses, not its ruling class, ultimately rise up in myriad movements to force change.

It’s also a page-turner—though you may be tempted, as I was, to skim some of the denser exposition of economic theory. I “whipped through” its 563 pages in less than two-weeks of bedtime reading. I strongly recommend reading it and hope it will find its way into a TV miniseries, though I’m not holding my breath on that. Check it out!

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