"The Ministry for the Future": some impressions

In October 2020, legendary science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson published his final book-length story: The Ministry for the Future. The book’s story begins with a massive heatwave in India in the near future, which kills millions of people and spurs global action. Most of the narrative is centred on the so-called Ministry, an international organisation based on Zurich and created with limited powers to defend the interests of the future generations within the Paris Agreement framework. The narrative spans various years, showing the impact of climate change in human and non-human life and various political and technical approaches to address the issues.

I had not read anything by Robinson before, but many people with shared interests hold him in high regard, so this seemed a good place to start. Overall, this was a good idea, as the author presents a very imaginative treatment of climate change that is hopeful without becoming a caricature. Reviews at the Guardian and other venues already present good treatments of the book’s plot and key themes, so I would like to expand on my Goodreads review by highlighting some points that caught my attention (WARNING: might contain spoilers).

The writing was a little tiresome at certain points, without much in terms of character development, so it wasn’t easy to get through the almost 600 pages of narrative. Strangely, my main issue with the narrative flow was not the frequency of infodumps: Robinson is good at presenting scientific information — be it from the natural, life, or social sciences — in an understandable form, and the book’s ambitious project would not be successful without showing the complexity of the issues related to climate change.

The least interesting parts of the book, at least for me, were the ones centred in the main human characters. I could not be bothered to care about the book’s main actors, even though they were so close to the relevant historical developments, because they had such a flat characterisation. At the small vignettes, meant to convey the impact of small and big climate changes, Robinson does a good job conveying the human (and non-human — RIP giant otter) tragedies, but the characters become less interesting in direct proportion to the time you spend with them.

Fortunately, not all chapters are character-driven: in addition to the already mentioned infodumps and vignettes, Robinson also writes some chapters from the perspective of non-human agents. These are hit and miss: a few were downright boring, but there is a chapter starring a carbon atom that reads like a tribute to Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table but with a geoengineering spin. Still, the book is at its best when it is presenting general patterns and complex systems, not individual humans.

The author’s political and technological solutions also vary a lot in quality: some of them are based on solid research and creative thinking, such as Robinson’s discussion of the Mondrag√≥n approach to worker self-management, while some of them reek of misguided optimism, such as his belief in cryptocurrencies as a force for good — while downplaying the environmental footprint of these currencies. I am also not really sanguine about some of the aspects that were clearly meant as utopian, but Robinson manages to show how much of the current technological infrastructure of our society — not just technological artefacts but also digital technologies and social technologies too — is based on social belief and decisions shaped by power dynamics.

Finally, what I like most about The Ministry for the Future is that Robinson has dared to explore creative solutions while avoiding the trap of monocausal reasoning. Instead of picking one factor as dominant — “geoengineering will save us”, “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism”, “degrowth” —, the book is clear in pointing out that tackling climate change will require concerted action through various paths which reinforce one another. There is no silver bullet that will get us out of a climate crisis, and this book does an excellent job of showing how any solution will require not just technical and social change, but also openness to creative solutions and a long-term perspective of the consequences of previous actions. So, if you are interested in climate fiction, this book will be a rewarding experience.

Researcher, Law and Artificial Intelligence

Currently researching the regulation of artificial intelligence at the European University Institute.