Ministry for the Future: Review

Ministry for the Future
Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit Books, 2020

This is not an exhaustive review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future. I don’t feel competent to write such a thing, nor do I think it’s strictly possible to say all that could be said in a review in less than several pages of analysis — which I don’t feel like writing nor, I suspect, do you feel like reading. This is an outstanding book. It is what I would add to a required reading life list. Robinson writes with compelling passion, inspiring beauty and a great variety of style. There are chapters that read like elegies and some that are little more than bullet lists. He is telling the story of the next twenty to forty years through many perspectives all around the globe. His Ministry is created in 2029 as one of several “Subsidiary Bodies for Implementation of the Agreement” under the evolving Paris Agreement, and even this small group contains a world of viewpoints and ideologies in microcosm. 

The book begins in disaster because that is where we are now. And this is Robinson’s main strength as a storyteller — this ability to see clearly where we are now and then write the future that logically proceeds from this point. His books have always been eerily prescient, dominated neither by the typical techno-cheerleading fantasies nor the eco-doom-saying dystopias of most fiction set in the future. He is grounded in reality, and his narratives remain rooted even when his characters take off to the stars. He writes real living beings — humans and otherwise — and so his stories are true to life. But, oh my, this one! There are so many details in this 563-page book that make me wonder if Robinson has a time machine in his attic. Or a really good crystal ball. (Maybe he’s found the true Magic Infinity Ball…) It is like reading a collection of the newspapers, white papers, TED-Talk transcriptions, science journal abstracts, journal and diary entries, and reams of meeting notes — but from the mid-century. The book feels like minutia and ephemera of the quotidian future — as it exists, not as it will exist.

But the book begins in disaster — one specific disaster that sets the book’s characters in motion that is placed squarely within a whole general disaster that is the background to our present and coming days. This should worry people. If Robinson thinks this will happen, it probably will happen. It worries me. But there are parts that give me such hope. The most beautiful chapter in this book comes near the end and is told in the thoughts of an old woman who has lived out the best years of her life in climate refugee camps. She is a strong will wrapped in the cages we create to contain all the people who fall into the vast cracks in our culture. She is not ingenuous; she knows she has lost time and opportunity in a singularly tragic fashion, almost purely through bureaucratic error and nolition. But she is not bitter, nor even that angry. She has lived her life and done what she needed to do in that time to give her children and grand-children a better life. Truly that is all any of us can do. And truly her soft-spoken words of hope and dignity serve not to contrast with her life behind barbed wire, but to reveal the barbed wire around all of us in this system of cages. Robinson is showing us that we are all climate refugees in this time and that we all must live our best lives regardless — because that is life.

The book begins in disaster and roils with death and atrocity throughout. But to me it is one of the most hope-filled and reassuring works of climate fiction (essentially, though the disasters are not limited to climate change). It does not end in disaster. It doesn’t end at all, as is true of all true stories. People die but people live. Our social and economic systems collapse but our culture carries on. The best of human nature can be saved. This is a story that needs to be told. It can be saved; our children will live their lives; it will not end. Many things will be lost but many things will also survive; and that diminished world, that world lost to the tragic but prosaic incompetence of the last few decades, will be good enough.

There is one thing I wish Robinson might have expanded upon. He has created a shadowy character, an actual black-ops leader, who is the Number Two in this Ministry. I wish the narrative would have allowed for more detail on this man’s personality and perspective because I find him quite fascinating. He is one character that never speaks. We don’t see much of him at all, but what we do see is through the eyes of others, most particularly his boss. I would like to have known more about this Badim guy, but I also understand why he needed to remain in the shadows to be Badim. However, Badim repeatedly says one thing that resonates: “We need a new religion.” This is, of course, a thought I’ve had for a while, so there is confirmation bias for me that calls to me in this observation. But consider. This is a character who directs acts of eco-terrorism, who has ordered the death of other humans, who has probably caused harm to other bodies with his own hands. He is what many of us would consider a villain. But he is not villainous in Robinson’s deft hands. Not even slightly. He is the most spiritual character in the book. He is the most human, the most sad, the most rational and well-reasoned. And he says we need a new religion. Many times. Over the thirty-plus years contained in this novel.

That too should make people think. And perhaps worry.

But that too might end in good enough. It might be heading that way already.

Because apparently Robinson can see the future.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021