Kim Stanley Robinson is regarded as one of the leading sci-fi authors of our time. He has also branched into the climate fiction (cli-fi) genre with numerous books including New York 2140, and the Science in the Capital trilogy. In 2020, Robinson brought us a new cli-fi novel, The Ministry for the Future, which will be explored in this review. Please note the review will include spoilers.
The Ministry for the Future is an interesting addition to the cli-fi cannon. The first thing to say is that it’s quite bleak. This factor could potentially discourage readers, and I’ve previously argued in Mongabay that we need a new wave of positive cli-fi grounded in the present. I believe that such a new wave of cli-fi provides the best chance of engaging readers and bringing about climate action. Nonetheless, the book is worth discussing for some of the climate ideas it puts forward.
The story begins in the early 2020s and takes us past mid-century, examining major climate shifts along the way. It incorporates both fiction and non-fiction into the story, with entire chapters dedicated to one strand or the other. Viewpoints shift between first person and third person. The book was quite long at around 570 pages, which felt longer given the grim subject matter.
The book follows several storylines. The ones that tend to dominate are those of Mary Murphy, the head of the Ministry, and that of Frank – the traumatised aid worker. It explores what could happen as the world warms, as well as humanity’s response to the climate crisis. The latter of which can be separated into different categories:
- Those who are living through the crisis. An example of which is detailed at the start of the book as India experiences a deathly heatwave.
- Those who work at The Ministry for the Future, and other groups who are actively trying to address the crisis and bring about change. There are both peaceful and violent elements to this, which will be discussed shortly.
- Those who are actively trying to continue business as usual and send the world over the climate cliff edge.
A surprising element of the novel was the foray into eco-terrorism. This is mooted when Frank kidnaps Mary and tells her that the Ministry isn’t doing nearly enough to tackle the climate crisis. He goes on to say, “If you were serious, you’d have a black wing, doing things outside the law to accelerate the changes.”
Little do either of the characters know that someone at the Ministry has already set-up a black wing, and are targeting climate criminals around the world. Frank is committed to this cause and travels back to India where he meets an organisation called the Children of Kali, who are taking violent action to prevent another mass-killing heatwave in India. When he is rejected by the group, he decides to take it upon himself to rid the world of climate criminals and heads back to Switzerland where the Ministry for the Future is based.
However, The Ministry for the Future does come up with climate ideas that may have merit. One being the principal idea of having a Ministry for the Future, which plans for seven generations into the future. Such an organisation would bypass the short-sightedness of politicians who operate on four or five year election cycle timeframes. The book talks about wildlife corridors and the concept of giving half the earth over to nature restoration. This is crucial not just in tackling the climate crisis (trees and shrubs drawdown carbon dioxide), but also in maintaining biodiversity and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples across the world, whose livelihoods have been trampled and who are also crucial custodians of these habitats.
Tackling inequality and taxing billionaires is another key theme. The narrator says that by some estimates, “This is the most wealth-inequal moment in human history.” Yet there is no valid reason for this to be the case, “There is enough for all. So there should be no more people living in poverty. And there should be no more billionaires. Enough should be a human right, a floor below which no one can fall; also a ceiling above which no one can rise. Enough is a good as a feast—or better.” The paragraph concludes with a brazen call to action, “Arranging this situation is left as an exercise for the reader.”
Examples are given of how this could happen. The narrator says that people in the highest US tax bracket were paying 91% income tax in the early 1950s, for $400,000 or more in earnings. If such a tax has been implemented before, then why not again? The obstacle in our path appears to be politicians who pander to their wealthy donors and put themselves and their parties ahead of the wellbeing of society and the planet.
The narrator sees bankers and the like as those who are really in charge, and those with major leverage to change the world. An important point is made that governments and central banks used quantitative easing to bail out the banks during the financial crisis, yet they aren’t prepared to bail out the planet, “Not their job. That would take legislation.” To that extent, the idea of ‘carbon coins’ is explored. These constitute a new currency that is adopted by central banks across the world. Countries like Saudi Arabia are paid in carbon coins to keep their oil in the ground, and Brazil is paid to protect the Amazon.
Social media is a major topic in the book. Not only do platforms harvest and sell our data, but they also spread misinformation. The Ministry comes up with a new social media platform idea called YourLock, which spurs the revolution of internet 3.0. Built by volunteers and owned by the public, YourLock enables every person to choose whether they want to sell their data or keep it private. From there it continues to develop as an ethical platform.
Another controversial aspect is geoengineering, which goes under different names and acronyms in the book. Some examples from the include:
- Spraying particles in the atmosphere to mimic a volcanic eruption and reflect sunlight back out into space. This is trialled in India after their deadly heatwave, to the admonishment of the rest of the world. However, India has become resolute in doing whatever they have to, in order to avoid a similar heatwave from occurring.
- Draining and refreezing melting polar glaciers and ice shelfs. Meltwater from glaciers falls through moulins to the base of the glacier, where it acts as a lubricant for the melting glacier and speeds up its movement into the ocean where it calves and melts. So scientists trial a method of drilling drains to the base of glaciers and pumping water up to the surface of the glacier where it refreezes due to the low temperature.
- Yellow dye in Arctic waters. After the Arctic melts, the darker waters absorb more sunlight which further heats the ocean. So a yellow dye is released in the Arctic Ocean which reduces sunlight penetration into the darker waters, thus reducing ocean warming.
Two more quotes that stood out given their importance in the fight to tackle the climate crisis were:
- “No one is safe until all are secure”
- “Some things might be against the law, but in that case the law is wrong. I think the principle was set at Nuremberg—you’re wrong to obey orders that are wrong.” This is particularly pertinent for those who continue to allow new fossil fuel projects, despite the fact that our carbon quota doesn’t allow for that.
While this was a difficult book to get through, there were elements that the world can learn from. For example, taxing billionaires, the ‘half earth’ concept, YourLock, and creating ministries both in the UN and in governments across the world that plan for seven generations or more ahead. Until the world starts doing that, it’s hard to see how politicians will change and legislate for rapid climate action. And without that action, the future as the book shows, could be a grim place.
My new cli-fi children’s picture book is Nanook and the Melting Arctic. Nanook is a caring polar bear who lives in the Arctic. But when his igloo starts melting, Nanook must find a way to save his friends and his home. He knows that the people who can help are also those who’ve caused the problem and he must find a way to convince leaders to act on the climate crisis. You can purchase Nanook from Amazon’s global stores including Amazon UK and Amazon US.