THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Alexander Wallace reviews the latest Kim Stanley Robinson novel, The Ministry For The Future.

Sooner or later, Gaia will cut you down.

That’s the overwhelming sense of the message of Kim Stanley Robinson’s newest novel. Having imagined the future with the Mars Trilogy, 2312, Aurora and many other novels, and having reimagined the past in The Years of Rice and Salt, he now turns to predicting the next few decades of human history. Here, he does not have the benefit of being centuries off; rather, The Ministry for the Future is intensively current, and disturbingly so.

It is a book that begins with a heat wave in India that kills two hundred million people, and then gets worse from there. Robinson makes no bones about how he thinks that climate change will be a disaster of biblical proportions. Instead of letting the rich ride it out in an ark, a la Roland Emmerich’s 2012, Robinson posits a United Nations organization, the titular Ministry, tasked with enforcing the Paris Agreement and its targets.

Robinson brings to the table his trademark eloquent prose that simultaneously impresses upon you the breadth of his knowledge and lets you feel intelligent too, sweeping in its scope and profound in its depth. Wedded to his erudite style is an emotional core that is one that is uncommon in his oeuvre; he often has an optimism and a technological can-do attitude towards anticapitalist socio-economic programs, but here that is combined with a seething rage against the capitalist class, especially the global financial sector, for allowing humanity to stand on the precipice of annihilation and beckon the rest of the world to leap off like lemmings while they continue to see their stock prices rise. It’s a style that can be described as dense, and that may turn some people off. I’m fine with it, as I’ve always liked that sort of writing when done well.

The novel has an interesting selection of characters, ranging from the highest echelons of power to the angry little people who are swept up in the emerging apocalypse. Mary Murphy, the Irish head of the Ministry, shows very well the price and opportunity of being involved in politics at such a high level, and provides a human face for an institution that strives for the best for humanity whilst having to deal with the worst (read: bankers and politicians) on a regular basis. Conversely, another main character is an American who believes that violence is necessary to bring about a more ecologically sustainable world, and his interactions with Murphy create some of the best character moments in the book.

In between chapters there are various snippets of documents as well as a variety of eyewitness accounts to a world that is ever so quickly careening to disaster. These show how the little people of the world, the ones who cannot reasonably be held to be responsible for any of this desolation, are the ones suffering for the voracious greed of the Mammon of global finance. Some of the most heart-wrenching moments come from these little vignettes that are often only a page or two long; Robinson has done similar in 2312 and New York 2140 but it reaches its apex here. He presents a seldom-used science fiction trope (especially popular in alternate history) and makes it emotionally compelling.

From a more nuts-and-bolts level there are several interesting ideas on how to combat climate change, ranging from the purely technological to the social engineering level; the latter is often where Robinson’s rigorous research shines. There are carbon coins designed to incentivize keeping that pesky element in the ground, as well as pumping water into Antarctica to slow the rise of sea levels. Robinson, the visionary he always has been, puts forth several ideas that those fighting climate change in the real world ought to take heed of.

There are times, though, I think that Robinson simply has too much faith in human beings, and ignores how institutions slowly become vehicles for careerism. If the United Nations were to create such an institution, I fear it would be taken over by upper-class intellectuals with a vested interest in maintaining their class position; likewise, I worry that governments that nationalize the financial sector, as Robinson advocates that they do in multiple books, will then become the career path of choice for a certain sort of undergraduate whose sole aspiration in life is to work on Wall Street. I suspect that these institutions would become not unlike the Communist Party of China (which, in fairness to Robinson, he doesn’t seem to be much a fan of either), as in that country it is the main ambition for their upper-class careerists. Ultimately, I think he is overly optimistic about the H. G. Wells-esque scientific class that he wants to influence the world more, as that class is just as susceptible to base human desires as anyone else is.

Ultimately, The Ministry for the Future is both a warning and a (qualified) reassurance. Robinson has no illusions about how our species will suffer by the wrath of mother nature, but he is also intent here in showing that there is a way out if humanity decides to actually cooperate instead of sniping at each other for one reason or another. Robinson dares say that this world is possible, and I can only hope that he’s right.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.' 

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