Even This Is Too Good to be True: Review of The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
Stephen Saperstein Frug
The Ministry for the Future. Kim Stanley Robinson. Orbit, 2020.
In the apocalyptic landscape of late postmodernism, it has become commonplace for novels to incorporate multiple genres or modes: novels will be both romance and SF, or both fantasy and literary, or even both experimental and popular. The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest (and by some reports last) novel, falls into at least four modes: it is a modernist novel, an SF novel, a utopian novel, and a political novel. Yet each of those labels is in its own way misleading: Ministry bears marked differences from what readers are likely to expect when picking up works in those categories.
Take my claim that The Ministry for the Future is a modernist novel. There are many reasons to say so: Ministry is a patchwork of multiple voices, multiple perspectives, to the point where the protagonist of the book may fairly be said to be not any individual, but rather global society over the next fifty or so years as it develops and, slowly, unevenly, improves in that time. Many of the chapters are presented as pieces of found text (a dialogue, the minutes of a meeting, a report, a speech), which makes it read like a collage from the future it portrays. In all this it resembles other modernist attempts to portray entire societies, such as John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy. Robinson himself has called Ministry “polyphonic.”
But while many characteristic texts from the modernist period are forbidding —”modernist” can be read to mean “difficult” and “not entertaining”—this is not at all true of Ministry: this is fiction which, for all its substantial literary merit, is meant to be read by a wide audience. Modernist and post-modernist techniques can function not as a barrier, but as a sort of playfulness in which the reader is invited to revel: Robinson’s work is modernist in this way. It is popular fiction that has absorbed techniques whose strangeness time has smoothed.
For all its multiplicity, Ministry does have protagonists—two, in particular. One of these is Frank May, an American aide worker caught within the initial disaster which kick-starts the narrative, and whose struggle with PTSD forms one of the through-lines of the book—a portrayal of struggle and only partial recovery that is all the more stark for being embedded in a narrative largely about improvement, healing, and forward motion. Characters who are neither entirely broken nor entirely healed, who live in the sort of in-between state that most real people live in, are rare in popular fiction. As such, he is a striking literary creation, and one of the highlights of the book.
The other protagonist is Mary Murphy, an Irish woman who is appointed to head the titular ministry: an agency set up in the novel’s near future setting to advocate for generations yet unborn. Her story is more traditional, yet is still unheroic and hampered in ways that are literarily unusual and rich. Murphy is, in the end, a bureaucrat, and this is a novel that makes struggling to improve the world through bureaucracy exciting and entertaining. This is not Robinson’s first foray into narrativizing more accurate portrayals of constructing cultural change—his novel Green Earth is centered in near-future American bureaucracies, and New York 2140 draws a lot of drama out of high finance—but his efforts in this regard have culminated, pleasingly, in The Ministry for the Future. In a world such as ours, so dominated by high finance, it is good that we have a novelist who makes financial innovations into key elements in his stories; that he makes them entertaining is a mark of his rather extraordinary skill.
But while these two protagonists—mostly separate, although their stories do intersect in multiple places—provide the novel’s backbone, they hardly make up the bulk of its flesh. By my count, only 40 of the 106 chapters of this book are about the two main characters, even including a few from the point of view of other characters they interact with, in which the identity of Frank or Mary is at first obscured. Even granting that the chapters centering on those two tend to be longer than the others (which at times are quite short indeed), it is still the case that somewhat less than half the book includes the two characters it might, truthfully yet misleadingly, be said to be about.
So what do the other chapters focus on? Some are about secondary characters whose lives touch on those of the main two. Some are short stories about other people in the world, casting light upon other parts of the developing planetary situation; a few of these stories link up, with recurring secondary characters’ lives threaded through more than one chapter, but most are true singletons. There are a whole series of first-person narrations by various non-living entities: a carbon atom, a photon, the market, history, the sun, and many others each take a chapter. There is some future-historical narration, telling the story of the planet without any individual foci. And there are some sections which are simply non-fiction, descriptions of this or that bit of knowledge, without the reader knowing quite how much is current understanding and how much is projected (although, so far as I can tell, it nearly always includes at least some genuine non-fiction; none of this is Star Trek-style technobabble).
All of this combines to tell the novel’s true story: the world healing. This is a novel that tells the tale of the devastations wrought by climate change, and how the world manages, despite them, to right itself, and head down a more sustainable path. The true protagonist of this book is the world itself over the next several decades. Which brings me to the novel’s second characteristic: it is science fiction; the world it portrays is the world of the future, albeit the near future.
The Ministry for the Future falls into a subgenre of SF that, about fifteen years ago, was labeled by its promoters (most famously writer Geoff Ryman) “Mundane SF”—a rather self-sabotaging bit of branding that seems to promise the ordinary and the dull, but which simply refers to SF that refuses to allow itself any of the improbable (if not impossible) tropes upon which so much SF rests, such as FTL drives, time travel, aliens, psychic powers, and the like. Ministry is a strictly realistic extrapolation using only technologies presently thought possible, and, like a lot of mundane SF, it is set in the near-future. But Ministry employs a format which is unusual even for realistic, near-future SF, in that it starts roughly in the present day (its opening scenes take place in 2025) and then moves steadily forward into the future, eventually extending over most of a human lifetime. This starting-now-going-forward structure is unusual in SF, in no small part because it risks being outdated quickly; this is a risk that Ministry has been hit by even harder and faster than usual. Partly this is because it takes the whole world for its canvas—in a rural backwater, like the setting of Samuel R. Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2007), another recent novel which dares this near-future structure, major events might reasonably go unnoticed. But it is also because the future has been hitting all of us harder and faster these days.
Ministry, in the ways of traditional publishing, was finished before 2020 began and not published until the last quarter of it; thus the worldwide crisis we are all still (as of this writing) living through, Covid-19, is absent from it. All SF becomes alternate history eventually, but Ministry has done so far more rapidly than most. Robinson shows, routinely, huge gatherings of humanity of a sort that a year ago would have seemed completely unremarkable and yet at the moment seem reckless, even alien. This may be the last book in which disaster is so communal; we have learned this year that apocalypse can be lonely.
And there is a lot of disaster in this book. We live in a time with near-universal fear of the future; it is hard to imagine a realistic near-future SF novel, however optimistic, that does not include a great deal of misery. Each of the last five years have, sequentially, become watchwords for horror: we all bemoaned 2016 until it was trumped by, in succession, 2017, 2018 and 2019. We now say 2020 is a year of special horrors, but what bitter laughter will those of us who survive until 2021, to say nothing of 2025 or 2050, have at that thought? Looking ahead, even the mere survival of civilization begins to seem utopian—indeed, in the age of climate change, possibly too utopian to realistically hope for.
But The Ministry for the Future, despite its disasters and horrors, is a utopian novel.
This is not in and of itself surprising. Robinson has been known as (and described himself as) a utopian writer throughout his career. One of his early novels, Pacific Edge, is an out-and-out utopia, while also being one of the most interesting meditations on utopia as an idea and a genre that I have ever read. But all his books are, in one sense or another, about the ongoing effort to make the world better. Better, not perfect: one of Robinson’s innovations in the genre has been not to depict the final state of a perfect society but rather the move towards a utopian society; even his most statically portrayed society, Pacific Edge, shows some of this, and in most of his books the utopia is a horizon, a limit, an ever-approached yet never-reached goal. For Robinson, utopia is a necessary goal, but as such one that is never conclusively reached: it always remains needed; there is always more to do.
Given Robinson’s reputation as a utopian writer, it is a yardstick for the slow darkening of the world that his books have gotten progressively grimmer over the course of his career. His first Mars trilogy, one of his unquestionable masterpieces, is a fairly optimistic forecast into the future; Ministry, on the other hand, is about as grim a utopia as one might imagine while still plausibly describing it as such. This is a utopian work which begins with a vivid portrayal of calamity, a heat-wave which causes the swift and horrific death of twenty million people, and which, as it goes on, contains a great deal of additional horrors as well. What makes this book a utopia is the response to these horrors. For the responses to this opening disaster—and to the many that follow—are honest attempts to confront the problem, and to ameliorate it.
Which brings me to the novel’s fourth facet: The Ministry for the Future is, perhaps above all, a political novel.
As with all of our previous descriptions—modernist, SF, utopian—calling Ministry “political” may be misleading. When one thinks of political novels, one often thinks of works that teach a political lesson, or seek to convert a reader to a political point of view. Ministry is not that at all; I imagine that anyone who is not in broad sympathy with its politics—at the very least, taking climate change seriously as an existential threat, and understanding capitalism, in its current form, as destructively implicated in that threat—will at best find it hopelessly didactic, and likely will not have the patience to get more than a little ways into it. The nonfiction sections I mentioned above are key here. They tend to assume a base-level agreement and build on top of it, rather than evangelise for a particular political view. One of Robinson’s stylistic innovations as an SF writer is a defiant use of exposition: not deigning to hide it in dialogue or gild it with titillation, but simply to assume that knowledge, that science, holds its own interest. I find him very successful in this; but given the foregrounding of politics in his work, even someone interested in science may find it more frustrating than enlightening if they do not, for instance, share a suspicion of mainstream economics.
If not to convert, then what is the point of this political work? In a word, to inspire. Ministry presents a vision of how the world might go right—incorporating, certainly, some of the misery that we are already hurtling towards, but not so much of it that the world as a whole buckles beneath it. It is a generous lumber room of possible solutions and paths and hazards. In most ways—technological, economic, organizational—these are realistic ideas. Indeed, many of them (possibly even all of them) predate Robinson’s novel—E. O. Wilson’s idea of half the Earth being left to non-human life, for instance. Proposals for (limited) geoengineering, alternative economic models, and many other innovations are given narrative flesh. The preexistence of these ideas is not a criticism; it is, in fact, one of the books’ strongest aspects. Few readers will be familiar with all of these ideas, and seeing them developed in a narrative framework is a very different thing than having them described abstractly. It is empowering to see, and seeds ideas for future acts. This is a hopeful novel.
But we do not live in a hopeful world, so it is not, in the end, a realistic one.
Utopias are often criticized for being unrealistic—for having a view of human nature which simply does not comport with reality. Throughout his career, one of Robinson’s triumphs as a novelist has been his way of embedding very human characters in not-quite utopias, giving them a realism (and a drama) too often lacking in more traditional utopias. Here, at last, that fails him: not due to lack of talent or imagination, but purely due to lack of margin. If the level of resistance—to adaptation to climate change, to the reduction of fossil fuel use, to the resettling of immigrants, to the bridling of capitalism, to socialism in its broadest contemporary Sanders/AOC sense—were anything like what we can extrapolate (from the most recent election among many other things) it will almost certainly be, the effort to achieve the utopia of survival will fail. What is most utopian in Robinson’s novel are not the circumstances, but the response to them.
As a vision of what could be done to avert the worst of climate change, this novel contains multitudes. Some of it even incorporates what could be done to lessen or co-opt resistance—of a moderate, centrist sort. But while here and there an offhand reference to some reluctant group or other is made, they are, in Ministry, always feckless. The initial disaster undermines India’s Hindu nationalist party, rather than strengthening it. Further disasters are met with turns to socialism. The anti-fossil fuel terrorism that is portrayed (and both criticized and seen as necessary by varying characters) does not provoke anti-environmental terrorism in response. One particular striking example is about two-thirds of the way through the novel, when a small American town is evacuated in the name of half-Earth. While not welcomed, this evacuation is accepted in a way that is all but impossible to imagine, at least while we, looking up from Robinson’s pages, see violent resistance to medical masks in a pandemic, and a political movement burning with fury at the slightest gestures of perceived disrespect. The rural fury at urban technocrats not ignored, but it is toned down beyond any realistic hopes, lessened to an almost unimaginable degree.
Thus for all its realism, for all its portrayal of struggle and resistance, for all its occasional presentism—its depicting of countries twenty or forty years in the future as not as different as we might guess from their current status (one of the novel’s few flaws)—Ministry contains a hidden miracle: the seeming disappearance of those cultural groups working hardest to prevent addressing climate change—those whose conservative temperament, whose desire to stand athwart history yelling “stop” (or even, “go back”) outweighs any concern for our collective well being—often to the point of causing them to refuse to believe in the threat rather than admit change is necessary to solve it. In effect, the plot of Ministry only makes sense if you posit the melting away of precisely those forces which are, wittingly or otherwise, working hard to bring fiery destruction down upon us all.
This doesn’t mean that it is not worth reading. It is a fine novel with very interesting (if understated) formal properties and interesting character arcs. As a political work, it bursts with ideas of how the earth might be made better—if only there was, if not an unconflicted will to help, then at least no intense will to prevent improvements. It popularizes, envisions, and weaves together multiple ideas from existing scholarly and activist literature, making them truly visible in an important way. In short, Ministry presents an image of how things might go right, an image that can only be inspiring to those fighting desperately against the onrushing horrors we face. I urge everyone who hopes to stave off those horrors to read it for the inspiration it will give them, the ideas it will spark, the beautiful mirage that will draw them further on. Even if the followers of Bolsonaro and Trump were to disappear, we would still face the might of capitalism; this novel shows how even that power could be overcome, subverted, coopted. We are running towards a cliff; all of humanity should be interested in ideas for parachutes.
But it is a measure of how truly grim our situation is that even this darkest of utopias, filled with resistance and mass death and partial victories, is still too naively optimistic to believe.
Stephen Saperstein Frug (he/him) was born in NYC, raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts and now resides in Ithaca, New York. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Cornell. After teaching for a time, he now works as an independent writer. Happenstance: a Photographic Novel, which he both wrote and illustrated, was published late in 2019. Find him on Twitter as @stephenfrug.
This review was commissioned via ARB’s Twitter account and edited by Sabrina Mittermeier who also requested the review copy on behalf of the author. There was no prior relationship to the author.