Aidan's Reviews > The Ministry For the Future

The Ministry For the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
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it was ok

Tl;dr: I want to believe. But I find KSR’s answers to the challenge of global warming vague and unconvincing, so much so that this attempt at a hopeful, needle-threading future has left me more worried about the next century than when I started reading it.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a sci-fi writer in possession of a utopian plotline must be in want of that quote about the end of the world being easier to imagine than the end of capitalism. I think KSR gets a good 5% of the way in before he paraphrases it here. And sure, a bit of a cliche, but it could be a great declaration of intent, a signpost that this novel won’t just indulge in apocalyptic visions (which he summons to terrifying and moving effect in the opening chapter) but try to chart a course between Scylla and Charybdis towards a better future.

The problem is that KSR doesn’t actually have a very good idea for how we get there, so he cheats. Repeatedly. Relentlessly. Remorselessly. Scylla actually has an allergy to ships, you see, and Charybdis is definitely super-scary but needs to wash its hair when the protagonists come by so we’re all good. It’s the equivalent of reading a right-on but fundamentally incoherent editorial in The Guardian — I really sympathise with the author’s politics and aspirations, but this isn’t the argument to be made for them.

Now, before I lean in to technical nitpicking and complaining about heavy-handed authorial shenanigans, a quick word about The Ministry for the Future’s literary quality. Which is often good, sometimes great, but wildly, spectacularly uneven. There are moments — the harrowing opening chapter “somewhere near Lucknow”, a majestic description of the sun as godlike creator-destroyer, a fraught late-night traverse across an Alpine glacier — that are compelling and even transcendent. And there's a solid if slightly less spectacular novel buried in there about a traumatised disaster survivor trying to cope with a chaotic new century without losing his humanity. But these elements stand tall above a sea of infodumps barely disguised as lectures or bureaucratic notes, a lightly-sketched-in protagonist with inexplicable persuasive abilities (more on that later), and frankly jarring interludes where we hear from the personifications of photons, blockchain, history, the economy, and a carbon atom, amongst others. Some are OK. Some are not. It turns out carbon atoms are hyperactive, ditzy, and into molecular threesomes! Who knew? You do now, reader.

But on to the plausibility issues. In the style of the infodumps above, I’m just going to list some of them out here. There’s a new global carbon e-currency which is guaranteed to increase in value but doesn’t create deflation or liquidity issues because, I dunno, blockchain? (At some point the monetary trilemma and all other macroeconomic concerns are memorably hand-waved away as [Žižek sniff] pure ideology, even if we end up majoring on MMT which I guess is fine). Unstoppable Mach 2 swarm missiles with seemingly unlimited range are used by shadowy extra-state actors but don’t problematically destabilise geopolitics in a way we need to hear about. An open-source replacement for all social media immediately overcomes the network effects of incumbents in about a week, effortlessly circumvents most of the Great Firewall, and doesn’t seemingly require armies of half-traumatised mods and admins to police its content. A UN agency undertaking a weeklong abduction of every single person in Davos isn’t discovered by national intelligence agencies even years later. Wholly unspecified carbon air capture technologies are ready and scalable in the next twenty years. Microwave power transmission is happening from space by the 2030s, which likely means those satellites are being designed and funded…about now?

There’s a case study to be had in one of KSR’s coolest ideas, pumping meltwater out from under glaciers to re-ground them. Just drill a hole, and then pump the water out with minimal energy input because the weight of the glaciers means the water rises up almost all the way to the surface! But would it? Well, a) even contained reservoirs don’t bear all the pressure of their overburdens, so probably no, and b) if the meltwater is venting to the sea what pressure there is should be largely relieved by the flow, so double nope. And that’s just the surface-level problem with the idea. For instance, are meltwater pools even connected on a useful scale? What about channelisation under the ice? Is runoff even all that important in affecting glacial velocities? What’s the relative impact of (effectively unpumpable) warm sea water in driving changes in ice shelf pinning lines in Antartica versus (pumpable) surface meltwater runoff? It seems our current state of knowledge about all those questions isn't promising. At best, this seemingly nifty and concrete idea floats on a raft of best-case assumptions. And it’s one of the most superficially plausible and carefully discussed things in the book.

Beyond the technological nitpicks, however, there’s just a seeming desire to wish away the less pleasant realities of the last twenty years. Unprecedented floods of refugees and global depression, fine, very plausible, but the political backlash is contained to, uh, some right wing tough guys making trouble in a park, not, say, even more brutal versions of the Lega, Vox, BNP, and FN rising politically? We’re repeatedly told nationalism is back in a big way, but it’s strangely impotent on the page. Seven thousand travellers die in a single day in an ecoterrorist strike against airlines and states do absolutely nothing of relevance to the plot in response except meekly draw down airplane travel? (Though to be scrupulously fair, huge but ineffective counterterrorist operations are mentioned at one point and then utterly dropped from the narrative). Never mind when the same thing happens with micro-drones threatening swathes of the world population with BSE infection if they continue to eat beef, or power plants being systematically attacked around the world without apparent consequence or backlash. Libertarian ranchers in the US leap at the chance to abandon farms and rewild the prairies, except for unpopular militias easily defeated by a Wild West calvacade. China/US or China/India geopolitical rivalry don’t even get a look in. You get the idea.

What planet is this? Apparently one where the entire politics of reaction, cultural grievance and zero-sum realpolitik that have led to this moment no longer exist. One where the revolutions of 1848 weren’t crushed and replaced by 66 years of revanchism and brutal inequality ending in a catastrophic war. A better place, surely. One I’d like to live in. Just not, you know, the real world.

Instead of wrestling with why global warming is hard to solve, Green Lanternism is left to run riot here, from central bankers being convinced to upend the global monetary system by a Paddington-style Hard Stare to the Swiss government being convinced to try and buck the global power structure by a Hard Stare to a showdown with ecoterrorists who have Stepped Over The Line that is resolved get the idea. All you have to have to save the planet is willpower, and apparently the psychic mojo of the Hypnotoad.

So where does this leave us? This is a painfully earnest, occasionally graceful book that will hopefully inspire like-minded people to action. Maybe even useful action! I suspect it'll be loved by many. And those are all good things. Just pray civilisation doesn’t need anything like the sequence of improbable coincidences, spectacular breakthroughs and authorial meddling KSR seems to think we do.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
August 17, 2020 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-31 of 31 (31 new)

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Dale I enjoyed hearing from a hyperactive ditzy carbon atom. I think KSR wrote some great mini-essays. I found Adian's review very interesting and preceptive, but think he is expecting to much from this fiction.

gracie Totally agree

message 3: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard Great review. Thanks. Great worldwide unprecedented turmoil but any of the story’s characters are unscathed.

Will Hubbell Thanks for the only smart review

message 5: by Sim (new) - rated it 1 star

Sim Sluthers I found the complete absence of the CIA here absolutely baffling. In KSR's world I guess they have decided to sit this one out, and abstain from fomenting coups in countries that threaten to undermine America's dominance in any capacity. It's utopian fiction, but so close to the present that suspension of disbelief is almost impossible.

Rodolfo The best review, and the one I should have read before buying the book

message 7: by Evan (new)

Evan Agovino Wow ty for sharing

Gini After watching the response to a worldwide pandemic, I am unconvinced that we will ever pull together for the greater good. This utopian dream is a nonstarter.

message 9: by Sam (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sam Diener I like your perceptive review, and even largely agree with it, but I think it partially misses one of the important roles that utopian fiction plays. Actually, you allude to it, by saying that you realize some people will be inspired by it. I believe that one of KSR’s motivation is to sketch out ideas, most drawn from social movement activism of the present, and envision scaling them up. Part of the point is to say: wouldn’t it be desirable to fundamentally transform our world? Here are some ways we might do it. If that sounds good to you, I hope that this version of the future gives you some hope, some motivation that working for it would not be futile. I share your frustration that this book didn’t adequately deal with opposition to these ideas (and I’ll add one more: China is transformed with a half-smile by a finance minister and a mini- sketch of a Tiananmen Square uprising multiplied by a few times). This not only reduced the realism of the novel, it reduced its drama. So, I agree with you intellectually, and I think the characterizations were too thin, but I still loved the mosaic of voices working around the world to create changes we so badly need.

message 10: by Claire (new) - added it

Claire Arkin 100% agree with this review, Aidan, thanks for writing!

Fate's Lady Thank you, this was precisely the way the novel left me feeling, and why. Wouldn't it be lovely if we lived in the cooperative and forward-thinking world he describes, held back only by a few "bad actors" with tremendous power who could be taken out with a few well-placed private jet crashes? Alas, I don't see it.

message 12: by Natasha (new) - added it

Natasha Yeah, it's weird how the solution seemed so unlikely that the overall effect was that I'd read a lot of wishful thinking

Ethan Yeah, of all the overreaching ideas, having the bankers help architect the solution is the most unbelievable.

message 14: by RMD (new) - rated it 3 stars

RMD Thanks for this review, will refer to it often, I imagine!

message 15: by Patti (new) - added it

Patti where does this leave 'us"? I have read so many hyperbole=driven reviews of books. I only give them their just due when a full on majority of other reviewers concur. This is not the case. People expect plot and characters when the author has other focus. This book reminds me of the 500+ page historical fiction tomes written by James Mitchener. You don't like the ending? Too positive? Suggest writing own nitpicking sci-fiction.

Chandni The INFODUMPS! They were so infuriating and didn't add to the anyway overlong story. Thanks for calling them out.

Duncan Good review. Leaves me with little to say.

message 18: by Moon (new) - rated it 2 stars

Moon Captain Perfect review

message 19: by Sacha (new)

Sacha Blu It's supposed to be utopian leaning science fiction. Have you read his Mars trilogy or anything else by author? In it we terraform Mars in 1 lifetime. Starting now.
What did people expect?

message 20: by Randall P (new)

Randall P I agree. To date, I've made it three-fifths of the way through and I'm giving up. It has be chore to get through this book, and that's not how I want to spend my time. Everytime I went back to reading, it was because I felt like I should, not because I wanted to.

Brian Dicey I think you may have missed the point- for exactly all the reasons you outlined very succinctly.
Fair criticisms on your part though.

Lesley Levine Fantastic review. Really nothing left to say except how did this book become so popular with some famous politicians? They must know better about the realities of this fantasy utopia.

message 23: by David (new) - added it

David Moyer Why would I give any credence to a review that begins with "too long, didn't read"?

Fate's Lady David wrote: "Why would I give any credence to a review that begins with "too long, didn't read"?"

Because you're smart enough to realize that the tl;dr is a summary for people who don't want to read the long REVIEW and not "I didn't read this book"?

Kevin This is a science fiction book not a science book. Perhaps some of it will be predictive? It would be great if we could reverse the great extinction that we are in and causing.

Alexander Labinsky Thanks, that was basically what I wanted to express but couldn't. And yes, I am also scared if people want to convince me that this book could inspire us. Inspire to what? Fancifull and wishful thinking that ignores reality?

Kevin Kevin wrote: "This is a science fiction book not a science book. Perhaps some of it will be predictive? It would be great if we could reverse the great extinction that we are in and causing."

I think that anyone that is convinced that change is needed is beneficial. The dreams of science fiction authors often proceed reality.

message 28: by Joe (new)

Joe Moeller I enjoyed reading your review better than reading the Book.

Randy French I loved it. What do you want from a book?

Andrew I've barely started it, and I'm not sure overall i agree. My guess is is that KSR is doing the sort of other end of his Years of Rice and Salt, a very speculative and deliberately suggestive look at the future. I do not believe for a second KSR is this naive. The man is a socialist, I suspect a Marxist. He was taught by Frédéric Jameson. I suspect he's under no illusions how tough getting even 1/10th of the way here will be. Put he has deliberately said "okay, forget realism for one second. We can easily read climate realism, for gods sake were inundated with just how realistically terrible the situation is on a daily basis. For now, let's put that aside and just presume a form of liberal capitalism makes some rough response to climate. What happens, how do we respond to it, whats it doing, what are we going to do?"

I mostly agree though with the review in the abstract. And I don't mind the climate lectures so far. I think they help remind people that this shit is in fact real, grounding it in our current reality in a sort of dialouge with it and the text.

Mason I gave it four stars but I think you hit the nail on the head here. Ultimately the forces of ecocide and reaction have no agency in this story, no determination to preserve themselves.

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