Sunday, May 9, 2021

In the maw of catastrophe - a review of Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Ministry of the Future"

I have a chequered history with Kim Stanley Robinson. I tried to read the Martian trilogy and finished "Red Mars", but then I gave up a few chapters in of "Green Mars". I read about the first third of "2312" before I gave that one up. I was tempted by the premises of "New York 2140" as well as "Aurora", but I never quite dared to get disappointed again, even though they intrigued me. I can happily report that I finished his latest book, "The Ministry of the Future". 
 
There is something peculiar about Kim Stanley Robinson's novels. I think it is because they aren't really novels; they lack almost all the characteristic novels usually tend to have. Like plots. Or characters. Or character development. There are actual chapters told from the perspective of what can only be described as forces, like photons, carbon or "the market". Other chapters are written in the style of minutes taken from a meeting (relieving Robinson of the need for actual dialogue) or as oral history, in which someone describes an event or development, usually in the first person plural. Again, Robinson writes masses.  
 
Oh, sure, stuff is happening in these books. And there are people, with names, who talk (at least occasionally). But in reality, the real protagonists are institutions, are masses of people. Whenever it comes to actual people, they are stand-ins. The trauma survivor. The politican. The glacier expert. The physicist. Yes, they have names, genders, ages, nationalities, but these serve only a function of cohesion. 
 
When I say that the real protagonists are institutions and masses of people, this is not necessarily an indictment. It is difficult to tell such stories, and Robinson is a master of this craft. The storyline spans several decades, and while the continuity in personell stretches credulity, it is simply an outflow of him not caring about people. That the same person heads a minstry for 40 years is wildly unrealistic, but since that person isn't really a character anyway but more a moving camera and conduit of ideas, it hardly matters. 
 
The star of the show, umistakably, is Earth itself. It changes a lot. You might say, it is the central protagonist, and therefore, it has a clearly delienated character arc. Viewed like this, it's the villain of the story, or at least an anti-hero, because it gets gradually worse, but of course, this is our fault. The fault of masses of people, of institutions, and, yes, individuals. 
 
The story begins in the late 2020s. The central conceit is that the COP meeting of 2024 created an institution - feckless and ineffectual, but yet, an institution - that became known as the Ministry of the Future and tasked to look at the world from the perspective of people not yet born. It's one of the tenets of climate activists made ministry, basically. 
 
The ministry is trying to raise awareness of the measures that need to be taken, but of course, taken they are not. We know this from our own experience and news consumption. It's therefore only consistent when Robinson lets India take point. Hit by a deadly heat wave, the Indians are the first to take drastic measures. In Robinson's telling, these measures also spawn a terrorist organization, the "Children of Kali", but more on them later. 
 
We follow how several initiatives are pursued at the same time, and how they fall short. Pumping ice back onto Antarctica isn't feasible, for example. Simultaneously, prevarication and resistance to change shove the achievable further and further away. These parts of the book are coming like an onslaught, a barrage of misery and pessimism. They draw you in like a horror story, because they are. They are in our rather near future, and Robinson does a stellar job at describing them to us in detail as vivid as it is technocratic, scientifically accurate and detached. It only heightens the force of impact. 
 
This force that the book unfolds, the making apparent and feelable of the often theoretical and abstract forces of climate change, is one of its main draws. It pulled me through the first half of it, keeping me awake far longer than I should have, reading page after page. 
 
Another draw is the ethical dimension of it all. In the face of hundreds of millions dying, fleeing their homelands and seeing their lives crash down all around them, is the system itself worth saving? Is capitalism able to cope with the challenges? Should central banks, this unelected earth government, as Robinson paints it, really try to fulfill their old mandate in the face of armageddon? Readers who know Robinson's previous works can easily imagine the conclusion he arrives at. 
 
The most uncomfortable question the book poses, a central dilemma, is terrorism. In short, Robinson poses the question of whether terrorism is not only a sane response to the behavior of bad actors, but also an ethical one. In the story, terrorists bring down planes full of business people, virtually ending commercial air traffic until the arrival of clean dirigibles. They sink container ships, forcing the shipping industry to come clean. They sabotage coal plants and force them shutting down. 
 
Robinson makes clear that without terrorism, the belated changes to the world economy would not have come at all, and mankind would've been lost. And yet, the terrorists kill a lot of people, and it is heavily implied that the ministry's "black wing" is involved as well. Reading the fallout of climate change, one is hard-pressed not to feel righteous anger at "the guilty", a phrase popping up often. It's only on the fringes of the story, but Robinson leaves no doubt that basically all the big industrialists have been murdered by the time the story concludes. It's a main ingredient of saving the Earth. Is it justified? You're certainly excused for having more than a small queasy feeling in your stomach. 
 
Closing off this review, I'd be remiss not to say that the last third of the book is a bit of a drag. The story is essentially revolved around the two-thirds-mark, with human society set on a clear trajectory. Emissions first pleteau and then, thanks to new tech, start to slowly decrease. Humanity is shrinking in number, and in the course of the "Half Earth" - a plotpoint that goes over weirdly uncontroversial - leave half the planet to the rapdily regenerating wildlife. 
 
From then on, we get some stories about how refugees can now settle in any country, thanks to a world citizenship, and what our main character is up to. The last part especially is extremely dull. Robinson has a tendency to dabble in stereotype anyway (all scientists are emotionless, talk in short, detailled sentences and care only for their field, for example), but the main character is utterly uninteresting and without characteristics, so I don't really care about her retirement. 
 
All in all, however, for all the interesting aspects above, I recommend the book.

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