The Ministry for the Future | Facing climate change
India, 2025: an unprecedented heat wave, with record wet-bulb temperature, kills almost all the inhabitants of a village, leaving only a few survivors who are scarred and traumatised. Frank May, an American aid worker, is one of them.
Thousands of kilometres away, on the shores of Lake Geneva, Mary Murphy tries to advise the Head of India’s delegation to the Paris Agreement, Chandra, against a solar radiation management action. “We do not need your permission!”, Chandra shouts into the phone.
With these events the US writer Kim Stanley Robinson opens his 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future. The title refers to a new intergovernmental body presided over by Murphy and established with the aim of “defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves”. Robinson is well known for his science fiction works, such as the Mars trilogy, the Science in the Capital series, and his 2017 novel New York 2140. Many literary prizes, like the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy awards, contributed to establishing his fame worldwide. In 2016 asteroid 72432 was named “Kimrobinson” in his honour.
Exploring the entanglement of the ecological with the social, and of technology with nature, The Ministry for the Future is a compelling tale about climate change and the hopes and fears of today’s society. Classified as climate fiction or “hard sci-fi”, this novel provides readers with data, information, and speculations about the near future. It does, at the same time, narrate a story of planetary fragility and resilience.
Paris 2015, geoengineering, and sabotage
The Ministry for the Future does not deal with events far off in time and space, nor does it invent data and scenarios to depict a dystopian future: all of its speculations are firmly based on already-existing events, ideas, or technologies. The ministry Murphy presides over is the consequence of the first global stocktake, that is a periodic taking stock of the progress made in carbon reduction. The nations involved in this process are those that signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, during the Conference of the Parties (COP) 21. The first global stocktake is indeed planned to conclude in December 2023, as it does in the novel.
Most of the 106 chapters of The Ministry for the Future figure either Mary or Frank as narrators, but at times other voices emerge too. In addition to that, discussions around macro and microeconomics, finance, oceanic and atmospheric physics, and military strategy are an integral part of the story. For instance, a geoengineering attempt to pump water from the underside of melting glaciers is described in detail and, in spite of its cost, it proves effective by the end of the novel. Sabotage also plays its role, through blown pipelines and hijacked private jets. In this sense, The Ministry for the Future paved the way for Andreas Malm’s book How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2021), turned into a movie by Daniel Goldhaber the following year.
An end to capitalism?
Robinson also uses humour, especially in his depictions of the capitalist economic system:
‘It’s the structure of feeling in our time; we can’t think in anything but economic terms, our ethics must be quantified and rated for the effects that our actions have on GDP. This is said to be the only thing people can agree on. Although those who say this are often economists.’It’s the structure of feeling in our time; we can’t think in anything but economic terms, our ethics must be quantified and rated for the effects that our actions have on GDP. This is said to be the only thing people can agree on. Although those who say this are often economists.’
The Ministry for the Future does indeed develop as a speculative attempt to answer the American literary critic and Fredric Jameson’s famous quote that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”. What Robinson offers is a vision of a world in which personal wealth becomes too unsustainable to pursue. However, he also shows that living respectfully does not necessarily entail giving up all the pleasures that globalisation brought.
For instance, by the end of the novel, people do not completely forsake travelling, but instead of using planes and cars, they choose long-distance trains. Dirigibles, such as The Clipper of the Clouds, also enable passengers to enjoy stunning scenery while slowly journeying around the world. Moreover, Edward O. Wilson’s Half-Earth theory (published in a 2016 eponymous book) becomes reality: vast areas of the planet are reforested and ecological corridors are built for animals. That is the beginning of what the characters call the Internet of Animals, in which each animal is tagged, protected, and allowed to move freely. Thus, the Ministry for the Future’s goal of preserving both nature and the rights of future generations is achieved through systemic change.
A climate change novel
In The Great Derangement, Indian scholar and writer Amitav Ghosh laments the failure of mainstream literature to portray the climate crisis. He makes an exception for sci-fi novels, while also stating that because they deal with catastrophic events in the future, they sound too improbable to issue any real warning.
The Ministry for the Future seems to respond to Ghosh’s challenge. While other novels, such as Richard Powers‘ The Overstory or Imbolo Mbue‘s How Beautiful We Were tackle contextualised instances of the environmental crisis in a realist way, Robinson uses climate fiction to talk about the present. His scope is large, both geographically and historically, and the result seems to be an (almost) all-comprehensive view on climate change and its planetary consequences.
As Steven Poole writes in The Guardian, this “ambitious systems novel about global heating” is also an “ambitious systems novel about modern civilisation”, and it shows how the two are inextricable. The result is a multifaceted text, full of hard science and with sudden shifts between narrators and points of view. However, in spite of its structural and thematic complexities and the frightening scenarios it depicts, it also appeals to emotions and affect, and eventually provides a vision of a hopeful, liveable, and just future.