The Ministry for the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson continues to be one of the great voices of climate change fiction – particularly, the consequences of, and how humans might mitigate them (since no way are we avoiding).

The Ministry of the title is the use-name for a small international organisation set up under the auspices of the Paris Climate Agreement, kind of but not entirely associated with the UN and based in Zurich. Their remit is to basically to represent future generations, who currently don’t get a say in what they will inherit, and therefore to advocate for policies that will be good for those future people. It’s a clever way of showing that current decisions have downstream consequences, and of having people whose job it is to focus on that.

Part of the book, therefore, focuses on the Ministry: policy and the struggles of international collaboration. Another large part isn’t even really narrative so much as a series of vignettes from individuals who are either directly affected by some aspect of climate change – like the devastating heat wave that opens the novel – or by people who are involved in climate change mitigation, like farmers in Kerala who are doing awesome things with agriculture. The scope of the book is a couple of decades, thus showcasing the problems as they develop as well as the myriad and varied attempts to deal with the issues.

It’s not a standard linear narrative, therefore; but it is recognisably a Kim Stanley Robinson. For example, New York 2140 had several characters to follow and a few clear narrative threads, which sometimes intertwined, plus the narrator who dumped info on you. This is more experimental, I think, but feels like an extension of what was going on in 2140. I guess there are two main characters, although they probably don’t get quite enough space to really legitimate the title: the head of the Ministry, a middle-aged Irish woman who is awesome; and an American aid worker caught in the Indian heatwave who continues to suffer the repercussions of that for years. If it’s anyone’s story, it’s theirs; although having said that really it’s the planet’s story, and that of the entire population. Which feels so right for a book like this. It makes sense to hear from farmers in India and glaciologists in Antarctica! Less so the bits from the sun, and a carbon atom; but I’m prepared to indulge Robinson’s whims.

I trust Robinson to generally have his science right, if slightly on the outlandish side – that is, his suggestions probably match known science, but they may require more time / other resources than is considered feasible… although actually, this is something that he addresses in the book – that what seems like a large amount of money kinda isn’t when you set it in context. I do wonder whether a copy of this should be sent to people at the UN, and glaciologists, and agriculture people…

This book won’t work for everyone. The structure will annoy some, for sure, because it decentres characters and because it doesn’t really have much of a narrative. It just… covers a period of time, and what happens to the world in that time. So if you like a neat open and close, this probably isn’t for you; if you like really strong characters driving the story, likewise. But I really do recommend this as an exploration of the next few decades on our planet… it’s both optimistic on some levels but also devastating.

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