We don’t live in a temporal silo, separated from the past and future by an impermeable barrier. Indeed, when you try to pin down the meaning of ‘the present’, it becomes hard to say that it exists at all, except as an opening in the boundary between what we can remember and what we have yet to experience. For this reason, it’s impossible to discuss ‘now’ without reference to whatever is not present—the historical record is above all the resource which we consult to find out where we are and how we got here. Similarly, it is impossible to decide what to do without reference to the future. Much science-fiction is simply techno-fantasy, where ‘the future’ is a stand-in for ‘a magical other place in which we can have nice things like spaceships’, but some of it, some of the best of it, discusses the future in order to discuss the present. Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, The Ministry For The Future, is above all a book about the present.
Robinson is nothing if not ambitious as a writer. He has a track record of tackling extremely complex topics, on an epic historical scale, and doing so with a combination of detailed characterisation across a large cast, and meticulous research into technical detail. He is perhaps best known for his trilogy on the colonisation of Mars, a trilogy with which few people actually working on that facet of astronomy are unfamiliar. In it he encompassed the contemporary state of knowledge in science and engineering (at the end of the 1980s) to synthesise an exhaustive picture of exactly what might be entailed—technically, scientifically, socially, economically, politically, psychologically, and whatever-the-hell-else-ologically.
As such his work demonstrated that the value of fiction is not just to help its readers imagine other subjectivities (a responsibility Robinson never neglects), but that it can also put together the disparate parts of a techno-social puzzle into a picture which those working in the relevant field would find difficult to observe from their perspective in the trenches. In effect, with his Mars trilogy, Robinson outlined the road map to which the scientific, engineering and business communities are now working—of course NASA would strenuously deny that their Mars strategy is derived from a work of fiction, but Robinson’s account has become the default, simply because it is the only account. Although some of the science has been superseded, and some of the science-fiction is not necessarily likely, it’s hard to imagine how any medium but fiction could produce a broad-brush plan for Mars as compelling or as comprehensive as Robinson’s.
One thing that becomes apparent on reading the Mars trilogy is that Robinson is focussed on systems and ecologies—that he belongs as much to the field of environmentalist fiction as he does to science-fiction. The Ministry For The Future, then, is a novel about the ecological crisis currently facing the human race, and imagines a route through the next several decades, employing the same rigorous methodology that informed the Mars trilogy. It is a novel about right now, set in the future because whatever we do right now is the future. I would commend it not just to science-fiction aficionados, not just to Kim Stanley Robinson fans, but to anybody working or campaigning in respect of climate change, biodiversity, ecosystem degradation, or indeed social justice. And I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in any of those areas, which is to say, to everyone.
In order to tackle such a large, many-branched topic, Robinson has to run somewhat counter to the ongoing modernist project in fiction, which is to focus in on the particularities of human experience as closely as possible. I don’t mean to suggest that he’s averse to that kind of writing, and indeed he deploys a great deal of closely framed viewpoint narrative as part of his larger toolkit, but he’s had to look beyond it, and to some extent to resurrect some of the virtues of the realist fiction that preceded it historically—its omniscience and its objective focus. The way he reconciles these modes of fiction is to switch between multiple narrators, both first and third person, without any framing device to warn the reader that this is happening. This may strike some readers as formally experimental, but I think it would be fairer to say that Robinson is putting existing formal methods to new uses.
Some chapters of The Ministry For The Future read like literature reviews or reports, summarising historical developments or work in particular fields. There has often been a certain amount of such writing in many of Robinson’s books, and it is a tribute to his ability as a writer that these passages never jar or drag—in fact they are engaging and entertaining parts of the book, and it would have been far more tedious had he felt the need to go round the houses every time, and cram all of this information into conversations or personal experiences. These are essential parts of the project, which is certainly about the inner lives of those who experience the events that Robinson postulates, but which is equally about the events themselves, about the characters’ outer lives, and about what happens to masses of people—to millions and sometimes billions of people.
Robinson has researched every aspect of our ecological crises, and presents the reader with a clearly and coherently imagined account of how things might go—how the effects of climate change might start to bite, how that might destabilise existing political arrangements, and how we might start to fix things and stave off the unimaginably terrible consequences of a full-blown collapse of civilisation. There is physical and biological science here, but there is also a good deal of economic and political thought. The sequence of events that unfolds is messy, as it was in the Mars books, and is by no means what anyone would want to bring about deliberately, but Robinson argues very convincingly that we’re pretty unlikely to get cracking on this project until the shit starts to hit the fan. Designing and building the parachute after jumping off the cliff is how more than one of his characters describes their situation.
A global narrative spread over several decades of momentous historical incident is a daunting literary object, considered in the abstract. But Robinson, while refusing the tropes of the adventure story as he always does, presents us with a group of credible, imperfect, variously committed and/or influential individuals, and makes us care about them. Of course it’s impossible to escape the sense that they are exemplars or representatives, but he writes them scrupulously as individuals, imagining these people from the inside out. We rarely stay with them for long, but by the time we have flitted in and out of their lives across a span of years in which as much history occurs as in the first half of the troubled twentieth century, most readers will have formed an attachment. Far be it from a writer as intelligent as Robinson to offer us a moment of ‘mission accomplished’, of neat personal or professional closure, but he does have a narrative exit strategy. As resolutely optimistic as he always is, he allows us to believe, with him, that enough of us will do enough of the right things that we will eventually pass the point at which things appear to be going in the right direction. His main character’s acceptance of this, of her own part being played out, of the enormous work that remains, and of humanity’s promise to itself that it will keep doing that work, moved me deeply.
In my opinion this should be the book, in the same way that Robinson’s Mars trilogy became the book on that topic. If any governmental or campaigning agency, any ecological charity or research institution has come up with a complete picture of what might happen and how we might get through it, I have yet to see it. To be fair to such bodies it isn’t their job to do so—they are more likely to list all the things that might go wrong, or to be focussed on one small area of work. Robinson presents us with one possible narrative route through that complex, unfolding landscape, with the clear implication that although it won’t go exactly this way, shit is going to get real over the next few decades. He mentions 2020 in passing, but it clearly isn’t a year that looms large for his characters, because of all the worse years that come later. However, it’s important that it’s in there because it is the beginning. The COVID-19 pandemic is simply the first of the several global crises that we are going to experience as a result of anthropogenic ecological degradation, and it is certainly not going to be among the most severe. Get ready, people; there are worse ways to begin than by reading this book.