Among the most attuned voices in the climate change discussion, outside of straight-up science, Kim Stanley Robinson has long held a commanding position as a legitimate observer. The power of fiction combined with clear-eyed assessments and a grasp of practical as well as philosophic morality is nowhere better demonstrated than in his long career addressing “real world” issues through the lens of science fiction.
Go back to the Mars Trilogy, the core of the three novels is climate. The politics, the economics, the science, all anchor the characters to a set of questions demanding attention. Iy is possible to see that early work as a stand-in for what could be reclamation work here on Earth.
Over time, book after book, Robinson has focused on one major conceptual question—what is the optimal relationship between humans and their environment? Even his interstellar exegesis, Aurora, is about this. In a way, it’s a central question—for science fiction primarily, but really for any literature to greater or lesser values of relevant—mainly, what is it possible to do without a viable environment in which to do it?
In The Ministry For The Future, Robinson brings it all to the fore and gives a novel that is as much handbook as dramatic narrative. In many ways, this is a species of “thirty-minutes in the future” with all the immediacy of the current climate conference in Egypt. He sets it a decade or so hence. After a harrowing opening, the book settles into “how do we deal with this” mode and for all its didacticism it is engaging and often riveting—mainly because he never loses sight of the people directly involved.
And that opening is masterfully horrific. The first line sets the tone—”It was getting hotter.” We then watch a massive heat cell boil a large section of India.
Quite literally boil. There is one survivor, Frank May, who is there as part of an international mission. We follow Frank through the rest of the book, the outraged, scarred activist, who finds himself in an unlikely relationship with Mary Murphy, the freshly-appointed head of an agency within the UN which gets dubbed in the press as the Ministry for the Future. The agency has the unique mandate of being a voice for the future and becomes pivotal in the challenges facing the world with climate change that is no longer deniable.
Between the two of them we are given entrée to both ends of the political and social dynamics of dealing with a global problem. Robinson shows us all the major components that must be dealt with, including a solidly-explicated look at the economics involved (a difficult topic to make interesting at the best of times, but vital and here, in Robinson’s hands, far more engaging than one might expect), and walks us through the multiple scenarios that might pull us back from the brink.
This is not the kind of miracle-working overnight fix one often gets in science fiction. (The problem with those is, scale aside, that while the science may be good, the sociology is usually hopelessly utopian.) This is a look at one possible road to a viable set of solutions and even here the roadblocks are enormous and the politics maddeningly frustrating. This is as much an explication of the challenges as any kind of anticipatory celebration of potential problem-solving.
And for all its didacticism, it remains a very readable novel. He never loses connection with the characters and he lets us care about them as the best fiction does. The science, the economics, the politics, all the elements requiring thorough explanations to make the drama meaningful are salted through the story in a manner that breathes life into the concerns and the people dealing with them. We find ourselves invested in what all these people are doing because we understand what they’re doing. In that sense, this is a celebration of humanity at its best. The catastrophes are of human origin and so the solutions are ours as well and Robinson is telling us—showing us—that we have this.
If we so choose.