In The Ministry for the Future, his twentieth novel, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson creates something truly remarkable: a credible, very-near future in which humans effectively solve the problem of climate change.
Climate lukewarmers may be tempted to interpret this upbeat summary as support for their technological optimism. That would be a mistake. Though it ends well, the story Robinson tells is harrowing.
That story starts in January 2025 in Bogota, Colombia, at the 29th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Frustrated by their failure to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, representatives of the 189 ratifying countries form a new sub-agency “to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens” and “to defend all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves.” Although it is given a large budget for a UN agency, The Ministry for the Future, as it comes to be known, can achieve these lofty objectives only by leveraging its influence.
Just six months later a heat wave strikes Uttar Pradesh, the state along India’s border with Nepal. Not an uncommon occurrence. This time, however, instead of tempering after a few weeks, the wave intensifies. Night brings no relief. A young American aid worker, Frank May, does what he can to help, inviting his neighbors into his air-conditioned offices to cool themselves. Then the power goes out. Then the agency’s generator and window units are stolen by a gang of armed young men who curse Frank for the West’s pillaging of their country and of the planet’s climate.
The only way to cool off now is a plunge into the lake at the edge of town. By immersing themselves in its waters, they hope, they can escape the pulsing heat of the air. Instead the water feels like a hot bath. But having stepped into it, they now feel too weak and too muddled to step out.
The heat wave kills millions – in a fortnight. (If that seems incredible, consider that the temperature and humidity levels Robinson imagines are only modestly worse than the levels India actually experienced in 2019.) The 1.3 billion Indians who survive to witness this climatic atrocity are shaken – and outraged.
Robinson has long made a point of expanding the political geography of science fiction and cli-fi. The Arab world played a key role in his Mars trilogy. Nepal and Bangladesh provided political counterpoints in his Science in the Capital trilogy. And China shared the top billing with the United States in Robinson’s 2018 novel Red Moon. In Ministry, India has its turn.
The heatwave sparks a political upheaval, forcing old parties out of power and western corporations out of the country. India decides to conduct a geoengineering exercise to reduce the amount of sunlight heating the subcontinent, an operation its military carries out proudly and publicly. In secret, however, another group of Indians seeks to avenge the deaths of their innocent compatriots and to change the calculus of global capitalism. The eager recruits of the Children of Kali, a group named after Hinduism’s goddess of death and destruction, become the world’s newest, and most determined, eco-terrorists.
In Zurich, Mary Murphy, the Irish ex-diplomat who runs the Ministry, looks for ways to shape and direct the instabilities created by India’s public and covert actions. Now, on page 27 of this 563-page book, the real plot begins, a plot that entwines the lives of the Irish director of the Ministry and the traumatized American aid worker who survived the Indian heat wave.
No one event or action changes the world in this novel, not even the deaths of millions; rather it is the different sequences of choices that nudge humans, individually and collectively, in new directions. The first choices force the next choices. The Ministry succeeds when it finds subtle ways to tip the scales toward the more sustainable options.
Robinson’s account of these decades of change resembles the selective public memory of the civil rights era, in which the non-violent protests of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the kindred groups around him take center stage while black power organizations and activists, like Malcolm X, are usually consigned to the margins.
In The Ministry for the Future, acts of eco-terrorism are clearly major drivers of the changes that first slow and then halt the centuries-long rise in greenhouse gas emissions, but Robinson keeps these actors offstage. The results of their actions – bombed power plants, downed jetliners, infected CAFOs – are reported third hand, in brief summaries of newscasts. Although each of these daring actions could be the plot of a thriller, Robinson does not spin out their stories, likely because he does not want to valorize violence even when it’s clearly necessary to his plot.
For reasons that are less clear, the protagonists, too, are often kept at a distance, presented in abbreviated form in minutes from meetings or in surveillance reports.
And then there are the digressions. Many of the book’s 106 chapters are devoted to such technical topics as the history of central banking, modern monetary theory, the Gini index, blockchain technology, Mondragon, carbon taxes, clean energy technologies, Jevon’s Paradox, different forms of geoengineering, population biology, and wildlife corridors.
With these many different pieces, Robinson assembles a Rube Goldbergian machine for social change that ultimately delivers the goods: a more equitable social economy and a more stable climate, one in which CO2 levels are actually falling from the peak level (478 ppm) reached in the 2040s. The Ministry finally achieves its goals when complex, interconnected social and economic processes are repurposed to direct power and money away from the production of fossil fuels, away the conspicuous consumption – and waste – of other goods, and toward health, human interconnection, and happiness.
The Ministry for the Future, then, is both an optimistic and a difficult work. Morally difficult for the role it envisions for violence, and sometimes a slow read for the many complex topics that must be explained along the way. But precisely because of the extra effort required, readers will finish Ministry with a clearer view of the big picture and a much better understanding of the many different pieces humanity must puzzle together to meet the challenge of climate change.