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The Ministry for the Future Review


If there is a single trait of character that you can single out in Kim Stanley Robinson's books, it is his optimism. It makes for a wrenching experience when you read his books and they feel pessimistic - certainly, things worked out in the end in The Years of Rice and Salt but the world before it was so dark that it felt alien to the normal style of Robinson. And it is this optimism which defines The Ministry of the Future, which for all of its bumps and jolts has at its core an inspiring belief in the ability of humanity to come together, to work together, to overcome together, and to build a better world.

This sweep of ideals is the core of the book, following the stories of people mauled, crippled, plunged into agony by ecological disaster, as they struggle to save the planet and humanity. There is a real raw emotion which permeates it, a seriousness, a fanaticism, which insists that it really is possible to change the world, and a seriousness and conviction that drives the characters, Frank and Mary, forward.

It's almost enough to make you think it could really happen, that selfish, bickering humanity could put aside its feuds, its fighting, its constant obsession with short term gain and riches at the expense of almost anything else, even its future, and to join hands and to struggle for the future. Is it something that could actually happen? I don't think so unfortunately, I'm much more pessimistic about what could actually happen and I see Robinson's writing of a rosy future where wise and well guided leaders manage to actually cooperate, to completely reform the world's economic system and make huge sacrifices to achieve this, as a fantasy. But it is an enjoyable, uplifting fantasy, and the first step of making a fantasy come true is actually believing in it.

And Robinson does this with panache, with ambition! He writes of a world that is willing to make momentous changes, to pump out water from under the ice sheets to stabilize them and prevent them from slipping into the sea, to rebuilding the entire world transportation system, to the most dramatic of all, convincing all of the banks of the world to effectively abandon their money and to come up with a new green bonds scheme. Robinson writes a not-quite novel, not-quite non-fiction book that roves from ice fields and bore drilling in Antarctica to board rooms of the world monetary system, and the thing which unites it all is the dream, the dream of a greener humanity and a utopian world. The three great ideas which combine it all together are a scientific principle - the wet bulb, the temperature and humidity level at which human life is no longer possible since the human body can no longer survive the temperature due to sweat no longer working, equality and the firm conviction that a world without the divide between the rich and the poor would be better for all, and intergenerational inequality, the revolt against the mathematical models that prioritize the well being of the moment over the future.

One of the key features of the book is that the first mover on ecological problems is India, written as having experienced a horrific heat wave, and from this experiencing a seismic shift in its political structure which throws out the Hindu Nationalists and their cronies and replaces them with green, environmental parties. This is an episode which is driven home in brutal terms, by Frank, an engineer trapped in a Nepalese village during the heat wave, who survives and has to cope with it and the PTSD that he suffers from the torture and the guilty of being the sole survivor from a village that was killed to a man, except for him. Frank is a character who I like - he is frustrating certainly, but he feels extremely genuine, real, a bright and promising man who has a brush with death and who has to suffer constantly the pain and wreckage that his life consists of afterwards.

But using Frank as the only person who really engages with India seems like an easy, almost lazy, solution to it. Frank is an American, and yet our "Indian" character from a vast country of a billion and a half people. I don't like the term problematic, a dreadfully overused buzzword, and I don't think of using Frank for this to be so, but having Frank as an American observer robs a lot of what could be a rich and engaging look at Indian thoughts and relationships with the ecological changes of their country and the ideological shift that happens in India. Instead, from the outside we just get a very hackneyed constant repetition of Kali, Kali the terrorists who kill the businessmen and polluters destroying the world.

And why? I admire Kim Stanley Robinson greatly as a writer and as a thinker, but the characters he writes he makes similar to what I would suppose are himself: thoughtful, intelligent, somewhat introverted, driven people, be it the scientists in his Mars Series or Mary in this book: what struck me was the beginning of the closest thing she has to a love affair, at the end with the blimp pilot, such a slow, almost platonic development, between two very shy and smart people that approach each other extraordinarily slowly and gently. An Indian character with a different mindset and a different background would have been a tremendous challenge, and the simpler one, the one ultimately chosen, was Frank.

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So what of the book, of this great ideal and Unconvincing? Perhaps yes, in that I don't think that the world that Robinson predicts can come to pass, in that it really is a utopian one. But it is such a passionate book that you can forgive its transgressions and want to believe.

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