Terraforming Terra: The Ministry for the Future: A Novel by Kim Stanley

The Ministry for the Future: A Novel by Kim Stanley Robinson | Oct 6, 2020 | Orbit

Somehow, this wasn’t what I expected. Much as I shy away from time travel novels, I’d hoped that Kim Stanley Robinson was going to give us his take on a time police out to nudge the timeline into a more rational shape. Knowing him, that rationality would be about sustainable ecosystems, which I’m all in favor of.

Actually, I was half right. The Ministry for the Future is an organization dedicated to steering us into a sustainable eco-future, but it has to do it the hard way, starting now, or soon, and slugging it out one climate change disaster after another, campaigning for laws and geoengineering approaches to halt the rush towards ecological suicide we’ve been on since we first discovered fire.

Starting In 2025, at a Paris climate conference taking stock of our efforts to deal with climate change, it’s decided to create an agency charged with, among other things, “defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection.”  Since the international body failed to give the agency a snappy name, someone in the press calls it “The Ministry for the Future,” and it sticks.

In the opening chapter, we meet Frank Mays, an American aid worker in India when a heat dome stalls over India, killing millions of people. Frank does what he can in the village he’s in, but in the end, when the heatwave has abated and teams come in to help, he’s the only one left alive. Though he recovers physically, he’ll have major PTSD for the rest of his life, panicking at the thought of a blast of hot air, let alone a sunny day in August.

Fank’s story collides with the Ministry when, desperate to do something to prevent a disaster like the one he lived through from happening again, and rebuffed by the radical eco-terror group the Children of Kali, Frank stalks and then accosts Mary Murphy, the head of the Ministry. It’s a strange sort of kidnapping since they wind up in her apartment as Frank desperately tries to convince her that the Ministry needs a “black wing” targeting the hundred or so people “who, if you judge from the angle of the future…are mass murderers.” Ironically, Mary points out that if the Ministry had a black wing, she wouldn’t tell him about it, which is what the Ministry’s head of operations says when she talks about the idea to him.

Though Frank slips out the back when the police come to see if everything is alright, he got inside Mary’s head, and their relationship is as close to a story as this massive tome gets. Interspersed with side trips to the Antarctic where scientists are attempting to slow the progress of glaciers by pumping meltwater out from under them, accounts of life in climate change refugee camps, and technical discussions of carbon sequestration and blockchain economics, Frank and Mary don’t so much carry the plot as they provide an occasional leavening of human interest between pages of exposition.

The hardcover is 576 pages, but it seems longer with no two chapters following the same storyline, and much of the book devoted to a travelogue of geoengineering efforts.  As a collection of vignettes and essays, it confirms both the author’s depth of knowledge and ability to communicate technical topics and his facility with introspective characters, but it never comes together as a story. The characters don’t so much develop as endure their circumstances.

Despite Frank’s American origins, the United States is almost completely absent from the effort to save the world for the people of the future. MftF is located in always-neutral Switzerland, and most of the work is done with European lawmakers, or bankers, with China looming on the sideline. It’s largely bankers that the Ministry leverages to attain their goals, ultimately creating a blockchain currency tied to carbon capture and sequestration that creates a bottom-up approach to the effort.

Ministry for the Future doesn’t make saving the world look easy, but Robinson’s future is still so bright that shades are needed. Maybe showing a world able to pull back from the brink is intended to be inspirational, but the book fails to recognize how desperate people need to be before they’ll accept change. There are economic collapses and major die-offs, to be sure, but even though he tries to show that the world only accedes to the Ministry’s plans when all else has failed, Robinson paints an entirely too optimistic picture of what’s possible. 

While Robinson has long been using his novels as a medium for environmental sermonizing, this is the first time he’s abandoned the idea of a compelling main character completely. Mary Murphy is pleasant enough, and Frank May is desperate enough so that we wish them well, but the real main character is Gaia itself, and it has no agency of its own, except to reject the Anthropocene in response to humanities short-sightedness.

A small number of readers, mostly already fans of Kim Stanley Robinson, will give this book high marks for its hard science and unflinching look at the looming ecological disaster. Some will appreciate the descriptive prose, which Robinson has mastered. But if you’re looking for something with either compelling plot or characters, you’ll be unsatisfied by the sporadic and ephemeral engagement with either between infodumps.

If you want hardcore eco-sf, this is your book, but if you want something that speaks to the same points but has a story that pulls you in, I recommend his earlier book, 2312, which deservedly won the Nebula award, and showed that Kim Stanley Robinson was thoroughly capable of making his point while engaging the reader.

Some other links:

This is at least the third time KSR has named the main character Frank. Frank Chalmers (Mars trilogy), Frank Vanderwal (Science in the Capital series), Frank May’s (The Ministry for the Future). Frankly, I’ve no idea why.

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