The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson — a must-read for everyone

Here we are again, then, another monster KSR book, one that was published in October 2020, so perhaps got lost in the middle of the pandemic, or the beginning of the middle of the pandemic, or whatever that month in that year turns out to be. I’ve written before about how I sometimes skip a KSR (especially if there’s a date in the title), because they can be hard going. But when they’re good (like Aurora was good), they’re very good; more than just good: important, essential reading.

But how on earth do you persuade people to read a 564 page speculative fiction novel?

ONE OF BARACK OBAMA’S FAVOURITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR trumpets the cover, which made me think.

There we were, in October 2020, towards the end of the (first?) Trump shitshow, dealing with various levels of success with the pandemic, and here comes the President-from-before, the mostly sane one, the one who represents some version of humanist values and normality—or might have done, if the colour of his skin hadn’t driven half of America insane—here he comes, offering us this book recommendation.

And I’m thinking, did Obama really read this book? All the way through? Because I’m sceptical of his lists, his summer music list, his reading lists. Seem very much to have been pulled together by his staff. In 2020, there they were, the shadow government, suggesting some KSR might be good for us.

So with these doubts ringing in my mind, let’s deal with the usual KSR problems. 

First of all, there’s too much of it. 564 pages! It is a lot, especially as it’s (problem #2) not really a novel, but a kind of Menippean satire. Yes, I know this is something of a hobby horse of mine, but consider: there is no narrative plot. There are a series of chapters, with a variety of narrators, and each narrator presents a little slice of experience, or philosophy, or just a viewpoint, or they just narrate an event happening somewhere, or a series of events, or a long list, sometimes, of organisations or projects. So it’s a Menippean satire, all right, but (problem #3) while there are lots of narrators, there is only one narrative voice, one style, which is the style of Kim Stanley Robinson. He gets under your skin with it. It’s easy to read, it has rhythm, it is distinctive, but there is no sense that, say, the two podcasters, or the scientist in Antarctica or the Syrian refugee are distinctively different.

Deep breath.

All of that aside, this is brilliant. This is like Aurora, with the same message: this earth, this home, is all we have. Stop fucking it up.

What if, KSR asks, we conferred citizenship and human rights on generations as yet unborn? What if animals were treated as people, with rights? What if the biosphere itself was given rights? Legal standing, protected and promoted by an institution designed to think further into the future, longer-term, immune from the short termism of politicians, bankers, shareholders, corporations, billionaires?

Ironically, the very same people who scream the loudest about the rights of the unborn child are the ones who would resist to the maximum degree any notion of conferring human rights on children as yet unborn. This, really, is all you need to know about the hateful, evil, irrationality of right wing politics.

And that is what I love the most about this book. It’s not just that KSR delivers a million brilliant ways to save the planet (and ourselves), but he also presents the most robust solution to the problem of greedy billionaires, rentiers, capitalists: just kill them. It’s the only way to be sure. Terrorism directed not against crowds of innocent people, but directed at the guilty, the selfish, the evil. One of my favourite passages concerns the ways in which some billionaires are dealt with by offering them fifty million dollars to walk away. Fifty million to walk away, or live in hiding, in fear, harassed, threatened, possibly killed. TAKE THE DEAL. Nobody needs fifty million dollars. Nobody needs more than that. 

So the Ministry for the Future, the UN organisation based in Zurich that is set up at the beginning of the novel, has—maybe—a black ops team, who go around creating the right kind of havoc, putting the right kind of pressure on the kind of people who think they are safe, protected by their money.

One interesting idea in here is that if all money was blockchained, it could all be traced. There would be no way of hiding it; that to hide it would be to invalidate it. So with a blockchained “carbon coin” as the world currency, there would be no more tax havens, no more avoidance, nowhere to hide.

So many ideas in here, it’s like a recipe book for dealing with the crisis. And a critique of some of the more pie in the sky ideas that get bandied about. KSR crunches the numbers to demonstrate the absurdity of some ideas. Important, because one of the ways the narcissistic rentiers maintain their position is by feeding people false hope. So, for example, the idea of pumping excess sea water back on to the landmass of Antarctica, so that it refreezes and reduces the sea level again? KSR crunches the numbers on that: the energy requirements, the costs, what happens at the end of the pipe where the water freezes, and so on. But he also offers something else: something smaller scale, like pumping water from beneath glaciers to slow them down. Or dyeing the sea yellow so it doesn’t absorb heat. Or, and I keep coming back to this, my favourite idea of them all, just killing the bastards. There aren’t that many of them. These billionaires and their bodyguards! What if the bodyguards just melted away and were replaced by… some other people?

The Götterdämmerung Syndrome, as with most violent pathologies, is more often seen in men than women. It is often interpreted as an example of narcissistic rage. Those who feel it are usually privileged and entitled, and they become extremely angry with their privileges and sense of entitlement of being taken away. If then their choice gets reduced to admitting they are in error or destroying the world, a reduction they often feel to be the case, the obvious choice for them is to destroy the world; for they cannot admit they have ever erred.

This book, then, represents an accumulation of sometimes brilliant ideas, but also an acknowledgment that the vested interests will always resist change.  A refreshingly robust response here: just kill them. If they won’t change, they need to be killed. 

Send a message!

And it is all about how much value and weight we give to the future generations. KSR discusses the “discount rate”, which is how much value we mentally deduct from people in the future. It’s like the old one marshmallow now, two marshmallows later experiment. If we are worth 100 to ourselves now, then what are they worth compared to us? 90? 80? 50? So then, if you adjust the discount rate, and you start acknowledging the true cost of, say, burning oil instead of leaving it in the ground, then you change your way of thinking. We already apply the discount rate: in insurance, in government, in healthcare. A government looks at the cost of a project now, say £10 million, and sees it only pays back £5 million in the future because of the discount on the future. So that project is cancelled. Cycle schemes, looking after waterways, land management etc. 

Although there are lots of narrators here, there are two main anchor characters. Mary, the Irish head of the Ministry, who is your classic Menippean protagonist. Her role is to have a series of conversations with people. And then there’s Frank, who opens the novel. He’s an aid worker who gets caught up in a catastrophic Indian heat wave that kills 20 million people. He is the sole survivor of the village where he works, probably because he had better basic physical health than the rest of the village. And he is of course horribly traumatised and spends the rest of his life trying to deal with the consequences. And his basic philosophy is, to Mary, to governments everywhere: whatever you are doing to mitigate the climate disaster, it is not enough.

And that’s the position we should all be in. It’s not enough. Say it to every official, politician, corporation, billionaire, celebrity flying a private jet: whatever you are doing is not nearly enough. Do more.

Frank seems like the other Frank, the one in KSR’s Science in the City trilogy (which starts with Forty Signs of Rain), but it’s not the same Frank. Except when Frank dies it feels like the other Frank has died too. It’s weird. KSR must have chosen the name deliberately, knowing it would have that effect. And Frank is also like Fred, who is the hapless tag-along in Red Moon, just to add to the confusion. What’s the message? Just that the trauma doesn’t go away, that the consequences of bad decisions last a long time, and that there are no easy fixes.

Do more.

Did Barack Obama read this? I don’t think so. Because I don’t think any politician with half a soul could read this and then not talk about nothing else for the rest of his or her political life.

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