And now we begin with reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future.
Greetings to Twitter friends like Justin Cerenzia, Steven Foerster, Rebecca Pope-Ruark, Julie Uranis, Becky Klein-Collins, Tanya Spilovoy, and Catherine Wehlburg. Thanks to Joshua Kim for his kind column about our reading.
With this post we start discussing the first part of the novel, chapters 1-26 (pp. 1-106). I’ll begin with a summary of the story so far, add some notes, then ask questions for discussion. At the end I’ll repeat the reading schedule and add any resources I’ve come across.
You can share your thoughts by writing comments at the end of this post. You can also contribute via social media – I’ll copy this post or a link for it to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Mastodon, and Medium. I can copy and link to your comments there in next week’s post. You can also respond through a podcast, video, web page… just be sure to let me know somehow.
Now, to dig in!
Ministry for the Future begins with horror, a mass death in India due to a climate change-caused heat wave. This opening chapter introduces us to Frank May, one of our main characters, an American working for an international aid organization, and the lone, badly traumatized survivor of that initial disaster.
We then change gears to meet the titular Ministry, based in Zürich. Technically, it’s a Subsidiary Body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, established in 2024, but people preferred the nickname “Ministry for the Future.” (16) Its leader, and the novel’s central protagonist, is Mary Murphy, an Irish politician. (18) We also meet other leaders in the Ministry and learn about their charge: to help the world decarbonize.
Through the Ministry we learn that India responded to the heat wave by mounting their own geoengineering effort (37-39) – without international support. India has also had a peaceful political revolution. (18)
We also meet a crew of Antarctic experts who invent a daring plan to slow that continent’s ice sheet loss. (79-83)
Meanwhile, Frank grapples with his bad case of PTSD. He undergoes therapy and tries to join a kind of green terror group, the Children of Kali, but is rejected. (49-50) He commits a crime in Switzerland (77-8) and goes into hiding. Then he kidnaps Mary Murphy and furiously demands that she take greater action to address the climate crisis. He rattles her, then escapes. (91-106)
Robinson covers a lot of ground in this part of the book. We meet a lot of people, learn about global geopolitical systems and ideas, learn about a range of topics from the Gini coefficient to what lubricates the motion of massive ice sheets. The tone is dark, as befits an unfolding planetary catastrophe.
I’ve described the book in terms of plot, but chunks of it stand apart from typical storytelling. For example, the novel includes very short riddle chapters. On page 13 it’s the sun. There are also meditations on political theory (41), extinctions (43-4), economic measurement (73-6), and problems of human perception (87-88). We get micro-stories about characters we never see again, but who give us glimpses of ideas and the world in transition (51-2, 59-61).
Several character names are open, even on-the-nose signals of their roles. Frank May: he’s definitely direct and open (i.e., frank) while also undecided (may). Mary is, as befits the Christian tradition, positioned to be the mother of human salvation. The novel’s first line is similarly on the nose: “It was getting hotter.”
There are plenty of echoes back to earlier Robinson novels: characters named Frank, lots of walking, rapid-fire political arguments, glimpses of social perspectives, and critical theory.
- Do you think the Indian government justified in conducting its geoengineering project? What does this suggest about the near term future of international governance and climate change?
- Frank urges Mary to support violence. What forms of such climate change-related violence do you anticipate, either in the novel or in our world?
- Ministry leaders discuss possible leverage points they can work with to save the world. (54-6) Which do you think are the most effective?
December 14, 2020 – chapters 27- 50 (pp. 107-225).
December 21, 2020 – chapters 51-68 (pp. 227-340).
December 28, 2020 – chapters 69-88 (pp. 341-443).
January 4, 2021 – chapters 89-106 (pp. 445-563).
- A glowing review from Vox
- Science fiction writer Cory Doctorow offers a positive yet dark review
- A panel discussion of the novel:
Over to you!
(thanks to Bill Benzon, Joshua Kim, Gwynneth Alexander, and more; Ganymede photo by Wally Gobetz)