Today we continue with our reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future.
Already discussion has been flowing. In comments on last week’s blog post, Joshua Kim offered advice about the novel’s style. Kevin Werbach found the first chapters realistic and was fascinated by the idea of a Gini coefficient for the planet. Steve Foerster has an answer to one of my questions.
the solution to the climate crisis requires the creation of a global government with legitimate, extensive, potentially violent power behind it to force people to abide by changes and policies necessary to control the climate changes. Otherwise, we are faced with that world described in chapter 16 where the well to do hunker down and wait out the disaster while the poor…just…suffer and die. OTOH, there is no question that people are going to die because of climate change. So, who gets to decide?
Elsewhere on the web, but still in the book club, Tom Haymes notes on his own blog the theme of too much water, and builds on that to explore the theme of an information deluge. (PS: Tom has a new book out this very day, with a great title – Learn at Your Own Risk – and even better content. Go grab some copies; it’s available this week.) In his Inside Higher Ed column Joshua Kim argues that colleges and universities already play the future-oriented role that the novel’s imagined Ministry performs. And in a second blog post Haymes argues that the advent of digital technology should enable us to rethink economic paradigms.
Now, with today’s post we start discussing the second part of the novel, chapters 27- 50 (pp. 107-225). I’ll begin with a summary of the story this part reveals, 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, as I did up above with Tom’s and Joshua’s. You can also respond through a podcast, video, web page… just be sure to let me know somehow.
Now, to dig in!
(NOTE: Spoilers for chapters 27- 50 (pp. 107-225).)
With many pieces on the board, the plot, like the planet, heats up. Mary, under police guard after Frank’s attack, learns that Badim is part of a “black wing,” a shadowy direct action group willing to countenance violence (110; chapter 27). That group may be connected to the Children of Kali, who conduct drone strikes and assassinations (ch 33). The Antarctic crew experiments with using their pumping idea on Thwaites Glacier and elsewhere (chapters 29, 44). India plans on doing another independent geoengineering project, and is also running a massive, solar-powered, organic farming initiative (140-2, ch 34). The Arctic’s ice cover melted completely, for the first time, in 2032 (147; ch 36).
We meet a Libyan refugee family that a man named Jake marries into; he sounds a lot like Frank (ch 37). A direct action group takes the Davos meeting hostage and makes participants become more self-sustaining, while showing them slides and videos about the climate crisis (ch 39). The Ministry comes up with the idea of offering a carbon coin, a tradable, blockchain-backed currency created by sequestering carbon (ch 42). Mary pitches the world’s central bankers on the carbon coin, but they refuse to buy into it (ch 45, 50).We learn of a Californian project to recast water as a common good, then to build a vast new catchment for rebuilding groundwater (185-7, ch 45). Frank continues to live on the run, joining then leaving a family and helping refugees, until he gets arrested (ch 47). Mary visits Frank in jail (221-225, ch 50).
The climate crisis worsens.
The novel continues to offer non-plot chapters. There are some very short riddle chapters, such as one where the speaker is encryption or the market. There are also meditations on Hebrew tradition, historical periodicity, economically discounting the future, the Jevons paradox, and the Bretton Woods conference and world order. We get micro-stories about characters we never see again, but who give us glimpses of ideas and the world in transition: Indian reformers (ch 31), climate migrants, an unnamed city experiencing a water shortage.
Technology notes: we learn that airships are being widely produced (148). Drone strikes can succeed by using large numbers to overpower defenses (135).
In chapter 42 characters discuss “the Red Plenty argument” (171). This refers to Francis Spufford’s 2012 book, Red Plenty, a combination of fiction and history, describing the Soviet Union’s experiment with central planning backed by cybernetics and lots of data.
Mary remains our main character, with Frank in counterpoint.
One more note: “Ministry” is a loaded term. It refers to the governmental agency, of course, but also has salvific overtones from religion. It is, after all, about saving both humanity and the world.
- What do you make of how Ministry for the Future weaves together narrative and ideas?
- At this point in the novel humanity is not acting in a cohesive way. However, we do see various projects offered by separate governments and organizations at scale: California, India, the Antarctic team. Do you find this a likely way we will proceed? Is it an effective one?
- What do you think of the climate change mitigation strategies this part of the book has offered?
- Returning to the question of violence: we now know the Ministry is connected to people who commit property damage and violence against people. Looking ahead, how do you think this two-winged strategy will fare?
- Joshua Kim notes that academics do not play a major role in the novel thus far. He then invites us to fill in that gap. How do you envision colleges, universities, and our populations acting in the Ministry‘s future?
Coming up next:
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).
- Ezra Klein interviews Robinson (scroll down here to “The most important book I’ve read this year” or launch this iTunes link) (thanks to Valerie Mates)
- Rolling Stone interviews Robinson
- This Thursday, the Harvard Book Store hosts Robinson
Now, over to you! What do you think? Please use the comments box or share your thoughts elsewhere.
(thanks to Mary Churchill)