Today we continue with our reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future.
If you’re new to our online book club, greetings! Here’s the introductory post. Today’s we’re deep in the novel, about 2/3rds of the way through. If you’d like to check out our discussions of earlier chapters, here are part 1, part 2, and part 3.
With this post we’ll discuss the fourth part of the novel, chapters 69-88 (pp. 341-443). I’ll begin by sharing readers’ comments from last week, then offer a quick summary of the story so far, followed by some notes, then several discussion questions. 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!
Readers’ thoughts from last week
Tom Haymes sees the book arguing that “addressing climate change will require a process of emergent design that crosses disciplinary boundaries.” Vanessa Vaile notes that some unnamed characters may repeat. Doug Reilly has many ideas about how this could play out in academia. Chris Mayer meditates on the complexity of civilization-wide mobilization.
Plot summary for this week
Last week the climate crisis was worsening and many efforts to address it were under way. Now: carbon levels rise to 470 ppm, a heat wave kills hundreds of thousands in America, and 140 million climate refugees are on the move (348-9, 396).
A new Saudi Arabian government flips from being a petrostate to supporting the carbon coin, while a Brazilian left wing/green regime protects that nation’s rain forests and African states are starting to turn against oil (chapters 69, 71). A movement shifts much of American land towards new forms of agriculture and supporting wildlife (ch 72). American students launch a debt strike, which tips over the financial sector (ch 75). The Ministry works to cap maximum individual wealth (ch 81). Social unrest spreads, driving politics left (ch 82). The carbon coin seems to be working and Mary encourages more financial reform, to be led by China (ch 84).
Violent attacks continue, including knocking out Russian oil production “in the coldest part of that winter.” (346) Attacks on the Ministry may have encouraged African support (355). The mysterious attackers are not widely feared (368-9) but they might step back (ch 78).
Frank serves out his prison sentence, which seems very mild to this American reader. He gets out and starts connecting with animals and suggests a new form of Nansen Passports to Mary, then falls ill.
The novel has more non-central-plot chapters, including more very short riddle chapters: history, herd mammals. There are also meditations on modern monetary theory (MMT) and a celebration of the US Navy as a social model (ch 76). We get micro-stories about characters we never see again, but who give us glimpses of ideas and the world in transition, like a farming woman getting her husband to accept carbon coins (ch 80), a huge catalog of ecological nonprofits (ch 85), and the population of a small Montana town shutting down (ch 87).
One Ministry leader pushes a movement for a kind of global patriotism or nationalism, based in part on online identity, like the YourLock platform they launched (358).
There are many damning lines about one academic field, such as:
That this debate was a clear sign that macroeconomics as a field was ideological to the point of astrology was often asserted by people in all the other social sciences, but economists were still very skilled at ignoring outside criticism of their field… Macroeconomics had thus long ago entered a zone of confusion, either early in the century or perhaps from the moment of its birth, and now was revealed for the pseudoscience it had always been. (343-4)
Technology: the novel introduces “pebble-mob missiles,” swarms of tiny killer drones (346-8). Tracking protected animals yields The Internet of Animals (ch 72, 359). Ships transition to solar-powered sailing vessels (ch 84).
- At last higher education appears in the novel! Do you think a student debt strike could succeed?
- Things might be turning a corner at this point. Earlier in the novel was a discussion of leverage points to use to save the world (54-6). Which of them turned out to be the most effective?
- What do you make of the relationship between Mary and Frank?
- How feasible is a planetary identity movement?
- At this point in the novel there are many, many different groups and projects working to address climate change, from nonprofits to bankers, governments to terrorists. How do we think of this agglomeration, as the biggest social movement in world history, or as something else?
- Last week Kevin Werbach observed that “there are no villains” in the novel. Joe Murphy agreed, seeing this as a way of focusing our attention on systems… and on us, the readers. What do you make of a story told almost entirely about protagonists?
January 4, 2021 – chapters 89-106 (pp. 445-563)… the end!
Now over to you! What do you think of the novel at this point?
(thanks to Bill Meador)