Our Ministry for the Future reading: part 4

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.

MinistryFuture coverWith 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.

Kevin Werbach finds the novel to be frustrating, being too close to 2020 and its advances not credible enough. Steve Foerster has many thoughts, including wondering what happened to nuclear power.

Sally Mudiamu points us to the Welsh Commission for the Future. Leslie A. Donovan shared here class about the future.

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).

solar sailing cargo ship

The Wallenius Marine OceanBird

Discussion questions

  1. At last higher education appears in the novel! Do you think a student debt strike could succeed?
  2. 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?
  3. What do you make of the relationship between Mary and Frank?
  4. How feasible is a planetary identity movement?
  5. 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?
  6. 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!

Previous posts:

Now over to you!  What do you think of the novel at this point?

(thanks to Bill Meador)

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14 Responses to Our Ministry for the Future reading: part 4

  1. Pingback: False Economies – IdeaSpaces

  2. Tom Haymes says:

    I don’t think Robinson goes near far enough in his discussion of the role/responsibility of higher education in shaping the paradigms that his novel’s heroes (I guess you can still have heroes in the absence of villains) are struggling to overcome. I think there is a clear connection that goes far beyond questions of student debt (which is a symptom of a bankrupt system, not its cause). I tie KSR to Chris Newfield in my latest blog for the book club: https://ideaspaces.net/false-economies/

    (Better late than never….)

  3. Lisa Sieverts says:

    As someone who lives in a small town, I thought it was unrealistic that the Montanans agreed to abandon their town. (Personally, I hope I would do the right thing and agree to leave when it would be so clearly good for the planet.)

    • Mark says:

      I liked what he said about the suburban communities cheerfully leaving their communities. Some developers bought out a small cul de sac near our local college to build apartments and at the time I was outraged that this tiny community had been bulldozed, but now I’m not so sure.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Lisa, I hear you about that. We lived in a very small Vermont town for nearly 20 years, and it’s hard to imagine people leaving it en masse.

    • sibyledu says:

      Lisa, they didn’t abandon the town; they accepted a buyout offer, albeit one that seemed to be sort of a take-it-or-leave-it offer. One of the things that concerns me about the current US economic situation is that it’s extremely difficult for people without college degrees to make a good living in rural areas. If a coal mine or steel mill closes down, there are rarely enough adequate jobs for the miners and steelworkers in the same area. On a macro level, of course, there are jobs in the urban areas, but those are different fields, and people don’t want to change both careers and locations. In the novel, the buyout is a carrot that leads the small-towners to overcome the inertia of staying in place, and I like the town’s movement to maintain a community-within-a-community after they move to Bozeman or Minneapolis.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        That last bit did cheer me.

        My own vision for rural America now is based on the countryside becoming the home for wind and solar energy.

  4. Joe Murphy says:

    The pebble mob weapons really struck me as an unbelievable deus ex machina, and the reaction rang false for the whole rest of the book. It was specifically the reference to an independent Kurdistan which did it. I can’t believe that Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey would just allow their borders to shift without engaging in brutal crackdowns… or at least arming a set of unionist militias to do the dirty work for them.

    This became a serious problem for me. Why is there no discussion of India being declared a state sponsor of terrorism, for harboring the Children of Kali? How is the Ministry’s black wing able to hide from the CIA, MI6, SVR? And why are the world’s billionaires so ineffectual? Did not one of them keep the Pinkertons’ phone number, or the Mafia’s? (Come to think of it, do we actually know who tried to assassinate Mary?)

    My criticism is verging on becoming “I’d like your paper better if it were my paper,” and I do want to respect the author’s right to tell their story their way. But this starts to lead me to an answer to Kevin Werbach’s questions about how this is “science fiction”… I’m starting to wonder if there are other genre terms which would fit better.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Which genre would better fit this, do you think? I keep coming back to Red Plenty, which is weird… and similar.

  5. sibyledu says:

    For this post I’ll take two of Bryan’s questions.

    At last higher education appears in the novel! Do you think a student debt strike could succeed?

    Okay, I am about to get really geeky here. KSR says that the US student debt strike cripples the liquidity of the banks, because student debt payments constitute “a trillion-dollar annual income stream for the banks.” But today the majority of student loan debt is held by the federal government. In 2018 the feds held about $1 trillion and banks held about $0.6 trillion of student debt. I don’t know the exact ratio of total loan value to annual income, but surely you would need at least $20T in total value to yield $1T in annual income. So at least one of two things must also have happened that KSR doesn’t specify: the feds got out of the student loan business, and/or the sticker price has zoomed to unpayable levels that justifies a 30-fold increase in private student lending. (Don’t forget, the high school graduate population is going down!) It seems unlikely that both of those things could have happened without significant domestic political action against them. I am willing to believe that some kind of debt strike (a consumer debt strike? a mortgage debt strike?) would have that effect on the big banks, but not a student debt strike. The problem is that it’s easier to conceive of coordinated action by students than consumers or homebuyers.

    What do you make of the relationship between Mary and Frank?

    We don’t have a lot of relationships to observe in this book, so on one level they are simply interacting with each other as personal incarnations of the large forces they represent. But at the same time they are also two people who are pretty lonely. They can’t forge a conventional friendship, but they are both working toward similar goals, albeit in different ways, which overcomes some of the obstacles (including the different ways). I think Frank accepts Mary’s friendship because she is the first person who can really understand the hell that Frank has lived in since the heat wave. He can’t explain it to anyone else in the novel — tellingly, some of his best friends are the people in his co-op who don’t ask anyone to explain anything — and to her, he doesn’t really have to explain it; she understands at some level. I think Mary is drawn to Frank because she respects that he was on the front lines in a way that she has never been, and that his commitment to the same cause has cost him more than it has cost her. She also probably sees in him the personification of everyone she is trying to help. And she may also be thinking “there but for the grace of God go I,” as she could easily have been in his place. Again, we don’t see a whole lot of relationships in this book, but the unusual friendship between these two helps to ground the narrative.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Ah, good point about student debt. Want me to ask Stan about that?

      Agreed on the loneliness of those two characters. Their conversations are so intense in part because they don’t work well together, but need *someone*.

      • sibyledu says:

        Sure, you could ask. I’m not interested in scoring a “gotcha,” so if, for example, he just forgot about the transition to public lending, there’s no need to make a big deal of it. But if Mr. Robinson had some specific thoughts that didn’t quite make it into the narrative, for example, then I’d be all ears.

        Your comment about characters needing someone makes me think that one of the limitations of the broad-based narrative is that we don’t have many opportunities to attach to characters. I think Mr. Robinson is very effective at creating appealing characters with just a few strokes. My favorite character in the book, for example, might be the sailor who narrates Chapter 76. I would have been happy to spend several chapters or even a whole book with her, but she disappears as suddenly as she appears.

        Because this narrative sprawls all over the place, we don’t have much of an opportunity to follow individual characters. It’s interesting that our two main characters share this loneliness, and I think it’s because both of them are so committed to their work. We don’t see a lot of happy families in this story — no Little League games, church suppers, community theatres, etc. — and it’s probably because those things get sacrificed when you spend half the year in Antarctica or die in a heat wave or become a successful central banker. So it is totally understandable, but I think the story suffers a bit as a result.

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