By Christian Holub
October 14, 2020 at 10:54 AM EDT
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Credit: Will Ireland/SFX Magazine/Future via Getty Images; Orbit

Our imaginative landscape is littered with dystopias. It makes sense, of course, since the first 20 years of the 21st century have been filled with terrorist attacks, economic devastation, pointless wars, worsening climate change, political tension, and now a global plague. To the degree that science fiction stories have looked to the future at all recently, they mostly imagine more of the same. 

Movies like Mad Max: Fury Road try to warn viewers that if we don’t change the paths we’re on as a global society, truly apocalyptic hellscapes await us. But this technique becomes increasingly counter-productive when there aren’t any alternative visions on offer, as prolific environmentalist writer Naomi Klein noted last week at a Rutgers University panel for Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel The Ministry for the Future — which actually does attempt to chart a different course for near-future sci-fi. 

“I've thought for some years now that the catch is, if all the portrayals of the future we ever see are some mix-and-match of fascism and ecological collapse, then these apocalyptic narratives start to feel less like predictions and more like weather forecasts, pictures of an inevitable future we can do almost nothing about,” Klein said. “It seems to me that apocalyptic imaginaries are very powerful things, and that’s part of why we need pictures of possible futures that follow a different storyline, where things don’t just careen from bad to worse to unbearable. On the other hand, for a more positive futurism to be more than just wild-eyed fantasy, there has to be a credible path to arrive at that better place, to get from here to there. That’s what I think is being offered to us in The Ministry for the Future. It rejects apocalyptic futures, but Stan goes to great pains to show that avoiding that path, while possible, still means we are going to be living with enormous loss.”

Be warned: The Ministry for the Future, out this month from Orbit Books, does indeed begin with huge loss, when the climate change-induced combination of “cloudless heat and yet high humidity” creates a massive heat wave that kills millions in India. What differentiates The Ministry for the Future from most contemporary fictional future prognostications is that the whole rest of the book is dedicated to reacting to that heat wave and putting measures in place to prevent more such disasters. The relief is that these efforts seem, if incredibly difficult, still realistically achievable. 

Credit: Orbit

An international, multi-vocal novel

The task of fighting climate change falls to the members of the novel's titular Ministry, an organization created under the aegis of the Paris Agreement to keep Earth livable for present and future generations. Mary Murphy, the head of the Ministry, is the closest the novel has to a central protagonist, with Frank (an American man whose life was changed forever by witnessing the Indian heat wave firsthand while doing nonprofit work there) coming in at a close second. But in order to tell a truly international story about global events that affect the whole human population in varying ways, The Ministry for the Future is also filled with brief first-person eyewitness accounts from nameless narrators describing different elements of the fallout — such as the Syrian refugees who spend years in a Swiss camp, or the commune of protesters that briefly take over Paris. 

On top of that, there are also short chapters that are neither eyewitness account nor novelistic story installments, but rather useful information sessions about the nature of ideology or scientific measurements of how society could be slightly adjusted to make human life more sustainable (you can read one such interlude here). 

“The eyewitness accounts were crucial to me,” Robinson tells EW. “They tell you quickly the crucial points of what happened, like an anecdote, so it’s compressed and gets right to it. I decided one of the games I was going to play is you start every chapter of this book not knowing what kind of chapter it’s going to be: essay, drama, dialogue, radio interview, riddle, etc. I want the reader of this book to have a sense of adventure, like what is the next chapter going to throw me? Sometimes it’s a follow up on the one that came before, but often it’s a jump to somewhere else, or a different mode."

Robinson continues, "there are some theories of the novel that say the novel is inherently multi-vocal, so I decided to run with that and make this the most multi-vocal novel I could possibly imagine, to give it that sense of planetary scale.”

Saving the world to save money

The Ministry for the Future consistently identifies that our global economic status quo of neoliberal capitalism is not sustainable in a damaged climate. So, how might it be fixed? As many people have gotten more politically radicalized in recent years, it is tempting to believe the old dream of the left: A social and political revolution that could overthrow capitalism and replace it with a system based on equality and sustainability. The desirability and attainability of that dream will differ depending on one’s own political orientation of course, but in any case its prospects seem far off. A world run by the financial power of central banks is the world we have, and The Ministry for the Future has an idea for how to use that system to make climate action more feasible. It’s called “carbon coin,” and it’s drawn from actual economic proposals.  

The Ministry for the Future describes carbon coin as “a digital currency, disbursed on proof of carbon sequestration to provide carrot as well as stick, thus enticing loose global capital into virtuous actions on carbon burn reduction.” Although many people are rightfully skeptical of the central bank finance system after it generated the 2008 economic collapse and then responded to its mistake by making the rich richer and the poor poorer, Robinson shows how it could be used to make environmental action more profitable — and therefore more possible. 

“It has to be admitted that the world runs by way of money as its blood. We’re not going to invent a way of running an 8-billion-person system without some kind of exchange. Money is money, and it’s important,” Robinson says. “So, you’ve got to think about ‘profit’ as a name for some people getting more than others, and ‘capitalism’ as a name for a kind of a liquified feudalism. Money isn’t the problem. ‘Wall Street’ is the name for using money to make profit for people who didn’t even make anything. I had to learn a lot about what money is, and what central banks do, and how they’re partly public/partly private, partly democratic/partly technocratic. They’re weird, but important. That’s why Mary has to dive deep into that stuff, and I had to dive deep. I tested the limits. In terms of science fiction, the science involved is the science of money.”

As the book demonstrates, if the world's powerful central banks were to back a new currency like carbon coin, the profits of keeping fossil fuel deposits in the ground would suddenly become even more profitable than extracting them. That way, the entire system of incentives around protective climate action would change.

Robinson explains the basic idea behind Mary’s most important efforts in the novel: “You give the central banks the idea that in order to stabilize money, which is their one and only project, then they have to save the world. There’s a certain comedy to that solution: ‘Well, we don’t want interest rates to go up, therefore we have to dodge a mass-extinction event, because that would be bad for interest rates.’ But that's how bankers think.” 

Credit: Will Ireland/SFX Magazine/Future via Getty Images

A shade of darkness, a glimmer of hope

The carbon coin is only one of the approaches taken to fight climate change in The Ministry for the Future, however. There are also check-ins with scientists doing drilling in Antarctica, trying to pump water back into the icebergs to rebuild them; a new social media platform that negates the power of tech giants like Facebook and allows people to own their personal data; and, perhaps most interestingly, a smattering of political violence. Mostly unseen and unnamed resistance fighters, many from India and directly inspired by the devastation of the heat wave, begin commandeering drones to assassinate fossil fuel executives and sink gas-guzzling freighters. Mary's right-hand man Badim often implores her that the Ministry should have a special-ops wing, but since Mary decides to remain ignorant of the Ministry's involvement in such violence, the readers does as well. 

“What I decided is this is a mystery novel where you get to decide, how much was Badim initiating and how much was he just riding the tiger? How much was the Ministry involved with political violence?” Robinson says. “Maybe that was me chickening out as a bourgeois suburban Californian and pacifist. My wife actually worries that a book that describes political violence will be seen to be advocating political violence, and yet I think it’s coming. We’re going to see actions like the violent actions the book describes. So, if I didn’t include them, it wouldn’t be a realistic book and I wanted to make it realistic.”

As Klein said at the Rutgers panel, The Ministry for the Future does not depict a future where all environmental and political misery is easily conquered. Much of the book details one disaster after another, both personal and global. But eventually, a nearly-indecipherable shift begins to take place. After much trial and error, the Ministry's many efforts begin to show fruit, and the whole vibe of the novel slowly changes. You get the idea that progress is being made, even if there's still a long road to walk.

"It is an effect that I wanted," Robinson says. "There’s never going to be a turning point where people are going to say, 'oh, problems solved!' There are going to be bad, wicked problems that are going to outlast even this century, but I wanted to create that sense that maybe the coping was working. I wanted that to come partly from finance, partly from the technological sphere, and partly from the social sphere."

As for Robinson's own future, he's ready to declare The Ministry for the Future his last big novel — for a while, at least. The new book builds on past projects like New York 2140, which goes even farther into the future to depict how life in the Big Apple has adjusted to the ravages of climate change that have transformed lower Manhattan into a waterway of Venice-like canals. That book also had multiple narrators, but they were centered much more specifically around not just New York but a specific apartment building in the future version of that city.

"This is not quite a swan song, but this book represents the end of a long stretch of work," Robinson says. "I’m going to rest on my laurels for a while and change gears: Write some nonfiction, write a little play, write some short stories. And then, if I come back to the novel at all, I will want a new form that has to do with short novels."

For now though, you can sink your teeth into one last big novel with lots of voices and lots of things to say with them. The Ministry for the Future is available now.

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