Friday, January 15, 2021

Kim Stanley Robinson's Ministry for the Future

I liked and highly recommend Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry for the Future (2020), a big and miscellaneous quiltwork of a book, filled with vignettes, mini-essays, lists, and prose-poem riddles. It lays out a guardedly optimistic vision of the next few decades, and shows humans (and many other actors) mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis that is currently unfolding.

You could call it solarpunk, delivering a promise that genre intermittently delivers: gritty and realistic hope, integrating technological innovation with real economic and socio-political change. The Ministry for the Future is fiction, of course, but it often holds the interest in the same way non-fiction does. It is about us, it is about now. It exemplifies a kind of hard science fiction that is worth wanting, borrowing and synthesizing from across STEM, social sciences, arts and humanities, and other forms of expertise.

More about that inclusiveness in a second. It's worth emphasizing that what counts as an "optimistic" vision still includes scarcely imaginable suffering and tragedy. Quite early in the novel, Robinson does try to imagine at least a little of that. Then he mostly sets that aside: he had to do it, he wanted to do it, but for the rest of the novel death can melt back into statistics. But those early images are in the back of your mind till the very final page and beyond.

It is also (although this review doesn't really explore this) about lots of things that aren't climate change, or that are only tangentially related because climate change is, as Margaret Atwood puts it, "everything change." For example, it's about Switzerland, and it's about PTSD, and it's about coldness and coziness. Hmm. Why do KSR novels always sound way more dull and worthy than they feel to read?

The Ministry for the Future gathers up numerous utopian sparks from contemporary radical and progressive projects and -- Like a Magpie for the Future -- arranges them into a pleasing heap, rather than some rigid causal sequence. It is a novel filled with judicious gaps and uncertainties. About some ideas, the novel is enthusiastic, and about others it is lukewarm. It nudges forward the idea of issuing carboncoin to incentivise carbon capture, without dwelling much on risks, downsides, and complications. It likes the idea of blockchain currency as an antidote to tax havens and other omnicidal financial skulduggery, and doesn’t invoke any of the very persuasive critiques of blockchain or the end of cash. It likes big, bold geoengineering projects, framing them as filled with uncertainties but pretty much always worth a shot anyway. It is more enthusiastic than many SFF novels about policy and policymakers, about bureaucrats and agencies. It really likes animals.

Of course, it is perfectly possible to attribute zero intrinsic moral value to non-humans, and yet be concerned for their wellbeing as a contributing factor to human wellbeing. But the titular ministry of The Ministry for the Future takes it a bit further. It is set up expressly to 

advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens, whose rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are as valid as our own. [...] [The Ministry] is furthermore charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection [...] 

For the most part, this is a book that doesn’t want to take things off the table. It does frame a few hopes as false hopes, perhaps: the notion that billionaires may start to show compassion and rationality if petitioned persuasively enough, for example. 

And while it has a lot of time for myriad diverse economy practices, including those of an anarchist cast, it ultimately sees governments, law, and central banks as key actors in any credible positive future. So perhaps it tries to slide off the table, naughty cat style, the optimistic narratives that involve disengaging from or circumventing state power, rather than using it -- perhaps a point of tension, or at least interesting comparison, with Cory Doctorow's Walkaway (2017). Here's Robinson exploring who and what enacts the world economy:

All right then, back to the ones who administer our economic system as such, and teach others how to work it, and by a not-so-coincidental coincidence, benefit from it the most. I wonder how many people that would turn out to be? 

About eight million. 


Who matters the most in that group of eight million? 

Government legislators. 

It also doesn't like anti-utopianism, especially the leftist kind that says the plan absolutely has to emerge as we go along, or we'll simply reinscribe the failed old models from the start. Or, to put it the other way round -- back to things it likes -- if capitalism is Plan A, it likes a Plan B. It really likes that: a provisional but detailed Plan B, something to refer to in crises and other opportunities:

Not completely new, of course. In fact it was a rearrangement of various elements of old plans, in many ways. Mondragón, Kerala, MMT, blockchain, Denmark, Cuba, and so on: all the elements had been out there working all along. Which made the new methods easier to implement. Not complete revolution, no ten-day weeks with new names and so on, no dive into that revolutionary euphoria that tries to change everything at once. Just ownership adjustments. Numbers. Representations. Reversals in some valences of value. Improvisations. 

Another thing it likes, maybe even more than Plan Bs, is guerrilla warfare. Or what might be characterized by some commentators as ‘eco-terrorism.’ For example: 

Aircraft carriers? Sunk. Bombers? Blown out of the sky. An oil tanker, boom, sunk in ten minutes. One of America’s eight hundred military bases around the world, shattered. Death and chaos, and no one findable to blame. 


It was a question of identifying the guilty and then finding them and getting to them. The research and detective work was done by another wing. A lot of the guilty were in hiding, or on fortress islands or otherwise protected. Even when identified it wasn’t easy to get near them. They knew the danger. [...] Methods were worked up over many iterations. We took a lot of losses at first. Of course suicide bombing is often effective, but this is a crude and ugly way to go about it, and uncertain. Most of us didn’t want to do it. We weren’t that crazy, and we wanted to be more effective than that. Much better to kill and disappear. 


After several years of container ships being sunk on a regular basis, taken out by drone torpedoes of ever-increasing speed and power, the shipping industry had finally begun adapting to the new situation. It was adapt or die; there were only about eleven thousand container ships afloat, only two hundred of them in the Very Large class, and after forty of those were sunk the verdict was clear, the writing on the wall. 

This makes The Ministry for the Future an intriguing entry into the long and often unpleasant science fictional tradition of weighing up lives and making tough calls, exemplified by Tom Godwin’s ‘Cold Equations’ and Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.’ Although armed operations are presented -- by the novel’s standards, as unambiguously as possible -- as absolutely vital to averting omnicidal climate collapse, they happen for the most part off-stage, like battles in Ancient Greek theatre. 

The novel instead focuses on Mary and Frank, two characters who are in different ways at the edges of this underground war. Frank seeks to join a paramilitary cell and is rejected; he does his best to operate as a lone wolf but flounders. Mary heads up the Ministry and approves the finances for its black ops wing, but she has no idea what they’re up to. Neither does the reader, really, although there are plenty of hints to spark speculation. Badim, who does know, doesn’t tell. He is usually only encountered through Mary’s eyes: one chapter, suggesting connections between the Ministry and the Children of Kali paramilitary, is apparently from Badim’s perspective, but does not name him. 

This is a catholic, inclusive, open, heteroglossic novel. It has a kind of totalising aspiration: it wants to tell the story of everything and everyone. The use of the many perspectives, and the flat, matter-of-fact yet often curiously compelling prose style, is an important part of that. Like eye-witness accounts given to a reporter or investigator, perhaps some years after the event, and lightly edited for coherence, these sections reject the realism of thick novelistic-anthropological description. The events speak for themselves, although they also apparently stumble into moments of complex rhetorical grace. Sometimes the syntax twists, as though from a rushed translation, or a speaker thinking in their first language and live-translating into English. There is a vagueness to some of these accounts which, it seems, makes these stories tellable. Although who knows? Perhaps they would have been even better if they were rich with vivid detail, and voiced so as to insert themselves unmistakably into specific socio-cultural contexts. But they are good enough, and this is a novel very concerned with things that are good enough.

Sometimes representations of nationality feel a bit cringe. Especially Ireland. The novel seems to have a sense of Irishness, or of a plausible Irish person's sense of their own Irishness, which I don't recognise anyway. I'm also not sure how credible I find Mary mentioning "some good" in the British Empire, and perhaps Stan's not aware what a right-wing talking point that is in these isles? But the grinding insistence on the reality of nations, ethnicities, and cultures is admirable, even if it sometimes generates awkwardness.

Another thing the novel really likes is actor network theory, or at least some version of the many contemporary materialisms which remind us of how things can punch above their weight. That is, the materialisms that challenge the still deep-seated prejudice that it’s humans who have agency and nothing else, and which emphasize how an assemblage can have emergent agency which you never would have guessed from looking at each of its ingredients one-by-one. 

"There are actor networks, but it’s the actors with agency who can choose to do things differently. [...] Stick the the people. You were almost getting interesting." Yes, it is people that are going to bring about the positive future, but people also need to understand ourselves as actors in a vast assemblage of assemblages which includes heat waves, herd animals, nation states, policymakers, princes, statues, coral reefs, blockchain, religions, rice, festivals, marmots, terrorists, plumbing, glaciologists, glaciers, refugees, surfboards, drones, aquifers, and permaculture projects.

And of course carbon atoms. The novel even plays at speaking in some non-human voices, via a few scattered 'riddle' chapters. These are gleefully, nuttily anthropomorphic. It's like Clippie popping up, rather than a sober search for the avant-garde pseudo-qualia of "what it is like to be" a paperclip, or some poetically faithful rendering of the agency of a paperclip. Here's the villain of the novel, a carbon atom, and it knows what "Canada" is:

[...] in this case I got lucky; my seam was mined by humans and burnt in a furnace, around the year 1634. Freedom! Back into the sky, and how I loved that. I like variety. So back to the sky, and hurray for organic chemistry, I was this and that, pangolin and rice stalk, mosquito and frog, frog poop and bacteria, then back to the sky yet again, hurrah! [...] Snow is fun, sleet even more so. And then you crash onto Earth and things start again. Who would I join this time? [...] Well, shit— not this time! Turns out that people in Canada had begun to deal with asbestos mine tailings by feeding the toxic rubble into the tailing pools that form in and next to mine pits, then adding some local cyanobacteria. These cyanobacteria grabbed me and then bonded with the asbestos dust, and together we clumped into hydromagnesite, a form of magnesium carbonate.

I wonder what I think of certain choices, in such a vast and varied polyphony. It seems like a very good cast assembled here, and the novel uplifts the voices of slaves, prisoners, refugees, the displaced, the grief-stricken, the heat-scarred. But I wonder about weighting and emphases. For instance, the representation of refugees, who are an important part of the story, but a curiously passive one. 

Similarly, popular protest and grassroots activism is also declared every bit as significant as the politicking of politicians and INGOs ... but it doesn't quite get the column inches to prove it, some inspiring stamina from Hong Kong notwithstanding. 

Or for instance, the choice to make a speculative armed Indian paramilitary, the Children of Kali, absolutely vital to the defense of non-humans and future generations ... but not to center their experience. Instead, to focus on the a senior UN policymaker (a white European woman) who presumably funnels money their way, without quite knowing what she's signing off on. On one hand, in view of that long science fictional tradition of ghoulish trolley problems, I quite like how the novel doesn't let you identify with the people making the really tough calls. It withholds the pleasure (ideological in the Marxian sense, doing things in your head that have to be done in reality) of immersing yourself in the details of the exploits: is it OK to blow up this plane? Assassinate this billionaire? On the other hand, this choice does potentially say to its reader: there are some people in India who will do your dirty work for you. Just make sure you have the money to pay for it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

From a work-in-progress

By Reason Alone 

From The Tragedy of Beyonce Knowles / Interpellation (working titles?)
Arthur is to meet his girlfriend's family for the first time

‘An invite to Mannerly Manor? If it were just Katie and her mum!’ I sighed. ‘But the cousins are sure to be there. And the groundskeeper, who has a gun, and chambermaid and scullery chef, and the grouse, who may all have guns for all I know of the world. And all the butlers in all their siller finery. I am just so nervous. I am not sure who will be there. No one's explained the event.’

‘Lunch,’ said Tam.

‘But is that . . . tea?’

Tam treated me to a gaze of his gravest sympathy. ‘If you do it one way and they do it the other,’ he offered, ‘you are by definition wrong. And there is simply no way to know what they will do nor how they will do it.’

‘Save Reason,’ I said.

Together Tamburlaine and I attempted to formulate the customs of the upper classes by Reason alone.

‘Give me some task, Tam.’

‘Say you are to pick your nose, Arthur.’

‘Which finger does one use?’

‘Where do the other nails point while the principal is busy? Start simple.’

We tried every finger we could find, falsifying the pick itself so as not to run out of matter.

Thus laughing, we lay contentedly in each other arms. ‘Perhaps they leave it in the ground,’ Tam muttered. But soon we were frowning again.

‘Aye,’ I added softly, ‘or it doesn’t even matter which fingers? It’s which nostril. Nor are nostrils the only niches.’

Tam shrugged me off, leapt up and began to pace. ‘No they’re not! Well then! Reason man! Think! Do the upper classes of Britain sit at their feast-laden tables manually disimpacting earwax or is it sometimes poop? Think! Think!’

He looked aghast and I didn’t know how to calm him down. He was right. Did they reach one slimy arm down their gullet, shortly having swallowed their meal, as some pythons are said to do, and pull it intact back onto the siller plate?

Soon it was mid-morning. My train would soon be leaving for Katie’s country estate. We had got nowhere. And then suddenly, as Tam helped me into my scarf and mittens, it all came pouring together. An avalanche of reason alone.

First, a good bully always maximizes cognitive load. For example, pick on your prey by presenting insoluble puzzles and palpably false attributions. The pot shoving the kettle up against the lockers and sneering at its searing, and so on.

Thus for many years the upper classes have been evolving tells and shibboleths that make them out to be simple, dumpy, down-to-earth folk. 

They say we are the posh ones! 

In years gone by, for instance, the upper classes would not have the ostentation to say serviette when they might say napkin. Poor and humble, they would not go horse riding, merely riding. As if they hadn't got one. This principle is broadly applicable, and applicable in particular to ...

‘They won’t ostentatiously thrust the fingers in?’ suggested Tam, grinning avidly. ‘They’ll wait till it pokes out of its own accord!’

‘They love all the creeping beasts of the earth,’ I agreed. ‘They’ll wobble the philtrum to and fro till it plops out, without any fuss. It is not for them to pick which noses.’

But there was more. At the top, power frequently acquires the morphology of an 'overlapping consensus.' Not always, but among the upper classes of Britain, Tam and I reckoned that it did. That is, ceteris paribus, the upper class will prefer manners that they can agree upon for many different reasons, without recognising that they are so doing.

Tamburlaine and I did a few quick calculations. Around three-quarters of toffs believe they are looking down their noses at everyone else. We uppity and grasping plebs are hilarious with our shabby fool’s gold, and so on. Their idea (which when it gets out of hand is genocide) is: Look at those fools! If the situation were reversed, they would do the same as we do

But around a quarter of toffs truly think of themselves a simple, plain people, staring up their noses at us, staring up that cleared-out tunnel, whose rubble they are too simple and plain to clear, being unpretentious, down-to-earth sorts who accept their lot, which just so happens to have a main facade of twelve bays of classical sash.

Understanding now its underpinning logic, I felt confident I would be able to reason out all the etiquette that lay ahead of me this afternoon and evening. Which salad fork. How to greet the groundsman. Anxiety diminishing, my crush on Katie revealed itself once more, raw and pink with a new lustre of lust.

After all, do not the upper classes of England simply love duels where only one fighter is allowed oxygen? Thrust! Parry! Look at that footwork! Da da da da da! Ta ta ta ta! Look at those chaps dance, two consummate artists, equally matched! The flashing silver! On the side-lines, variegated princesses simper and swoon! And that will be me in a couple of hours. My starlight white frock with the flared silhouette that bells when I spin, my golden locks done up with bright red ribs and bins.

‘Oh, Arthur,’ squawked Tamburlaine, and tied my scarf in a complex knot.

Thus equipped I went to Mannerly Manor, to meet my betters.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

From Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass

Like nature's recommendations algorithm, Tenet (2020) made me revisit this, by Lewis Carroll:

‘The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.’

‘It must come sometimes to “jam to-day,”’ Alice objected.

‘No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. ‘It’s jam every other day: to-day isn’t any other day, you know.’

‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first—’

‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’

‘—but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’

‘I’m sure mine only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.

‘What sort of things do you remember best?’ Alice ventured to ask.

‘Oh, things that happened the week after next,’ the Queen replied in a careless tone. ‘For instance, now,’ she went on, sticking a large piece of plaster on her finger as she spoke, ‘there’s the King’s Messenger. He’s in prison now, being punished: and the trial doesn’t even begin till next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all.’

‘Suppose he never commits the crime?’ said Alice.

‘That would be all the better, wouldn’t it?’ the Queen said, as she bound the plaster round her finger with a bit of ribbon.

Alice felt there was no denying that. ‘Of course it would be all the better,’ she said: ‘but it wouldn’t be all the better his being punished.’

‘You’re wrong there, at any rate,’ said the Queen: ‘were you ever punished?’

‘Only for faults,’ said Alice.

‘And you were all the better for it, I know!’ the Queen said triumphantly.

‘Yes, but then I had done the things I was punished for,’ said Alice: ‘that makes all the difference.’

‘But if you hadn’t done them,’ the Queen said, ‘that would have been better still; better, and better, and better!’ Her voice went higher with each ‘better,’ till it got quite to a squeak at last.

Alice was just beginning to say ‘There’s a mistake somewhere—,’ when the Queen began screaming so loud that she had to leave the sentence unfinished. ‘Oh, oh, oh!’ shouted the Queen, shaking her hand about as if she wanted to shake it off. ‘My finger’s bleeding! Oh, oh, oh, oh!’

Her screams were so exactly like the whistle of a steam-engine, that Alice had to hold both her hands over her ears.

‘What is the matter?’ she said, as soon as there was a chance of making herself heard. ‘Have you pricked your finger?’

‘I haven’t pricked it yet,’ the Queen said, ‘but I soon shall—oh, oh, oh!’

‘When do you expect to do it?’ Alice asked, feeling very much inclined to laugh.

‘When I fasten my shawl again,’ the poor Queen groaned out: ‘the brooch will come undone directly. Oh, oh!’ As she said the words the brooch flew open, and the Queen clutched wildly at it, and tried to clasp it again.

‘Take care!’ cried Alice. ‘You’re holding it all crooked!’ And she caught at the brooch; but it was too late: the pin had slipped, and the Queen had pricked her finger.

‘That accounts for the bleeding, you see,’ she said to Alice with a smile. ‘Now you understand the way things happen here.’

‘But why don’t you scream now?’ Alice asked, holding her hands ready to put over her ears again.

‘Why, I’ve done all the screaming already,’ said the Queen. ‘What would be the good of having it all over again?’