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.

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. 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. 

But not through their being seized. I'm especially interested in the novel's themes of violence and revolution. When we think of revolutionary violence (and maybe even when we try to put it into practice) we usually think of two things. There are protestors throwing things at lines of riot cops, as military vehicles rumble closer in the distance. And then there's the well-organised armed coup, seizing the state apparatus. So this sets up a lot of questions about how the two things might relate. But maybe these questions are sometimes red herrings. Because really, this is a rather narrow imaginary, one enthusiastically embraced by right wing media, but one which The Ministry of the Future tries in its own gentle way to dislodge. 

Because the actual histories of successful radical social change usually reveal a much more diverse array of tactics. If there must be a default way of thinking about the role of violence in revolutionary activity, maybe a good candidate is "militant self-defense." Many activities in Ministry's optimistic narrative fit this definition. I.e. one way the people in this book defend themselves is by conducting their paramilitary operations in secret. So secret, in fact, most of the time even the reader doesn't find out about them! They don't storm in trying to seize state power. Another way they defend themselves is by targeting the infrastructure and logistics the enemy is using to kill them. They presumably have fierce debates about what is and isn't acceptable (rejecting nonviolence doesn't mean "anything goes"). 

State power is still absolutely crucial to Robinson's optimistic vision, but he doesn't foresee seizing it. There are two prongs here. One, there is a vast and plural uprising which doesn't attempt to unify itself, but rather embraces a diversity of tactics, including paramilitary action aimed primarily at multinational corporations. Two, there is an intense, grinding badgering of states, and especially their central banks, to begrudgingly take more radical action than they otherwise would have. This sometimes involves gritting our teeth and putting things in terms they can understand. How can you have stable currencies if you don't have civilisation? Let them put the cart before the horse, if it will stop us all from riding off the cliff.

Stylistically, this won't be for everyone. Notes from meetings, flat and largely vague eye-witness accounts of extraordinary events, infodumps, mini-articles on topics in political economy, a giant list of names of organisations ... this is a book which has a very particular, very strange relationship with "boring" and "exciting," and how desirable these two things are, in what proportions and in what rhythms. It sometimes makes me think of grindy games, where what you are doing is certainly work, but oddly compelling and absorbing, and it draws you along in a way that mere entertainment might not. For some people, nyway. Others may find the whole thing a bizarre imposition.

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.

A longer review will appear in Stir magazine, focusing a little bit more on the novel's political economy.

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