Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry for the Future

This review is published in STIR. Consider supporting them with a purchase, donation, or subscription. I also wrote another review here.

Kim Stanley Robinson. The Ministry for the Future (Orbit, 2020). 

In contemporary science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson is something of a titan. His books tend to be a little titanic, too: big in themselves, and about big disasters involving humans, nature, and technology. His characters are more often scientists, policymakers, and bureaucrats than space pirates or rampaging AIs, but the stakes are as high as in any multi-dimensional sci-fi caper. Sometimes those characters might save the world. Sometimes they rearrange the deck chairs.

Robinson is probably still best-known for the Mars trilogy, published in the 1990s. In good utopian fashion, it’s a tall tale in an exotic locale which, rather than being mere escapist fun, probes pressing problems in the real world. What happens on Mars doesn’t stay on Mars. No, it defamiliarises the world around us, and hopefully helps us to see its possibilities anew: if we could start from scratch (sort of), what laws and institutions would we choose? The more recent Aurora (2015) feels like a pained clarification: OK I know I wrote all the stuff about terraforming Mars, but we do only have one planet! Robinson’s chonkiest book is Green Earth (2015) originally three chonky books which adroitly explores the intersection of science, policy, and climate. It paved the way for his latest, The Ministry for the Future (2020).

The Ministry for the Future is a fizzling cornucopia pouring forth vignettes, micro-essays, lists, fictional eye-witness accounts, notes from meetings, and even prose-poem riddles, to peer ahead into the coming decades. It really tries to tell the story of the whole planet refugees, billionaires, protestors, policymakers, partygoers, carbon atoms, caribou, all of us while confessing that task to be impossible. The two threads that tie it all together are climate change, and the titular Ministry for the Future, established 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 [...] 

The vision laid out is guardedly optimistic. It is also evasive. Sometimes, a commitment to realism means finding ways to leave things out. Novels often tell us, “This happened, so that happened.” But this novel more often tells us, “This happened. Then that happened. Maybe they’re connected?” Nevertheless, I’ll plunge in with a summary, however crude. This novel definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. The more summaries the better.

So what does Robinson’s positive vision of the future look like? I think it involves six main factors. First, Robinson imagines a proliferation of diverse economic models, at many different scales, adapted to local settings. Within that pluralism, there is an overall trend toward re-commoning and democratising. He argues that there is a postcapitalism already rooted in a patchwork of existing movements: “a rearrangement of various elements of old plans [...] Mondragón, Kerala, MMT, blockchain, Denmark, Cuba, and so on: all the elements had been out there working all along.” But he also points to the importance of planning alternative economic arrangements in the abstract, even if many details must be provisional. When a crisis strikes, there must be models to turn to. 

The second factor is speculative climate technologies. Negative emissions tech draws carbon out of the atmosphere; scientists and engineers pump water out from under glaciers in an attempt to slow their slide into the sea; planes trail aerosols into the atmosphere like plumes of artificial volcanic ash; and vast tracts of the Arctic Sea are dyed vivid butteryellow to bounce more sunlight: 

Geoengineering? Yes. Ugly? Very much so. Dangerous? Possibly. [...] Necessary? Yes. Or put it this way; the international community had decided through their international treaty system to do it. Yet another intervention, yet another experiment in managing the Earth system, in finessing Gaia. Geobegging.

The novel is careful not merely to cheerlead for geoengineering. It’s very clear that techno-fixes are no substitute for deep political and economic system change. But nor does the novel dramatise any of the worst-case geoengineering scenarios, nor explore, in the words of Climate Engineering in Context, “the unequal capacity between states to research and deploy the technologies,” or how to empower “countries and demographics that will suffer from the changed environmental conditions that result from engineering the climate.” For what it’s worth, I think Robinson is far too soft on geoengineering. The unintended consequences of climate technology (or attempts at novel technology) is an area where hard science fiction could have a lot more to say.

Third, with palpable reluctance, Robinson gives state power a leading role. Another recent novel, Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (2017), arrives at an optimistic future via a more anarchist route. Robinson’s Ministry for the Future might be read as a tacit rejoinder, saying: some things we can’t walk away from, however much we want to. Instead, Robinson has a consortium of central banks roll out a novel financial technology. They issue a “carbon coin,” initially valued at one coin per tonne of CO2 sequestered. Robinson imagines plain old carbon taxes too, to make market prices better reflect the real social and environmental cost of goods and services. However, it’s carbon coin that gets the limelight:

[...] the proposal for a carbon coin was time-dependent, like a budget, with fixed amounts of time included in its contracts, as in bonds. New carbon coins backed by hundred-year bonds with guaranteed rates of return, underwritten by all the central banks working together. 

The logic here is that of money creation. These carbon coins are created out of nothing to pay for decarbonisation projects. The complexity of certifying decarbonisation, including the temptation to deceive especially whenever you can get paid to not do something! gets noted, but not really dwelled upon.

The fourth factor is dethroning Big Tech, and adopting its tools for new purposes. The Ministry for the Future rolls out “YourLock,” a kind of socially-owned data trust platform: “a single account on YourLock, which was organized as a co-op owned by its users, after which you had secured your data in a quantum-encrypted cage and could use it as a negotiable asset in the global data economy.” This sounds a bit better than Andrew Yang’s recent Data Dividend proposal (“Yang’s data dividend would ultimately reinforce existing inequities by playing corporations’ own game,” writes Edward Ongweso Jr. in Vice), although the devil’s in the details. The novel is also keen on blockchain, especially as a tool against tax evasion. However, it doesn’t dwell much on the carbon footprint of blockchain at scale (the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index would be a good reference here), or how useful a cashless society can be to authoritarian surveillance and control (something Brett Scott has written about eloquently).

Rewilding and ecological restoration, including the creation of huge wildlife corridors, is the fifth major factor in this optimistic narrative. In a way, the novel itself is mimicking the goal of the Ministry for the Future. It seeks to uplift voices, to unstop the myriad strange throats strewn throughout nature. A vast and varied polyphony is assembled here, encompassing the human and more-than-human world. The novel even plays with non-human first person narration. These chapters are gleefully, nuttily anthropomorphic. It's not a sober, philosophical search for “what it is truly like to be a carbon atom”; it’s more like the carbon atom popping up like Clippie: “It looks like you’re trying to make the planet unlivable! Would you like some help?” 

I think there are two wolves inside Kim Stanley Robinson. There is a strong reverence for the sanctity of the more-than-human universe. And there is the reverence for the extremely human scientific and bureaucratic nature-based solutions that rewilded those two damn wolves in the first place. One inspiration is the Half-Earth Project, “working to conserve half the land and sea to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.” So while there is a chapter about what might be the founding of a new religion “to express our love, to take the responsibilities that come with being stewards of this earth, devotees of this sacred space, one planet, one planet,” it’s really in this preoccupation with wildlife corridors plus a few scattered scenes of natural description, as characters skirt over Antarctic ice, or observe the revelry of marmots amid Alpine wildflowers that Robinson conveys a sense of nature’s inherent value.

The novel also commendably pulls together the perspectives of slaves, prisoners, refugees, the displaced, the grief-stricken, the heat-scarred. At the same time, I do wonder about weighting and emphases here. For instance, refugees are an important part of the story, but a passive one. A new generation of Nansen passports are introduced, as international protection for the world’s vast and growing refugee population. But we don’t really see them in use. Similarly, popular protest and grassroots activism is declared every bit as significant as the politicking of politicians and non-government organisations ... but don’t quite get the column inches to prove it, notwithstanding some euphoric revolutionary fervor in France, plus some amazing stamina from Hong Kong. Automation and post-work imaginaries don’t really feature at all.

Then there are the paramilitary actors. And here we have this optimistic vision’s final puzzle piece. Blowing up things and often people. These paramilitary campaigns aren’t Leninist vanguards trying to seize state power. Rather, they aim to change the environment in which commercial power operates. “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.” At the same time, this violence isn’t just about incentive design. It’s also about self-defense, desire, justice, and revenge. It is personal.

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. 

The paramilitary action happens mostly off-stage, like the battles of Ancient Greek tragedies. Mainly the novel focuses Mary and Frank, two characters at the edges of this underground war. At first I strongly disliked that decision.  For a novel usually so intent on solutions, however uncomfortable and uncertain, it didn’t feel right to depend so much on these paramilitary operations, yet say so little about them: like they were someone else’s problems. But I think the decision has grown on me. Frank and Mary are at least what Vicky Osterweil calls “not-non-violent.” Frank seeks to join a paramilitary cell and is rejected; he tries to operate as a lone wolf but flounders. Mary heads up the Ministry, and approves the finances for its black ops wing, although she has no real idea what they’re up to. These are perhaps stories that don’t get told often enough: the stories of folks who don’t find themselves on the front lines, yet who also don’t distance themselves psychologically, politically, or ethically from those struggles. They do what they can. 

If this is an optimistic vision of the future, let’s remember what counts as optimistic in 2020. This is still a future which contains almost unimaginable suffering and loss. Robinson gives us a glimpse of that, quite early on. Then he largely sets it aside. That early glimpse lingers throughout the book, and beyond. 

There is plenty to quarrel with in this book. It is a book about blundering on with as much wisdom and hope as you can muster, and it puts its carbon coin where its mouth is. A book like this is meant to spark conversation. I hope some sparks fly.

Slightly tweaked from published version.

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