The Ministry for the Future

30 Oct 2021 02:15 - 22 Oct 2022 03:53
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    • book by Kim Stanley Robinson (Amazon)
    • A near-future tale of climate change. Seems very similar in tone and style to his earlier trilogy (Thirty Signs of Rain etc). The conceit here is a bit different – that the world manages to actually set up an institution to represent the interest of future generations. It asks the question, what if humanity actually took its collective responsibility seriously? What would that look like?
    • In other words, it's an agency hack -- it's imagining how the interests of the future could have agency in the present. And not just metaphorically – it's accomplished by means of a literal government agency.
    • The opening of the book is very effective and scary – it depicts what it's like to live through a massive fatal climate event, in India (but through the eyes of an American, Frank, who is one of the two main characters). When temperature and humidity rise above a certain point, life simply becomes unsustainable, but it doesn't happen all at once – people will desperately try to find air conditioners or other ways to stay alive, with rare success. Frank survives by submersing himself in a lake, which itself was so hot that it barely worked.
    • Millions die from this one event, and in response the Indian government decides to undertake a geoengineering project, seeding the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to block solar radiation. This is not led by the Ministry; they are not the real agent of change here; they are sitting in their offices in Zurich commenting and strategizing on this and other relatively grass-roots efforts.
    • From here on out the book alternates between grand descriptions of policy and global events and the individual scale, but never manages to find its way back to the drama of its first section. There's a dramatic action sequence where the director attempts to evade assassination by fleeing across the wilds of the high Swiss Alps, but it feels tacked-on. The real action is in policy, not personal adventure.
    • The book steps through a bunch of proposed solutions to the climate problems, including geoengineering, alternative blockchain currencies that promote carbon capture, and relocating rural communities to cities (for efficiency and in order to conserve wildlife habitats). Airplanes are replaced with dirigibles; people get used to the slower pace of travel. These are all presented in a sketchy, high-level, policy-wonk style. There is little resistance from the base of society; and the reluctance of the bankers and other policy makers is overcome with a little bit of judicious and mostly bloodless terrorism.
    • I had a a weird mixed reaction to some of the more pedantic chapters of the book, where the author drops all pretense of narrative and instead goes off with an essay on some philosophical tangent, like Chapter 30 on the imaginary nature and variety of ways of delineating historical epochs.
    • On the one hand, they break the flow. I have different ways of reading fiction and non-fiction; if this is going to be a bunch of blog posts I have to change gears too often when I read. There are basically only two individual characters in the book, and we don't really spend much time with them compared with the pages given to information dumps and policy fiction.
    • On the other hand, he's talking about really interesting and important questions! How in fact do humans deal with problems at a global scale, and how can they do better? Thus the book is not so much about climate change as on the human effort to respond to it (personal, bureaucratic, political, and otherwise). How do groups find the will to act in the name of collective interests? How can you make individuals more aware of their responsibilities as global citizens? It's clear the present techniques are inadequate to the scale of problems we face as a species; and to advance we need not just better technologies like solar and carbon capture, but an imaganitive shift that will fix the gigantic coordination failure we have so far produced.
    • Given that, the meditation on how we label historical periods is spot-on, since that is a component of how we think about climate change. We can call it the holocene, but that's too large a scale. What are we going to call these years of slowly increasing risk, of slowly increasing the magnitude and frequency of climate-related disasters? (My nomination: The Boiling-Frog Years).
    • This particular point of leverage is the same as that of the Long Now folks; they too are quite deliberately setting out to hack how we think about time. KSR has been a frequent Long Now guest speaker.
    • Today we're here to inquire who actually enacts the world's economy—who are the ones who make it all go, so to speak....[goes on to suggest and consider a bunch of different types of people: lawyers, police, stock markets, academics, bureaucrats].... Also I suppose simply prices themeselves, and interest rates and the like. Which is to say simply the system itself. You were asking about the people doing it. Yes, but it's an actor network. Some of the actors in an actor network aren't human. Balderdash. What, you don't believe in actor networks? There are actor networks, but it's the actors with agency who can choose to do things differently.
      • p59-60
    • This dialog feels cringingly awkward – who exactly is debating these very metatheoretical points? Not real characters, although I guess we are supposed to think that this is the sort of thing talked about in the meeting rooms of the Ministry – but it does get across one of the key themes: somehow humanity has to develop agency, or the agents we have have now have to coordinate to solve the very real existential problem of the climate.
    • Another theme of the book is that while law and bureauracy is important, and in the best case can implement "a new structure of feeling", or improved software for the global villiage, the only real way to overcome resistance is with violence – the ministry, in desperation at its lack of ability to effect change the nice way, develops a black-ops arm that fights against carbon users (that is to say, the wealthy) with terror and sabotage. There's some agonizing over this, but the general tone of the book and its characters are that desperate times call for desperate measures.
    • I guess my problem with this book comes down to its serious, almost ponderous tone. There's nothing wrong with seriously considering climate change, but doing it via a novel doesn't quite work for me. And more seriously, it's wildly optimistic that all these policy changes can be implemented without massive resistance. That is the most science-fictional thing about it; it appears to be describing a different planet than actual Earth, one in which large-scale collective action is much easier.
    • I'm comparing it (somewhat unfairly) to another work of near-future SF I read recently, Distraction by Bruce Sterling, where climate change was present but was just one factor in a general sense of low-key societal collapse, and the characters work through the political process of trying to get things done and rebuild more workable institutions. The Sterling book was more fun and a lot more character-centric, and their struggles were imagined from within the situation, whereas something about The Ministry for the Future seems written from an abstract, outside-the-system perspective, and so somewhat lifeless.
    • In summary, it kind of sucks as a novel. However – it's a masterpiece at something else; not clear exactly what you would call that genre (lightly fictionalized scenario planning, maybe?). The closest point of comparison might be Frances Spufford's Red Plenty, which gets mentioned in the text a couple of times. That was a similar effort to take an impossibly challenging large-scale management task and turn it into fiction. Also relevant is Project Cybersyn, an actual implemented effort but with a certain dreamlike quality.