Hope is in short supply in science fiction these days, which makes novels like Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (2020) all the more refreshing and necessary. While Robinson has a history with utopia, there’s also something clear-eyed and pragmatic about his visions for the future, and that’s certainly the case in his latest, which chronicles the Earth’s battle for survival in the near future.
Not that The Ministry for the Future is an upbeat novel. Indeed, it opens with an almost unthinkable tragedy: a devastating heat wave in India that kills millions over the course of a week. The experience deeply traumatizes an American aid worker named Frank May, who miraculously survives the heat wave but never truly recovers, radicalized to combat global inertia in the face of runaway climate change. But the heat wave turns out to be an inflection point, and leads to the founding of the Ministry for the Future, a new global agency based in Zurich that grows out of the Paris Agreement. Led by an Irish woman named Mary Murphy, the Ministry’s role in world affairs is to advocate for future generations — including the Earth’s wildlife and biosphere — and to that end assembles a massive team of experts to finally confront the climate crisis. The Ministry is met, of course, with recalcitrant resistance on many fronts, most notably from late-stage capitalism and its all-powerful bankers. But Mary, partially inspired by a shocking, formative encounter with Frank, persists in her efforts to mobilize world resources toward a drastic reinvention of the global world order, in an effort to save the planet.
Robinson has an unrivaled track record of writing science fiction novels that truly matter, and on that score The Ministry for the Future may be his most impressive achievement yet. It’s an epic road map of transformative possibility, leveraging the author’s notoriously robust curiosity toward tackling the intractable problems of our rapidly warming world. And while the novel is full of big-picture ephemera filling in the gaps, it never loses sight of its intriguing main characters, whose unlikely connection is complicated and intriguing. At times, Robinson’s progressive vision feels overly optimistic to me, with its socialist leanings and robust, innovative responsiveness. Perhaps that reaction is just my American nihilism showing itself, in the wake of the past two decades of punishingly destructive right-wing political malfeasance in this country. Even so, Robinson tempers the positivity with credible roadblocks and complications, and does the important work of imagining a way out of the mess we’ve made of the world, a crucical first step. Conservative science fiction readers, if that’s a thing, will likely call Robinson a didactic know-it-all, but for those of us still crossing our fingers for the triumph of science and reason, The Ministry for the Future is an inspiring, necessary message of resilience and hope.