Fiction Reviews

The Ministry for the Future

(2020) Kim Stanley Robinson, Orbit, £20, hrdbk, 565pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50883-2


It is the near future and global warming is kicking in. Aid worker in India, Frank May, wakes up to find himself in the middle of a heat wave. With the temperature at 38°C (103°F), those who weren't in air conditioned homes were getting heat stressed. When the power failed and people began to die, the only option was to head for the lake and, along with a crowd of people, stand in the water to try to keep cool.

The next day, Frank found himself in the water surrounded by bodies.

The Indian heat wave was just one symptom of climate change becoming critical. With atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases relentlessly increasing, the world had to do more. Among the many options being considered and tried, with various degrees of success and failure, it was decided by a new COP Paris Accord to establish an international agency (think of a super UN Environment Programme) to develop climate change mitigating policies. This agency was to be the Swiss-based Ministry for the Future.

The Ministry was headed by Mary Murphy and the task she faced was daunting. Nothing they tried seemed to have any significant effect, and getting all the governments, let alone financial institutions, to agree anything – other than something needed to be done – seemed impossible.

And so Mary and the now traumatised and radicalised Frank were on an intersecting trajectory.

Meanwhile the planet continued to warm…

The Ministry for the Future alternates primarily between Frank and Mary's perspectives, interspersed with vignettes of climate change events, short articles on progressive and environmental economics, and mini-info-dumps that seem well researched. All mesh into a coherent whole that outlines a possible climate future. Indeed, many of the info-dumps are sufficiently intriguing as to warrant checking out; readers who do so will surely be impressed by the author's background research.

Robinson's regular readers will recall his climate change politics trilogy of the mid-2000s. Two decades ago there was more climate scepticism than today (believe it or not) especially in the US, and there was an orchestrated attempt to discredit climate change science. Robinson's previous trilogy dealt with climate lobbyists having to outwit the shadowy forces promulgating climate denial.  With The Ministry for the Future, matters are almost reversed: some of those seeking to address the climate issue take matters into their own hands. More than that, after nearly two decades of reading around matters of environmental and world development concerns, the author is more informed and, of course, also benefits from our advances in climate change science over this time. The result is a more polished work than the previous trilogy, and a novel that speaks to the climate extinction generation.  Bet you that this is one that Greta Thunberg would eagerly devour.

Downsides? Well, as some of you know, I have an interest in climate change science and I can assure that in terms of likely impacts of climate change, The Ministry for the Future stands up well. Less convincing are some of the forays into geoengineering with the attempt to slow Antarctic glaciers: theoretically possibly but practically wholly unfeasible. Similarly, and previously in his earlier trilogy, Robinson did introduce the notion of pumping seawater onto Antarctica where it would freeze, as a means of addressing sea-level rise: I noted in my review of his Sixty Days and Counting that the author seems to feel that technological fixes of the symptoms of climate change are the way to go and that some of these are (in the real world) very contentious!  The same applies to The Ministry for the Future. However, what The Ministry for the Future does do is recognise some of the failings of the earlier trilogy's Antarctic water pumping exercise. Further, while the novel's upper atmosphere sulphate aerosol injection to temporarily cool the planet would work – we have amply evidence for that not just from models but volcanic sulphate injections – it would not be recommended as it would lock us into an on-going expense which if we ever stopped would see a major warming jump. However, this last does add to the novel's drama, and sense of wonder, without unduly undermining the book's solidly-researched, core issues.

Already, this novel is attracting some award interest: for example being short-listed for the BSFA Award. Expect this to continue.

Jonathan Cowie


Note: In January 2021 The Ministry for the Future was cited as one of the top SF books of 2020 in SF² Concatenation's annual informal poll that over the years has accrued something of a track record in predicting titles that go on to garner awards.


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