An Environmental Novel: Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Ministry for the Future”

Where are we to find sanity in the 21st century? Last week right-wing fanatics attacked the Capitol and traumatized the country; this week Congress wasted their time by impeaching Trump–again.

And so I escaped the madness by reading a behemoth of an environmental novel, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future. This much-praised novel made Obama’s Favorite Books of 2020 list. It is the most optimistic environmental novel I have read, despite the detailed descriptions of the horrors of climate change. It is also one of those well-written hard science fiction books that appeal to a general audience, not just SF fans.

Robinson, an award-winning science fiction writer, is unphazed by taking on the big issues of our day. He asks the question: can we save our planet from Climate Change? He begins in the 2020s and takes us 30 years into the future.

An expert storyteller, he intersperses the narrative with short treatises on the science and technology that might slow and reverse climate change. Whether you’re concerned about hurricanes, heat waves, pandemics, water, or the ubiquity of burning of fossil fuels, Robinson has a potential fix.

The events of the novel center on the Ministry for the Future, which is established by the U.N. in 2025. The agency is appointed to speculate about the future and calculate how to keep the planet safe for the next generations. The problem facing likable, stable, middle-aged Mary Murphy, who is the head of the Ministry, is that no one will give them money to carry out their ideas.

And so they are mainly Talking Heads who present ideas at conferences. They don’t worry much about not being able to do anything. In fact, Mary does not begin to understand the system and where to apply pressure until a young American eco-terrorist, Frank May, kidnaps her (just for a few hours) and lectures her on economics and the environment.

Frank is the true hero, though he is a tormented, sad character, mentally ill as a direct result of climate change. He is the sole survivor of a terrifying wet-bulb temperature heat wave in a city in India that kills 20 million altogether. He was volunteering at a clinic and took charge of a crowd of Indians who needed relief from the heat after a power outage. He hooked up a window air conditioner to a generator, but thugs broke in and stole the generator. His only option was to lead them to a lake where the water was already much too hot to cool them. He rages over the fact that he survived. The rescuers were not sure he was human when they first saw him with his parboiled skin. And he does not feel human.

As you can imagine, he is haunted by the deaths he witnessed. He returns to Glasgow, where he had gone to school, and tries to find a reason to live. His therapist tells him he can always wait and kill himself tomorrow. On a walk through the city, he constantly panics because of post-traumatic stress disorder. He thinks of Saint Francis of Assisi:

Give yourself away, give up on yourself and all you thought you had. Feed the birds, help people. The positive of that was so obvious. Do like Saint Francis. Help people.

But he wanted more. He could feel it burning him up: he wanted to kill. Well, he wanted to punish. People had caused the heat wave, and not all people—the prosperous nations, sure, the old empires, sure; they all deserved to be punished. But then also there were particular people, many still alive, who had worked all their lives to deny climate change, to keep burning carbon, to keep wrecking biomes, to keep driving other species extinct. That evil work had been their lives’ project, and while pursuing that project they had prospered and lived in luxury. They wrecked the world happily, thinking they were supermen, laughing at the weak, crushing them underfoot.

Despite Frank’s crimes, which we know little about, and perhaps there are only two, because he is basically a good person, he loves his volunteer work in refugee camps in Zurich, which is his real work, a kind of social work. He is briefly married to a widow, and acts as a father to her two daughters , but there is no chance of happiness; he is too unstable. And things go downhill for him, while Mary continues to work the system, and sometimes meets with him to discuss things.

So does Frank save the world?

This is an intense, fast-paced didactic novel. You might want to know: is Robinson a scientist?

In a Rolling Stone interview, he explains that the story always comes first but he tries to be as accurate as possible.

” So I try to stick to the sciences as closely as I can, even in my Mars novels. I don’t break the laws of physics. I don’t like fantasy. And I do live with a scientist. My wife [Lisa Nowell, a chemist with the U.S. Geological Survey] is really quite tough on my manuscripts in terms of accuracy and tone”.

An excellent read, and a very informative one, which I would call “important” if I were blurbing it. That might sound corny, though. My criticism? It is at least 50 pages too long. Why do editors feel that they must publish such big books?

But I will never forget Frank May. One of the saddest but most memorable characters in American literature!