Book review: ‘THE MINISTRY fo THE FUTURE’

It’s unwise to ignore Mother Nature, and not to find ways to live in harmony with her, and all other beings as well

By Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit ($28)

Reviewed by Tom Cox

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Make no mistake, Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, “The Ministry of the Future,” is a good old-fashioned monster story. As with most monster stories, there is an inciting incident witnessed by a few wide-eyed and hysterical nobodies, but their cries are deemed “unreliable.” Who knows what they saw? It only affected those people. And besides, what do they expect us to do, empty the beaches on a holiday weekend just because somebody thinks they saw a shark?

In many of these tales, the monster is a metaphor for something else, such as “Babadook” (grief), “Rosemary’s Baby” (motherhood), “Get Out” (racism), and “Frankenstein” (humanity). But some of the scariest monster stories give us nightmares about the normal things we see in life. Not vampires, werewolves, blobs or radioactive lizards but crazed fans, preppie New York investment bankers or creepy hotel clerks. In “The Ministry of the Future,” Mr. Robinson aims his flashlight into the black waters to reveal just such a monster: climate change. Yeah, we’re going to need a bigger boat.

True to good monster lore, our story begins with an attack: a record-setting Indian heat wave knocks out power and roasts 20 million of the planet’s most vulnerable in two weeks’ time. Enter Mary Murphy, head of the Ministry of the Future, a rather toothless U.N. watchdog agency based in Zurich and created by an international treaty. Nevertheless, Murphy is serious about making a difference in the world and about her agency’s stated mission: “to advocate for the world’s future generations and to protect all living creatures, present and future.” Despite the Indian tragedy, her attempts to enact real and drastic reduction in carbon emissions is resisted. National sovereignties are cited. Fingers of blame are pointed at the long-term carbon culprits, who in turn accuse the most recent contributors. Financial institutions entrench behind privilege and market share. The monster is not our problem.

When the rebuffed Murphy is confronted and briefly held captive in her own home by an addled survivor of the Indian carnage, she recognizes in his frantic demands not a criminal element but perhaps humanity itself (her own humanity?) crying out for drastic steps to be taken — acts of eco-terrorism and even the assassination of select carbon perpetrators. After the man is captured and her safety assured, Murphy finds it hard to dismiss his humble sacrifice and haunted eyes. Does confronting a monster like climate change call for more drastic steps? If black ops are used to fight terrorism, why not this? Maybe it’s time to get our hands dirty. She soon discovers, however, that her darkest notions of such an unauthorized, covert and lethal outfit already exists.

Whereas Mr. Robinson’s earlier novels on climate change, “New York 2140” and “2312,” are set far in the future and deal with the long-term aftermath of the destruction it caused, “The Ministry of the Future” dares to set events within our lifetimes, or at least within the lifetimes of our children. Thirty years from now, the devastation is just beginning. Things can still be done to stop the monster, but only if drastic and expensive steps are immediately undertaken and only if the whole world takes it seriously. If you have met the world, however, you know that this probably isn’t going to go well.

Mr. Robinson’s intrigue and geopolitical drama are well supported by his meticulous research into every sort of environmental theory, proposed solution and geo-engineering possibility, which he deftly incorporates into his work. If you’ve been looking for an environmental monster story in which the heroes are scientists who aren’t above taking off their gloves and getting their hands dirty, this might just be the campfire story for you.

Tom Cox is a writer living in Penn Hills.