The Ministry for the Future seminar

by Henry on May 3, 2021

Over the next ten days, we’re running a seminar on Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel about climate change and how our political and economic system might have to change to stop it, The Ministry for the Future. We’re happy to be able to do this – it’s an important book. Since it came out, it’s had an enormously enthusiastic reception (see e.g. Barack Obama and Ezra Klein). What we want to do in this seminar is not to celebrate it further (although it certainly deserves celebration) but to help it do its work in the world. So we’ve asked a number of people to respond to the book, by arguing it through and, as needs be, arguing with it. Soon after the seminar finishes, we will publish a reply piece by Stan, and then make the seminar generally available under a Creative Commons license. As the pieces are published, I will update this post to provide hyperlinks, to make it easier for people to keep track.

The participants in the seminar:

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1

ADAM ROBERTS 05.03.21 at 2:36 pm

Very much looking forward to this: it is, I agree with you, an important novel. I blogged my reaction here, but I have been looking for, and have mostly missed, the larger debate the book merits. This seminar will provide that I hope.

2

Francis Spufford 05.03.21 at 7:16 pm

Also looking forward to this a lot. It’s rare for novels to have the kind of direct, real-world effectiveness that this one does – I’m having to reach, for analogies, to things like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Oliver Twist. Nineteenth century blockbusters, anyway.

3

William Berry 05.04.21 at 2:43 am

@Adam Roberts:

That was a well-written and interesting review.

Now I suppose I have to read the book! *

*That will take some time, given the book is more than 600pp, so I’ll be reading the seminar well after it has concluded (have to finish re-reading of Bloodlands as well, which project is barely underway).

Anyway, looking forward to the entries. Carry on.

4

Caspar Henderson 05.04.21 at 10:20 am

Me too. Francis Spufford makes a good point, though the bagginess, diversity and occasional longueurs makes it perhaps closer to Moby Dick in some ways – albeit massively different in others!

5

Bill Benzon 05.04.21 at 10:58 am

Me too, though I must admit that I’ve not yet finished it. I’m telling my friends.

6

Dan Bloom 05.04.21 at 6:35 pm

And other analogies, Dr Spufford, The Jungle, Silent Spring, On The Beach, The Grapes of Wrath…

7

Jo Lindsay Walton 05.04.21 at 10:34 pm

When I saw Adam had written a review, I thought I MUST WRITE TWO

One is brief jottings mostly on violence:
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future

The other is here for now and focuses a bit more on political economy.

There I had a go at picking around six main ingredients in the book’s optimistic vision:

(1) Diverse economies (a la Gibson-Graham), embedded in regional histories
(2) Geoengineering and climate tech
(3) State power, particularly via central banks
(4) De-oligopolisation of what is now Big Tech, and re-commoning of aspects of the internet
(5) Rewilding and ecological restoration
(6) Armed paramilitary pressure especially on corporate power

That’s not to say there aren’t other forces at play in the book (non-violent or not-non-violent but non-paramilitary protest; the re-enchantment of nature; decolonisation struggles; Nansen passports; airships; re-urbanisation etc.), but those were the six that stuck out to me.

Very glad this is happening!

8

Francis Spufford 05.05.21 at 1:35 pm

Dan Bloom @ 6 –

I’m not sure about Silent Spring as a comparable case, because it’s not so startling when a work of advocacy achieves advocacy. It’s when a fiction does it that is the rarer thing: when a narrative shifts perceptions of something strongly enough in the world that people emerge from it convinced of the need for action. Not sure about On the Beach, but Dr Strangelove did it for nuclear war, if I’m allowed to jump media for a moment; and yes, definitely The Grapes of Wrath.

But writing this makes me notice that perhaps the distinctive thing about TMFTF is that it doesn’t just frame a problem. It offers a vision of that problem being soluble. The analogy for that would have to be an Oliver Twist containing detailed proposals for the reform of the Victorian Poor Law, a Grapes of Wrath containing a successful revolution in California. Hmm: since we’re here to argue about what does and doesn’t seem likely to work, among KSR’s array of possible solutions, you could make a case that the book doesn’t have to offer feasible answers, itself, to the climate crisis, in order for us to say that it had succeeded.

(PS Not a doctor.)

9

Stephen Frug 05.05.21 at 2:08 pm

Like the previous commentators, I’m thrilled this is happening. It’s rare for me to have already read a book in a CT seminar—usually I find out about cool books in them (most especially Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty).

And like several others, I already reviewed the book, a review you can read here: Even This is Too Good To Be True.

10

Chris Fanjul 05.05.21 at 6:17 pm

Hello! I’ve been reading MftF with a group of Metamodernism fanatics, and we would love to keep up on when the full seminar and KSR’s response are released – is there a way you can implement a mailing list for people to be notified when that happens? Thanks!

11

tomsk 05.05.21 at 9:53 pm

I’ll be reading the seminar with interest. Judging by the pieces that have gone up already and the comments here, many others here were rather more impressed with the book than I was. It may well prove important, and its message is certainly attractive. But as a novel I thought it had some pretty severe shortcomings, turning especially mushy in the last 50 pages or so. Look forward to reading more about others’ reactions.

12

Fake Dave 05.06.21 at 12:01 am

I’m a bit behind on Robinson. I stalled on Blue Mars for years (its hard to care about a bunch of affluent 200-year-olds dying of boredom), but I finally picked it up again and am continually impressed by how cutting edge it feels for something written in the 90s. His optimism about geoengineering and rapid terraforming is of its time, but I prefer it to the miserable self flagelating he does in Aurora. That whole book (especially the flat ending) feels like an extended apology for his earlier books maybe accidentally inspiring the Elon Musks of the world. It kind of soured me on his later works and kept me from checking this one out. I’d rather read an imaginative science adventure than a lecture on Spaceship Earth and how there is no Planet B. I’ve been afraid of MotF because it sounded like it might preachy or didactic in the same way, but I’ll give it a shot.

13

Henry 05.06.21 at 2:38 pm

But writing this makes me notice that perhaps the distinctive thing about TMFTF is that it doesn’t just frame a problem. It offers a vision of that problem being soluble. The analogy for that would have to be an Oliver Twist containing detailed proposals for the reform of the Victorian Poor Law, a Grapes of Wrath containing a successful revolution in California. Hmm: since we’re here to argue about what does and doesn’t seem likely to work, among KSR’s array of possible solutions, you could make a case that the book doesn’t have to offer feasible answers, itself, to the climate crisis, in order for us to say that it had succeeded.

My essay (next week) sort-of talks to that.

14

Bryan N Alexander 05.06.21 at 3:39 pm

Excellent.

Our future of education book club discussed the novel last year:
https://bryanalexander.org/tag/ministry/

15

Andrew Park 05.07.21 at 6:18 pm

MftF may well be an important book, but is it a good book?

A friend of mine bought me MftF as an exemplar of climate fiction that had an optimistic edge, and it’s only that fact that keeps me reading. I had to put it down at about page 180 because I couldn’t take one more infodump dressed up as dialogue or one more chapter that read more like a masters thesis in political science than a novel. I picked it up again a few weeks later and have managed to slog my way to about the two thirds mark. The sunk cost effect will ensure that I finish it.

I want to be be clear that I am not arguing with the solutions proposed in KSR’s novel or with the man himself. I love hearing him talk about global problems because he seems to think more clearly about them than most political leaders. What I’m arguing with is the strange mix of narrative and policy white paper that seem to be mashed together uncomfortably and incongruously. The poli-sci perspective also invades the dialogue. I’ve never been to Davos or sat in on a meeting of the Gates Foundation. But I can’t imagine that even the driest technocrat would come out with the dialog that KSR puts in their mouths. Sometimes the smart AI, JA, seems more human than the human characters.

That said, the way his future plays out feels plausible. Self-interested parties will continue to resist change, perhaps beyond the point where it’s too late. I don’t want to drop spoilers, so I’ll leave it there. I’m sorry I can’t be more positive about what was a very well-intentioned, painstakingly researched book.

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