From the category archives:

Books

Response

by Kim Stanley Robinson on May 14, 2021

When I attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop in 1975, our first teacher Samuel R. Delany gave us some advice: don’t respond to critics. It never does any good. Don’t even write reviews.

It was good advice, and I’ve followed it ever since. But here I am. Did I make a mistake? Maybe so.

On the other hand, I’ve published a lot of non-fiction in recent years. What was I saying in those pieces? Couldn’t I respond like that?

Maybe so. Quite a bit of my non-fiction consists of appreciations of other writers, like this one of Gene Wolfe. These were expressions of love.

And I’ve answered lots of interview questions. These were like conversations. There’s no harm in love or conversation.

So I’m going to try this: I’ll happily express my appreciation for all the generous giving of time and thought that I see in the responses below; and I’ll do my best to answer any questions they ask. If there are complaints about my book (and there are), I’ll stick to my long-time practice, and hold my tongue.

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This Is How It Gets Better

by Suresh Naidu on May 13, 2021

It’s a real privilege to comment on this book.From the Mars trilogy to my personal recent favorite, Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson has been one of my favorite science fiction authors, staying with me as I went from teenage escapism to middle-aged escapism. There are so many great ideas in The Ministry of the Future (TMFTF), where Stan has clearly combed the academic and activist literature for the boldest ideas to grapple with the climate crisis and used the medium of fiction to communicate them. There are engineering feats, like the propping up of glaciers to slow melting, direct air capture of CO2 at economically feasible scale, alongside political transformations like the mutually-assured-destruction made possible by targeted kinetic pebble smartbombs, a rebirth of Indian democracy, and carbon quantitative easing? Everyone who cares about climate change (and really at this point it should be everyone with some stake beyond the next 10 years) should read it. But beyond being a hardware store full of tools for decarbonization, it also charts a politically possible trajectory to a transformed economy. TMFTF is not just outlining a future sustainable economy, but showing a properly historically contingent path to it. [click to continue…]

Technocracy and Empire

by Henry on May 12, 2021

The Ministry for the Future is a novel, not a manifesto. That complicates things. As Francis Spufford described Red Plenty nine years ago in his own CT seminar:

I was trying to stitch together a sort of story that paid more attention than usual to the economic motives for human behaviour, but even there, I wanted my account of causes to be as broad and open as possible, and not to collapse without residue into any single one of the rival diagrams of economic behaviour. Basically, I wanted to be awkward. I could take advantage of fiction’s built-in tolerance of overdetermination, in which multiple possible causes for an outcome can be allowed to exist alongside each other without being resolved, or even given definitive weights. Storytelling lets you bring negative capability into economics.

KSR was in that seminar too, arguing that Red Plenty was a novel. And so is TMFTF – it brings negative capability into the politics of climate change, allowing it to capture both how we need radical changes, and how we can’t be sure exactly which radical changes, in which combinations, we need. You can read the book as presenting KSR’s best guesses as to how such changes might unfold. But – and this is my argument – that’s not the only reading of the book. Because it’s a novel, it folds those best guesses together with the uncertainty that they will be right, and with the presupposition that actual history emerges, as the imagined history of the novel does, from disagreement and conflict between people with different guesses, different theories, different ideologies. From this perspective, the novel invites people who disagree with KSR’s surmises to advance their own, recreating in real life something like the arguments that drive the book.

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Half the Earth ?

by John Quiggin on May 11, 2021

When I read fiction, it’s mostly either the 19th century classics or speculative fiction – what was and what might be, as opposed to what is. I live in the present, and spend most of my waking hours analysing the economy and society of today, along with the recent past and near future. In doing that, I am, for the most part, in agreement with Mr Gradgrind – what I want is facts, nothing but facts.

But in relation to the future (and, in many ways, the past) we don’t have facts, only possibilities. And, unlike the present, we don’t have lived experience to help us understand those possibilities. Speculative fiction, at its best, extends our thinking to encompass possibilities we wouldn’t otherwise consider, and to imagine ways of life no one has actually experienced. [click to continue…]

The Sudden Tempest of Ultimate Summer

by Belle Waring on May 10, 2021

O Kali’s feet are red lotuses wherein lie heaps of holy places. 
All sins are destroyed by Kali’s name as heaps of cotton are burnt by fire. How can a headless man have a headache?
I am irresponsible, cruel and arrogant,
I am the king of the great upheaval,
I am cyclone, I am destruction,
I am the great fear, the curse of the universe.
I have no mercy,
I grind all to pieces.
I am disorderly and lawless,
I trample under my feet all rules and discipline!
I am Durjati, I am the sudden tempest of ultimate summer,
I am the rebel, the rebel-son of mother-earth!
Say, Valiant,
Ever high is my head!
—Kazi Nazrul Islam
[Translation: Kabir Chowdhury] 

We can think of two versions of The Ministry of The Future, each of which invites us to imagine a world in which we make difficult, creative choices to mitigate the effects of climate change, and ultimately prevail. In the first book, a whirl of technological, sociological and financial solutions are attempted. Some are cautious science, some desperate acts of brute force, such as filling the atmosphere with particles to rival the cooling effects of the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption (and indeed, scientists are seriously considering this, which I have always thought would be the first true action on climate change). In the second book, a careful ruthlessness prevails. People still use container ships? They are sunk in spots to create new reefs. Billionaires have gotten rich on carbon fuels, and have no plans to stop? They are brutally stabbed to death in their own beds before their companions can even grasp what’s happening. But, which of these two books above has Kim Stanley Robinson written? Having written the first seems to say he can’t write the second, and yet can he still have written both? [click to continue…]

Ministry for Your Future Soul

by Todd Tucker on May 7, 2021

The Ministry for the Future” should be required reading for anyone that writes white papers for a living.

A few reflections and (potential) spoilers.

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Can the World’s Bankers Really Save the Climate?

by Jessica Green on May 6, 2021

The Ministry for the Future (TMFTF) should be lauded for reimagining global climate governance. It recognizes what many climate scholars do not: climate change is in large measure, a problem of extreme wealth and wealth inequality. Thus, addressing the climate crisis requires discussing “potential alternatives to the global neoliberal order” (155). Moreover, the Ministry is keenly aware of the shrinking window for action. Addressing climate change is a race against time, rather than a “tragedy of the commons.” Thus, we should be less worried about getting everyone to participate in international agreements, and more worried about acting quickly, since delay will make climate problems harder to solve, and could result in irreversible changes. What follows from these two premises is nothing less than a wholesale reimagining of the global economy, as enacted through coordinated efforts by the world’s biggest central banks. However, the Ministry’s proposed technocratic solutions overlook the messiness of domestic politics, and the huge challenge of constraining powerful anti-climate interests.

In essence, TMFTF trades one technocratic solution for another – bankers instead of climate wonks, converting tons of carbon dioxide into “carbon coins.” Robinson acknowledges this, noting that “all central banks [are] undemocratic technocracies” (291). Indeed, the appeal of the Ministry’s proposal to the central bankers is precisely the extent to which it bypasses the politics of democratic decision-making. [click to continue…]

On Solar Geoengineering and Kim Stanley Robinson

by Oliver Morton on May 5, 2021

The solar-geoengineering effort in The Ministry for the Future takes place shortly after the book’s harrowing opening. It is presented as part of a continuum of responses to that extraordinarily lethal Indian heat wave, one which stretches from domestic politics—the full nationalisation of the electricity industry—to transnational armed struggle by means of support, at a level never fully revealed, for the revolutionary violence of the “Children of Kali”. [click to continue…]

What is Ours is Only Ours to Give

by Maria on May 4, 2021

Kim Stanley Robinson’s books are how I think about the future. I’m not exaggerating when I say they’re how I manage to think about it at all. They provide much of the temporal and political context in which I do my work, which is to say, they educate me and let me know I’m not alone. Future uses of data and networks are a tiny part of The Ministry for the Future (TMFTF), just as tech policy only counts, now, insofar as it serves our species-wide effort to survive and perhaps flourish. TMFTF does some thinking on how network and information technology – specifically, social media and blockchain – can do the genuinely liberatory work they’ve long been hailed as making possible. I’ve worked in tech policy since the late nineties and will talk mostly in this piece about ways that might work sooner and better to get us to a desirable tech future, and one that gets less in the way of dealing with climate crisis. (I use ‘climate crisis’ as shorthand for the cluster of anthropogenic extinction events described in TMFTF.) [click to continue…]

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. We’ve also published a reply by Stan.

If you want to link to the entire seminar, use this address. The seminar is generally available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license. In plain language: you can probably do what you want with it so long as you don’t try to make money from it, and so long as you are willing to share whatever changes you make under the same conditions as we are sharing it. You can find hyperlinks to the pieces below. If you prefer to read it as a PDF, you’ll find that here. And if you want to remix it under the above license, it is available in various formats at the bottom of this post.

The participants in the seminar:

Seminar Markdown Version.

Seminar TeX Version.

Seminar HTML Version.

Seminar Word .docx Version.

Economic policy after the pandemic

by John Quiggin on April 30, 2021

I’m racing to get a draft manuscript of The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic, not helped by the fact that Biden keeps doing pretty much what I think he should do. More of the fold. Comments greatly appreciated, as always.
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Global capital, crony capital and the centre-left

by John Quiggin on April 29, 2021

Writing in the New York Times, Elizabeth Bruenig makes the case against an alliance of convenience between liberals and “woke” corporations against the threat posed to democracy by Trumpism . After acknowledging how desperate the situation has become, she presents the argument, to which I’ll respond bit by bit

Capital is unfaithful. It can, and does, play all sides. Many of the courageous businesses that protested North Carolina’s 2016 “bathroom bill,” for instance, also donated to political groups that helped fund the candidacies of the very politicians who passed the bill.

This is the nature of alliances of convenience. When the Western Allies joined Stalin to fight against Hitler they had no (or at least few) illusions about him, and didn’t rely on him to keep his word any longer than necessary, or to refrain from undermining them in other quarters

It isn’t possible to cooperate with capital on social matters while fighting them in other theaters; capital can fight you in all theaters at once, all while enjoying public adulation for helping you, as well.

This simply isn’t correct as the Biden Administration is showing. Despite co-operating with capital on social matters,. Biden has proposed substantial increases in corporate tax rates and global action against corporate tax avoidance. In this context, it is the position of capital that has been weakened by the toxicity of its usual allies, the Republicans.

Setting aside the fact that capital can in a single moment be both heroic and diabolical — Amazon wants you to be able to vote, but it would prefer if you didn’t unionize — it is, incredibly, even less democratic, accountable and responsive than our ramshackle democracy. Capital rallies to the defense of democracy while aggressively quashing that very thing in the workplaces where its workers labor.

Again, this is what happens in an alliance of this kind. Fights over unionization go on, in parallel with an alliance over the right to vote. Once again, it’s the corporations who face the bigger problem here, with opportunistic Republicans pretending to back the rights of the workers.

I have no idea what to do about this other than know it for what it is. If it were ever the case that knowledge was power, it certainly isn’t so anymore: Knowledge is more widely dispersed than ever; power remains notably concentrated. But knowledge confers a certain dignity. It’s worse to be powerless and unaware than to be powerless and perfectly clear on where you stand.

This is a counsel of despair, without any real basis. Bruenig gives no reason to suppose that the fight for democracy can’t be won, even if it requires alliances between groups with interests that are otherwise opposed. But if the Republicans can be held at bay long enough to allow the passage of strong voting rights law, they will have to reform themselves or face permanent minority status. Getting to that point (for example, by winning bigger majorities in both Houses of Congress in 2022, then scrapping the filibuster) will be difficult, but not impossible

An important limitation of Bruenig’s analysis is that she treats “capital” as a unitary force. There is a sharp division between global corporations, with a long-run interest in the preservation of the rule of law under a democratic government, and the crony capitalists, epitomized by Trump himself, for whom the object is to extract as much as possible from the US economy, as quickly as they can.

Someone with more expertise than me could interpret all this in terms of the “fractions of capital” idea put forward by Poulantzas and others in C20. A search on those terms produced this piece in The Guardian, which covers some of those points.

How much is a trillion dollars?

by John Quiggin on April 28, 2021

Updating an old aphorism, “A trillion here, a trillion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money. But how much is a trillion dollars, really? Over the fold an extract from The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic.

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Republicans and the end of hard neoliberalism

by John Quiggin on April 26, 2021

As I argued recently, the decline of soft neoliberalism in the US Democratic Party can be explained largely in terms of generational replacement. What about hard neoliberalism and the Republican Party?
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I’m trying to get the MS of Economic Consequences of the Pandemic finished by May, while chasing a moving target. Over the fold, I return to a favorite topic of mine, the role of generational change. I’ve spent a lot of time pointing out the silliness of most talk about generations, but in the process I’ve learned quite a bit about the nuggets of insight that can be mined by thinking in these terms.

Comments much appreciated. Happy for anyone to raise nitpicking points about typos. There are always plenty in my work, and even more when I’m in a rush. Of course, substantive criticism is always welcome and praise even more so.

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