Book Review: Ministry for the Future

Author: Kim Stanley Robinson Reviewer: Marilyn Freeman

It’s rare that speculative fiction gets a review in a magazine aimed at practically-minded Transitioners, but the novel covers many bases of interest to those who recognize that the Anthropocene has changed climatic systems to the point of trophic catastrophe.

This compelling story opens with a disastrous “wet bulb” heat wave that kills most of the inhabitants of a city in India. A new international crisis body is created to protect all living creatures, present and future. It’s called the Ministry for the Future and is led by Mary Murphy, the former foreign minister of Ireland. There may – or may not – be a ‘dark ops’ contingent attached. Along with the plot line, there is much hard science, economics, and speculative military strategy. Occasionally, dialogue even provides some dark comic relief. It’s a book that will explain, teach, beguile, and infect the reader’s imagination.

The thread tying it all together is the struggle of Mary Murphy and her team to make the necessary changes. The team is diverse in their expertise; everything from legalities, ecology, geoengineering, economics, and refugees to insurance and banking. The members of the Ministry develop their modus operandi. Between their progress reports (and all the info contained therein) are interleaved stories of ordinary people and how they’re coping -or not- with what climate change is throwing at them. There are miners in Namibia; Frank, a survivor of the Wet Bulb event and his PTSD; sailors who are modern slaves in the fishing industry; refugees stuck for years in European camps. Business jets go down, container ships are torpedoed, cows are drone darted with mad cow disease: all targets of black ops.

The novel has four general areas of interest: economic, sociological, political, and climatic. The reader will learn about things they’ve never or little heard of. One of the remarkable aspects of this book is its research. Because this was my second read-through, I took the time to check what was “real.” Other than the story line and dialogue, all the facts were substantiated and sometimes even predictive!

For example, there is the Leopoldian Land Ethic: what’s good is what’s good for the land. For instance, robustness and resilience are “inefficient” but “good”. Vast electrical grids are efficient but not resilient (ice storms, war, terrorism.) The Leopoldian Land Ethic exists in opposition to neo-liberal capitalism, which concentrates on efficiency and growth to the detriment of all else. In neo-liberal analysis, we think only in economic terms, i.e. everything is assessed by its effects on the GDP. Of course, health, happiness, social capital, and unpaid labour are NOT included in GDP-measurements. There exist lots of other ways of gauging prosperity or well-being, such as The Gini Coefficient, which looks at wealth disparity in a population.

Robinson characterizes the times we are living through right now as the “Trembling Twenties” in which “The order of your time feels unjust and unsustainable and yet massively entrenched, but also falling apart before your eyes. These obvious contradictions… might yet still describe the feeling of your time quite accurately.” I learned about the Mask of the Red Death Syndrome, and how it summarizes our pathological response to the climate crisis. Basically, we’re all gonna die, so party on, babe! Cognitive Dissonance explains the individual human’s tendency to deny that any climate catastrophe would happen to them personally – even in the face of evidence to the opposite.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a doomsday negative book. It’s not. Through myriad efforts, a bit of balance starts to return. One of the projects is rewilding areas all over the world. What’s important is creating CONNECTION with the beings of the wild. As rewilded areas become connected via corridors, animal populations rebound. Many are tagged and can be traced in their peregrinations. Humans can ‘watch’ from afar – the internet of animals. Their lives and deaths are being noted by people and this creates connection. Another successful project is some crazy geoengineering on how to stop glaciers, like the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, from sliding into the sea. The technique is possible – I looked it up!

The best in this speculative fiction is that the author shows how nothing that has been developed by humans is carved in stone. There are some fantastically creative economic ideas on how the world can get out of the mess it’s in. Of course, I had to learn about blockchains…still working on that.


  1. Thanks, Marilyn
    Excellent review. I am a slow reader – plodding through this excellent book, but even skipping the esoteric economics it is taking me months.
    I have liked seeing it so well encapsulated.

    • Hi Peter. Thanks for your comment which I just saw today! I think – even with the esoteric economics – that this is a very important book. I read it twice and it was more understandable the 2nd time through. I suspect I’ll read it again next year! For something entirely different, check the next Greenzine for my review of An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us. Hopefully it will make people move out of their anthropmorphic mindset just a little. ~M

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.