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Kai-Holger Brassel
Author and Software-Developer

Did I mention that the climate crisis has been on my mind since the 1990s? Recently, popular literature has taken up this theme, establishing a new genre called climate fiction (Cli-Fi). Here, I want to share my impressions of one of the better-known works in this area, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. If you haven’t read it yet, be warned: SPOILER ALARM!

There are probably two things I will remember from this book in the years to come: the first chapter with its impressive, cruelly accurate description of people dying in masses, simply and unavoidably for »physical« (like in physics) reasons that come with a heat wave, and secondly, the sheer number of ideas presented side by side about how to possibly deal with climate crises, from monetary policy, new agriculture to co-ops, geo-engineering, new transportation, social innovations, and so on.

Some remarkable contents in the novel

Contrasting dying people on the »micro-level« in ch. 1 with the dry legal texts to deal with this at the »macro-level« in ch.3. This tension between micro- and macro-level is also embodied by the protagonists Frank and Mary.

Ch. 32: Important discussion about constant vs. non-constant discount rates, only the latter being able to consider importance to outcomes in the distant future.

Ch. 40: Distinction between good and bad (in)efficiencies. When is nature efficient, and when is it not?

Ch. 42: New investment schema: carbon quantitative easing. Markets vs. computer planning with hints to Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty from 2010, that, like Ministry for the Future and the first part of my All An!, tries to blend fiction with non-fiction.

Ch. 46: The market economy as a growing organism literally. Another form of life. Similarly, the »lively« description of the live of a photon in ch. 53.

Ch. 51: Airships replace planes since, with good planning, speed is not relevant anymore.

Ch. 60: An extraordinary long chapter in the middle of the book describing the social and political tipping point causing a revolution in economic and political conditions all over the world.

Ch. 69: New undefendable drones, so there is no safe place anymore, making all people and powers equal.

Ch. 85: Great list of local preservation/agriculture/restoration initiatives.

What I did not like

Ch. 11: Definition of »Ideology« in a much too broad sense, making it an empty term.

Ch. 90: Robinson describes technology as neutral, not the driver of change. Only social development drives change. However, he admits that human-technology-coevolution exists. Maybe complex systems thinking is not good for revolutions?

For a quite thick book, the actual story told IMHO is somewhat thin: climate change will result in mass extinction; the Ministry for the Future is founded to act for future generations; things get worse fast, more has to be done; the UN, nations, individuals, terror groups, black wings start fighting on all fronts. Bad people die, good people die; Mary is shortly kidnapped by Frank to do more; she is also under attack from conservatives and must hide; after the COP meeting in Zurich, the fight on climate is basically won (albeit nuclear and other threats persist), and Mary retires. Frank struggles with his trauma and eventually dies from brain cancer; Mary travels the world by airship to see how things work out; allows herself to develop some feelings for the airship captain.

The longer the story went, the harder it was for me to keep my attention. Lots of material is combined »somehow«, mostly in the form of short »encyclopedic« teaching sections in the present tense, alternating with story telling in the past tense from either Mary or Frank or from some other I or We narrator that is not explicitly introduced, e.g., refugees. For me, also the lengthy descriptions of the Alps and Zurich count as »material to be included somewhere« (author had lived for two years in Zurich in the 80ties). Another example of news topics that obviously need to be included somehow is the discussion on Hongkong starting out of nowhere in ch. 101, nearly at the end of the book.

So as I continued reading, I was sort of waiting for the end of the story, which somehow didn't want to come, until I read the very last sentence of the book: »Because we never really get to the end.« Okay, I thought: such a smartass.

Comparison with All An!

The first part of my novel All An! – Umschwung (about to translate with Universe On! Reversal) can be read as climate fiction. In fact, there are many parallels to All an!, but of course also important differences.

I found these similarities:

  • A big catastrophe for a decisive push to start the change
  • The realization of Edward O. Wilson’s Habitat Corridors is like what the »Naturals« do in my book (but without preserving interstates and railroads)
  • Numerous meetings and conferences make the »action«
  • Airships and sea travel replace the plane.

Here are some differences:

  • Robinson writes about 550 pages vs. 210 pages in my story
  • His story starts in our days, while mine start in 2086
  • Robinson sees nations and the UN still as important drivers of change, while in my account, nations degrade and are finally replaced by thousands of regions, and the UN is replaced by a United Mankind in the end. Robinson devotes many discussions to problems that nations have
  • Robinson uses central banks and a new social network app combined with cryptos as a magic wand, while in my novel, AIs and model-based systems thinking and planning find solutions »magically«
  • In Robinson's vision, nuclear weapons still threaten the world, while they are gone in mine as part of the solution.

Finally, an interesting twenty minutes talk by the author from 2023: Kim Stanley Robinson - What I’ve Learned since The Ministry for the Future Came Out in 2020.