The Ministry for the Future was established in 2025 ‘To advocate for the world’s future generations and to protect all living creatures, present and future’. Based in Zurich, the Ministry is a type of United Nations and within it are rivalries, conflicts of interest, on local and global levels. The question is, is it up for the job? And when a cataclysmic heatwave hits India in the 2020s, it is proven that it fundamentally does not. Why should countries like India buy into it when the country is faced with catastrophe again at any time and for any number of times and needs immediate action, not committees?
The Ministry for the Future tells the Ministry’s story during the years following its creation. Many lives and perspectives are presented but the narrative is dominated by two voices – that of Mary Murphy, its head based in the relatively temperate Switzerland, and Frank May, a volunteer aid worker who is caught up in the Indian heatwave and is forever changed by it.
Kim Stanley Robinson is a master of science fiction and whose thoughts are very much on the environmental and climate crisis that is facing us now and will have devastating consequences for the future he portrays. In New York 2140, he gave us a more straightforward and very effective account of the consequences of climate change. The Ministry for the Future is a far more ambitious, less straightforward novel that looks at ways in which the world is being changed and considers ways in which they might be tackled in the future – whether by global cooperation or by ‘Black Ops’. Mary Murphy’s job is to rally government and business leaders to the cause, working though compromise and promises, trying to keep her sense of purpose. Frank, on the other hand, has experienced first hand the devastation of the changing climate and his call for immediate action, his support of ulterior methods, is a powerful voice in Mary’s ear.
The beginning of the novel is one of the most powerful sequences I’ve ever read. We witness the Indian heatwave and Frank’s suffering. It is horrific and Kim Stanley Robinson’s superb writing makes it very clear to us how many millions of people have died. You can feel the heat. Almost. I think that this beginning is very difficult to follow and, for the rest of the novel, although there are other extraordinary sequences, I became less involved. The many chapters take different forms, there are lists, essays, speeches and ideas. I must admit to skimming some of these as they were quite dry, at least for my non-scientific brain, and I enjoyed most the sections which we spend with people, either experiencing the reality of climate change or trying to fix it to the best of their ability. Frank is a figure who pops up intermittently and points Mary, or us, in new directions, and makes the story feel human. Mary Murphy, though, is the principle character for me. She feels more realistic, more there as an individual and not to represent a point of view. I really felt for her
I cannot deny that I found The Ministry for the Future a challenging read. I listened to the audiobook, which had the appeal of having numerous actors narrate the many different roles. It was a bit confusing trying to keep up with who was whom, but I liked this. But it still felt difficult at times. Kim Stanley Robinson is one of those authors that I admire and respect enormously, whose books I often love but sometimes I don’t, usually when the message takes over the storytelling. Unfortunately, this is one of those books for me. But, nevertheless, I loved sections of it and it’s clearly impressive and preaches an essential message. I think, perhaps, my brain in these difficult times wasn’t up to this one!
If you want to read another review from a reviewer who clearly ‘got’ what this book is about and writes about it beautifully, please see David’s review at Blue Book Balloon.