Culture Magazine

Adam Roberts Reviews Kim Stanley Robinson's "Ministry of the Future" – Reimagining How We Think About the Future

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

He’s ambivalent:

It’s a righteous novel, and I’m a KSR fan of longstanding, so I expected to like Ministry of the Future. And I did, if only up to a point. Beyond that point I ... didn't, really. Nonetheless, I’d suggest, or I would if it didn’t just look perversely contradictory, that the very reason I didn’t much like The Ministry of the Future is actually an index of its success: its ambition, its throughline and above all its—well, it’s ministry.

He goes on, “fat book…thin on plot,” which is hardly surprising. The plot is strung between two poles, one located in the Ministry based in Zurich and the other in a clinic in Northern India. Lots of leaden dialog, lots of information dumps, plenty of future tech, some gee-whiz, some not so much. This is all standard book-review stuff and Roberts handles it very well. Where he shines, though, is in his final two paragraphs:

The negative way of spinning all this would be to say that this novel can be a dry read, sometimes positively drought-dry. There are stretches here which are, baldly stated, an effort for the reader to push through. But the positive way to spin it would be to see it as a novel not just about climate change, but about the kind of stories we tell ourselves about disasters like climate change. Those stories are, clearly, not helping. Take ‘eucatastrophe’, Tolkien’s term for a thrilling story in which disaster impends, becomes more and more inevitable and then is averted at the very last moment. It’s a real workhorse of storytelling nowadays, the eucatastrophe, especially in cinema. There is a threat to the whole world! Let’s imagine that as a singular, external thing: an asteroid on collision course, a huge invading alien spaceship. Then let’s draw out the approaching disaster and make it seem like it could never be overcome. Finally, bam: rabbit from hat, the hero saves the day at the last minute.

The Ministry for the Future is, in effect, saying: that’s a bad story—not bad in entertainment terms but bad in verisimilitude terms. It is saying: we are actually, right now, indeed facing a threat to the whole world, but it’s not a single thing it’s a complex and deeply-embedded function of human interrelation and social praxis. It’s not exterior to us, it is us. And it won’t be solved by a single heroic flourish in the nick of time. It will be solved by a congeries of difficult, drawn-out, collective labour, much of which is so inimical to ‘popular narrative’ that we dismiss it as boring. It’s not boring, though: it’s literally life-and-death. And so one part of our large, human task will be: to reconfigure the kinds of stories we are telling ourselves about disaster and how to avert it.

Notice that word, “verisimilitude”, used about a work of fiction pitched in the future, albeit the near-enough future, a future at least some of the readers of the book will live into.

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Check out KSR’s recent interview in The Jacobin:

I’ve steeped myself in the utopian tradition. It’s not a big body of literature, it’s easy to read the best hits of the utopian tradition. You could make a list, I mean roughly twenty or twenty-five books would be the highlights of the entire four hundred years, which is a little shocking. And maybe there’s more out there that hasn’t stayed in the canon. But if you talk about the utopian canon, it’s quite small — it’s interesting, it has its habits, its problems, its gaps.

Famously, from Thomas More (Utopia) on, there’s been a gap in the history — the utopia is separated by space or time, by a disjunction. They call it the Great Trench. In Utopia, they dug a great trench across the peninsula so that their peninsula became an island. And the Great Trench is endemic in utopian literature. There’s almost always a break that allows the utopian society to be implemented and to run successfully. I’ve never liked that because one connotation of the word “utopian” is unreality, in the sense that it’s “never going to happen.”

So we have to fill in this trench. When Jameson said it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, I think what he was talking about is that missing bridge from here to there. It’s hard to imagine a positive history, but it’s not impossible. And now, yes, it’s easy to imagine the end of the world because we are at the start of a mass extinction event. But he’s talking about hegemony, and a kind of Marxist reading of history, and the kind of Gramscian notion that everybody’s in the mindset that capitalism is reality itself and that there can never be any other way — so it’s hard to imagine the end of capitalism. But I would just flip it and say, it’s hard to imagine how we get to a better system. Imagining the better system isn’t that hard; you just make up some rules about how things should work. You could even say socialism is that kind of utopian imaginary. Let’s just do it this way, a kind of society of mutual aid. And I would agree with anyone who says, “Well, that’s a good system.”

The interesting thing, and also the new stories to tell if you’re a science fiction novelist, if you’re any kind of novelist — almost every story’s been told a few times — but the story of getting to a new and better social system, that’s almost an empty niche in our mental ecology. So I’ve been throwing myself into that attempt. It’s hard, but it’s interesting.


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