Reading may be an ancient technology, but it is as powerful as it ever; it can change both minds and worlds. With The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson offers a novel that is terrifying, gripping, intimate and grand, but most importantly, effective. Centered around two compelling characters – Frank, the traumatized and transfigured survivor of a horrific disaster, and Mary, an Irishwoman in charge of the titular agency, The Ministry for the Future is epic in scope and ambition. And Robinson knocks it out of the park, using and expanding the form of the novel to ensure that the reader who finishes the novel is not the same person who started it.
The day after tomorrow, Frank finds himself in India helping the residents of one of the poorest regions. A climate-change inspired disaster unfolds, and rest assured that Robinson draws you in fast and hard. Life-changing climate-caused tragedies await us all, apparently. And thus are you swept into an ocean of adversity and optimism, with Robinson hosting a tour and a torrent of voices from a future that we are likely hard-wired for.
Taking a cue from John Dos Passos USA Trilogy, Robinson’s novel works on a both a huge and intimate scale. There are bits of the world sewn into the central fabric of the story. Hr gives voice to those on the sidelines, even an AI. As Frank and Mary whirl into one another’s orbits, the world around them continues the fall into the chaos we see around us at this moment. Robinson is an expert at deploying what some critics call an info-dump – a sort of detour into non-fiction embedded in the fictional story. In his hands, this becomes a masterful way of cementing his reader into his fictional world. We know these words to be facts. More importantly, he gives the information a huge emotional heft. It is clear that our lives depend on a better understanding of his world, our world.
The Ministry itself is dedicated to legally protecting and advocating for those who will live in the future. If what we do will result in the certain deaths of millions, are we their murderers? Is violence “…the only way to teach them common sense”? The greatest achievement here is Robinson’s ability to look directly into our hearts and find not just darkness, but light. He understands not just problems, but solutions. We are not doomed, but we will have to face reality, and do a lot of work. Fortunately, reading this novel is, of all things, fun. Robinson’s mordant sense of humor, his breathtaking skill, all combine to make this reading experience the kind of thrill that you can hold to your heart. This novel is a river; you enter it once, and when you emerge, neither you nor the novel wil ever seem, or see, the same.