Robyn Reviews: The Ministry for the Future

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Kim Stanley Robinson is a big name in sci-fi, best known for the Mars trilogy and 2312. His work tends to focus on ecological sustainability with a utopian rather than dystopian slant – less common in modern fiction. However, despite being a sci-fi fan, before picking up ‘The Ministry for the Future’ I’d never read any of his work. I’ll be interested to hear from other reviewers how this compares – the idea is fascinating, but the execution doesn’t have me completely sold.

‘The Ministry for the Future’ is established in 2025 in Zurich by the United Nations, an organisation aimed at conserving the future of humanity by battling the largest threat of the time – climate change. It brings together experts from around the world in various fields to tackle the problem from all sides – policy, economics, artificial intelligence, and direct action. However, the wheels of change are slow, and the effects of climate change are starting to be felt. The book follows the Ministry – primarily its leader, Mary Murphy – over decades, chronicling how the Earth might change and society might change with it.

The narrative style is what makes or breaks this book. It’s exceptionally factual, almost textbook-like. There are entire chapters dedicated to theory – of ecology, economics, engineering. Mary is the main character, but there’s still a level of detachment between her and the reader – and her chapters can’t make up more than a third of the book. The rest resolve through other perspectives – major characters, minor characters, unknown characters, even a carbon atom and a photon – and reels of information, regularly breaking the fourth wall to address the reader. As far as I can tell, much of the science is sound, although the feats of engineering are perhaps a little far-fetched for only happening ten or fifteen years in the future. However, it can be a hard-going slog reading multiple chapters of pure theory, especially when the characters remain superficial rather than pulling the reader in and making them care.

The major characters – Mary Murphy, Badim, Frank May – are all interesting, but very much characters. Mary always feels two dimensional. A career woman with no family (her husband died young), she moves between meetings and summits, taking breaks only to swim or wander aimlessly around Zurich. It’s hard to figure out what she cares about – if she’s even passionate about ecology and climate change – as she doesn’t seem to know herself. This may be a deliberate choice; an underlying theme in all of the characters is trauma and how this affects the psyche. However, this apathy can make her as hard to engage with as the reams of economic theory.

Frank is by far the highlight. The only survivor of a horrific heatwave, he suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s unstable and regularly makes terrible choices, but deep down he seems like a nice man – and he cares, which is enough to persuade the reader to care.

I am, by my own admission, a character-driven reader. The stories I love the most are those with intriguing, engaging characters – they don’t have to have a strong plot, just characters that feel real. This, with its carefully maintained distance from the characters, and arguably barely a protagonist at all beyond climate change, was never going to be a favourite. I think that some readers – especially those with a science background – will love this, but it’s very much a Marmite book. Recommended for fans of more complex sci-fi that emphasises the science over everything else and those looking for a bit of hope for humanity’s future.

Thanks to Orbit and NetGalley for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 8th October 2020

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