Some time after the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November and some time ahead of The High Sierra: A Love Story book publication in May, let's catch up on all things Kim Stanley Robinson -- mainly around his latest, The Ministry for the Future. And there's been a lot to report!
One change in my thinking came after finishing Red Moon, with the feeling I needed to go right to the heart of the story and not work on the margins any longer. (The moon is particularly marginal.) Another was the very strong impression that if, or when, people suffer a bad enough climate disaster, things will change. Then I began imagining a future history that felt real and yet ended up in some kind of “best case scenario” space — that was my challenge for this project.
There’s a category error in thinking that science is just part of capitalism. Calling people “elites” is now a way to attack them. The 1 percent, the people in power, are elites, but are scientists elites? Are university professors elites? Kind of, yes. The word masks a divergence of projects between people who are rich, who want to retain power, and therefore hire lawyers and lobbyists in order to keep their power by killing tax laws, but also experts, scientists, and technocrats who work to make things better.
The term “elites” confuses the issue, demonizing the experts who are absolutely necessary to the work of getting to a better place, as well as the reactionary forces, the people who only want to hold on to their riches for one more generation.
What needs to happen to make this a turning point for the world?
More awareness, more analysis, more flexibility. The creation of working political majorities in all the major economies, towards taking immediate, strong action in coordination with all other nations through the Paris Agreement. Central banks helping to concoct a new political economy in which money is moved away from carbon-burning activities into decarbonisation. All this will need to be led by the people telling their political representatives to do it. Resistance to all nativist authoritarian leaders encouraging tribalism and ignoring the climate problem; these forces are strong, and they need to be defeated.
KSR was interviewed by Vishnu Som for Be INSPiRED, an Indian documentary series by Teamwork Arts: Finding Our Place in the Universe -- about space exploration, his writing about India and more (YouTube video, Facebook video) -- a welcome international outreach for his work.
Literature exists to give our lives meaning. It's the stories we tell each other, and literature is the finest stories we have. [...] a kind of realism of our time will become climate fiction by default, because that's the overriding reality of the next few decades and fiction that tries to pretend that it's all about your individual problems without getting to the social and the planetary is a diminished form and not doing its job.
It's easy to think highly of one's self, but we do seem to be living in unprecedented times. KSR's latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, seems to have come at a perfect moment to address the converging crises of our times. Given its urgent and wide subject matter, MftF's readership has spread further than the usual circles of speculative fiction afictionados and into the world of current politics, op-eds, opinion pieces and highly-regarded mainstream media. Here is a glimpse of how this novel impacted the most important discussion of our times.
Announcement: the trade paperback edition of MftF is scheduled to be released on October 19, featuring an all-new cover (pictured above).
First, Kim Stanley Robinson's own articles and writings:
Also available on YouTube. This includes a transcript in 8 languages.
The question at that desperate point was: Could things change? [...] Looking back from our perspective 60 years later, this of course looks possible, because they did it. But it was by no means a sure thing. You have to imagine what it felt like at the time, when panic filled the air, and no one could be sure success was even physically possible.
In other words, the precarity and immiseration of the unemployed would disappear as everyone had access to work that gave them an income and dignity and meaning (one new career category: restoring and repairing wildlands and habitat corridors for our cousin species), but this would still be a bad thing for the economy. The economy, measured by profit, being the most important thing. More important than people.
Utopias exist to remind us that there could be a better social order than the one we are in. Our present system is the result of a centuries-old power struggle, and it is devastating people and the biosphere. We must change it—and fast.
What we’ll ask of cities in the climate era includes many contradictions, even some double binds. The climate city will need to be compact but with green space. It will have to be energy-efficient but also home to a great deal of industrial production. Instead of being carbon hot spots, belching out emissions, it would be better if cities were carbon-neutral heat sinks, helping to cool the planet. And while a good deal of agriculture and even animal husbandry should take place in cities, to help empty more of the country, our urban spaces should also feel pleasant and parklike for their human inhabitants.
Second, interviews. New interviews are so many, I will just list them here, chronologically, March to August:
LitHub's Amy Brady: How Contemporary Novelists Are Confronting Climate Collapse in Fiction: a Roundtable with Omar El Akkad, John Lanchester, Lydia Millet, Kim Stanley Robinson, Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Madeleine Watts, and Diane Wilson: part 1 + part 2
Finally, MftF was a finalist for the 2021 Locus Award for Best SF Novel and for the 2020 Kitschies Award (awarded for "the year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining fiction that contain elements of the speculative or fantastic").
This is the end of the links lists...for now. Coming up in the fall: KSR will be at the UNFCCC COP in Glasgow!
KSR's The Ministry for the Future has been out and has been making waves -- yes, Covd-19 was not a thing when it was being written but that doesn't mean that this near-term SF novel is not the most topical thing you are likely to read this year!
2020 would have been the year of two very important United Nations Conventions of Parties, one by the Convention on Biological Diversity and one by the Framework Convenion on Climate Change, five years after the landmark Paris Agreement; both have been pushed to 2021 because of Covid-19. As 2020 draws to a close, civilization again starts looking beyond the short-term crisis into the wider and longer-term threat of climate change and biodiversity loss. And Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry for the Future is there to synthesize the issue, make us feel interconnected, and make us envision a pathway to a better world.
Stan's regular column for Bloomberg Green continues, with "Slowing Climate Change With Sewage Treatment for the Skies", about biological and technological ways to suck carbon from the air:
The problem isn’t technical viability but the giant investment required to build something that may not yield a profit. There’s promise in developing liquid fuels made with captured CO₂ or turning the primary greenhouse gas into feedstock for various carbon fibers. But the amount of carbon we need to draw down far exceeds these industrial uses, and capital seeking the highest rate of return won’t get invested.
KSR's interview with Ezra Klein at Vox is a must-listen! Klein calls Ministry "The most important book I’ve read this year" and their conversation goes to the crux of Robinson's thinking and the significance of his work for literature and positive change. Klein summarizes:
This conversation with Robinson was fantastic. We discuss why the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism; how changes to the biosphere will force humanity to rethink capitalism, borders, terrorism, and currency; the influence of eco-Marxism on Robinson’s thinking; how existing power relationships define the boundaries of what is considered violence; why science fiction as a discipline is particularly suited to grapple with climate change; what a complete rethinking of the global economic system could look like; why Robinson thinks geoengineering needs to be on the table; the vastly underrated importance of the Paris climate agreement, and much more.
Everett Hamner conducted an extensive interview with KSR for the Los Angeles Review of Books: "Odd Couples, Carbon Coins, and Narrative Scopes". How to insititue change, the role of violence, the source of recurring character names in KSR's novels (like Frank or Charlotte), autobiographical parts in Green Earth, narrative modes, the narcissism of small differences in politics, the balance of power between politics and banks and money, religion, and more are discussed in a vivid intellectual back and forth. A small sample:
One change in my thinking came after finishing Red Moon, with the feeling I needed to go right to the heart of the story and not work on the margins any longer. (The moon is particularly marginal.) Another was the very strong impression that if, or when, people suffer a bad enough climate disaster, things will change. Then I began imagining a future history that felt real and yet ended up in some kind of “best case scenario” space — that was my challenge for this project. Then it seemed inevitable that chaos and violence were going to be part of the story. If I sometimes thought of it as a coming revolution, it still seemed clear it was also going to be a giant mess — all kinds of different revolutions at once, adding up to a violent set of spasms out of anyone’s control — something like Williams’s “long revolution,” narrated as a slurry. That struck me as accurate to how even a best-case scenario would play out, and it was also a formal challenge and opportunity, for game-playing in the novel as formal construct.
[...] Money is a public utility, banks are badly run credit unions, a nationalized bank system would make money into something you get access to for a fee that you pay to the public treasury — and so on, like that. This sounds weird until you reflect it’s almost like that already; it’s just been mystified by predatory rent-seekers pretending things are different in such a plausible way that current legislation tends to skew toward their interpretation of these large structures. Finance has been made so complicated that legislators turn to financiers to craft financial legislation, because the legislators are scared they don’t understand it. But good financial advice can come from the left as well as the right, and ultimately it’s still very simple — a power dynamic. And people seizing power from a privileged minority is the long arc of history. A better story changes politics, then laws.
[...] I’m interested in the Ur-religion of shamanism, which is probably over a hundred thousand years old, and came out of Africa when people did; and in all the ones you listed above, Buddhism in particular. And then also science as a kind of devotional practice that regards the real as a sacred object of study; isn’t that a religion? And when I’m in the Sierras I often feel something ineffable, some kind of holiness. I think almost everyone has these feelings, and not having them would be bad; it would constitute a kind of lack or crisis.
KSR was also interviewed by Rolling Stone! The result is a fast interview with much shorter sentences than the previous interview: "What Will the World Look Like in 30 Years? Sci-fi Author Kim Stanley Robinson Takes Us There". Select bits:
I am a leftist, an American leftist, and I’m saying just as a practicality that overthrowing capitalism is too messy, too much blowback, and too lengthy of a process. We’ve got a nation-state system and a financial order, and we’ve got a crisis that has to be dealt with in the next 10 to 20 years. So I’m looking at the tools at hand. Tax structures, sure. And essentially, I’m talking about a stepwise reform that after enough steps have been taken, you get to something that is truly post-capitalist that might take huge elements from the standard socialist techniques.
I love the Green New Deal. I love HR109 [the Green New Deal resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]. That’s really a smart document. It’s not naïve. It’s not primitive. It’s a fully articulated plan that takes in a lot of social elements that are very smartly done. So this is not a naïve crowd. There’s something hubristic about the phrase geoengineering, and it looks like a Silicon Valley techno silver-bullet fix that is against the grain of the total program that the left is insisting on, which I totally agree with.
In another interview for The Nation, "Kim Stanley Robinson Bears Witness to Our Climate Futures", Stan talks about California fires, the Coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter, and more. Select bits:
[On work and laboring in his novels] I think the right to work, the dignity to work, and the idea that it’s actually bad not to have work is a post-Marx or 20th century development. The bourgeois novel is famous for not being able to write about work because it’s too boring. The story of work is the repetition of things that ultimately go right, and only when things go wrong do you have a plot. The novel isn’t well suited to describe the repetition and the interests of work per se. In Red Mars, the idea of building a town has drama to it because it’s on an inhospitable new planet; the work can be described and be of interest as a plot. In Ministry for the Future, the work is everybody shifting their lives to decarbonization, and the technocracy of the ministry itself as a form of work. We’re all working on the project, part of the machine.
[On animal rights] For a long time, it’s been a very vexed topic for me. I’d say that there was a split on the left between environmentalists and human-centric leftists. The one side seemed to regard nature as just the raw material for humans, and that was incredibly anthropocentric, and the other was often accused of being a bourgeois ideology of people comfortable enough to worry about the natural world and the whales. So, on that divide I was always a green, but it seemed to me as a leftist, the two were the same. People talk about the European greens having red roots or there’s watermelon people who are green on the outside but red on the inside. This is to create a distinction that is just a bad split of two forms of anti-capitalism. And when you regard nature as our extended bodies, the first biosphere is the human being. For either to thrive, both have to thrive. Certainly for humans to thrive, the biosphere has to thrive.
Hightech/Highsnobiety has an original interview with KSR, a "Rorschach test of subjects to pontificate on", where KSR responds to key words: "The Science Fiction of Right Now". Sample:
My home state is a strange place. It’s some kind of culmination to American history, in that many people kept moving west until they had to stop. And where they stopped was a very unusual landscape with a great amount and variety of terrains and climates. A biological hot spot, even though it doesn’t have much water compared to places with more rainfall and what would be needed to supply the needs of its almost 40 million people. Its water is distributed around the state by way of a system, so you could say it’s a terraformed space.
Add to that a very strange history, including the original gold rush, Hollywood’s movie industry, and Silicon Valley’s computer industry — these combine to make for a freakish place, a magical name and idea in world history. Possibly all these blessings add up to a curse, but at least California will always have its Sierra Nevada, one of the great mountain ranges of the world and one of my favorite places to be.
Slate has a summary of New America event on November 10, with bits from KSR, Peter Schlosser (ASU) and Malka Older (SF author), "Imaging a “Future of Opportunity”—and Governing Toward It":
And to do so, said Robinson, we have to get creative in the ways we imagine and share our blueprints for the future.
“If storytelling itself is going to be adequate to this global situation that is beyond any one individuals’ comprehension,” he said, “then you have to just throw caution to the wind and try to make up new forms and tell stories that actually reflect this dynamic moment that we’re in.”
The December 2020 print edition of Locus has an interview with KSR: "Forward the Future". Some excerpts are available online:
Most of what I wrote about in The Ministry for the Future is already out there in the world. I did very little extrapolating of technology. The book’s plan for slowing down Antarctic glaciers is the idea of an individual glaciologist who shared it with me, telling me he didn’t want to talk in public about it because he didn’t want to get dragged into the geoengineering wars. [...] The other important part of my plot, the carbon coin, comes out of a paper I ran into online, by Delton Chen.
Book excerpt! Regen Network, an effort to align economics with carbon drowdown in land management (and on whose real-world work the list of initiatives in Chapter 85 is based on), has Chapter 80 available online -- farmers transitioning to regenerative agriculture and get paid in carbon coin for it.
Book clubs! As he did for New York 2140, Bryan Alexander is running a book club on The Ministry for the Future over several weeks, and Part 1 and Part 2 are already up; it comes recommended (twice!) by Joshua Kim at Inside Higher Ed, in the form of mini-reviews. And of course Matt and Hilary's podcast is continuing strong.
Reviews and recommendations in "Best of 2020" lists, both professional and semi-professional:
Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel, The Ministry for the Future, has now been published by Orbit Books! As with many KSR novels, it reads both like a commentary and expansion on previous novels of his, it is a wake-up call to action, and it is an experiment in literary form that goes hand in hand with the story it is trying to tell. Written before the pandemic, it feels prescient in its description of what promise to be dismal times -- but a better future is possible. In the book's periodization of history -- another KSR staple -- we are entering in the Trembling Twenties, before the zombie years and the Great Turn.
2020 being what it is, book promotion is done online, which has given plenty of opportunity for readers' direct interaction with Stan.
The featured video below is a Science and Fiction: Envisioning Climate Action: panel discussion of the novel with journalist/activist Naomi Klein, international environmental lawyer Cymie Payne, and environmental humanist Jorge Marcone, moderated by climate scientist Robert Kopp, hosted by the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, and the Rutgers Climate Institute at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.
Three more online events can be rewatched via crowdcast:
You can also listen to a facts-filled podcast interview with Stan at Fiction Science, by Alan Boyle and Dominica Phetteplace.
In print/online interviews, KSR talks about a host of things -- Ministry for the Future truly is a novel that talks about many things! -- climate science and policy, grassroots change vs high-level politics, writing about other countries as a US citizen, seeing hope through hard times, trying to keep writing fresh after so many novels, the mix of writing styles in this novel... Building on his reputation accumulated from all his career, Robinson speaks here as a writer but also as a public intellectual engaging in discourse about our times.
we could quickly shift from a capitalism to a post-capitalism that is more sustainable and more socialist, because so many of the obvious solutions are contained in the socialist program. And if we treated the biosphere as part of our extended body that needs to be attended to and taken care of, then things could get better fast, and there are already precursors that demonstrate this possibility.
I don’t think it’s possible to postulate a breakdown, or a revolution, to an entirely different system that would work without mass disruption and perhaps blowback failures, so it’s better to try to imagine a stepwise progression from what we’ve got now to a better system. And by the time we’re done — I mean, “done” is the wrong word — but by the end of the century, we might have a radically different system than the one we’ve got now. And this is kind of necessary if we’re going to survive without disaster. So, since it’s necessary, it might happen. And I’m always looking for the plausible models that already exist and imagining that they get ramped up.
The rest of the interviews are more or less chronological as they happened.
What I’ve been doing in my climate fiction is try to point out the ramifications that aren’t fully taken on by the culture that are really important to think about. And that’s been a way to sort out which story I want to tell. Climate change is a global story. It will last for centuries. It will affect everyone. So which story do you tell of all those literally billions of stories for billions of people? I’ve been trying to pick the stories that aren’t yet on the radar.
in figuring out a way to tell that story, I discovered what I think is a distinct genre, which is the eyewitness account, and that was a real find for me. There are collections of these eyewitness accounts, often clustered around some event (like the spring 1945 in Germany), although one is just called Eyewitness to History (it’s not very good compared to the more targeted ones). What I found is that eyewitnesses don’t dramatize their accounts like fiction writers would. They don’t give you dramatized scenes, in other words, but instead they offer summarized accounts, often made years later, so that a lot of compression happens, but key moments remain, and judgments are made, this is very important; the event is seen as important, and put into the context of the eyewitness’ subsequent life, and so on. In effect it’s telling not showing, and I like that very much; the workshop phrase “show don’t tell” is actually a very silly and simplistic instruction, and much bad fiction has come out of writing workshops because of people trying to enact this command. Eyewitness accounts are often vivid in ways a dramatized scene isn’t.
"The melange of forms was, for sure, part of the effect of how I thought I could make this book work as a novel that has a global reach, an attempt to take on everything at once, while still having the ministry story in Zurich." ... "For me, it was almost like channeling voices. We’ve got a refugee problem, we’ve got a climate problem, we’ve got a capitalist problem and a finance problem, and they all combine to an ungodly, wicked problem."
You give the central banks the idea that in order to stabilize money, which is their one and only project, then they have to save the world. There’s a certain comedy to that solution: ‘Well, we don’t want interest rates to go up, therefore we have to dodge a mass-extinction event, because that would be bad for interest rates.’ But that's how bankers think.
Twenty-twenty will be remembered as the year of the pandemic. Lots changed, and now we have lots of questions too: When will things “go back to normal”? Will they ever go back to the way they were before? If there are some permanent changes from this year, what will they be? No one can say now. So the moment we’re living through now is a kind of interregnum, the space between two moments with their respective structures of feeling. The in-between can be acutely uncomfortable but also a space of freedom as old habits have ended but new ones not yet been settled. Proust called this the moment of exfoliation, when you shed one skin and grow another. It’s not comfortable, but it is interesting.
I felt a deep kinship and love for Ursula K. Le Guin and Iain Banks, these two great utopian writers. They’ve died, and I do feel a bit lonely for my own generation. But I also see a lot of young writers coming up who call themselves solarpunk, or hopepunk, or the new utopians, and whatnot. They’re forming schools, they’re trying to get enthusiastic about improvising our way to a green future. I think they’re utopian, but perhaps a little bit outdated or scared by the term “utopia,” because it’s so often used as a weapon to mean “unrealistic and never going to happen.” So they make up different names. I’m glad to see these. I don’t think utopian fiction will ever go away. It’s like a necessary blueprint for thinking our way forward. So it seems like it’s a good time for utopian fiction.
I’m not so sure about this. I know it’s fashionable to say so, but I think it’s actually quite easy to imagine capitalism ending — by way of apocalyptic catastrophes, mass chaos and disorder, the collapse of civilization, and the beginning of a war of all against all. Dystopian literature, post-apocalyptic literature, these are all various ways of imagining capitalism’s end.
Of course, that’s not what people mean when they say that. It’s not that alternatives to capitalism are hard to imagine — you can write out a just and sustainable world constitution in half a day. And you can imagine civilization collapsing in a single bad dream. Now, in the middle of the current pandemic, and a really intense election and hopefully a change of administration, it’s easier than ever to imagine a collapse. What’s hard, I think, is imagining how we could get from our current situation into a better situation. People recognize that capitalism as world system blocks that transition, and given how entrenched it looks, it seems like there’s no realistic way forward, no bridge from our bad place over the next few decades to a better place.
In this situation, it’s important to remember that fossil fuels advocates and most of the power elite — the one percent, or even the richest ten percent — want this system to look entrenched and impossible to change. That helps them hold onto power and privilege for the rest of their lives, and after that, they don’t really care. This is my guess. So it’s important to resist that impression. In fact, the current order is unsustainable, and what can’t happen won’t happen, so some kind of change is for sure coming. Things could get worse, sure, but it’s also still true that things could get better. And that’s what we need to work on.
Bonus: In a rare appearance, KSR's editor at Orbit Tim Holman shared some thoughts on the new novel at Publishers Weekly!
Excerpts of the novel can be read online:
Orbit Books: Chapter 3 - the founding of the so-called Ministry for the Future
Excerpt from the audiobook (which features a main narrator and a larger cast!): Chapter 6
If you want more of KSR's writing, here are a couple of articles:
In his latest of his series of articles for Bloomberg Green, KSR talks of the concept of "wet bulb temperature" and the increased risk in the future of killer heat waves -- what happens in the opening chapter of the novel: "We Made This Heat, Now We Cool It".
This is what our global civilization has to organize itself to do. We could become a carbon-negative civilization in a couple of decades. Many methods for decarbonization already exist, and what can be done must be done, because the alternative is too dire.
Strelka Institute has included it in its reading list for the postgraduate program The Terraforming 2021, and The Guardian has included it in its list of books to "help us understand the world in 2020".
And, last but not least, Matt Hauske and Hilary Strang's 'Marooned! on Mars' podcast is covering the new novel in several installments!