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:
- A Climate Change Q&A with KSR and Michael E. Mann, organized by Orbit Books. Mann is a climate scientist and is responsible, among other things, for the so-called hockey-stick graph and RealClimate.org.
- A Bookshop Santa Cruz Q&A with KSR.
- KSR & Johannah Blackman, organized by Jesup Memorial Library and A Climate to Thrive, Maine.
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.
I want to feature first his interview with Jacobin (a 10-year old magazine fostering intellectual debate on socialist ideas), with Derek O'Keefe: "Imagining the End of Capitalism With Kim Stanley Robinson"
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.
Interview with Nautilus, with Liz Greene: "Kim Stanley Robinson Holds Out Hope"
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.
Interview with Clarkesworld Magazine, by Arley Sorg: "Eyewitness to History's Future" -- also goes over his previous career
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.
Interview with Sierra Club, by Michael Berry: "Kim Stanley Robinson’s Got Ideas to Stave Off Extinction" -- also a review
"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."
Interview with Entertainment Weekly (yes, you read that correctly!), by Christian Holub: "How new novel The Ministry for the Future lays a blueprint for fighting climate change" -- includes comments on the novel and quotes from the above panel with Naomi Klein
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.
An excellent interview by novelist Eliot Peper: "Kim Stanley Robinson on inventing plausible utopias" -- Peper also writes 'climate fiction' (KSR recommends his Veil) and their exchange is very informative on how to approach real global-scale problems while keeping the writing interesting.
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.
Interview with Polygon, by Tasha Robinson: "We asked Kim Stanley Robinson: Can science fiction save us?" -- discusses utopian fiction and science fiction of the 60s and 70s that he likes
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.
Interview with the Chicago Review of Books, by Amy Brady: "A Crucial Collapse in “The Ministry for the Future”". About the saying 'it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism':
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
- Chicago Review of Books: Chapter 6 - a time of troubles
- Entertainment Weekly and Nautilus: Chapter 59 - Los Angeles
- 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.
For The Guardian, KSR offers his own suggestions of mostly non-fiction books that help better understand the world, from Earth's carrying capacity and geoengineering to finance and the structure of feeling (and Cory Doctorow and Jonathan Lethem): "'There is no planet B': the best books to help us navigate the next 50 years"
Finally, some reviews of the new novel:
- Publishers Weekly
- Erin Downey Howerton for Booklist
- J.R. Burgmann for the Australian Book Review
- Gary K. Wolfe for Locus Magazine (print); an excerpt here
- Valerie Thompson for Science Mag
- Laura Hubbard for BookPage
- Michael Berry for Sierra Club
- Kibby Robinson for The Nerd Daily
- Michael Svoboda for Yale Climate Connections
- Gerry Canavan for the Los Angeles Review of Books
- Tom Athanasiou for EcoEquity
- Bart Bormgans for Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it
- Goodreads page
And, last but not least, Matt Hauske and Hilary Strang's 'Marooned! on Mars' podcast is covering the new novel in several installments!
You can discuss and comment on the new novel on the dedicated forums in this site!
Enjoy the new novel, if you are a US citizen exercise your rare opportunity to vote, stay safe, and stay tuned for the next Ministry for the Future-themed list of links!...