A novel approach to climate change

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At the latest Critical Mass meeting in Adelaide I discussed cli-fi through the lens of two Kim Stanley Robinson offerings written 16 years apart.

 

The Ministry for the Future (2020)

The recently released The Ministry for the Future starts in the immediate future, with climate change impacts escalating but STILL so much inaction from the masses. 

This epic novel-cum-science masterclass then speculates on humanity’s possible actions and reactions in the crisis of our times – climate change – over the next few decades.

We mainly follow the eponymous international organisation as it advocates for future generations. But this lengthy tome packs so much more in. Each alternating chapter (and there are more than 100!) gives a different perspective or mini lesson. From the unsurprising – climate change victims, eco-activists, scientists – to the more cryptic – such as a photon, or “the market”.

The result is a vast work with much to take in. Robinson’s books are described as “Hard Science” and this is all on show here. It’s fun to read but also accurately factual and potentially realistic.

Opening with a bang, a near-future literal killer heatwave in India leaves millions dead. An event finally galvanising enough to stir India at least into serious action to fight climate change. Albeit with a controversial scheme deliberately polluting the atmosphere to spark a cooling event.

Initially I thought that setting the heatwave in India was a curious start, despite it being a fantastic dramatic scene, as it consolidated the idea of the “other” being affected, i.e. something the rest of us didn’t need to worry about. However, over the course of the book, with planes falling out of the sky, global financial markets altered, murder by drone, increased animal extinctions and so on, plenty of sorts of people get their turn.

Meanwhile, a lone survivor of the heatwave – Frank – is left suffering severe PTSD and feeling all-consumingly angry at the world that let this tragedy happen yet still does nothing. Frank stays with us for the whole novel.

Also with us throughout is Irish woman Mary, head of the Ministry of the title. 

These two characters intersect when Frank, desperate to create change, kidnaps Mary. This curiously ends up with them forging a lifelong bond, even when Frank ultimately gets arrested and imprisoned.

The overarching narrative covers Mary and Frank’s relationship, alongside the Ministry’s efforts over several decades. Initially the body struggles to enact any real change. Rather the biggest impacts come from eco-terrorists/activists: threatening mad cow disease contamination does effectively encourage reduced meat consumption! 

Ultimately The Ministry for the Future does find success by acknowledging action needs to be tied to the economy. Mini lessons along the way helpfully explain these more technical economic aspects. 

It is this distinctive stylistic format of interspersed information and chorus of perspectives that takes this book to the next level.

Although I admit that I went into this novel cold, and initially I was thrown by all these random, usually nameless, people and how they fitted in. But now you know to expect it!

There IS a lot to take in. Some reviewers have described this as an “info dump” and I can imagine it is too much for someone just looking for a novel to enjoy. But if you like your SF smart and with attention to realistic detail, this one’s a cracker!

Some details I particularly loved include:

  • Some great naughty ideas: how’s murdering billionaires for a climate management strategy!?
  • Some sensible ideas: banks turn over part ownership to the community when they get bailed out
  • Plenty, even a predominance of, wise and strong female leaders
  • Different ways of looking at things – Mary takes a five-day ship journey rather than a plane flight and manages to get lots of work done and enjoys it
  • Explanations of illogical human behaviour (e.g. why it’s normal to think this won’t affect us).

My main criticism is I would have liked further development between Mary and Frank. I felt there could have been more done with their unusual relationship.

Ministry…  is epic in scope, global in its coverage, original, educational and entertaining. It is an unashamed call to all of us to notice the seriousness of our collective situation.

But it’s also hopeful. Rather than an apocalyptic ending, this book role-plays the potential we have to make real change in realistic time frames. A highly recommended read.

 

Forty Signs of Rain (2004)

KSR has been at this for a while and back in 2004 he published the first book in his “Science in the Capital” series. This trilogy also focuses on looming climate change, with numerous perspectives including scientists, bureaucrats, political advisors, sea-rise refugees and flood victims. I discussed the first novel Forty Signs of Rain.

Set in Washington DC in the then-near-future, we follow three scientists on their frustrating journey trying to Save The World from escalating climate change.

Anna is a high level science administrator distributing grant proposals. This prompted much detail of the workings and limitations of grants and scientific funding. I found these details informative, plus I appreciated this smart and responsible female character. 

Charlie, Anna’s husband, is climate policy advisor to a Senator slightly interested in climate change (i.e. more than anybody else). But Charlie is also a hands-on-work-at-home-Dad to toddler Joe. There was much detail about the joys and difficulties of balancing a job and a toddler (which Robinson has real-life experience with; his wife is actually a scientist too). There was a great scene of Charlie addressing the President with sleeping Joe strapped to his back! Some reviews bemoaned this “Daddy day care” component but I found it refreshing and relatable.

Finally, Frank – another Frank! – works with Anna in grant allocation and has a background in research. Again more detail on these processes; I valued this but it may be too much for some. What I did find too much was a bizarre love-at-first-sight plotline for Frank… 

We also encounter a group of climate change refugees befriended by Anna. They have come to Washington to advocate for action as rising seas threaten their island home. I felt these islander characters were a little caricatured and created an “us” (Americans who will be OK) and “them” (poor brown people affected by climate change) scenario which is unhelpful. Although there are also Americans under threat – some rich bugger’s cliffside mansion is at risk of tumbling into the sea. But then it doesn’t!

The bulk of the novel follows the everyday life of these everyday heroes until a climatic tipping point is reached causing a catastrophic storm event in Washington.

I appreciated the use of a tipping point event as it illustrated the realistic scenario of everything seeming fine and climate change appearing academic, overblown or happening to others – then boom, within a few hours half of Washington is under water. 

Unfortunately, on reading this novel one could be forgiven for thinking it was alarmist about climate change as was written 17 years ago and did imply things would be much much worse by now if we didn’t take action – which we haven’t. This dilutes KSR’s message of the need for action. Good move then for him to escalate things with The Ministry for the Future!

The trilogy then continues Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting, which follow the main characters on their ongoing quest to save humanity from self-made climate disaster.

Other KSR books

Robinson has written other cli-fi works including:

  • 2312 (2012) and
  • New York 2140 (2017).

He is perhaps best known for his Mars Trilogy – Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars – chronicling the settlement of Mars by humans (i.e. not a “cli-fi” series).

In Conclusion

Any reader interested in climate change and the related science should consider adding Kim Stanley Robinson to their reading list. He is a master of the subgenre, hugely readable and highly scientific. Much more fun than reading a text book!

Ministry… is a powerhouse offering of information and perspectives combined with a roadmap of action and hope to counter the massive wake up call that KSR is shouting to the world. Most importantly, solutions seem doable BUT we do actually need to start doing things. There is a lot to take in. I will be giving this a reread to catch details missed the first time round!

In contrast, Forty… is a lighter, quicker read that combines the science of climate change with a more traditional narrative. This first novel in the trilogy stands alone well, however I personally am keen to see where it heads and am now working my way through the rest.

Kate Treloar is one of the owners of The Orchard Bookshop, currently in the Adelaide Central Markets. Not only do they have a nice selection of SF (new and used), but a wide range of other interesting titles.

 

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