The Messiah & The God-Emperor of Zurich: a review of Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Ministry for the Future"

Posted on Wed 20 March 2024 in misc • 32 min read

Ministry for the Future

As someone deeply interested in Solarpunk and climate fiction in general, I encountered a lot of recommendations of "The Ministry For The Future" by the esteemed science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson (later: KSR). The endorsements came from activists, academics, writers and game designers, programmers and climate entrepreneurs: everyone around me seemed to be impressed with the book. It is said to draw a comprehensive, grim, realistic, and yet still optimistic trajectory of our civilization towards a better, sustainable future past the Climate Catastrophe. The author consulted it with over 40 scientists, activists, and conservationists who made sure that "The Ministry…" presented us with a grounded vision.

I started reading it deeply intrigued and hopeful, impressed by the scale and scope of the book, stunned by the rawness of the first chapters. However, as I turned the pages, I quickly stopped in my tracks: I realized that "The Ministry…" is very different to what I assumed it is, to what my friends described when recommending it to me.

I struggled to continue, clenching my teeth, running into really problematic and painful descriptions of issues I had first-hand experience in, seeing them completely misrepresented or handwaved. I started having cognitive dissonance; it cannot be the same "Ministry…" as my friends read, can it?

In order to power through the book, I decided to create a little thought experiment which I now welcome you to try with me. Let’s imagine that there are two books written by KSR:

"The Ministry for Sustainability" would be the imagined climate fiction epic, unanimously recommended to me by my friends. It would be exactly the masterpiece it was described to be, tackling the biggest questions of our future, responsibly discussing what we should expect and painting a better world that we can strive towards. Since it differs so much from what I read, I want to treat it as some kind of platonic ideal of a climate fiction masterpiece, further referring to it as the "...Sustainability" or just the "masterpiece".

Let’s then imagine that "The Ministry for the Future" that I actually read is not the masterwork that my friends endorsed. Instead, it’s KSR’s next book, a self-aware caricature of his "own" masterpiece, a satire on neoliberal economy, on (not so) subtle racism, on techno-solutionism and on Global North exceptionalism, penned to expose our invisible biases - and what is impossible to imagine in modern popular culture.

Only this imagined split allowed me to finish reading the "Ministry…" - and it still took me 3 years and a lot of willpower.

Over the course of the review I will keep comparing the two books: the perfect, imagined "...Sustainability" that I keep hearing about, and the satirical "...Future" I ended up reading. It will contain extensive spoilers.

A good book should start with an earthquake

Both books start off with the same traumatic chapters describing a heatwave descending on India, killing millions with its wet-bulb temperatures. The descriptions are gory and distressing, allowing us to see the very real consequences of the Climate Catastrophe we're facing. The localized nature of the disaster, leaving almost no one alive in a whole province spanning several cities and millions of people, is a very intentional thought experiment by KSR. It lays ground for a huge political and cultural polarization of India, allowing it to completely change its government (and governance), economy and infrastructure, spearheading the sustainability revolution worldwide.

The concept itself - while I do not wish it upon anyone - is fascinating. Seeing how historically many cultures were able to shake off their stagnation only as a result of war or a tremendous disaster, maybe a highly localized, traumatic event could change our outlook on the Climate Catastrophe as well.

In those first chapters, however, we don't follow any Indian character but Frank May, an American aid worker withholding water from those in need1, which (together with a healthy dose of luck) allows him to survive the heatwave. It also leaves him with tremendous survivor's guilt.

Choosing a privileged white American main character in both books is a very interesting choice by KSR. In the masterpiece, it allows the reader to start within their known territory, to experience the world naively and mature together with Frank, who gradually sheds misconceptions about the Global South and international cooperation. Writing such a character is not easy, which the parody plays right into with a lot of self-awareness, falling into each and every trope and pitfall we could expect.

India - where the books split

The theme of India being a nation, or rather a culture spearheading the sustainable revolution and leading by example is the backbone of both books. What differentiates them is handling the perspectives and plots relating to it.

The rightly-acclaimed "...Sustainability" firmly places the camera in India and allows us to see the social changes from personal, communal and societal perspectives. We follow the characters dealing with shock, processing their traumas, building the courage to oust their oil-supporting, self-serving politicians and being brave enough to prototype different kinds of futures, unimaginable before the disaster. The later introduction of some UN and IMF figures struggling to understand the non-liberal-capitalist approaches only emphasizes the contrast between what we take for granted now and what we will need to make our tomorrow sustainable. Seeing how KSR is able to smoothly integrate different aspects of many Indian cultures, the complexities of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, along with the uneasy background of the caste system into his story makes me wish more authors did their research so thoroughly.

Building on that monumental perspective, the "...Future" uses a very self-aware trick of just not caring about the changes in India, choosing to follow the UN and IMF-affiliated characters instead. Every few chapters they read some dry report about what those rebels came up with, a few times they even fly there in person to congratulate the revolutionaries, but are much more preoccupied with meeting bankers and enjoying their office parties in Zurich (more on that later).

The genius of KSR's approach here lies in highlighting something very vital, and yet omitted in other climate fiction: It's not that the social, economic, infrastructural changes aren't happening all around the world, it's just that the West doesn't really care about them. The author doesn't have anyone arguing against the Indian approach, because that would already require acknowledging it. Thanks to that we can fully see and analyze the willing blindness of people staffing organizations like the UN, World Bank and the IMF - even if it takes a little more context for someone not used to such subtle narratives.

Processing trauma

In-between the "main" chapters propelling the plot forwards (India in -Sustainability, Zurich in -Future) we come back to the character of Frank May, the deeply traumatized activist and one of the few survivors of the heatwave.

"...Sustainability" uses the American activist as a character study of a self-perceived white savior meeting a gallery of other people and communities, both in India and around the world. He's met with a variety of emotions, from hatred and disdain (for being the one who survived, even more so after his water theft becomes apparent), through pity or indifference, all the way to understanding and acceptance. His chaotic, yet purposeful journey allows us to see more people working towards the change and slowly healing the immeasurable trauma. KSR's masterful strokes show us a stark contrast between misguided, individualistic attempts to process Frank's experiences and a true restoration he can only find by becoming part of a community (like the one in the refugee camp). He eventually becomes a kind of a networker, connecting multiple groups and communities, allowing them to seamlessly work together and translating cultural differences between them. It’s a necessary role in a truly sustainable world, similar to what organizations like the real-life Global Innovation Gathering are doing today.

"...Future", on the other hand, shows its brilliance in translating Frank's chapters almost one-to-one with a completely different perspective. The activist is locked in his trauma and individualism, unable to connect to anyone despite multiple attempts at psychotherapy. Each of his attempts to join some initiative or a community is fruitless. He even starts a family (in a white-savior mode, to save someone from a refugee camp), but quickly abandons it, aimlessly drifting around. He is never really challenged for being a survivor - all his guilt comes from inside - but he struggles with a lot of anger. He tries to join a terrorist organization (which turns him down for being white, more on that later) and eventually kills a random person.

The theme of Frank being some kind of "connection" between different worlds is present in both books. The "...Sustainability" portrays him as someone matured and scarred, ready to listen to different perspectives and mediate between very different groups.

The "...Future" turns this upside down by having Frank be a "voice of conscience" of Mary, the head of the Ministry by kidnapping her and begging her to do something. A northern-savior stand-in for the voices of unseen billions suffering from the Climate Catastrophe. It's only at this point that we realize that the characters of the "...Future" have no meaningful relationships to the characters from the Global South, or even outside of the UN elites. Frank - an American scarred by climate trauma - is then the only way to truly empathize with the non-Westerners whose agency remains invisible to the neoliberal discourse. Another subtle, and yet audacious stroke by KSR, gently nodding towards The White Man’s Burden.

Spending a few chapters as a fugitive, Frank is eventually arrested and put in prison - a luxurious, comfortable prison, like everything in Zurich. He is sometimes visited by his abandoned and faceless family he can never relate to (they're not white or even Northerners). The only true connection he finds is Mary, the head of the Ministry he kidnapped before - who seems to relate to him spiritually, taking him for long mountain hikes (working like product placement, promoting Swiss tourism to the readers).

In the final chapters of the book, Frank finds a community in a local co-op housing, making some friends we never see - "...Future" treats communities as something impossible to imagine and describe. Eventually, Frank dies of brain cancer, which conveniently guilts Mary and the Ministry into introducing a single law to solve the refugee problem, which hasn't occurred to them before.

Only in the very last pages of the book do we learn that nothing is really solved, because in the 2040s the refugees are still struggling to find footing in the countries that accepted them, devoid of any contacts or social networks, still discriminated against by officials and far-right movements alike.

I honestly wouldn't know how to read Frank, his struggles, and especially the painful last chapter about the refugees if it wasn't for the direct contrasts with the masterpiece. Each story beat and theme seems to be there, but it's somehow inverted and ridiculed; the inability of a Western reader to imagine a Global South person with any agency is so painfully visible.

Even contrasting the very last moments and their emotional reading is masterful. The "...Sustainability" ends the refugee plot with a vibrant sense of solidarity across the regions and social groups, with new traditions of welcoming and supporting the new arrivals, while still acknowledging how we could do more. The "...Future" on the other hand pretends to "solve" the problem by making it an economic decision from above - and then ignores all the consequences on the human scale, telling the refugees to go get a job.

Social change on all and every level

What is possibly the most meaty and groundbreaking aspect of "The Ministry for Sustainability" is its focus on communities, activism and social change. Considering the plot spanning decades, and the space of only one book - not a whole series - we can see the beauty of old social systems changing or collapsing, replaced by the sustainable structures we need to push forward. Every economic decision of the distant UN / IMF / World Bank giants ripples and influences the lives of every single person and we can see that, appreciating their drive for agency and more horizontal power structures.

I'm still not able to say which chapters of the masterpiece I love the most: the total upturning of the old order in India, Frank's painful-but-inspiring encounters with activists around the world, or the small vignettes of social action from all across the globe. KSR did a splendid job incorporating existing organizations and projects into the plot, allowing us to appreciate the multitude of initiatives and struggles we need to get to a better future.

Frank's naive western perspective is used as a wonderful plot device, contrasting with what he finds on the ground, especially in the refugee camp chapters. When he visits the camp for the first time, he expects to be some kind of a powerless but noble white savior among stagnant, traumatized and burned out people. I think many readers were as shocked as Frank himself when he realized that the camps are full of social programs, therapy sessions and technological innovation organized by the refugees themselves, with only a little coordination from outside. I really appreciate mentioning organizations such as the r0g_agency doing actual work on the ground and treating the camp inhabitants as equals, not just clients.

I can also fully understand how the chapters set in the West could be uncomfortable to a lot of readers, going far past non-violent protests or even clashing with the police, openly criticizing institutions we take for granted and building parallel infrastructures, like the ones based on German Freifunk.

"...Sustainability" does a brilliant job showcasing those small, grassroots, independent movements as the real engine for the change. It depicts their trajectory from being invisible and ignored by the Big Players over their heads - through conflicts, hostile takeovers, greenwashing - all the way to their acceptance and re-drafting the social contracts and even constitutions of their societies.

"...Future" takes the exact same themes and again flips them over as a really creative social commentary of what is impossible to even imagine in our western, neoliberal societies.

With most of the Indian chapters cut out or just summarized, we're mostly left with the voyages of Frank - this time not as a networker showcasing different communities, but a solitary white savior burning out in one context after another. His expectations of the passivity of the refugees are played straight (which might be surprising and very boring if you can’t compare it to the masterpiece).

The same goes for every unrelated vignette: we can only see people, especially in the Global South, passively responding to changes ordained by the World Bank, IMF, UN or the Powers That Be. A dull farmer surprised that they can get money from the fancy city people for "farming dirt" (one of the carbon drawdown initiatives) really rubs this in: the enlightened West is the only moral actor capable of saving the unknowing savages from the Climate Crisis.

The only criticism I would have for this aspect of the KSR's satire is the lack of focus on the Northern grassroots. After chapter 55, which features a failed "revolution" in France, we don't see much action in the West until the implementation of the government-ordained rewilding programs in the US. I understand that the author wants to emphasize how unimaginable social change would be for a Westerner, but he did a much better job with India: having even the titular Ministry acknowledge it, then totally ignore its significance.

The "...Future" presents all indicators of social change as dry reports read by the members of the Ministry, but never dwells deeper. Creating a huge social network, overturning old currencies and business models, limiting and then effectively banning air travel are just things that happen, with no real feedback, protests, or far-reaching ripples in our cultures and societies. The eternal Switzerland stays the same.

What might be possibly the biggest stroke of satirical genius (or just an unwillingness to delete so much content from his masterpiece) Kim Stanley Robinson dedicates a whole chapter (#85) of the "...Future" to a comprehensive list of organizations who helped create a better world. What we saw in action in the "...Sustainability" is just a dry list here (hey those Kenyans and Colombians did something too I guess), which is just such a masterful caricature of many Western conferences and "inclusivity programs".


Both of the books are equally peppered with tiny "chapters" of flash-poetry, often in a form of a riddle, or nearly spiritual question posed to us by a photon, a molecule, or an unseen societal force.

I love how "...Sustainability" chooses to showcase a lot of values normally unknown to an average Western reader, such as the Ubuntu philosophy, introduce us to communal economic traditions such as the East African Chamas and surprise us with an insightful take on community forming, such as the Tyranny of Structurelessness.

Again, the "...Future" mirrors them almost one-to-one, but in addition to a few worthwhile concepts we get flooded with riddles about markets, the value of money and more. It brilliantly lulls us into expecting that the markets have all the answers we need, sans one:

(...) I am the key that locks the back doors by which wrongdoers try to escape the scene of the crime. I am the nothing that makes everything happen. You don’t know me, you don’t understand me; and yet still, if you want justice, I will help you to find it. I am blockchain. I am encryption. I am code. Now put me to use.

How is this not a masterful parody of techno-solutionism2?

Racist hurricanes and forest fires

You could argue that one cannot write climate fiction without some disasters. Not just those drawn out in months and years, but a sudden flood, forest fire or something equally dramatic.

KSR decided to include those events in his books even if they happen outside of where the camera normally stays. We get quite a few smaller chapters describing a community facing a disaster completely destroying their homes and livelihoods. It keeps us on our toes, reminding us of the stakes, but it never gets to the point of the very first chapter and the Indian heatwave.

Despite its satirical outlook, "...Future" doesn't negate those events and presents them as destructive. KSR's pen is a little more subtle, playing with our Western biases: every time a disaster strikes in the Global North, only a few people die. Individualistic capitalists not caring about their communities somehow start working together, the crumbling infrastructure of (checks notes) Los Angeles proves... superior...? The civilization triumphs.

Meanwhile, the chapters set in the Global South? Oh boy, those poor fellows, all dead. Or fled to the North as refugees. If anyone survived, it's thanks to the UN, or whichever Western government that liberated the slaves, sent aid, etc, etc. We don't see anyone in the South forming support networks, creating makeshift infrastructure, or having any kind of agency.

The neoliberal narratives we can stomach don't have any place for Southern agency in them.

Clean, white hands

Kim Stanley Robinson does not shy away from exploring really hard topics like the role of violence and eco-terrorism within societal transformation. The openness of his approach caused quite a big controversy, to the point of a mysteriously malfunctioning microphone during one of his panels at the University of Zurich.

The "...Sustainability" welcomes us to a multi-faceted exploration of different forms of violence, its targets, perpetrators and consequences both for the individuals and communities. It gives us a quick overview of the history of civil rights movements worldwide and illustrates the mechanisms of backlash from the states, now armed with both physical and online surveillance tools. I think that writing the characters' and communities' decisions as ambiguous and leaving the reader with some open questions was a really thoughtful and grounded choice.

Having said this, the inclusion of outright violence, terrorism and assassinations (one even described in-depth) in the "...Future" was quite surprising to me, as I fully expected it to go with a neoliberal status quo all the way. The satirical book replaces the deep character studies and hard questions with a straw-man-y terrorist organization killing the world's oligarchs and shooting down planes - with absolutely no backlash from any world's government or InterPol.

It took me a longer moment to process KSR's narrative on violence. Why does a satirical book assume that the violence is necessary, and yet presents it so... cartoonishly? How does that criticize the current status quo?

Then I realized: (almost?) none of the characters committing violence is white - or a Westerner. Most of them come from India (see, they are doing something in this book after all!). Every time any kind of civil disobedience is described in the North, it's non-violent and fleeting, just a symbol of protest. When the police ask insistently enough, they eventually go home.

The civilized, Western kind of violence becomes even more cartoonish to stay within the PG-12 rating of neoliberal discourse. One of the chapters of "...Future" describes a mysterious coordinated attack on The World Economic Forum in Davos, which becomes completely cut off from the outside world, with all the billionaires, bankers, governmental officials and lobbyists kidnapped and at the mercy of the assailants.

Is this the site of a massacre? No! The distressed 0.01% are treated humanely, asked to watch some movies about the planet dying and starving children suffering, then let go with a warning. No poisons, no tracking chips, just... a stern talking-to. Surely this will change their minds!

The educational materials we were exposed to got universally bad reviews. So many clichés! First films of hungry people in poor places. It wasn’t quite like looking at concentration camp footage, but the resemblances were there, and these images were of living people, often children. It was like looking at the longest charity advertisement ever made. We booed and made critical comments, but really the 2,500 most successful people in the world did not get to that status by being stupidly offensive.

The police and military laying siege seemed to get the same note about the PG-12 rating of this chapter, as no one of the mysterious terrorists was really pursued.

Then the services starting breaking down. In particular the plumbing stopped working, and we had to improvise a system for relieving ourselves. Shit! Poor Davos! There was no recourse but to head out into the woods and do it.

I have to admit that this was one of the most thinly veiled pieces of satire within the book, which made me wonder if anyone could read "...Future" with a straight face.

The subtlety came back in the following chapters, where it takes us a good while to realize that all of the main characters are white, privileged Northerners - with the exception of one of the Ministry's employees, an Indian, who luckily turns out to be the mastermind behind the terror plots.

No blood on white hands.

Meanwhile the different kind of violence perpetrated by the Ministry, the UN, IMF and the World Bank remains unseen. We don’t see the lethal effects of so many austerities, artificial scarcities and economic wars, as the bloodied Hand Of The Market remains invisible.

In Economy we trust

I feel that the Economy themes in both books are very uneven. With its finite number of pages the "...Sustainability" does its best to present the social and infrastructural consequences of a lot of projects, such as Global Carbon Reward (and how it can be gamed), Modern Monetary Theory, the proliferation of the Mondragon cooperatives or the evolution of the Global South traditions and institutions, like the East African Chamas and Saccos. You can feel that it just scratches the surface, showing us a few trends as studies of live communities, yet it's honest in not pretending to have any of the Big Answers, or maybe not even claiming that any of them exist.

The occasional chapter showing the perspective of the Ministry (with its economists trying to make sense of any of the data they see) is just a beautiful example of bias and bad modeling in economy, which later leads to a beautiful culmination of creating more open and citizen-oriented tools to analyze the myriad of factors, independently from any single organization.

The grimmest chapters of the "...Sustainability" since the opening trauma describe the corporate warfare and assassinations of the labor leaders around the world. Knowing how easy it would be to write it in such a way, I really appreciate how KSR doesn't put blame on a single exec or politician. Instead, he shows us how the hierarchical structures of the megacorporations naturally promote psycho- and sociopaths optimizing for profit and profit only.

Yet again, the "...Future" flips the whole narrative on its head. With a strong focus on the Ministry and the way it sees the world, most of the plot revolves around pushing this or that proposal to the pertaining banking, national, international body. We essentially never see the actual effects of the regulations, austerities and bailouts.

KSR rightfully satirizes the obviousness of our current approach, where we must make sure that the international oil giants always find more work, government subsidies and grants, instead of being - say - nationalized and liquidated. That's how Shell, BP and the militaries of the world start working together pumping water from under the sliding glaciers onto the top of them to re-freeze. The reader never gets a moment to ask themselves: what will happen when they... solve the problem? Won't they be incentivized to sabotage the sustainability effort to keep their business?

The Mondragon cooperatives are still mentioned in the "...Future", but they're too communal to pay them any attention. Instead, we dedicate all our focus towards MMT and Global Carbon Rewards - or rather, Blockchain in general - which are Mathematically Correct and Work Flawlessly™, with no drawbacks, no social implications.

By the end of the "...Future" the satire becomes a little more vulgar, as giants like Amazon fail in the span of paragraphs, with no death throes or social unrest. They just stop existing. For the corporations that persist, the mathematical magic of Blockchain and the Carbon Coin makes them Good™2, removing all economic incentives for lobbying or manipulation. I had a feeling that Kim Stanley Robinson either got tired of parodying our blind belief in the economy, or just wanted to slap the few people who did not get the already thinly veiled joke.

The best climate tourist destination: Zurich

Having ignored India and other countries spearheading the green revolution, KSR spends what feels like 30-40% of his parody in the biggest city of Switzerland.

And what a city it is! Every time we go back to the character of Mary, we get a recommendation of some cafe or restaurant, complete with its special dish or drink and a detailed description of how to get there by tram (sadly, no OpenStreetMaps links in the ebook). The staff of the Ministry often visits them, discussing their favorite spots in-between reading reports on the impending doom and millions dead.

At one point Frank visits Zurich as a fugitive, hiding from the police, but even he cannot resist coming to a cafe and listening to a meeting of a local sustainability club:

The Swiss were extremely regular in their appearance, but then on consideration Frank realized that this was basically true everywhere. The meeting began on time, of course, and it had a schedule that was gotten through briskly. Frank’s German was not up to the task, and this was Schwyzerdüütsch to boot, so he was completely lost and could only pretend to be comprehending, but no one seemed to notice. Their guttural looping sentences were calm, and they laughed pretty often. When they saw he was there, and that there were some other Ausländer there also, they summarized their proceedings in quick rough English. He liked the feel of the meeting, nothing dogmatic or virtuous about it, just people pursuing a project; something between a committee meeting and a party planning exercise. Like the local Swiss Alpine Club, no doubt, and in fact when he asked about that, he found that many there were in both clubs.

Did I mention the splendid, wonderful swimming clubs with access to the lake, for just a small monthly fee? Have you ever marveled at how clean Zurich is? How masterfully planned? What an aesthetic dream it is, tastefully mixing the old with the new, all under the beautiful watch of the Alps.

I don't know if the book got any official sponsorship from either Switzerland or the city of Zurich, or if KSR decided to just treat it with some absurd levels of "click here and subscribe!", but the satire does its job very well. I was honestly surprised that the book didn’t come with a set of coupons to some of the cafes and tourist attractions! When one of the characters is faced with tragic personal news, her internal monologue reads:

Switzerland. Think about how this little city-state of a country had gotten by in the world. In part it had been by accepting each other despite their differences. Some clever rules and a few mountain passes, both now irrelevant to power in the world; really it was just a system, a method. An old hoard and a way of getting along. The faces watching her now, their strange fairness, their insistence on some kind of justice for all. Some kind of enlightened self-interest, the notion that Switzerland was safest when the whole world was safe. Really very odd, this culture; and right now she wished with all her heart that it could conquer the world.

Just stop for a moment and think about the genius of this approach: the employees of the Ministry are well aware that there are countries actively saving the world by example and choose not to think about them, instead wishing for one of the most stereotypically greedy countries to take over the world. The solution is right there, in a report on your desk, but you choose to give your life to the banks and vaults in the Alps.

If this paragraph doesn't make us question everything about our civilization, what could?

Progress is inevitable, the plot doesn't need an engine

What really shines through in both of the books is Kim Stanley Robinson's mastery over weaving the worldbuilding and pacing and his awareness of how absurdly it can be subverted.

"...Sustainability" centers the plot in India, weaving in Frank visiting seemingly unrelated communities and peppering in some vignettes. Only when Frank starts seriously dealing with his trauma and becomes a networker between different groups and organizations, we start seeing the sub-plots weave into a coherent braid, with their successes and struggles serving as a dramatic heartbeat of the whole book.

The cathartic - and partially unexpected - culmination at the 58th COP made me shed a tear, as Frank visited and recognized so many of the old friends he thought lost. While it's not exactly what Jeff Gomez calls a collective journey, I could really feel that the main character of the "...Sustainability" is not only a community, but a global collective of communities building a better world.

Having constructed such a dramatic masterpiece, KSR easily deconstructs it in the "...Future" by removing the plot engine. Despite each of the satirical chapters being written equally well as the masterpiece, there are no story beats, no overarching structure; things just happen without any kind of drive, sense of progress or goal. I don't think a lesser writer would be able to transform such an empty structure into something you can still semi-pleasantly read, but KSR nails just that.

Frank stumbles from one place (not community) to another, Mary pushes the Ministry to beg bankers to change their ways, some city gets flooded, some terrorists attack something, the Ministry gets attacked, Mary needs to escape and then come back, someone dies, some consequences of something happens. Then the world is saved! Mary and the Ministry can retire in Eternal Switzerland, their neoliberal duty to the Status Quo™ fulfilled.

I haven't read any other book so openly parodying our convictions about the Unstoppable March Of Progress with its very structure. If we didn't need "...Sustainability" so badly as a signpost of where to go, I would be tempted to call the "...Future" a more masterful book just for this self-aware mockery.

Structurally, there is only one moment in the "...Future"’s plot which clearly reads as a breaking point, where the world changes: it's the introduction of the Blockchain by the Swiss banks. It clearly divides the book in the "no can do" epoch and "everything is being fixed" epoch.

Robo-quantum-nano-technologies: social edition

After putting all the heavy research into unintended consequences and social contexts of the technical- and structural solution in his masterpiece, KSR decided to have a little more subtle fun in the parody.

Most climate fiction readers have enough scientific background to know that there is no deus ex machina saving us from the Climate Catastrophe. Even the most postmodern and neoliberal discourses begrudgingly accept that magical quantum nanorobots will not terraform the Earth into a capitalism-friendly planet.

Where a lesser writer would struggle, KSR decided to take his parody even further. Even if we can spot obviously unrealistic engineering technologies, can we do the same with social and economic ones?

The Ministry for the Future copies the "...Sustainability"'s cautious and science-based proposals for mega-projects and engineering feats, lulling us into thinking about it as a hard science fiction, a straight path from today into a sustainable future.

Instead, it proposes magical solutions for our social and economic problems, making late-stage capitalism, advanced financial instruments and national politics fully compatible with a sustainable planet! The book, which already made social change unimaginable and invisible, replaces it with a simple, frictionless tool to Make Capitalism Good: Blockchain.

KSR takes the idea of Global Carbon Reward, whose unintended consequences he discussed in the first book (and which inspired other titles, like L. X. Beckett's Gamechanger) and makes it into a robo-quantum-nano holy grail. Once the Carbon Coin Blockchain is implemented, the whole capitalism starts working towards the good of the planet. No one is trying to game the system and all the banks and governments accept it wholeheartedly, no matter their geopolitical, religious or cultural differences.

The "...Future" presents no real debate about translating existing capital or control over resources into Carbon Coins, it just works™. Blockchain - criticized and challenged dozens of times in our real world - makes everything in the world of the book transparent, accessible and equal without the climate-breaking power consumption of the real thing. No one protests the end of the cash, no one finds a way to bypass the ledgers or launder money. There are no splits in the chain.

And since the Blockchain™® works so well, other global technologies in the book's world are built on top of it, like the Ministry's own social network! It doesn't mention debates over privacy; the right to delete content from an immutable chain; the complexities of moderation in different cultures and legal systems. The robo-quantum-nano magic just works.

As with other themes, Kim Stanley Robinson's parody of techno-solutionism gets so heavy-handed that even the most Blockchain-loving reader must take it as obvious satire. The man got to the point of including a poem about the Chain within his book. That is some real dedication.

I'm deeply grateful for this aspect of the Ministry, so often omitted in other climate fiction books. Given how our current neoliberal narratives make us blind to other social orders or economic structures, showcasing how gullible we can be if the snake oil is just a little subtler is truly a gift.

The Messiah & The God-Emperor of Zurich

I have to admit that I wasn’t able to spot all the subtleties and symbols within the "Ministry…" myself - I missed all the references to the Dune series by Frank Herbert! Luckily, Marcin Zaród, a brilliant sociology of science researcher pointed some of them out in his academic review3:

Dune, as the whole cycle, may have been written as conservative-ecological criticism of reign of JFK. "Ministry" may have, at least in declarations, completely opposite objective. Yet both books mirror each other in ecology-religion-politics triangle. Politics is not for the polity, masses get the religion and if they are lucky, they may have a benevolent "Éminence grise" on their side. In the case of "Dune" it was a white saviour, prince-poet and wizard. In the case of "Ministry" it is Mary, institution of the Ministry. Mary and ministry also have semi-conscious supercomputer that is Machine-God in any function but for the name.

It looks like at some point of reading the book, overwhelmed by the blatant disregard for communities and democratic mandate of the change-makers, my brain just switched off. I did not consciously register that the Ministry manufactured its own religion, cynically controlling the population, denying the masses not only the agency over their own future and economy, but also their very spirituality! Quoting the book:

Janus Athena: (...) ministry should form a sort of shadow government (...) Already a new internet; now its users may be turning into a new kind of citizen of the world. Gaia citizenship, or what have you. Earth citizen, commons member, world citizen. One Planet. Mother Earth. All these terms used by people who are coming to think of themselves as part of a planetary civilization. Main sense of patriotism now directed to the planet itself. (...) A new structure of feeling, underlying politics as such. Global civilization transcending local differences. A different hegemony for sure. Shadow government plans are just one part of that larger movement. Like a software for a feeling.

Mary: The global village.

JA: Sort of. That’s an old name. Not really a village. Planetary consciousness, biospheric governance, citizen of Gaia, One Planet, Mother Earth, etc. More like that. Village not really the right word.

Badim: It should be an explicit religion, like I’ve been saying. A call for devotion or worship.

As much as we need to include spirituality within our visions of the future, how is a shadow government dictating its rules any better than the Dune’s Bene Gesserit, a cynical order of manipulators shaping the politics from the shadows, mechanistically designing "a software for a feeling"?

Re-reading passages such as these makes me marvel at KSR’s subtlety in satirizing the techno-solutionism and unspoken, undemocratic elitism of people considering themselves the rulers and shapers of the world.

Dynamics of lobbying

Circling back to the core structure of the books, KSR seems to have another subtle and contextual lesson for us:

What made the story beats of the masterpiece click together so pleasantly was the back-and-forth between the communities fighting for a change, and the backlash they were met with at different levels. The elegant dance, escaping forward or taking a few steps back, but never giving up is what gave the "...Sustainability" that signature drive many readers fell in love with.

The parody's structure doesn't involve any backlash or pushback. While the Climate Catastrophe looms in the distance and causes some chaos every few chapters, humans seemingly never oppose the good-willing Ministry. Sure, the bankers are unwilling to accept the salvation of robo-quantum-nano Carbon Coin, the governments keep squabbling, but the Ministry never ever meets a single oil lobbyist or bad-faith state actor. All the violence and terror perpetrated by the Global South black-ops of the Ministry is never met with any response from either the police, the military, or even counter-attacks.

Even without knowing the masterpiece, it would take a very stubborn reader not to see such a writing structure as very intentional. We are to feel wrong, since the counter-balance of the plot is missing, broken as much as a law of dynamics, where a force (of change) doesn't meet an equal and opposing force.

The final lesson and the most important message I read from the "...Future" stands strong independently from the "...Sustainability"’s hope:

The path towards a sustainable future painted with central banks and global technologies - but without social change, without giving agency to the Global South - is a lie.

KSR never spells it out for us, he respects the intellectual capacity of his readers. After writing a brilliant first book pointing us forward, he spent years creating a masterpiece warning us about all the subtle ways the neoliberal narratives might try to lead us astray for just a few more years of quarterly growth.

It's worth noting that the satire of the "...Future" got praised by no one else than Francis Fukuyama, who in his review in American Purpose stated that the novel is "ludicrously unrealistic" and "Robinson posits the most optimistic possible political developments at every turn."

Wrapping up - The Ministry for the Tourism in Zurich

Just to clarify one final time, the review above is just painful sarcasm.

"The Ministry for Sustainability" doesn’t exist - it’s an idea of a perfect, optimistic climate fiction masterpiece that a lot of people take "The Ministry for the Future" for. The latter book was penned by Kim Stanley Robinson with no (known to me) intent for it to be satirical, with all its biases invisible to both the author and a big part of the audience.

To me, "The Ministry…" reads like a not sufficiently self-conscious parody of itself, complete with an overly self-important title and tone-deaf execution. I think that it would read much better as satire, under a title of "The Ministry for the Tourism in Zurich" - all it needs is some witty footnotes and a new cover, like the one below:

Ministry for the Tourism in Zurich

If you’re interested in an equally critical, but less sarcastic take on the "Ministry…", I can recommend Marcin Zaród’s scientific publication3.

I've been working on voicing my concerns about the book for years and chose to go with such a sarcastic comparison not because of my hatred towards KSR, but because I wanted to show how his book limits us in our imaginations of the future.

Many climate fiction enthusiasts I have spoken with over the years rightfully praise KSR for tackling such a daunting topic in a world where we cannot imagine any climate future. I fully agree with them: a bold approach by a well-known author opened a lot of new readers to the movement.

At the same time, I think we NEED to be aware of the book's limitations, often invisible to someone who hasn't experienced a lot of the situations described in it - or has never read less popular positions on the topic. All my research into Solarpunk narratives teaches me that it’s not enough to say that something is missing: we must imagine an alternative, a step forward, even if just as a naive proposal.

If we allow ourselves to read "The Ministry For The Future'' as "let's continue with neoliberal capitalism; blockchain will save us; let the brown people bloody their hands", then we might delude ourselves into thinking that there's nothing more to do. We might refuse to answer any uncomfortable questions about our position in the world, hoping that after a lengthy career in banking or UN we rightfully deserve our peaceful retirement in the beautiful Alps. The world will sort itself out.

I'm a proponent of much more communal, involved and uncomfortable fiction, which forces us to look at the traumas and admit that we need to face them - only then seeing the hope beyond them. These stories are much harder to tell - and even harder to publish, but I believe that they’re exactly what we need. If you would like to hear more about this approach, please check out the Solarpunk Prompts podcast or my master essay on Solarpunk.

We need to take many steps to imagine a sustainable future beyond the Climate Crisis. Kim Stanley Robinson's "Ministry..." is one of them, but let's not make it our last one.

My sincere thanks

Reading "The Ministry…" took me three years and I needed a lot of space to refine my criticism. I would like to thank several people for helping me to put it into words, especially:

  • Andrea "Clockwork" Barresi
  • a friend
  • Joanna Kaniewska
  • Lemon
  • Marcin Zaród3
  • Martyna Łysakiewicz
  • Rysiek
  • The Think That Through team

  1. UPDATE 23.03.24: In the original blogpost, this passage read: "American aid worker stealing (or rather: intentionally not sharing) water with those in need", with my usage of the word stealing expressing very strong moral judgement. I see how that could be problematic to a lot of readers, so I welcome you to form an opinion yourself, based on the passages from "The Ministry...":

    Sometimes people began crying and little crowds surrounded them; elders in distress, little children in distress. (...) An old man died; Frank helped some younger men carry the body up to the rooftop patio, where they wrapped the old one in a thin sheet, maybe a sari. Much worse came later that night, when they did the same thing for an infant. Everyone in every room cried as they carried the little body up to the roof. Frank saw the generator was running out of gas and went down to the closet and got the fuel can and refilled it. His water jug was empty. The taps had stopped running. There were two big water cans in the refrigerator, but he didn’t talk about those. He refilled his jug from one of them, in the dark; the water was still a bit cool. He went back to work. Four more people died that night.

  2. UPDATE 07.06.24: Some readers rightfully point out that Kim Stanley Robinson apologized for his usage of Blockchain in the book - but very few people have the context of his exact wording (thanks to Alberto Cottica for helping me find this quote!). The way I understand his words, the author doesn't apologize for using technosolutionism, just for using one of its brand names:

    In the list of mistakes I’ve become aware of making in Ministry, using the word blockchain is prominent. I should have said “encrypted digital money,” or even just “digital encryption.” The computing experts I’ve spoken to, a pretty big group at this point, have often assured me that blockchain as such doesn’t require the huge “proof of work” action demanded by the designers of bitcoin. Nor, they told me, is it a particularly great form of encryption; they judge it as code to be (perhaps deliberately) awkward, and very likely to be superseded in years to come.

  3. "Imaginaries of Care and Science in Anthropocene Utopian Futurology. The Sociology of Science in K. S. Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future", Studia Socjologiczne 2/2024, (DOI: 10.24425/sts.2024.151016) (PDF).