Monday 8 November 2021

Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Ministry for the Future’

Anna McFarlane

Anna McFarlane is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Glasgow working on traumatic pregnancy and its expression in science fiction, horror, and fantasy.

On the 18th of October 2021 the University of Glasgow, the Dear Green Bothy and Glasgow’s Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic hosted Kim Stanley Robinson in a hybrid event that saw a live audience gather in the university’s impressive Memorial Chapel while others were able to view a live stream from their homes all over the world. Robinson has for some time been considered one of our foremost science fiction authors. His books particularly engage with the ecological crises facing the planet and consider some strategies for finding a way through the challenges they pose. He is most famous for his Mars trilogy (1992-96) which describes the terraforming of Mars in scientific detail. That idea of ‘terraforming’, of taking an alien planet and manipulating its environment to make it habitable for humans, has been retooled in Robinson’s more recent work where the damage inflicted on the Earth may render it inhospitable to human life, requiring a kind of terraforming – or ‘geo-engineering’ – to once again make it a place that can support the lives of humans and other mammals in the face of the great extinction currently happening all around us. 

Robinson had been invited to speak at the COP26 conference, a marker of the regard in which he is held beyond the science fiction and literary communities, and an invitation that Robinson attributed to his more recent book, The Ministry for the Future (2020). The titular, fictional ministry are set up in the wake of the Paris Agreement and the book follows their efforts to combat climate change into the near future. Like many science fiction novels, Ministry describes speculative scientific technologies that might help contribute to the fight against global warming – including the release of reflective chemicals into the stratosphere; and pumping meltwater from beneath glaciers into the Antarctic air to refreeze it and slow the movement of the glacier. However, the book’s main focus is on the technologies of finance and legislation, showing that the answer to a problem caused by human behaviour must include changes in the systems that incentivize that behaviour. Robinson’s book suggests that future generations should be granted legal status in the present day so that their right to a liveable world can be determined in courts of law. Meanwhile, the financial system must be decarbonized, rearranged to reward carbon capture, and to incentivize keeping fossil fuels in the ground. These ideas and the many more packed into this new novel brought Robinson to the attention of the COP26 organisers who invited him to Glasgow. 

In discussing his book, Robinson was generous and fascinating, giving some context for the relationship between the fictional technologies (both scientific and institutional) that he writes about in the novel and the possibilities for these innovations in the real world. Another highlight of the talk was his account of his love for Glasgow, which features briefly as a setting in the novel in tribute to a particular time in Robinson’s life when the city was warm and welcoming towards him. For many of us, including Robinson, this was our first in-person literary event since the various lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic and to come together to discuss the important ideas in this book on the eve of the COP26 conference was a wonderful moment that channelled many of the book’s most utopian themes: the positive potential of the human collective and the need to believe that it is possible to salvage the planet from its current precarious state. 

Related event

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Ministry for the Future