Review: The Ministry for the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel The Ministry for the Future opens on an apocalyptic scene: a white European aid worker, Frank May, finds himself caught in a deadly climate-change-caused heatwave in India that kills twenty million people – including everyone in the town Frank is working in apart from Frank himself. Frank is both radicalised and traumatised by the experience, and spends his life coming to terms with it: firstly by kidnapping and threatening an Irish bureaucrat, Mary Murphy, the head of the titular UN ministry, whose mission is to reinforce the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and protect the interests of future generations of humanity; and latterly over the course of many years spent in the penitential system as a result partly of this kidnapping and partly of another act of ecoterrorism. The contingent, often strained and yet heartfelt relationship between Frank and Mary – a relationship that never goes beyond the platonic – provides the affective underpinning for what is otherwise a rather unwieldy, un-novelistic text that’s devoted more to technological and ideological summary than character-grounded narrative.

The novel is dedicated to charting the activities of the Ministry for the Future as its staff work to regenerate society from the ground up, creating a new “structure of feeling” – in Robinson’s phrasing – that prioritises nature, valorises sufficiency over greed and promotes a socialist approach to the sharing of resources. Many of the specific solutions Robinson suggests involve geoengineering on a massive scale – the government of India uses sulphur dioxide in the upper atmosphere to prevent future heatwaves; scientists in Antarctica embark on a bold plan to pump seawater back up onto glaciers in the hope of combating rising sea levels. There are also less convincing tech projects: the creation of an open-source social media platform that allows its users to retain control of their data; a blockchain-backed “carbon coin” currency that can be earned through projects that sequester carbon or that prevent carbon from being emitted in the first place. And there is ecoterrorism: one of the clandestine results of Frank’s kidnapping of Mary is the establishment of a “dark wing” of the Ministry which supports acts of small-scale political violence aimed at the tiny percentage of humans who are responsible for a disproportionate fraction of the planet’s total emissions.

Some of this is described in sections that focus narrowly on Mary and her colleagues, or on Frank’s musings about the climate crisis and what he can do to help, in traditional novelistic fashion. But there are also substantial chunks of the text that are narrated by side characters who we never meet again, or by abstract entities like the financial markets. There are chapters of undigested economic theory, history, psychology. There are pages and pages of text describing in abstract terms what is happening around the world culturally, politically, ecologically, technologically, as widespread commitment to taking action on the climate takes hold. This approach is familiar from Robinson’s recent work – New York 2140 features acerbic analyses from “A Citizen” placing the novel’s events into a global context; Aurora is narrated in part by an interstellar spacecraft – but where it adds to those texts a breathless jouissance, an energy that gestures at the vastness of the innumerable systems in which we as humans operate, it’s taken to such an extreme in The Ministry for the Future that the actual, character-driven narrative is lost. The weight of all this stuff is too much for what is ultimately a fairly thin plotline – government body aims to do something, government body (largely) achieves it – to bear.

It doesn’t help that, despite the formal fireworks, the voice of the text remains the same throughout. Indentured Namibian miners use the same vocabulary, focus on the same things, as an out-of-work actor in LA. Obviously part of Robinson’s project in including this dizzying kaleidoscope of perspectives is arguing the point that we need a collective approach to tackling the climate crisis, and that the solution to the problems we all face will affect everyone. But the text’s homogenous voice undermines this argument; further, it downplays the heterogeneity of humanity, the vast diversity of philosophies, politics, ways of thinking and ways of being that will need to be harnessed and harmonised to make a truly collective effort possible. For all the novel’s scale and ambition – and at 560 pages this is not a small book – it is yet not ambitious enough.

It is not a complete failure, mind. Robinson’s optimism remains striking in a culture that is increasingly turning to cynicism and despair in the face of the multiple crises we face. His prose, as always, is intelligent, dynamic, exciting; it speeds the reader along, caught up in the current of what one assumes is Robinson’s enthusiasm and passion for science, for the utopian potential of technology, for the work of building a better world. One might describe the novel as perhaps too optimistic, given its flattening of dissenting opinion in the international community (Robinson spends remarkably little time on the phenomenon of climate denialism; in general, the rationality of his world feels strikingly at odds with our own increasingly “post-truth” reality). But its belief that humanity has a future on this planet, and its conviction that said future is within our grasp, still feels radical. Here’s hoping for more work in the field that shares that radicalism.

Review: The Past is Red

This review contains spoilers.

Catherynne M. Valente’s star has been rising slowly but surely over the last few years. Even after the nomination of 2009’s Palimpsest for the Hugo Best Novel and the breakout success of middle-grade fairytale The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making in 2011, she remained somewhat of a niche author. In 2019, though, she crashed squarely into the genre limelight with her Eurovision/Douglas Adams homage Space Opera, also nominated for a Hugo as well as apparently being read by literally everyone with a passing interest in SF, and there she’s stayed. This year, she’s up for Hugo awards in three categories: Best Short Story (for “The Sin of America”, published in Uncanny); Best Novelette (for “L’Esprit de L’Escalier” in; and Best Novella, for The Past is Red, subject of today’s post.

The Past is Red contains, and expands upon, Valente’s 2015 short story “The Future is Blue”, which follows a girl named Tetley Abednego, “the most hated girl in Garbagetown”. Tetley lives on a floating patch of rubbish in what used to be the Pacific Ocean, on an Earth whose landmasses have been swallowed by rising sea levels. The story examines something of what it is like for Tetley and the other Garbagetowners to live in the aftermath of capitalism; to live off the refuse of a society short-sighted enough to squander the greatest gift humanity has ever been given, this great blue Earth. Its climax, which earns Tetley the epithet with which she introduces herself, sees her destroying a great engine the Garbagetowners have built in order to turn the rubbish patch into a boat and go motoring off in search of green dry land: her reasoning being that it’s better for the Garbagetowners to use their remaining supply of power frugally, giving them all access to small comforts for decades to come, rather than burn it all up on a wild goose chase.

The unedited text of “The Future is Blue” thus makes up the first 30-odd pages of The Past is Red. The subsequent narrative picks up 12 years later: Tetley is 29 and living in exile, vilified by her peers, thanks to the events of “The Future is Blue”. She’s tireder and more experienced than she was then, but her optimism, her conviction that Garbagetown is the best place left on the Earth and that its people are the luckiest people alive, remains intact. Alone on her boat, with the occasional company of a person called Big Red whose identity will become important later, she reminisces about an episode seven years before, when she was rescued/kidnapped by a representative of a person calling himself the King of Garbagetown. This person turns out to be her childhood sweetheart, who has spent four years struggling with Tetley’s actions in the earlier story and now wants to marry her and convert her to his point of view. The pair embark on a sea voyage, during the course of which they make the world-changing discovery that, shortly before the flooding of Earth, a community of the planet’s wealthiest people escaped to Mars, and live there still, not having much fun by the sounds of it. Faced with the classist insularity of the people of Mars, Tetley is forced to make a similar decision to the one she made at the end of “The Future is Blue” on behalf of the Garbagetowners who hate her so deeply: a future of relative comfort and ignorance in the garbage patch, or one of knowledge and possibly destructive dissatisfaction.

As a text about climate change, human greed and the selfishness of the uber-rich, it is, shall we say, a little on the nose. The picaresque and somewhat psychedelic nature of Tetley’s journey through Garbagetown and beyond makes the appearance of various plot elements related to these themes – particularly the discovery of the Mars society – feel more random than they otherwise might in a work that was more tightly and conventionally plotted. But this undoubted didacticism is, for me, outweighed by the lyricism and passion of Valente’s rhetoric. This is a deeply angry work, a cynical one that, despite Tetley’s optimism, sees little hope of lasting structural change. In fact, what hope it does hold out is located precisely in that inability to change: humanity will go on being humanity, building worlds and telling stories, even as we live through the apocalypse. Valente’s lush and descriptive prose, laden with the timeless rhythms of fairytale, makes even that sliver of comfort feel almost sufficient.

Doctor Who Review: Orphan 55

Hmm. Well, this is easily the worst Doctor Who episode I’ve seen this season. I see many critics agree with me on this.

Orphan 55 opens as the Doctor and her companions arrive at Tranquillity Spa, an all-inclusive holiday destination, for some intergalactic luxury. Doctor Who being what it is, of course, the relaxation doesn’t last very long, as the hotel’s defence system collapses and a horde of terrifying murderous creatures burst in, separating Ryan from the rest of the group. Fantastic! A good old-fashioned base-under-siege episode!

Except, as with Spyfall, the story pivots rapidly away from its initial shape: the Doctor discovers that Tranquillity Spa is built on an “orphan” planet, a planet destroyed long ago by its original inhabitants and left a toxic wasteland. The mutated creatures now living there – named, ominously, the Dregs – have taken Benni, one of the hotel guests; the Doctor and everyone staying at the hotel (including a child and an elderly woman) set out on a dangerous mission across the poisonous surface of the planet to rescue him.

Various inevitable complications follow: their armoured truck breaks down, Benni’s voice is heard mysteriously close, their oxygen begins running low as they make a dash for some underground tunnels. In the midst of all this they discover the awful truth of the planet’s origin: it is Earth, ravaged by a nuclear war caused by climate change-induced food chain collapse; while the benighted Dregs are the mutated remnants of humanity. In case we hadn’t quite got the message, the Doctor repeats it for us once the gang has escaped:

In your time, humanity is busy arguing over the washing-up while the house burns down. Unless people face facts and change, catastrophe is coming. But it’s not decided. You know that. The future is not fixed. It depends on billions of decisions, and actions, and people stepping up. Humans. I think you forget how powerful you are. Lives change worlds. People can save planets, or wreck them. That’s the choice.

I don’t think Doctor Who does edutainment well: in the mouth of the all-knowing Doctor, speeches like this come off a little too didactic. (Which is not to say I don’t think SFF should be political; on the contrary, all fiction is by nature political. But there are ways and ways of doing it.) Nevertheless, moments like this can be redeemed by a strongly-written episode, like last season’s Rosa. Orphan 55 is not strongly-written. On any level. There’s simply too much going on, and too much of that is frankly quite bizarre.

Firstly: I think Doctor Who episodes do best when they have a strong unity of place. I’m thinking of episodes like Gridlock, Midnight, even Blink, all of which explore a situation, a setting, and its various symbolic or psychological ramifications. (Spyfall, notably, lacked unity of place, as did many of Moffat’s episodes.) It’s a format well-suited to a 45-minute segment. The fact that we don’t see the toxic wasteland of Orphan 55 until about twenty minutes in, and that we don’t spend that much time in it, means that we never feel its full emotional resonance. The episode doesn’t take the time to build a sense of atmosphere, which means in turn we don’t experience the full horror of realising this barren wasteland is Earth.

Besides which, the anxieties on display here are weirdly outdated and difficult to connect with modern fears about climate change. The nuclear wasteland (which apparently used to be Russia) and the mutated Dregs feel more Cold War than anything – the Dregs especially tapping into racist concerns about purity and degradation. (It’s interesting that Orphan 55 shows signs early on of turning into a story about colonialism: “You built this somewhere you shouldn’t…The native species want you and your guests dead.”) The later Praxeus does a much better job of working contemporary environmental concerns into a compelling storyline, focusing as it does on plastic proliferation; I might also expect to see flooded planets, drowned cities (bonus if they contain recognisable buildings) or extreme weather events in a story about climate change. It is possible to repurpose old imagery to talk about new things, but it hasn’t worked here.

While the failed climate change messaging is the worst thing about Orphan 55, it’s not the only thing the episode fluffs. There’s plenty of stuff that just seems to be…forgotten? Why did the Dregs keep Benni alive for so long, and why does his death happen off-screen? How did three people run a spa on their own, and how did they hope to terraform a whole planet? Sure, the semantic content of popular SF narratives isn’t always important or worth interrogating, but the episode just doesn’t cohere on any level. It’s frustrating – a far cry from the simple, narratively satisfying episodes of season eleven.

And, look. As a species we need more stories about climate change – especially popular ones. There just aren’t that many that tackle it head-on; that present us with solutions, not moralising; that ask us to face the terrifying truth that the climate is collapsing, that everything is dying, that there is no place on Earth we have not polluted. This kind of half-baked storytelling? Is not going to cut it. Do better, Doctor Who.