⚡ New Event: The Ministry for the Future ft. Kim Stanley Robinson

How sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson thinks big about the climate crisis

If you can't tell, Reboot's been on a bit of a sci-fi kick. We tend toward cautious optimism, toward bridging theory and practice, and toward writing as a generative exercise, not just a critical one. And as we discussed in our last interview on game design and worldbuilding, sci-fi authors have long paved the way in outlining the liberatory potentials of technology.

That's why I'm excited about today's featured book—it leverages the imaginative, bold thinking style of speculative fiction without slipping into escapism.

📖 the ministry for the future by kim stanley robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is a science fiction author most known for the Mars trilogy and other works on sustainability. His latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, is a near-future story that brings us back to Earth to explore how our society—scientists, activists, and international bodies—might cooperate to scrape its way out of the climate crisis.

Join us for an open Q&A on what The Ministry for the Future tells us about the actions and ethics we need to avoid ecological disaster today.

Register here!

🔊 our take: the climb toward climate relief

By Jessica Dai

Kim Stanley Robinson's Ministry for the Future imagines a world where, against all odds, the combined efforts of the world's population manage to curb and even reverse the worst of global warming. In Ministry, these efforts are propelled by the "Ministry for the Future," a small and underfunded UN agency tasked with advocating for future generations. Practically, this means tackling climate change—most prominently, by creating something called a carbon coin, a treasury-backed global currency that provides payouts for carbon sequestration.

Ministry reads like a manifesto: Robinson's vision of how we might play the hand we're stuck with. Its 106 short chapters switch rapidly between the main characters' journeys and vignettes describing the state of the world: scientists trying to slow the melting of Antarctic glaciers, catastrophic weather events, updates on the state of the global economy. Especially notable are highly technical sections describing the mechanisms for how and why the world slowly maneuvers itself away from the brink, almost like whitepapers Robinson's drafted for the consideration of policymakers, scientists, and financial institutions. (Ministry was on Obama's list of his favorite 2020 books; maybe he can pitch some of its ideas to Janet Yellen?1)

At the same time, Robinson doesn't shy away from what we might describe as less formal means for change. There's the Children of Kali, an ecoterrorist group whose actions—such as the targeted bombing of gas-guzzling private planes, coal plants, and container ships—are implied to catalyze substantial behavioral changes. The Ministry for the Future itself may or may not have a black ops wing. People die in this process, no doubt, but Robinson spends little time on them: it's implied that perhaps they, as oil billionaires, deserved to—or that the casualties were worth it.

The book's main characters are Mary, who leads the Ministry, and Frank, a former aid worker whom Mary befriends. Both are white citizens of well-to-do Western nations; even as we see climate-related suffering—mostly through their eyes—they're generally insulated from the worst of it. Emphasized throughout the book, though, is that people are more empathetic towards the plight of those they can identify closely with. I can't help but wonder whether the choice to spotlight Frank and Mary was explicit, a nod to the fact that most readers are more likely to be proximate to the global elite.

Ministry is powerful, therefore, not necessarily because its characters are particularly compelling, but because it outlines a path to the future. Most notably, Ministry imagines a path that happens in this world: a world with massive inequality, across nations and individuals; a world where anything and everything is financialized; a world with repressive governments; a world where white supremacy persists. In other words, though Ministry for the Future might present a utopian vision for the future, Robinson doesn't wish away the realities of everything wrong with the present.

🌀 microdoses

  • 📘 Reboot's last featured author, writer-activist Cory Doctorow, tweeted a thoughtful review thread of The Ministry for the Future.

  • 💫 This article gives an overview of speculative design and its related methodologies, from scenario planning to future artifacts to fictional narratives.

  • 🗞️ A theory of blue-check Twitter beefs: "Prestige journalists, like most other writers, do not judge the quality of their work by clicks (or even paychecks) but through the praise and censure of other writers and journalists."

  • 🗯️ Or maybe public conflicts over ideas are a good thing—Habermas says "the public sphere ‘is a warning system’, a set of ‘sensors’ that detect the new needs floating underneath the surface of a supposed political consensus."

  • ✍️ The NFT craze presents fascinating possibilities for sustaining creative work like writing. Simon de la Rouviere imagines digital collectibles for authors, and the site Mirror uses NFTs to crowdfund essay writing.

  • 👩🏻‍🤝‍👨🏽 We’re all one race, the internet race.

  • 🌎 Parents beware!

💝 a closing note

At the Reboot Fellowship's most recent session (slides here), we explored speculative design as a method for designing ethical tech. Fellows built 10-minute worlds and scenes around the prompt "Imagine a 2030 where knowledge workers are fully remote." Here’s a story snippet from Henry, a Reboot Fellow and gap year student:

I feel the brutal rumble of the subway rushing feet beneath my dusty floor; “new fleet, again,” I think to myself. Since the city began swapping out every engine in the entire subway system four years ago, my apartment has been shaking more and more often every hour, stopping only for 12 blissful hours of overnight maintenance every three months. My mother called last night, worried for me. “When are you getting out of that hellhole?” she’d asked. I just shook my head and let out a shallow, hacking sob. “As soon as I can use a computer like everyone else again,” I sighed. I have the skills to keep up with a team of app developers in any meeting, but as soon as it’s time to code, my disability lets me down. After a long pause, I added, “When my computer can read my mind.” A soft tremor shakes me.

The workplace accident that had torn my right hand to bits was still firmly etched in my memory. Nine brutal years ago. One glitch in the nearby cellular tower had caused the operator’s video feed to lag. That was all it took – I heard his authoritative shout half a second after the side cutter tore through bone, though to me it could have been hours. “Pull it off!” Silence.

I shudder as my mother ends the call, and I lie back onto my unmade bed with a groan. It feels like there’s no more work in the physical world, and there’s certainly no money in it. No office spaces left to clean, no more subways in need of drivers. I’d been days away from my dream tech job before the accident – at iRobot, because I’d always loved gadgets – and now I’d kill to be a janitor at the infectious disease hospital. Too bad... how did the jingle go?... iRobot does the dirty work, for homes and hospitals alike.

Happy speculating,

—Jasmine & Reboot team

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The US treasury secretary in the book is named Jane Yablonski... uncanny.