Top positive review
We can fix this
Reviewed in the United States on October 22, 2020
60 Billion dollars a year is a lot of money.
That simple point is at the heart of my thoughts on The Ministry for the Future, a new work by Kim Stanley Robinson, which I've just finished. Before the review, some caveats. I have read several of the author's novels - 2312, New York 2140, Red Moon. I like them all. This one is not bad. I bought it. You should buy it, too.
That said: The Ministry for the Future is different. It is a collection of vignettes and reports from a variety of sources and perspectives (even the sun gets to have its say) amounting to a loose, mostly unconnected set of storylines with lightweight characterizations and a plot with less of a traditional narrative flow. It throws out economic theories, technical solutions, and proposed political changes to address the challenge of climate change, but none in great detail. Another critic said the book still 'oddly works' despite these flaws and I have to agree. I think it works because it is a broad survey of a more hopeful future in which humanity actually addresses and turns the corner on climate change and all of these little reports collectively add up to a positive outcome. That's encouraging and that is what makes it fun to read. Most fiction on this topic is decidedly dystopian. This book is optimistic. Refreshing, to say the least.
It's still odd because a typical novel has more structure, more compelling characters (that you want to root for), and their journey and struggles, dangers and risks get more attention - like the author's other books. I came away wondering why one character was such a focus, their story not all that inspiring or sympathetic. Whereas another far more interesting character doing more risky and morally ambiguous activities is barely mentioned, their shadowy side only briefly mentioned. This second character is truly interesting, but we learn very little about them.
The organizational geek in me keeps coming back to that $60 billion a year. That's the notional budget of the Ministry for the Future, a global agency set up to represent the future humans that don't yet have a voice but will be impacted by climate change. It's a fascinating idea, but this notional ministry gets very little substantive treatment. It has an office in Zurich. An Irish woman as director whose chief skill seems to be glaring at people she doesn't agree with. There are a dozen directors (biblical metaphor?) who engage in periodic brainstorming sessions. There are brief vignettes of various initiatives overt and otherwise, but not so much substantive discussion of what, how, and why it works. And that's a shame because we probably need such an agency in the future. But what is described on these pages is what I would think of as a small nonprofit with a venture capital portfolio. It's not an agency with a $60B budget.
Consider what $60 billion will get you. The US Department of Energy has 14,000 employees, 95,000 contractors, 80+ labs around the country and does cutting edge research and development (okay, nuclear weapons, but also advanced solar, etc.). It also supports an academic research network - and it does all of that for about half of our notional Ministry for the Future's budget. I know a certain Fortune 500 IT technology company with over 500,000 employees around the world and the revenue supporting this vast organization is less than $45B and that includes a margin. The U.S. Air Force has a budget of roughly $160B a year (a lot more, of course, than the Ministry for the Future), but that gets you 5,000+ high tech aircraft, 320,000+ uniformed airmen(people?) and a civilian workforce of 320,000 - and of course the power of enough advanced high-tech weaponry to dominate any adversary anywhere in the world (for at least a few more years anyway). You get the point, I hope. You can do a lot with $60 billion a year.
A Ministry for the Future with a budget of $60 billion is going to be a busy place. Whoever is in charge is going to be spending a lot of their time overseeing the different divisions that spend this much money, visiting key projects, negotiating major agreements. They are not just going to be holding a monthly staff meeting to brainstorm ideas or hosting the occasional conference. All of the vignettes and initiatives mentioned are projects funded by the Ministry for the Future, but the dots aren't quite connected. Running such an agency is going to be a 24x7 job and that person is going to have to know the details, all of them. And with public funding, there will be a governing body that requires endless reporting and likely has different stakeholders with different agendas and conflicts, not to mention audits. You don't get that much public money for free. Maybe that's too much to envision and manage in a novel, but, again, we just might need a Ministry for the Future - in the near future. I wanted to see the idea developed more, much less the seen and unseen struggles of what it tries to accomplish and how it works with all of the other state and non-state actors that make-up the global community.
I'll close with my recommendation to buy the book. Despite some gaps and flaws and my very minor criticism, it 'oddly works', as they say. It adds up to a positive narrative of how we might possibly deal with global warming, which is all too rare these days and that, by itself, is worth the price of admission. Some of the projects to save the Earth are inspiring. If it gets you thinking that we can collectively solve this problem (global warming), then that by itself qualifies this book as a masterpiece, despite its flaws. So, go buy it. Start imaging a future that is more optimistic and less dystopian.