Book Notes: The Ministry for the Future

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
Read Jan 26, 2021 - Feb 20, 2021

The Ministry for the Future was a surprisingly fun read, considering that it is a novel about a fictional bureaucracy spawned from the UN, with a main character who lives and works in Zurich – not exactly a setting that exactly screams “excitement”. It is also a near-future novel about climate change, a grim topic.

This book felt more sedate than other recent KSR novels. It is also a bit experimental, with some chapters written in the form of dry meeting notes, and other chapters narrated in the first person by people whose identities and roles we can only guess by the content of their narrative.

I enjoyed the presentation of high-ranking bureaucracy officials as normal people, with their real lives and anxieties and struggles. Meetings between world-level power-brokers are described as petty and irritating and fragile as any contentious meeting at the office, making them both relatable and approachable, and reminding me of the adage that there are no “adults”, there’s just us.

Despite the collective and individual tragedies in the book, the overall message is one of hope. The book explores how a diversity of tactics, together with hefty doses of perserverance, might get us where we want to go. It was soothing and inspiring. Maybe all of our small contributions do add up to something bigger? Here is hoping.

Book Highlights

For a while, therefore, it looked like the great heat wave would be like mass shootings in the United States - mourned by all, deplored by all, and then immediately forgotten or superseded by the next one, until they came in a daily drumbeat and became the new normal.

Ideology, n. An imaginary relationship to a real situation.

His therapists talked about trigger events. About avoiding triggers. What they were glossing over with this too-convenient metaphor was that life itself was just a long series of trigger events.

Security is the feeling that results from being confident that you will have all the things listed above, and your children will have them too. So it is a derivative effect. There can be enough security for all; but only if all have security.

Try as you might, want it ever so much, things are out of your control, even when they are in your mind, or especially because they are in your mind.

It’s the structure of feeling in our time; we can’t think in anything but economic terms, our ethics must be quantified and rated for the effects that our actions have on GDP.

But it’s important also to take this whole question back out of the realm of quantification, sometimes, to the realm of the human and the social. To ask what it all means, what it’s all for. To consider the axioms we are agreeing to live by. To acknowledge the reality of other people, and of the planet itself. To see other people’s faces. To walk outdoors and look around.

I clarified reality for them: Look, if you have to do something, you have to do it. Don’t keep talking about cost as if that’s a real thing. Money isn’t real. Work is real.

Raymond Williams called this cultural shaping a “structure of feeling,” and this is a very useful concept for trying to comprehend differences in cultures through time.

Land reform is part of that, because with land reform comes a return to local knowledge and local ownership and thus political power.

Self-reliance was always a delusion, he relied on other people as much as anyone, he knew that.

The dead hand of the past clutches us by way of living people who are too frightened to accept change.

It was quite a month, then quite a year; a year that became one of those years that people talk about later, a date used as shorthand for a whole period. A tectonic shift in history, an earthquake in the head.

There was no point in keeping someone company if you wouldn’t follow them where they wanted to go.

The idea that it all happened in the light of day was too frightening, history being as obviously out of control as it was — better to have secret plots ordering things, in a realm without witnesses.

Who can tell the riddle of their own true self?

And yes, dignity is something you get from other people, it’s in their eyes, it’s a kind of regard.

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