The Ministry for the Future

I don’t read book reviews any more. I don’t typically write them much, either.

One thing I’ve decided is that I won’t write negative reviews. They are too easy. And they serve no purpose, other than to make the critic feel good about him- or herself.

A good piece of criticism should open your eyes. The critic’s job is not to say “this is good” or “this is bad” but to say “hey, take a look!” Only a tiny amount of the art created in this world gets an opportunity to be reviewed. Most writers, for example, labor in obscurity and are lucky if they get any decent remuneration* for their efforts. Most of the books sold in the world are written by a very small minority of the world’s writers. We need more writers and a greater variety of books, not more works by the same writers, even if those writers are good at what they do.

Kim Stanley Robinson is an accomplished (and even famous) writer of science fiction. Right there, in that sentence, I perpetuate the problem with book reviews. Why should Mr. Robinson be pigeon-holed as a science fiction writer? Can’t we just call him a novelist? Genres—like romance, Western, fantasy, etc.—are just marketing categories. The folks who sell the stuff have to have ways of separating the customers from their money and labels make that easier.

But they are unfair to the creator of the work. Octavia Butler once said “I write about exceptional people. It just happens to be called science fiction.” Kurt Vonnegut started his career as a science fiction writer and worked like crazy to shake off that label because he felt it limited his audience. He was right. He became a famous literary lion, but he still wrote science fiction even if he didn’t want it to be called that.

The Ministry for the Future is about our world right now. It is set in the very near future on this Earth and is populated by characters that act and talk like real people.

These people face an extraordinary existential threat, that of climate change and global warming. Isn’t it funny that we call the book science fiction? There’s no fiction in that premise! Humanity is, right now, facing a global crisis that threatens our existence. That’s news, man. That’s not make-believe!

What Robinson does beautifully in The Ministry for the Future is create a fictional response to this crisis. His characters take action. And the story plays out within these actions and their consequences. The book manages to be hopeful and inspiring while at the same time acknowledging, even embracing, the daunting nature of the challenge facing civilization. Humans are flawed creatures and societies perpetuate inequality and injustice, something the novel does not shy away from. It is neither a utopian nor a dystopian book, but rather one that looks directly and honestly into the heart of things and tries to map a way out for all of us.

I want to say “hey, take a look” at The Ministry for the Future! It is a thoroughly provocative read as well as a marvelously entertaining one. It takes a lot of skill, as a writer, to get the reader engaged in the story and the characters and yet at the same time challenge the reader with difficult and uncomfortable notions.

I read fiction, mostly. Every once in a while a non-fiction book comes along that I have to read (like Vaclav Smil’s Energy and Civilization: A History), but mostly I like novels. I find that fiction writers have more freedom to express themselves and thus, oddly, get closer to the truth! If you want to understand 19th-century England, for example, you’d get a better sense of the times by reading Charles Dickens than from most historical tomes. That’s because Dickens wrote about people and what the world did to them. He wasn’t objective. He didn’t have a thesis to defend. He wrote to entertain but because of his sensitivity and humanity the great issues of the day, particularly poverty and social justice, came alive in his stories.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future accomplishes something similar. It works as an adventure story, even a suspense thriller, but it is also has an urgency and immediacy that makes it something larger and better than just another science fiction novel.

I think you should take a look.

*remuneration means “payment” and should not be confused with the similar renumeration which means “recounting” (the second word is frequently and incorrectly used in place of the first word)

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