Theater of Cruelty

From eco-nightmares to historical relief

The Ministry for the Future
Forfatter: Kim Stanley Robinson
Forlag: Orbit (Storbritannia)
THE FUTURE OF THE EARTH / In a groundbreaking new collective novel, we can read about how the climate crisis is escalating and a new ecological world order is emerging.


Until now, we have largely dealt with climate change as a highly unwelcome, impending and thus also negligible problem: a kind of semi-reality, a bit like a disease we do not want to take on.

Robinson has previously tried to portray what happens when climate change actually becomes a reality – at the end of the book New York 2140, where the sea has risen 50 meters. What may have been missing in the book was a depiction of the victims for such enormous disasters, the direct and concrete human price for the political training of the measures we know is necessary. In the new novel, he makes up for this at first.

Heatwave in India

There is something visionary and eerie about the first chapters, where Robinson depicts a heat wave in India in the late 2020s. The humidity and heat create a deadly "wet temperature", which makes it impossible to cool down through sweat: The heat acts as a deadly fever. Robinson's depictions of crowds squeezing into rooms with overloaded air conditioners until the electrical network breaks down are eerie enough.

Despite a threat of violence, elements of terror and a stifling global panic, the novel's main development goes in the direction of a quiet revolution.

The total nightmare sets in as he depicts the desperate escape to a small lake in the center of Lucknow, where people stand like herring in a barrel of water up to their necks in hopes of cooling down until the water warms up. In the end, everyone dies both in the water and on land – millions of people are practically boiled alive. The only survivor also becomes one of the book's traumatized and irreconcilable witnesses, one who has seen with his own eyes what is the price of not acting until it is too late.

The advantages of fiction

Since climate problems are difficult to overcome, and since the changes are gradual and extend into the future, climate fiction has become an important genre in recent years. Scenes like the ones Robinson paints make the situation really for us. A decade ago, academics Oreskes and Conway wrote the text The Collapse of Western Civilization, a look back at the climate catastrophe authored by an imaginary future historian. Instead of such a distant account of the course of world history, Robinson chooses to tell his story through eyewitnesses and testimonies.

In one moment, the narrator's voice is a powerful businessman in Davos, who cynically and blasphemously portrays the environmentalists' "naive" protests. In the next moment, we follow a farmer's wife in Asia, who finds out that she and her husband can make money by farming the land so that they sequester carbon, thanks to the new green economy. In another moment we are in Antarctica, where scientists and engineers are trying to pump the underwater up from the depths of the ocean beneath the glaciers, so that the ice does not seep into the ocean and drown the shores of the world. In this way, the story becomes a patchwork of glimpses and scenes that all feel immediate and alive.

The Battle for Earth

Understood as a struggle om The earth slipping into a fight for Earth, the book is a depiction of a huge conflict as much as of a crisis. At the same time, a conflict is unfolding in the life of Mary Murphy, the head of the UN body in Zurich, which goes by the name of the Ministry of the Future. She experiences frustrations by seeing that something has to be done quickly, but that everything goes too slowly. Time is running out from the peaceful negotiations and bureaucratic processes, and where we once saw impatience, there is now a desperation that prevails.

In India, which was hit by the fatal heat wave in the opening scenes, the authorities are in favor of using climate engineering – and releasing sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to cool the globe, an effect scientists know from the eruption of the Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines. India will also be the core area for Kalis Warriors, an eco-terrorist organization that sabotages cruise ships and air traffic and attacks strategic targets worldwide.

Despite a threat of violence, elements of terror and a stifling global panic, the novel's main development goes in the direction of a quiet revolution. The concept of revolution is also discussed in some of the essayistic, socio-economic chapters in the book, where Robinson allows himself to give a full introduction to relevant topics and technical details. The world economy is historically "ecologized" through the introduction of a blockchain-based international carbon currency, which means that everything that was previously externalities – such as pollution and damage to ecosystems – are included as monetary values.

The hope of a new hope

Gradually, step by step, well into the 2050s, things actually start to get better. India ends up leading the world towards an agro-ecological transformation, and measures to return nature to its original state are launched on various continents, with a new flourishing of wild herds, buffaloes and gazelles. Here, too, Robinson's typically utopian elements emerge: as a kind of symbol of relief, graceful airships hover over new wilderness, ruled by Jules Verne-like pilots and a new generation of nature-oriented world citizens.

The reading of this 576-page novel, which eventually feels as diverse, complex and chaotic as the world itself, is experienced as a journey through a future that could well be thought to be real, a historical bottleneck where everything is at stake. It is not the fate and life of the main characters that keep the story going, since any approach to drama, including death and love, is dampened by a sober everyday realism.

But precisely by virtue of this quiet down-to-earthness, we can sense the whole, the complete drama we ourselves are also participants in. Like the novel characters, we are also heading towards 2060, towards a point where we have either failed – or actually managed to save the world.

The novel about the Ministry of the Future evokes a world in which humanity, after cruel disasters and exhausting trials, finally experiences an almost miraculous tremor of relief: the dawn of a new historical hope and a future with all possibilities. In this way, the book gives a taste of a long-awaited feeling we can only dream of at the moment – and strive for.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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