Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Review: The Ministry for the Future

The Ministry for the FutureThe Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First Person.

At the outset, I had a hard time keeping track of the characters. Eventually, I realized that even the photon was a character. Much of the book is written in first-person. At points it's almost a collection of different personal stories. Still there is much humanity here, and characters to follow. There is a sympathetic stand-in for Earth, Frank, who barely lives while everyone else cooks in the 'great heat wave' zone of India. There are also familiar tropes from the author; sky ships, wild corridors. But as a novel it peters out. In a good way.

The vision is that we, as we are, discover the political and scientific and geoengineering principles for living the good life. The life that college professors already live, as they are the exemplar here for responsible sufficiency of a sort that could be available to everyone on the planet. Trumpster bikers need not apply (I say that as a biker, if not a Trumpster).

Asymmetrical warfare is applied here for the common good. By black ops driven by desperation. Untraceable drone murder and incapacitation to still the market in earth's destruction. Imagine Al Gore as a terrorist. Ah, though he lives the good life now. That being the problem. Ideas alone won't save us. The insecurity of the wealthy is what destroys us by this book. The craving for evermore when the solution would be to allow everyone security in the now.

Robinson imagines hopeful futures in the face of our collective inability to imagine solutions. In this book, improbably, the solutions represent a triumph of the body politic, globally. For any reader now, such triumph has become harder than ever to imagine.

Just now in the face of political chaos and the dissolution of even basic values here in the real world, the private sector has become our hero. Producing a vaccine, providing the shipping logistics, creating a brilliant, private, safe and secure tracking regime, even though nobody uses it. This is what pushes Robinson's new book into the region of science-fiction/fantasy. His salvation for 'the only planet we have' turns on enlightened private, but collective, enterprise and wealth generally being brought to heel. Of course he's right. A co-op model for our future.

How can there even be such a polymath? I pause to wonder. Kim Stanley Robinson has the nerve to enact what he knows and his knowledge makes it all believable. I find only the tiniest of error, here and there. Solar panels driving super-tankers, for example. That math won't work.

I do wish I had a way past the New York Review of Books paywall so that I could see what Bill McKibben has to say, although I suspect his title says it all. "It's Not Science Fiction."

I recently read Jill Lepore's New York Burning, in which she brilliantly documents the birth of the novel at a time in our pre-revolutionary history when there were as yet no rules for evidence, no principles of detection toward proper prosecution. Things we now assume have always been obvious. She documents the horrors in New York when a fiction - that blacks where plotting to burn New York - was taken as truth. The grisly features of this real-world counter-plot are those of the Inquisition, where inner horrors are turned outward. Guilt prosecuted against the enslaved other.

By now all of our realities have been conditioned by the novel, made into movies and projected onto a funhouse version of Plato's shadow play. Our fear of death is terror at loss of character. Protagonist demise. We still outer the other, even while the other is ourself. Our selfie self.

Perhaps Robinson is actually not writing fiction, and is instead writing a future history when our post-enlightenment humanity bears actual fruit. When reason prevails, and goodness. I was brought to tears in many places during my read. Everything I have always wanted started to seem possible.

But I do still suspect that there is a post-novel history yet to be written, for after our current first-person obsession subsides. (I started reading Robert Putnam's new book) Robinson celebrates collective agency, and the reinvention of the commons as our only home; our living planet. While his characters recede, they are still what moves the story forward.

His is an engineered resolution. I do believe that he and Benjamin H. Bratton are good friends. I hope that they are both correct in their assessment of the way out from our very human predicament. I hope that science fiction is not mere escapism. So much of it has stimulated a direction for actual science. We so desperately need imagination.

But I do also hope that we can move beyond childish obsession with immortality. With gods that project fantasies of earthly power, and a kind of Disney love which dissolves after the storybook wedding.

It would seem that no author can imagine anything beyond the happy ending of humanity as it is prevailing into relative eternity. Well, except for Ursula K. Leguin. She could. Still, character and characters are what we like to project into any of our infinities, or else we might stop turning the pages.

There is a very vague suggestion in this story of the need for a new religion. But any coherent definition for religion, as meant in Western languages, calls it out as insecure masculinity creating mystical patriarchal authority structures, projecting themselves onto a manly God.

Religion would be what is destroying the planet, not what can rescue it. Rescue is effected by nature, as it ever has been, world without end. Amen. It would seem that we must retreat rather than to take over.

The book does describe a kind of retreat. Conscious homeostasis for a species. It beats the goad of wealth. The economy here is turned upside down by the precarious introduction of block-chained carbon currency. A literal turning of doing well into doing good.

I still await the sequel, when science itself exceeds the scientific method, because we will have discovered that God is Love, and that Love is not only romance. That's hardly a novel thought. What's novel is the end of any possibility to model man as a rational animal. Robinson makes quick work taking down neoliberalism, but then it sneaks back in by way of the good life preserved after all.

The recent Atlantic issue calls out Facebook as a doomsday machine, focusing on the occluded nature of how ideologies are now propagated and propagandized. Creating a danger worse than Hitler. (Sorry about that Godwin slip, but it was right there in the Atlantic.) With Hitler, everyone was getting the same garbage ideology, and you could call them all deluded in the same ways. Now we have really intelligent seeming people actually believing crazy stuff. Who knows where it comes from and why it is so compelling?

In just the way that survival choices in the wild happen too quickly for cognition, so they now do for humans as our planful takeover of our planet reaches its apotheosis. Robinson's Brave New (perpetual) World is cognitively generated. That right there is purest fantasy.

But I shall be ever grateful for the imagination to depict such fantastic futures. We need something better than certainty that we will blow it. And his vision is fine and sound. His politics are true, and it's quite clear by the end of this novel that he's a true believer in a gentler kind of love. The ultimate ascendancy of decency.

Meanwhile, we still seek for the Grand Universal Theorem while the earth burns. We have yet to admit that there is no cognitive completion. We have to get out of our own way is all. Not everything can be reduced to physics. Not everything can be computed.

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