I had high expectations for the The Ministry for the Future, and it really exceeded them.
I liked how the narration shifted between 3rd and 1st person – some narrators weren’t people at all and were things/concepts like an electron, history or time. The genre shifted as well, sometimes telling a conventional story, sometimes reading more like a scientific article, sometimes like meeting notes, or dramatic dialogue. The length of the chapters moved around a lot some being standard length, sometimes a couple pages, sometimes just a paragraph. These alternations kept me on my toes, and helped hold my ADHD attention as I worked through the (kinda long) book.
But above all the story itself was amazing: complex, terrible and hopeful – balanced and beautiful. It’s the kind of book that stays lodged in your head for weeks after finishing it. Robinson imagines a world just a hairs breadth removed from our own, which is mobilized through a terrible climate change event, to work on many fronts to turn the tide on the carbonization of the atmosphere, and mass extinction of animal life (Robinson, 2018). It all transpires in the span of one woman’s life, a UN minister, who is part orchestrator, part participant and part witness to the many changes.
The only other Robinson book I have read was The Years of Rice and Salt which was similar in scope but quite different in content. Both have the theme of technology and society, which get entangled in a way that should be of interest to anyone interested in science and technology studies and sociotechnical theory. Robinson studied under Frederic Jameson so none of this should be too surprising (Ministry is dedicated to him). And speaking of theorists, Raymond Williams’ idea of a structure of feeling is something that pops up without too much comment a few times in the book, but I think it is the key that unlocks this book (not that it really needs unlocking):
Structure of feeling refers to the different ways of thinking vying to emerge at any one time in history. It appears in the gap between the official discourse of policy and regulations, the popular response to official discourse and its appropriation in literary and other cultural texts. Williams uses the term feeling rather than thought to signal that what is at stake may not yet be articulated in a fully worked-out form, but has rather to be inferred by reading between the lines. If the term is vague it is because it is used to name something that can really only be regarded as a trajectory. It is this later formulation that is most widely known. (Buchanan, 2010)
Ministry for the Future tells this story of how a world culture emerges, that decenters humanity, and dismantles western ideas of the supremacy of humans more generally. But it also tells a story about how technology (even geo-engineering, blockchain, machine learning) have a role in helping it along. And it is a political story, about power, and the fight for power, which sometimes happens on a world stage, but more often than not, in everyday interactions and just getting by.
I dropped it off in one of the Little Free Library boxes in my neighborhood and noticed that it was already gone the next day. I hope the new reader liked it as much as I did.