“Environmental terrorists…Feels a bit nineties, no?” I was in the middle of describing Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2019 speculative tome The Ministry for the Future when a friend interjected. The environmental terrorists on discussion are a fictional group called “Children of Kali”, introduced as a clandestine and exclusive group that threatens to kill those of the world who will not “change their ways.” They stand as the extremist alternative to the titular “Ministry”, an agency created in “the implementation meetings of the Paris Agreement,” a climate UN tasked not with world peace (how’s that going by the way?) but with world survival.
My friend was on to something with the periodisation. The late nineties and early aughts was a time that saw increasing criminalisation of protest writ large but in particular targeting environmental movement actors. The campaign occurred on a cultural front as well. I remember offhand The X-files episodes sporadically turning to Earth First and PETA-adjacent extremists to create a politically edgy context for the monster-of-the-week. Those groups were always figured as intense white men in spectacles and fatigues, dirty hair and determined—if not sad—brows. So, it is ironic in Ministry that the featured white guy of the novel, Frank, is rejected from the eco-terrorists. He doesn’t make the cut because the Children of Kali, emerging after a particularly horrific heat wave causes the death of hundreds in India, don’t trust him. Fair enough but Robinson has chosen instead to lean into the cliché villain of this century: the brown terrorist. While Frank’s interior torment and desire to take action is elaborated over several chapters, the Children of Kali are faceless, mean, unexamined. It is one of the early indicators in the book that Ministry, though bold in its articulations of how to address an increasingly uninhabitable world is stuck in certain imaginative ruts. The attachment to frustrated white heroes is one; the inability to represent collective power from below another.
The Children reject Frank, an American previously with an aid group “doing development work” in India, despite his pleas to credible militant fervour, a genuine desire to hold the world’s destroyers accountable and a desperate need to overcome his traumatic memories, his survivor’s guilt. Frank was there, during the catastrophic heat wave that caused everybody around him stuck outside to die from the extreme conditions. There was a grim resonance between the novel’s opening description of mass death with the disasters around the globe this summer.
June 2021 was the hottest month on record in the continental United States (US) and July the hottest month in written meteorological history. In August, every few days a fire, an earthquake, a flood occurred in disparate regions of the Earth. The compendium of catastrophe has become almost cliché in its recitation, the necessary acknowledgements we make of how overwhelming and unaccountable the compiling disaster is.
“Entire ecosystems are collapsing”, the urgent message of Greta Thunberg has been chopped and distorted into various remixes across YouTube and TikTok. Greta does not appear in the pages of Ministry and Robinson only briefly allows characters to pile on the list of dooms. He doesn’t dwell with the disaster. The book begins with horror, is sprinkled with terror, but is mostly a series of policy proposals and new materialist soliloquies (a photon, the “market”, and Earth itself describe themselves in chapter-long riddles).
It is science fiction as prescription. Whether following the head of the Ministry, Mary, as she meets with world bankers to discuss carbon credits or hearing about various acts of terror, there is always the sense that strings are being pulled in secret, behind closed doors by people much smarter, much more daring than you or I. The text swings between styles, from the delivery of a TED talk to the notes to a screenplay. “Chop chop chop! Stop.” This is a current refrain through the text. It’s not entirely inaccurate. Hurry up and slow down. “So fast.” “[Not] fast enough.” “Faster.” “Real fast.” “Too fast.” These are common moments of urgency throughout different scenes alternately referring to the speed of a changing ecosystem or the dire need for more speed in human action. Robinson however gets stuck in acceleration. His attachment to progress manifests in the novel’s romance with geoengineering. Readers are taken to the merger of the classic and techno sublime: the Antarctic site where a group of engineers are pumping water from glaciers to then pour over the ice cap. Robinson uses the character of a humble glaciologist named Slawek to introduce the idea of geo-engineering, essentially further human modification of the environment…but this time to fix all the harms the previous interference caused. Slawek is a clever rhetorical characterisation, a kind of move-to-innocence through the delivery of a prophet in protest . He says, “A scientist gets into engineering, they’re not a scientist anymore, they’re a politician. Get hate mail, rocks through window, no one takes their work seriously, all that.”
The scientist, we are meant to believe, has no special interests. As well as I guess that geoengineering believers are some kind of violently oppressed group….like politicians. The glorification of the scientist as saviour is a type of techno-utopianism. Technology is suggested as the literal deux ex machina, the real solution to the earth’s malaise, past all the distraction and interpersonal baggage of “politics”. But still the political is the source of all the novel’s dilemma. Technology is what works in the background fixing the problems of the imperfect social actors with the dramatic force of big machines.
Meanwhile the two moral pillars of the plot are Frank and Mary. Mary is the synecdoche for institutional change, the plucky future-is-female face wheeling and dealing with the world’s biggest banks but empathetic to the rebels. She believes in law. Frank is the disillusioned do-gooder pushed to extreme action, a real no-more-Mr. Nice Guy situation. He wants blood. Casting between these two characters the novel is both an old school glorification of big state bureaucracy and an attempt at 21st century cultural sensibilities (Frank is alternately doomer and idealist). The only new ideas are the technological ones. It’s almost more damning that there isn’t a Bezos or Musk-like character in the mix. The U.S. military, largest polluter in the world and competitor for space domination, is also notably absent.
Besides the brown casualties and brown terrorists in the designated Global South, there are scant mentions to brown and black peoples in the United States. Robinson is looking for change in all the wrong places. Indigenous movements to protect the land and their relationship to land is the fundamental heart of any change counter to so-called climate change. This doesn’t mean I replace one abstract saviour, geo-engineering, with a whole undifferentiated mass of people. In fact to think with “land back”, a coalescing demand of Indigenous groups in North America, is to understand that change only comes about from changing everything. We can’t look to one thing. The image of the future generated in the Ministry is one of miracles. One scene, told from the perspective of an unnamed character who does not appear again in the book, describes the day a refugee camp in Switzerland tells everyone they will be released. A voice comes from the speakers on high to grant “global citizenship.” Requests for residency will be coordinated by a central body and determined by seniority in the camp. The speaker, taking in all this information, reflects “there is change and there is change.” In this novel, change comes not from the people but from the benevolence of the powerful.
To those who still can’t see the disaster, nor the accumulations of its destructions around us, we can no longer ascribe basic ignorance but willful avoidance. Robinson however is not ignorant but avoidant in a more complex way. He is approaching the apocalypse still seeking a saviour. Still anxious about the earth, even as he seeks to know, by personifying it. The apocalypse is not an event; it is a structure. This is the insight about settler colonialism coined by Patrick Wolfe. When we situate climate catastrophe in a larger history of colonialism, the problem as well as the so-called “solutions” take different shape. Ministry does present a critique of capitalism and insists on the importance of redistributing wealth and making life more possible for those abandoned by the structural crises of cyclical collapse. However, by insisting on progress as represented by technological mastery, the novel’s image of the future remains stuck in a past idealism.
On Hawaii, this contradiction of future and destruction has played out on a sacred peak studded with towering telescopes. Mauna Kea is a central location in the Kanaka Maoli cultural universe as well as a unique and delicate ecosystem. It has been the site of longstanding antagonism between the University of Hawaii and Native Hawaiians around the construction of thirty metre telescope, on a mountain area with an already existing thirteen observatories. Six years ago, Native Hawaiian writer Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada posted a pithy invitation: “We Live in the Future. Come Join us.” He wrote against the common dismissal, circulated by such mouthpieces as a NYT op-ed author, that Native peoples are “relics of the past, unable to hack it in the modern world with our antiquated traditions and practices.” The essay circulated once again in 2019, when blockades were back up against the construction equipment.
Kuwada stresses not only are Native people living in the present but their movements in defense of the land have always been future-oriented. Writing of the practices and ethics that keep people in relation to land, he writes: “The future is a realm we have inhabited for thousands of years. You cannot do otherwise when you rely on the land and sea to survive.” Against a notion of progress as invasion and accumulation, Kuwada paints the destructive, alienating aspects of the relentless forward march of technological advancement: “That short-sighted model of “progress”—that we seem to be standing in the way of—hinges upon all of us, all of Hawaiʻi’s people, all of the Pacific’s people, all of the world’s people losing connection to land, to sea, to other human beings. The less you feel these connections, the easier it is for you to be convinced that unrestricted development is the highest and best use of land.” It is the sense of connection missing from Robinson’s text. Humans are still represented overcoming the landscape, not living with it. The heroes are beating back the changing earth as it moves “too fast” against human civilisation.
There is a line to walk between techno-utopianism and neo-primitivist idealism. Though Ministry presents itself as concerned with the rational approach to the issues of climate change, it remains an idealist plot to “save” the earth. It concerns me to see geoengineering being proffered in the pages of speculative fiction. And hailed as a horizon of world building imagination. Robinson does not world build so much as reconfigure the current. Perhaps he is going more for the uncanny effect, demonstrating the estranging closeness of this world to ours, illuminating how simple and yet powerful such an approach as the Ministry’s might be. But it’s not enough. Ministries belong to the twentieth century. . It is in science fiction where authors can loosen the constricting binds of history and cast startling new models of future life. Unfortunately, like much of political and social visioning these days, the only future summoned in Ministry is old school machinations and fancy new machines.
I write this critique of Ministry, aimed ultimately less at Robinson than the world he is attached to and its depressing similarity to the current dysfunction, from within the intellectual and literary tradition of Indigenous Futurism. Indigenous Futurism is both literature and theory, a long standing body of work by Indigenous authors all over the globe taking up science, technology, and temporality to imagine a different cosmic order than that inherited under colonialism.
In this regard, some of the best fiction about our changing world has already been written. For instance, when my friend and I were talking about the generational vibe of Ministry, we had another novel in mind, a speculative novel nearly transcending to sacred text that was actually written in the 90’s. Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1991) also has an eco-terrorist plot, a planned bombing that only emerges after hundreds of pages of narrativised anti-colonial struggle, stretching from Guatemala to the Southern US border. More than twenty years ago, Silko already saw the twinned crises of displacement (driven by war and unequal distributions of wealth) and environmental destruction. Rather than a ministry, she imagines a whole continental network of peoples coordinating both knowingly and not to overturn five hundred years of colonial rule. It was and remains prophetic. Other works that come to mind as speculations on life after the end times are Nalo Hopkinson’s novel Midnight Robber and Robert Sullivan’s epic poem Star Waka. Both are narratives for wayward humans, stories of making kin in and after the void. All of the above texts are also collected in the first published anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, Walking the Clouds, edited by Grace Dillon. In her contextualising commentary, Dillon elaborates a literary tradition connected to historical forces of making the possibility for life on planet earth. In seeking a different future, an escape from the unbearable present, we should look to more alternative histories, for instance the history of the earth if Indigenous peoples still governed their territories--one policy not even dreamt of in the supposedly transformed world of Ministry.