MAVERICK CITIZEN: READING IN THE PRESENT TENSE

The narcissism of small differences

By Mark Heywood 31 May 2021

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, Orbit Books, 2020.

Locked down, locked in, many of us have had time to read more books than ever before. Readers, passionate about their own favourite books, are curious to know what writers have been reading during this bleak and lonely period. What was already on their shelves, what did they borrow, buy or read online?

Mark Heywood

In this, the second series of Reflexions: Reading in the present tense, Ingrid de Kok and Mark Heywood continue to invite established and younger writers and other creative artists to reflect on a text that moved them, intellectually engaged them, frightened them or made them laugh. Our reviewer today is Mark Heywood who reviews The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson.

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I am not a fan of science fiction. In fact, when I watched a recent discussion between George R.R. Martin (he of The Game of Thrones) and Kim Stanley Robinson, I discovered that I hold many of the prejudices against the genre that they laughed about. However, having once studied 1,000 years of English literature at Oxford University I can probably be forgiven for having a high brow view of what constitutes great literature. 

For that reason, Kim Stanley Robinson, until recently, was not a writer known to me. Despite his fame, despite his awards and his famous Mars Trilogy, it took Barack Obama’s 2020 recommended books list and the badgering of a good friend to lure me into the world he creates in his 2020 novel, The Ministry for the Future

Surprisingly, it proved to be just the antidote, eventually even the vaccine that I needed.

In 2019, the year Before Covid (BC), I had been more and more troubled by the climate crisis and the inaction around it. I felt my own sense of solastalgia. Covid-19 didn’t change that: but it changed our world sooner than I expected. It has become a trial run for the types of state-imposed disruptions and incursions on our liberty that are likely to become ‘the new normal’ (what a horrible phrase) as global heating intensifies. 

The Ministry for the Future creates that world. 

In the past, Stan Robinson has written books of imagination that reach far into the future. One of his last novels was New York 2140, another 2312: both, I feel, are over-optimistic that homo sapiens will still be around by then. But this time round his topic is the near future, our next fifty or so years, and the science is fictional but not fiction.

Essentially the book tells the story of a world that has moved into the disruptive and catastrophic phase of the climate crisis. It starts with a “wet bulb heatwave” in Uttar Pradesh in India, graphically described, which kills millions of people. There are very few survivors, but one of them is Frank May, a young expatriate NGO worker, who spends the worst night of the heatwave in the town’s lake, from which he emerges in the morning, “pruney”: “he had been poached, slow-boiled, he was a cooked thing.”  He is alive but permanently scarred and traumatised. We travel with Frank for the bulk of the novel. 

After the great heat wave the novel’s uber-narrator reflects that “For a while, therefore, it looked like the great heat wave would be like mass shootings in the United States — mourned by all, deplored by all and then immediately forgotten or superseded by the next one, until they came in a daily drumbeat and became the new normal.”

But he is proved wrong — and hope and surprise are constants in the novel, even if both take work — because, in the heatwave’s wake, the early chapters also introduce one of the subjects of the novel, grand scale geo-engineering as a disaster response to a climate in free-fall — in this case India’s efforts to deflect sunlight back into space by seeding the atmosphere above India with chemical aerosol particles. 

This, and other methods such as pumping water from under the glaciers to slow their slide into the warming seas, are described not as panaceas to the crisis — anathema to climate crisis ideologues — but as an unavoidable attempt to slow the effects of global warming while the demos gets its house in order; which as we know from hard experience, and as depicted in the novel, is not something that the fractious vested interests in our elites are capable of doing.     

Surprisingly for a novel of this scale, whilst there are many voices and perspectives, not all terrestrial and not all identified, there are really only two characters: Frank May and Mary Murphy. 

Mary is the Chief Executive of the “Ministry for the Future”, an institutional offshoot of the Paris Climate Agreement, a kind of UN-quango, set up in 2025 and tasked with representing the rights of “all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection”. 

Sounds like familiar UN-speak, but under Murphy’s leadership, it offers the necessary latitude to coordinate, innovate and introduce profoundly important new ways of doing; as well as to operate a “Black Wing” that works outside the rule of law.

The power of the novel is that some of the ideas that Mary births, the carbon coin in particular, are entirely plausible and Robinson locates them in an evidence-based critique of neo-liberal economic theory and what he calls “death capitalism”. 

I will leave you to discover the how and the why — it’s worth the journey.

Like many, the Covid-19 pandemic has left me anxious about forward pathways for humanity, as well as fearful that some of the methods being piloted by governments, lockdowns in particular, are vast forms of population crowd control, that really risk becoming the norm unless we push back. In January 2020, as I watched TV images of the initial lockdown of Wuhan, I distinctly remember thinking “there comes the future”, only to see it implemented in our own country in a far less sophisticated way within two months. One state of disaster, two lockdowns and 400,000 arrests later we should be wiser than we are, except that fear of Covid is a great leveller and has been enough so far to command an unusual obedience to the state. 

Energy, autonomy and hope in darkness

It all sounds pretty bleak. Darkness on darkness. So, what did I like about the novel and why do I unreservedly recommend it?

The novel has vast ambition and sweep, over time and geography. It is an unusual concoction of story-telling and science, abstract philosophical reflection and hard economics, critical observation and commentary of the present propelling imagination into the near future: Robinson calls the 2030s the “Zombie years” when “civilization had been killed but it kept walking the Earth.” It’s a political sermon, wrapped up in a feat of imaginative creation, interweaving past; present and near future; present reality and imagined future. 

It indicts but doesn’t blame. 

It’s a political critique of “death capitalism” and modern economic theory, mixed up with poignant reflections on ideology which he calls “a necessary feature of cognition”, a way in which we “create our understanding… of a real situation that is too big for any individual to know in full by way of an act of imagination”. Ideology is “a kind of personal organising system necessary to make sense of things in ways that allow one to decide and to act.” 

And yet, paradoxically, as the unnamed voice reflects much later in the book, one of the causes of humanity’s debilitation in the face of obvious danger is “the narcissism of small differences”: “the way like-minded people working to solve the same problems will engage in continuous civil war with each other over methods, thus destroying their chances of success.” 

From my experiences with activists that certainly resonates!

Then there are its descriptions of the natural world, descriptions that can only come from someone else who knows the feel of the earth through hiking and biking, getting down and dirty with its few remaining unspoiled parts. One of the attractive innovations it advances is humans giving half the earth back to wildlife, starting with vast natural corridors across and between countries through which animals can roam freely. 

Robinson spent two stints in Antarctica, which clearly feed into the novel’s long descriptions of snow and ice, as glaciologists struggle to slow the great melt. But it is one of his descriptions of Mary’s escape by foot over the Alps that I liked best. These epiphanies are only available to those who have wrestled their way to the ends and ups of the world.

Finally, there is its recognition of the power of organised active citizenship, those groups of people who in diverse ways constantly imagine and enact alternatives: peacefully, such as the 200 Watt Club, or through violent disruption, such as the Children of Kali. Just this week we have been reminded of that power after a string of defeats for the oil industry, described by The Guardian as “the oil industry’s ‘Black Wednesday’ brought about by climate campaigners” using many of the strategies fictionalised in the novel.

The novel thus ultimately becomes about the power of the idea and individual agency. It ends as a novel of hope and restoration, but a hope which is neither unqualified nor utopian — it’s not going to happen through hand wringing or prayer — and a restoration that is still in progress.

Let me finish where I started. 

I was brought up as a literary snob. The novel is not deep in its examination of existential angst or solastalgia or existentialism. It’s not Beckett or Zola. But it is broad, bold and informed. It demonstrates an ability to meld theories of science, politics, economics, biology and psychology; to locate its narrative in the known, including politicians like Modi, and Putin, to lead us into the unknown. As I wrote earlier, because it keeps hope alive, it’s a vaccine against defeat and a reminder that we can reverse the current dreadful trajectory the earth seems tethered to. DM/MC  

Mark Heywood is editor of Maverick Citizen. He is the former Executive Director and co-founder of SECTION27 as well as a co-founder of the Treatment Action Campaign. He is an adjunct professor at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance at the University of Cape Town. He has written numerous articles on law, human rights, HIV/AIDS, health and literature and edited and written several books, including a book of poetry I Write What I Fight (2105) and Get Up! Stand Up! Personal Journeys Towards Social Justice (2017).

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  • Literary buffs may be interested to know that the phrase “narcissism of small differences” was a coined by Sigmund Freud, with no particularly political meaning. To my mind Proust said it better : The more similar people are the more sensitively they react to their differences (my paraphrasing).

  • Great that Mark (and I hope others now) has come to recognise the power of science fiction and fantasy (‘speculative fiction’ sounds more intellectually acceptable) to imagine our world differently through immersing us in vivid representations of other possibilities of being. For another treat, try Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’.

  • Too many people still equate ‘Science Fiction’ as little green men, or western soap operas set in space. However, they can be as good – or as bad – as any other fiction and weave many themes present today but in a different context. ‘The Machine Stops’ by EM Forster is a good example ……

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