on « the ministry for the future »

25 July 2023 7:49 PM (politics | climate | socialism)

Good evening, comrades. This evening, words on reading.

obtaining readables

Since the pandemic, or maybe a bit before, I picked up a new habit: if I hear of a book which is liked by someone I find interesting, I buy a copy.

Getting to this point required some mental changes. When I was younger, buying lots of books wasn’t really thinkable; as a student I was well-served by libraries in my mother tongue, and never picked up the habit of allocating my meager disposable income to books. I did like bookstores, especially used bookstores, but since leaving university I emigrated to countries that spoke different languages; the crate-digging avenue was less accessible to me.

I also had to make peace with capitalism, or as the comic says it, “participating in society”. We all know that Amazon imposes a dialectic on the written word: it makes it astonishingly easy and cheap to obtain anything you want, but also makes it hard to earn a living from writing, producing, and distributing books; consuming words via Amazon undermines the production of the words you want to read.

So I didn’t. Participate, I mean; didn’t order off Amazon. Didn’t read much either. At this point in my life, though, I see it everywhere: purity is the opposite of praxis. I still try to avoid Amazon, quixotically ordering mostly off AbeBooks, a now-fully-owned subsidiary of Amazon which fulfills via independent bookstores, but not avoiding Amazon entirely.

If you have access to and a habit of borrowing via a library in your language, you are almost certainly a better reader than I. But for the rest of us, and if you have the cash, maybe you too can grant yourself permission: when you hear of an interesting book, just buy it.

the ministry for the future

It was surely in this way that I heard of Kim Stanley Robinson’s « The Ministry for the Future ». My copy sat around for a year or so before I got around to it. We all hear the doom and gloom about the climate, and it’s all true; at least, everything about the present. But so much of it comes to us in a way that is fundamentally disempowering, that there is nothing to be done. I find this to be painful, viscerally; I prefer no news rather than bad news that I can’t act on, or at least incorporate into a longer narrative of action.

This may be a personal failing, or a defect. I have juvenile cultural tastes: I don’t like bad things to happen to good people. Jane Eyre was excruciating: to reach an ultimately heavenly resolution, as a reader I had to suffer with every step. Probably this is recovering-Catholic scar damage.

In any case, climate fiction tends to be more hell than heaven, and I hate it all the more for another reason, that we are here in this moment and we can do things: why tell us that nothing matters? Why would you write a book like that? What part of praxis is that?

Anyway it must have been the premise that made Robinson’s book pass my pre-filters: that the COP series of meetings established a new UN agency that was responsible for the interests of future generations, notably as regards climate. The book charts the story of this administration from its beginnings over a period of some 40 years or so. It’s a wonderfully human, gripping story, and we win.

We don’t win inevitably; the book isn’t a prediction, but more of a prophecy in a sense: an exercise in narrative genesis, a precursor to history, a seed: one not guaranteed to germinate, but which might.

At this point I find the idea of actually participating in a narrative to be almost foreign, or rather alienated. When I was younger, the talk was “after the revolution” this, or “in the future” that, but with enough time and deracination, I lost my vision of how to get there from here. I don’t have it back, not yet anyway, but I think it’s coming. Story precedes history; storytellers are the ones that can breathe life into the airships of the mind. Robinson has both the airships and the gift to speak them into existence. Check it out, comrades, it is required reading!

One response

  1. hpj says:

    I'll recommend KSR's Aurora too. It reads like a treatment of some of the extreme challenges of having to do active management of ecosystems and human societies, through a lens where the technology already stretches credulity (interstellar travel).

    Whereas the themes are related, I found the story more engaging than Ministry's. It's also similarly unflinching without veering too far into the gloom.

    Oh, and the Mars trilogy's good too, but it's long :-)

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