The Political Form of Postmodernism: Bakhtin, Jameson, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future

by M. Keith Booker and Isra Daraiseh

by M. Keith Booker and Isra Daraiseh

After a long and very impressive career producing science fiction novels that address the issue of climate change in a variety of different ways, Kim Stanley Robinson produced in 2020 what might well simultaneously be his most informative, frightening, and hopeful work on the topic to date. Beginning with a horrifying tour de force description of the effects of an extreme heat event of the kind we are already beginning to see happen in reality, Robinson takes us on a complex multi-character, multi-voiced, and multicultural tour of the world of our near future, delivering a thoroughly prepared short course on the causes, consequences, and possible solutions to climate change. In so doing, he demonstrates the potential of the novel as a medium for the delivery of complex information. At the same time, Robinson illustrates all of this information via an overall narrative that is both a geo-political thriller and a monster story, with the neoliberal market as a monster wreaking havoc upon the world. This main narrative, already complex, is punctuated by compelling supplementary narrative segments and inserted non-narrative genres in a combination that well illustrates Mikhail Bakhtin’s well-known work on the inherently multi-generic nature of the novel as a genre. This use of multiple genres combines with the use of an extremely diverse array of narrators (mostly anonymous and some not even human) gives the novel an essentially postmodern form that makes brilliant use of the Bakhtinian notions of dialogism and multi-voicing to convey the inherent complexity of the problem of climate change, while at the same time demonstrating that the novel as a genre is itself complex enough to meet the task of addressing such a vast and complicated phenomenon.

The polyphonic structure of The Ministry for the Future gives it many of the formal characteristics typically associated with postmodernism. However, unlike typical works of postmodernism, it uses these characteristics not just to outline the problems posed by climate change and economic injustice but also to suggest solutions to these problems. As such, Robinson’s novel overcomes the lack of utopian energy that his long-time mentor Fredric Jameson has typically associated with postmodernism, instead pointing toward what Jameson himself has called the “political form of postmodernism” that might be a way out of the current cultural dominance of global capitalism (Postmodernism 54). Indeed, The Ministry for the Future presents a detailed account of the ways ordinary people—working together in a global fashion that decenters the West and armed with advanced scientific understanding and a progressive political agenda—can overcome both climate change and economic injustice.

Within the novel, the eponymous Ministry for the Future is the key to this project. An international agency that is organized in response to a devastating and deadly heat event that strikes India in the first chapter, this agency is headed by Irish diplomat Mary Murphy, “about forty-five years of age, ex–minister of foreign affairs in the government of the Irish Republic, and before that a union lawyer,” though her chief of staff, Badim Bahadur, from Nepal, also plays an important role (18). “The Ministry for the Future” is an informal designation, gained from the popular perception that the agency is meant to serve as an advocate for the future generations who cannot speak for themselves and whose lives are very much at risk because of the present-day world’s ongoing failure to deal with the reality of accelerating climate change. And, throughout the novel, the ministry will, in a number of different ways, spearhead an effort that finally seems to be making progress in opposing climate change and furthering the cause of economic justice on a global scale.

Death in India

The opening segment of The Ministry for the Future deals with that Indian heat wave. It is one of the most effective openings of any novel in recent years, made all the more powerful because the horrifying events it describes represent things that could very well be happening in our own very near future. Robinson grabs the reader with the graphic horrors of this opening, making it clear from the beginning that climate change is not an abstract, intellectual phenomenon. Nor is it something that effects only the distant future. It is very real, very physical, and very near.

Robinson’s opening sentence, “It was getting hotter,” is a little gem in its own right, describing, not only the specific emergency that is striking the Indian city in which this chapter is set, but also the condition of our own world, the condition that provides the motivation for the writing of this novel. The chapter then describes, in graphic detail, the particular heat wave that has brought shockingly high temperatures to this city, ultimately reaching levels that human beings simply cannot survive. As conditions worsen, electricity goes out in the city, removing the availability of air conditioning, refrigeration, and other potential forms of relief. To make things worse, the emergency is so serious and so widespread that there is no immediate hope of getting help from outside the city.

The chapter then follows Frank May, an American volunteer who has been working at a clinic in the city. Frank will remain an important character through most of the novel, though his narrative centrality peaks in this first chapter, in which we follow him as a deadly heat wave strikes India, ultimately killing twenty million people in two weeks—or roughly the same number of soldiers killed in four years in World War I. The devastation caused by this heat wave is so great that it is almost impossible to comprehend, so Robinson concentrates on a relatively small number of people in this one city, dramatizing their incredible suffering and horrific deaths in a way that personalizes the disaster, making it easier for readers to absorb the event in a visceral way. The chapter slowly builds, first making it clear that the weather is hot, then only gradually revealing just how hot it is and just how deadly that level of heat can be. Early in the chapter, Frank’s fellow aid workers leave, hoping to fetch help from nearby Lucknow. Frank, though, decides to stay behind, then becomes enmeshed in a growing disaster, as more and more people begin to die from the heat.

Frank joins many of the townspeople as they attempt to find respite from the heat by wading into a local lake. The water is indeed cooler than the air, but it is soon well above normal human body temperature, gradually beginning to cook the people in the lake. The narrator sums up the situation: “People were dying faster than ever. There was no coolness to be had. All the children were dead, all the old people were dead. People murmured what should have been screams of grief; those who could still move shoved bodies out of the lake, or out toward the middle where they floated like logs, or sank” (12).

Soon afterward, Indian rescue workers come to the town hoping to use the water from the lake to help put out the fires that are quickly spreading in the area; they discover the lake full of dead bodies. All of the townspeople are dead, in fact, with only Frank found alive, though hovering near death. The chapter is narrated by one of the workers, who relates that Frank “looked like he had been burned, or boiled, I don’t know—he looked dead but he was moving. His eyes were almost swollen shut, but I could see he was looking at me” (22). Through the remainder of the novel, Frank will be crippled by post-traumatic stress arising from this experience, never again being quite able to function normally—and, in fact, becoming dangerous to others, even as he maintains a fundamental commitment to helping others.

That Frank is unable to save anyone in the city, while he himself ultimately has to be saved by Indian workers, ensures that he will not function as a “white savior” figure, come from the advanced world of the United States to rescue poor Indians. Nor will the United States itself emerge as a global savior in this novel. In fact, Robinson provides within this chapter a key moment in which Frank has been attempting to provide some shelter to a group of people within the clinic where he works by cooling it with a generator and window air conditioner. Then a gang of young men burst into the clinic and take the generator and air conditioner at gunpoint, claiming that they need it more than the people in the clinic. Further, one of them, pointing a gun at Frank, further justifies the robbing of the Western clinic: “‘You did this,’ he said, and then they slammed the door on him and were gone” (9). The implication, especially within the context of the rest of the novel, is quite clear: India might have made its own contributions to climate change, but the biggest historical contributor to the global warming that is killing Indians has been the United States, a country that has also made a shockingly feeble effort to do anything to combat the problem.

One way Robinson makes clear the global nature of the danger posed by global warming is by describing, later in the novel, a deadly heat wave that sweeps across the American South. Wet-bulb temperatures1 eventually reach 38°C in some places, leading to widespread power failures and to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. This heat wave is not as bad as the earlier heat wave in India, but very bad, especially as it is eventually learned that the death rates were far higher than officially reported because the latest census had seriously undercounted the at-risk population. Moreover, the event has a much more powerful impact on the American popular consciousness, simply because it occurs in the U.S., thus presumably avoiding the complacent it-can’t-happen-here reaction to the Indian heat wave. At the same time, Americans still display an amazing (but completely predictable) ability to stick their heads in the sand. After all, the deaths occurred in the South and mostly among poor people of color. Robinson’s narrator assesses the situation quite succinctly, and in a way that provides a capsule summation of the shocking lack of effort that has thus far been made in our own world to fight climate change: “This was yet another manifestation of racism and contempt for the South, yes, but also of a universal cognitive disability, in that people had a very hard time imagining that catastrophe could happen to them, until it did” (350).

This powerful initial segment makes clear just how urgent the immediate stakes are when it comes to climate change, dramatizing the human impact in a way that no dry presentation of the scientific facts could ever do. This beginning thus serves as a sort of preface to the remainder of the novel, which employs a much more global perspective in which Robinson deploys his formidable fund of knowledge to present an extremely comprehensive and credible vision of the future of climate change. Moreover, Robinson outlines a detailed set of proposals for dealing with the problem, while also imagining an economic and political process that could make these proposals a reality. In many ways, this novel represents the culmination of Robinson’s long career as a producer of climate-oriented fiction, both because of this content and because he delivers this content via his most formally ambitious and complex novel to date.

The Polyphonic Structure of The Ministry for the Future

After the intense, almost naturalistic, focus of this initial chapter, most of the rest of Ministry focuses on the complex and multiple nature of the twin problems of capitalism and climate change, approaching them via literary strategies that are themselves marked by polyphonic multiplicity. Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of “polyphony” was originally used by him to describe the ability of of the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky to incorporate multiple perspectives without having any of them emerge as dominant. This notion has subsequently been used by many different critics to describe the multiple voicing of a variety of different novels, with works by novelists such as James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon perhaps epitomizing the concept in its modern form. Robinson himself told Arley Sorg in an interview that he was hoping to achieve a polyphonic texture in The Ministry for the Future, and he employs multiple strategies to achieve that objective.

One key aspect of the polyphony of Ministry is its generic plurality, something that Bakhtin sees as a key characteristic of the novel as a genre. For one thing, Ministry incorporates several different types or subgenres of novel. Though clearly residing within the realm of science fiction, it often reads like a political thriller, and sometimes almost like a sort of monster novel, though its monster is far more dangerous and destructive than King Kong or Godzilla could ever be. Moreover, the monster of Ministry might be a bit difficult to identify because the novel does not have a single physical creature that serves as its “monster.” It does, in fact, offer several candidates for the role of monster, beginning with the sun itself, which narrates the brief second chapter of the novel, after we have just seen the potential destructive effects of the sun in the first chapter. This second chapter then ends as the sun reminds us that it is necessary to life on earth but might someday end that life, monster-style: “Someday I will eat you. For now, I feed you. Beware my regard. Never look at me” (14)

As the novel continues, the threat posed by the sun tends to morph into the more general topic of global warming, which might then appear to be a better candidate to be the book’s villain or monster. Indeed, the book makes it abundantly clear that the problem is not the sun (which has made life on earth possible from the beginning and which has not changed significantly during the era of industrialization) but the earth itself. Specifically, the problem is certain human-caused changes to the earth that are causing it to absorb more and more of the heat of the sun leading to the steady warming of the planet. This global warming is itself highly destructive, but it also leads to localized extreme weather events such as the one dramatized in the first chapter of the novel—and the ones we are already beginning to experience in our own time. However, climate change is itself merely a symptom, not a cause, so it cannot in itself be the monster. The real monster, of course, is neoliberal capitalism, identified in the novel as making most world leaders unable to think about any problems in terms of anything but immediate profit and loss, terms that the novel argues do not apply to an existential threat such as climate change.

In the interest of delivering the considerable amount of information about capitalism and climate change that is needed support of its fundamental message, Ministry also adds to its generic polyphony by incorporating a series of what are essentially lectures on various topics, delivered by anonymous experts. This kind of stylistic and generic multiplicity is typical of postmodernism, but the ability to incorporate multiple styles and genres into a single text is also, for Bakhtin, a distinguishing feature of the novel as a genre. For him, the novel is unique in the extent to which it

permits the incorporation of various genres, both artistic (inserted short stories, lyrical songs, poems, dramatic scenes, etc.) and extra-artistic (everyday, rhetorical, scholarly, religious genres and others). In principle, any genre could be included in the construction of the novel, and in fact it is difficult to find any genres that have not at some point been incorporated by someone. Such incorporated genres usually preserve within the novel their own structural integrity and independence, as well as their own linguistic and stylistic peculiarities” (320-1).

The same can be said for style. For Bakhtin, “the style of the novel is to be found in the combination of its styles; the language of a novel is the system of its ‘languages’” (262). This ability to incorporate multiple styles and genres is a key to Bakhtin’s vision of the dialogic nature of the novel as a genre, giving it an inherently anti-authoritarian potential of much the kind that he associates with the carnivalesque. Of course, a similar potential has often been claimed for the stylistic and generic plurality of postmodern texts, a notion that Jameson, who sees postmodernism as typically aligned with late capitalism, has consistently rejected. Terry Eagleton has perhaps refuted the notion that pluralism is inherently subversive of capitalism most succinctly by simply noting that capitalism itself “is the most pluralistic order history has ever known, restlessly transgressing boundaries and dismantling oppositions, pitching together diverse life-forms and continually overflowing the measure” (133).

That both the novel and capitalism would be marked by such pluralism come as no surprise given the extensive and long-recognized interrelationship between capitalism and the novel. Ian Watt established more than sixty years ago that the novel assumed its original realist form in the eighteenth century as an expression of the worldview of the newly emergent middle class in England, with many of its central characteristics evolving in response to market forces. Subsequent studies (e.g., by McKeon and by Spencer) have confirmed this basic notion, while adding a broader and richer account of the origins of the novel. Jameson himself has pointed out the crucial role played by the novel as a genre in what he calls the “bourgeois cultural revolution—that immense process of transformation whereby populations whose life habits were formed by other, now archaic, modes of production are effectively reprogrammed for life and work in the new world of market capitalism” (Political Unconscious 152).

Bakhtin, of course, takes a long view of the novel as a genre, tracing its roots back at least as far as ancient Greece. However, even he admits that the novel as a genre emerged “with special force and clarity in the second half of the eighteenth century” as a result of the historical changes underway at that time (5). It is clear, though, that for Bakhtin the novel is an ever-evolving genre that can take on different forms in different historical circumstances; thus, the genre need not remain in lockstep with capitalism, whatever its origins. Moreover, many Marxist thinkers have felt that the novel could be put to good use in furthering the cause of socialism. The flowering of the socialist realist novel in the early decades of the Soviet Union was the result of a specific policy of attempting to promote socialism through the genre, and thinkers such as Georg Lukács (a major influence on Jameson) strongly felt that, just as the novel (especially the realist novel) made important contributions to the cultural revolution that accompanied the rise of capitalism, so, too, could the novel contribute to a socialist cultural revolution.

In The Ministry for the Future, Robinson continues this project of moving the novel in an anticapitalist direction. Moreover, he seems well aware that this goal cannot be accomplished simply via pluralism of style and genre. Instead, he supplements formal multiplicity with solid content, including both a critique of the damaging effects of the neoliberal world order and the suggestion of specific viable actions that need to be taken to fight both climate change and economic injustice. Moreover, the multiplicity of Ministry is carefully crafted to give voice to points of view that have historically been marginalized, even as it also helps this novel to move beyond the individualist emphasis that has long been central to both capitalism and the novel.

The Ministry for the Future consists of 106 brief chapters, with dozens of different narrators, adding to its polyphonic texture. The narrative threads relating the intertwined stories of Mary and Frank provide a certain narrative momentum to the text, but the overall story is never centered on them as it would be in the typical realist novel. Even the sections that center on them are double-voiced—narrated in third person, but in a mode of indirect free style in which the narrative point of view is heavily influenced by the point of view of Mary or Frank that establishes a dialogue between the character’s perspective and that of a conventional third-person narrator. Moreover, some of the chapters featuring Mary as she performs her duties at the ministry are related by an unnamed notetaker who has been employed by Badim to record the proceedings, providing still another perspective that filters the events as narrated. And there are other variants as well. Chapter 32, for example, is simply a dialogue, without the intervention of a narrator, between Mary and a colleague named “Dick,” as they discuss the economic dimensions of the problems faced by the ministry.

These variants help to decenter Mary’s chapters and to make clear that Ministry is not to be taken primarily as her personal story or to be dominated by her perspective, even as the frequent return to her (and, to a lesser extent, to Frank) does help to give the narrative a human face and to prevent the narrative from becoming coldly abstract and impersonal. Moreover, most chapters of the novel feature neither Mary nor Frank, further decentering the narrative. Many chapters are simply lecture-like discourses delivering information on a particular topic—usually related either to economics or climate change. But the chapters that probably contribute most to the polyphonic nature of the novel are those, constituting a large portion of the novel, that feature anonymous first-person narrators from various social classes and from various parts of the world. Many of these narrators are among the wretched of the earth, such as a girl who has spent her whole life as a refugee and thus has only a vague sense of where she is from or a man who is among a group who have been illegally enslaved and forced to work on a fishing boat. These chapters contribute greatly to the polyphony of the novel by introducing a variety of perspectives and by allowing those who are usually pushed to the margins to tell their own stories. At the same time, these stories, however personal, are invariably narrated in the plural, which helps to make the point that these narrators are not unique and that many share their experience. Meanwhile, this use of a plural narrative voice also contributes to the polyphony by cumulatively adding, in these chapters, not just new voices but whole new choruses.

Of course, Robinson has tended to employ multiple protagonists and multiple narrators throughout most of his career. Robinson himself, in an interview with Arley Sorg, has characterized Ministry as a sort of culmination of a long-term trend toward greater polyphony in his novels:

For this novel, I guess I’d add that solving the formal problem, by way of the eyewitness accounts and all the other modes I used, is my next step, maybe the last step, in a long move toward polyphony—the idea that the novel can take on a huge load of material without sinking—or not completely sinking, maybe submarining along, who knows—anyway, I really enjoyed the feeling this time of channeling voices, of being the telephone operator in one of those 1940s movies, jamming the plugs into the big board and linking up voices of all kinds” (Sorg)

It should also be noted that this polyphonic structure contributes to the novel’s political message, beyond the simple fact of allowing more points of view to be represented. In particular, the novel’s polyphony tends to subvert the usual individualist emphasis of the novel as a genre, which traditionally has relied upon a single narrator and a single protagonist, or at least a very small number of protagonists. And this individualist bias has clear ideological implications. For one thing, individualist thinking tends to encourage a “self-vs.-other” view of the world that, by extension, others the natural environment relative to humanity, interfering with any effective attempt to combat climate change. For another, individualism has long provided a central ideological support for capitalism—and for the novel as a genre. But, as Barbara Foley has outlined in some detail, the individualist bias of the novel poses a serious problem because it tends to reinforce the bourgeois ideology of capitalism, regardless of how anticapitalist the content of a novel might be. Moreover, for Foley, the (mostly male) proletarian novelists of the 1930s struggled to overcome “the male-centered and individualistic premises of the genre” of the novel (94). Robinson, by according central roles to strong women characters such as Mary Murphy, makes important in-roads into the masculinist bias of the novel; by refusing to center any one character (and even making many of his characters anonymous plurals), he also challenges the genre’s traditional (bourgeois) individualist bias. These biases, meanwhile, are also challenged in important ways by the extremely plural narrative voicing of the novel, which helps to make clear that climate change is not the sort of problem that can be solved by individual heroes. It is not even a problem that can be solved completely at all, though important progress can be made by a vast and concerted global effort involving international agencies, national governments, and the movers and shakers behind the international banking system.

The global vision of Ministry is one of the crucial characteristics that links it to Jameson’s theorization of postmodernism, even as the novel’s utopian energy and anticapitalist political commitment set it so strongly apart from the postmodernism typically described by Jameson. However, amid a lengthy discussion of what he sees as the lack of political punch in a postmodernism thoroughly saturated with the ideology of late capitalism, Jameson has declared that “the political form of postmodernism, if there ever is any, will have as its vocation the invention and projection of a global cognitive mapping, on a social as well as a spatial scale” (Postmodernism 54). By presenting such a fundamentally political and fundamentally global solution to the problems of climate change and economic injustice, Robinson goes a long way toward making his polyphonic novel the political form of postmodernism that Jameson has envisioned.

The Utopian Politics of The Ministry for the Future

Robinson has long advocated that a viable solution to climate change will require radical changes to our current political and economic systems2. Throughout his career, Robinson has been one of the most politically committed—and politically sophisticated—American writers of his generation. And his politics have been consistently and decidedly leftist. Robinson’s sophisticated understanding of leftist politics can be at least partly attributed to the fact that, during his doctoral work in English at the University of California at San Diego, he studied with Jameson. In an interview with Christopher Lydon, Robinson prominently lists Jameson among his formative influences: “I’m an English major. I’m an American leftist. My political education comes from Fredric Jameson and from the ’60s, ’70s American left, anti-Vietnam California hippie. Also Gary Snyder and his Californian Buddhism is an important component of my thinking. I’m a member of the science fiction community. All these things have helped to form me.”

In Ministry, Robinson foregrounds his knowledge of and agreement with several aspects of Marxist theory, to which he has frequently credited Jameson with introducing him, as when he notes in an interview that “I understand Karl Marx through Jameson’s continuous work on Western Marxism,” including Lukács, the French theorist Louis Althusser, and others (Cohen). Althusser is not mentioned by name in Ministry, butAlthusser’s theorization of the concept of ideology seems to be an influence at several points in the novel, especially in Chapter 11, whichis a discourse on ideology, from a clearly Marxist perspective, beginning with a definition of ideology as “an imaginary relationship to a real situation” (42). Here, Robinson is slightly paraphrasing a famous statement by Althusser, for whom ideology is not simply a network of illusions that disguise reality, as many previous Marxist theorists had figured it. Instead, for Althusser, ideology “represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (109). This notion is mentioned twice more in Ministry (as well as once in Red Mars), suggesting its importance to Robinson’s thinking. Indeed, the main point of Chapter 11 is to suggest the very Althusserian notion that some sort of ideology is absolutely central to any attempt to understand the world—in other words, to any attempt at the kind of “global cognitive mapping” that Jameson associates with a potential political form of postmodernism.

Elsewhere in Ministry, one of Robinson’s “expert” narrators discusses the concept of periodization, a topic that Jameson has frequently addressed. This narrator even directly quotes Jameson (without naming the source) by noting that “as someone once wrote, ‘we cannot not periodize’” (123)3. Meanwhile, in conjunction with this discussion of periodization, Robinson also cites another prominent Marxist theorist when he discusses the notion of “structures of feeling,” which was introduced by Raymond Williams in his 1977 book Marxism and Literature, also just published when Robinson was a doctoral student. Robinson, defining “structures of feeling” as the “cultural shaping” of our feelings and using it as part of an argument for historical thinking, for the notion that culture and society inevitably change in significant ways over time4. In short, Robinson is here (and elsewhere) following Jameson’s famous injunction that begins The Political Unconscious: “Always historicize!”

Robinson studied with Jameson more than thirty years before the publication of The Ministry for the Future, but the two have maintained a close relationship of mutual influence ever since. Much of Robinson’s writing has clearly been influenced by Jameson’s ideas, and this influence is probably at its greatest in Ministry, which is perhaps indicated most obviously in the fact that this novel is dedicated to Jameson. Moreover, another of Robinson’s “expert” narrators cites one of Jameson’s most famous formulations when he notes early signs that the deadly Indian heat wave so graphically described in Chapter 1 “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.” The narrator then concludes: “Easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism: the old saying had grown teeth and was taking on a literal, vicious accuracy” (25).

The reference here is, of course, to Jameson’s widely cited comment that “someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism” (“Future City” 76)5. Jameson’s comment occurs in a context in which he is attempting to explain the popularity of postapocalyptic narratives. His point is that, given the loss of historical sense in the postmodern era, most people have lost the ability to imagine a normal historical progression that would lead to fundamental change and especially to a movement beyond capitalism. As a result, the only way they can imagine a fundamentally different future world is to envision an apocalyptic event that would effect a rupture in the flow of history. Robinson, in Ministry, undertakes precisely the project of imagining a series of events that could indeed lead to the end of capitalism without an apocalypse—and, in fact, precisely via a series of events that could together avert an apocalyptic climate disaster6.

Mary, who leads the effort to make the imaginative leap beyond capitalism in the novel, makes the argument to a group of Swiss bankers that they need to help lead the way “to the next world system. New metrics, new kinds of value creation. Make the next political economy. Invent post-capitalism! The world needs it, it really has to happen” (317). She and her allies then lead the way toward the development of a new “modern monetary theory” (MMT). The adherents of this theory admit that they are

proposing a move to a new political economy, rather than merely adjusting capitalism. It was not just Keynes Plus, nor just the ad hoc theory or rather praxis that had gotten them through the 2020 crash, nor just the theory or praxis that had bolstered and ultimately paid for the Green New Deal, that early shot in the War for the Earth. It was more than that: it was trying to think through how to do the needful in the biosphere’s time of crisis, while orthodox economics failed to rise to the occasion, and stayed focused in its old analysis of capitalism, as if capitalism were the only possible political economy, thus freezing economics as a discipline like a deer in the headlights of an onrushing car” (366).

This ability to imagine a movement beyond capitalism as the dominant economic system is precisely what, according to Jameson, is specifically lacking under late capitalism, the international phase of capitalism that has now more clearly congealed as neoliberalism, a development that features prominently in Ministry. This inability to conceive of alternatives to capitalism—which Mark Fisher has also usefully described as a key symptom of “capitalist realism”—is central to what Jameson sees as the weakness of utopian thinking in the postmodern era. Meanwhile, Jameson has enthusiastically promoted Robinson’s work as an exception to this weakness for decades. Carol Franko was perhaps the first critic to call significant attention to the utopian dimension of Robinson’s work, but Jameson has emerged as Robinson’s most influential champion, largely because of Robinson’s ability to inject powerful utopian energies into his texts. For example, Jameson has argued that the Mars trilogy stands as an important demonstration of the utopian potential of science fiction as a literary form (“‘If I find one good city I will spare the man’”). Meanwhile, Jameson has argued that this trilogy stands as a new and more sophisticated sort of utopian text, one that is not concerned with the elaboration of a single utopian blueprint for an ideal society but with “the conflict of all possible Utopias, and the arguments about the nature and desirability of Utopia as such” (Archaeologies 216)7.

Robinson’s utopian thinking does not involve the imagination of a perfect future society. Instead, in the mode of utopian thinking frequently recommended by Jameson (following Ernst Bloch), he presents credible visions of people working to find solutions to problems that had previously seemed intractable. Central among these, again, is the problem of capitalism itself, though one result of capitalism that is especially prominent in Ministry (as elsewhere in Robinson’s work) is destructive climate change, another problem that those who think within the limitations of capitalist logic have typically found impossible to deal with, partly because climate change (like capitalism itself) has so often seemed too large and complex to map in anything like a comprehensive way.

We choose our words here quite intentionally to suggest that Robinson’s project in Ministry can be described as an exercise in cognitive mapping that at least moves us a step closer to understanding our simultaneous relation to capitalism and to climate change. The most important theoretical referent here, of course, is Jameson’s emphasis on the difficulty of cognitive mapping in a postmodern late capitalist world that has grown so complex and that changes so fast that it is virtually impossible to understand fully. However, for the ever-optimistic Jameson, the impossibility of cognitive mapping is a reason not to despair but to work harder to perform such mapping.

In envisioning a “political form of postmodernism,” Jameson surely means an entirely new mutation of postmodernism that acknowledges the reality and materiality of history and can thus potentially overcome the limitations that he usually associates with postmodernism. And, throughout his work on postmodernism, Jameson has consistently suggested (in his typical dialectical fashion) that there might be exceptions to his characterization of the phenomenon (including science fiction). Climate fiction might be an especially good place to seek such exceptions, given that the entire topic of climate change already has an inherently anticapitalist slant. In addition, Adeline Johns-Putra (2018) has argued that some postmodern texts, with their oft-cited tendency to be skeptical of totalizing metanarratives, might be especially well suited to deal with the issue of climate change, “considering the damage done by the metanarratives of the Anthropocene” (27)8.

Along these lines, the perception of postmodern pluralism as subversive has frequently been figured as an emphasis on formal fragmentation, taken as a blow against the authoritarianism of what Jean-François Lyotard famously called “totalizing metanarratives.” Jameson, of course, has been highly skeptical of such claims, consistently arguing that postmodern fragmentation generally works in the interest of capitalism by undermining the kind of totalizing analysis that is required for a successful cognitive mapping of the capitalist system. Indeed, Perry Anderson, in a book that wholeheartedly endorses Jameson’s theorization of postmodernism, has concluded that Lyotard’s hostility toward “metanarratives” is actually a coded assault on Marxism itself (45–46).

Relevant here is Lukács’s enthusiasm for the ability of the realist novel (with Balzac as his leading exemplar) not just to represent specific aspects (individual characters and other motifs) of society but clearly to indicate that these aspects function as part of a “much more complex and ramifying totality” (167), while at the same time also evoking “the totality of the process of social development” over time (139)9. Ministry is tied together by a strong sense that the overarching twin concerns of climate change and economic justice are part of intricately interrelated total global systems (which, of course, is the only possible way legitimately to think of such systems10). Viewed in this way, the purely formal fragmentation of Ministry does not undermine totality or shatter metanarratives, but simply serves as a way of indicating the immense diversity of elements that go into making up the totality of such global systems.

Ministry, clearly Robinson’s most postmodern novel in many formal ways, can thus be seen as his attempt to create the sort of political postmodernism that Jameson envisions. However, rather than attempt to construct a literally comprehensive cognitive map (probably impossible), Robinson in Ministry presents a number of different attempts to generate cognitive maps, very much in the way that the Mars trilogy presents a multiplicity of attempts to envision utopia. In doing so, he calls upon material from an encyclopedic array of discourses, disciplines, and genres, all contributing to the postmodern polyphony of this text. The dual complexities of capitalism and climate change necessitate this encyclopedism, though it should be emphasized that Ministry is not encyclopedic for the sake of being playfully (or even self-parodically) encyclopedic, as has been the case with postmodern texts such as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) or even older Menippean texts, such as Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881). There is, however, a tradition of American encyclopedic novels with serious purposes indeed, from Moby-Dick (1851), to Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy (1930-1936), and even to Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), one of the central texts of postmodernism11. Pynchon’s text—along with the later encyclopedic postmodern novels Mason & Dixon (1997) and Against the Day (2006)—is intensely political, vigorously engaged with history, and fiercely critical of capitalism. In addition, all three of these Pynchon novels display a strongly environmental consciousness. For example, Lawrence Buell, one of the pioneers of American eco-criticism, has lumped Gravity’s Rainbow in with Moby-Dick as novels that have “strongly ecological thrusts” (428).

Plurality, in fact, has been the hallmark of Robinson’s fiction ever since he imagined three very different futures for the U.S. back in the “Three Californias” trilogy of the 1980s. And the climate fictions he has produced in the past quarter of a century never seek to remain within a single, consistent future universe, but instead imagine a variety of different possible futures, emphasizing that the course of history is not fixed but can go in different directions, depending on our own actions. Echoing the Marxist dictum that men make their own history (though not under conditions of their own choosing), this vision of history pervades all of Ministry, but is stated particularly directly in Chapter 77, which is narrated by History itself, ending with the injunction. “I am History. Now make me good” (386).

Moreover, in keeping with the dynamic version of utopianism that pervades his fiction, Robinson focuses not on the finished “map,” but on the struggle to achieve that map, a struggle that is still underway in the novel, even though considerable progress is being made. Of course, a lot of things have to go right in order for this progress to happen. To Robinson’s credit, though, he doesn’t simply wave his arms and announce, presto change-o, that capitalism has been superseded. Indeed, he provides a very detailed account of the specific events that need to happen in order for this project of moving beyond capitalism (and especially neoliberal capitalism) to succeed. This success does not come easily or completely. Some of the events involved are messy, or even bloody. Eggs are broken. Forced regime changes are required in both Saudi Arabia and Brazil. Saudi princes are executed by the dozens. Rapacious business moguls are assassinated. Riots and strikes occur. New forms of weaponry essentially make conventional warfare obsolete, and powerful bankers actually do the right thing (though only after they are convinced that it is in their own best interests to do so).

In what is perhaps the most daring aspect of Ministry, Frank reacts to the trauma (and frustration) of his inability to save anyone in India by becoming a sort of ecoterrorist, concluding that peaceful means only will simply not be sufficient to quell the looming climate crisis. Indeed, he first meets Mary in a crucial scene in which he kidnaps her and holds her captive and tries to convince her that the Ministry will need to be willing to resort to violence if it is to serve as a truly effective defender of future generations. Crucially, Robinson clearly implies that Frank is right, however traumatize he might be. Thus, Gerry Canavan declares that the most striking aspect of Ministry is this willingness to acknowledge the possibility that violence might be necessary as a supplement to reason in confronting the climate crisis. For Canavan, what is new about Ministry in relation to Robinson’s other work is “how truly dangerous it is as a novel, how it opens the door on questions we sensible people have mostly agreed not to ask.”

Subsequently, widespread terrorist acts, apparently coordinated by a global secret organization, possibly affiliated (without Mary’s complete knowledge) with the “black” wing of the Ministry for the Future, strike important blows against the fossil fuels industry, virtually ending the airline industry and the transport of goods via ships powered by fossil fuels. We never unequivocally learn exactly how much the black wing of the Ministry, headed by Badim, is involved in these activities, which are, after all, secret by definition, even to Mary. There are hints, though, that these activities might be quite extensive.

The political vision of Ministry has, predictably, come under fire from some reviewers. Perhaps the most prominent among these is Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who calls the book “ludicrously unrealistic.” Fukuyama declares, “For all of his seeming political sophistication, Robinson posits the most optimistic possible political developments at every turn, developments that enable Russia, China, the United States, Europe, and the developing world to work together cooperatively to solve the problem” (“We’re Cooked”). Fukuyama’s criticism, though, carries very little weight. For one thing, even he admits here that the developments envisioned by Robinson are “possible,” which is really all one should ask of a science fiction novel. Perhaps it is a compliment to the realistic texture of Robinson’s novel that Fukuyama wants the events to seem more likely.

Meanwhile, Fukuyama complains that Ministry “frequently reads not like fiction but like a didactic tract that explains the workings of the monetary system, the COP process, the politics of the African Union, the errors of neo-liberalism, the geography of Switzerland, taxation, and a host of other subjects.” Then Fukuyama proceeds to read the book precisely as a nonfiction tract, which he rejects because it does not accord with his own view that problems can only be solved by market-driven liberal capitalism. That view itself would certainly seem ludicrously unrealistic to many, but Fukuyama’s devotion to it apparently blinds him to the extent that he literally cannot see that the principal point of Ministry is to imagine a world system that goes beyond liberal capitalism, suddenly placing the events that Fukuyama finds so unrealistic in a completely new context. But then Fukuyama is most famous for ecstatically declaring, in his 1992 book The End of History, that history was over with the end of the Cold War, paving the way for permanent domination of the earth by American-style capitalist democracy. He thus serves as one of the most spectacularly literal illustrations of the inability to think historically beyond capitalism that Jameson has so decried with relation to our contemporary capitalist world—and that Robinson, in Ministry, has attempted to move beyond.

The Internationalism of The Ministry for the Future

In the 1996 film Independence Day, an extraterrestrial invasion poses an existential threat to the people of earth—causing all people of all nations to unite to meet the threat. But this unity mostly amounts to agreeing to accept U.S. leadership in battling the invaders.  The Ministry for the Future also argues that an international effort is required to fight against the existential threat posed by climate change. In this case, however, the solutions that are proposed do not depend on the United States leading the way, thus playing the role of global savior. Indeed, while the U.S. does make important contributions to the solutions envisioned in this novel—and while the U.S. is certainly not demonized in the book—Robinson also makes clear (especially via the insights of Mary Murphy) that the arrogance of the U.S. is a major obstacle to global cooperation in the fight against climate change. Mary is anything but an anti-American zealot; as an Irish woman, she comes from a country that has long had close ties to the United States and that has historically suffered far more at the hands of Great Britain than the U.S. At the same time, she is an experienced international diplomat who understands very well the dynamics of global power relations, as well as the unique role played by the U.S. in those relations in the contemporary world.

In one key scene late in the book, Mary attends an international conference on climate change that highlights the many accomplishments that have been achieved by this point, roughly in the middle of the twenty-first century. This conference thus provides a nice summary of these accomplishments, which most centrally include important steps toward reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and thus reducing (and, ultimately, reversing) global warming. The accomplishments also include dramatic steps toward economic reform, building a more equitable world that respects all of its citizens, ensuring a minimum annual income for all, and eliminating the accumulation of vast fortunes by the few. Also, this move toward respecting all of the earth’s inhabitants includes its animal inhabitants, an issue that has become crucial in Robinson’s last few novels. Thus, important steps are taken toward restoring the natural habitats of animals and reducing the dominance of humans in the use of the world’s resources.

The last day of this conference, however, is devoted to “outstanding problems” that have yet to be solved. Perhaps the most intractable of these is the ongoing heating and acidification of the world’s oceans. Mary knows full well that “ocean health would be an outstanding problem for centuries to come, and little to nothing they could do about it, except to leave big parts of the ocean, half of it at least, alone, so that its biomes and creatures could adapt as best they might” (484). Another unsolved problem is the persistence of patriarchy and the continuation of gender inequities, which acknowledges just how fundamental to modern societies around the world patriarchy remains. Mary certainly agrees with this characterization, though she is a bit disappointed at seeing this problem lumped in with all the others, feeling that this treatment is merely a continuation of the Othering of women that is so central to the problem. The problem is, though, at least acknowledged at the conference, but there is one major outstanding problem that Mary realizes has not been acknowledged at all, due to political sensitivities. Mary, we are told, “would include American stupidity and hubris, and the assumption of being the world’s sole superpower, as one of their outstanding problems; but there wasn’t a panel or even a poster given over to that idea, no, of course not” (483). Later, though, she discusses the problem with Frank (as he lies dying in a hospice), noting that the U.S. probably is the main obstacle to achieving global justice, but also noting that the situation is not a simple one. “There’s so much good along with the bad,” she says. “The country of countries, that kind of thing” (490).

America-first jingoists will not, of course, be happy about the treatment of the U.S. in the book (however even-handed), though such negative reactions to an extent prove the points Robinson makes about the U.S. therein. What might be almost more objectionable to some, however, is the fact that Robinson also has the audacity to suggest that, in the absence of U.S. leadership, other countries might lead the way in fighting against climate change and for social and economic justice. By the end of the novel, significant movements toward more equitable societies are underway in Africa, South America, and the Middle East. China, while also showing some willingness to reform, remains committed to its basic system of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and also stands, like the U.S., as a possible obstacle to the achievement of justice in the rest of the world. In general, though, Robinson seems relatively sympathetic to China, a country that has all too often been automatically demonized in U.S. political discourse. Among other things, Robinson clearly sees the rise to global power of the Chinese as a positive development that at least provides something of a check on the unrestrained exercise of U.S. power.

Robinson also notes that the sometimes truculent stance of the Chinese is well motivated, arising after a century of being oppressed and humiliated by the Western colonial powers. At the same time, Robinson also envisions the helpful role eventually adopted by China with regard to climate change as happening only after a considerable amount of reform and liberalization in China, essentially forced on them by mass activism among their populace. The chief Chinese character in the novel is one Madame Chang, the new minister of finance and thus “one of the seven most powerful people in China” (290). The very presence of a woman in this lofty position indicates some progress in China. Meanwhile, the Oxford-educated Minister Chang is a sophisticated woman of the world who well understands the importance of China’s contribution to combatting climate change and who develops an immediate rapport with Mary, becoming an important ally to the ministry while maintaining her loyalty to China.

Ultimately, the country that plays the most prominent role in the narrative of Ministry is Switzerland, where the ministry is headquartered and where much of the narrative action occurs. The focus on Switzerland draws upon both the reputation of the country as being an important locus for international coordination and the crucial role played by the country in the international banking system. However, the country that probably does the most to fight climate change in Ministry is actually India, and Robinson’s very sympathetic treatment of India in the novel is part of a globalist perspective that carefully avoids any sort of American exceptionalism or any sort of Eurocentrism. The spotlight on India in the opening chapter of Ministry calls attention to the special vulnerability of India with regard to climate change. Importantly, though, India features in the novel as anything but a poor, backward state that simply can’t take care of itself and its people. Meanwhile, if one suspects from the novel’s beginning that Ministry might be one of those narratives that can only imagine the worst disasters occurring in the distant developing world, one would be very wrong. Robinson does acknowledge that there are very real reasons of geography, topography, and climate that make India especially prone to the kind of heat events that we see in this first chapter. However, he also makes very clear that no place on earth is immune to the disastrous effects of climate change. Finally, the novel also shows India taking a lead role in the effort to combat climate change, rather than simply sitting back and hoping the West will save them.

For example, India immediately responds to the heat wave by mounting an ambitious (and scientifically credible) program of climate engineering that involves seeding the skies with particles of sulfur dioxide. These particles reflect sunlight back into space, reducing the amount of heat from the sun that reaches the earth. It’s a temporary, patchwork fix, but it works, buying time for the Indians to be able to institute more fundamental and lasting reforms in their utilization of resources, while also moving in progressive political directions, the ruling Hindu extremist party having been discredited by its complete failure to deal with the problem of climate change prior to the cataclysmic heat wave in Chapter 1. In Chapters 31 and 52, an unnamed Indian narrator describes the process that is being made in India toward fighting both climate change and social injustice, with the latter drawing in particularly important ways on the strong tradition of leftist politics in the Indian state of Kerala. They then look toward the future: “When we have done that, then we will provide an example for the world that it needs; and also, having solved the contemporary problems of life in a democratic fashion for one-seventh of all humanity, there are that many fewer people for the rest of the world to worry about” (234).


If the work of Bakhtin provides a useful framework for understanding the polyphonic structure of The Ministry for the Future (which in turn helps us to understand why the novel is postmodern in form), Bakhtin’s work also provides a useful gloss on the ending of the novel, which closes on a note that is hopeful—and even celebratory. And there is cause to celebrate, because so much progress is being made toward fighting climate change and achieving social and economic justice, in the Jameson/Bloch mode of utopianism as movement toward a better world, rather than the imagination of a perfect world. According to Joshua Rothman, Jameson noted to him that Robinson’s novels “stand out not just for their scientific and political rigor, but for their depictions of ‘athletic, physical joy,’ which lighten the mood.” And Ministry ends with just such a moment. In the final chapter, Mary and airship pilot Arthur Nolan, with whom she has struck up something of a relationship, attend the annual Fasnacht celebration in Zurich. It might not be quite as rowdy as the celebrations that Bakhtin has famously associated with the carnivalesque, but it comes close, as the two enjoy themselves immensely in the costumed Shrove Tuesday festival. And the whole experience fills Mary with hope for the future of humanity, filled with a sense of possible, a belief “that the only catastrophe that can’t be undone is extinction. That we can make a good place. That people can take their fate in their hands. That there is no such thing as fate” (564).

Given the success of the ministry and its allies in the course of the novel, Mary has good reason to be hopeful. The novel seems designed to instill hope in readers as well, as a diverse chorus of voices and genres delivers a believable utopian scenario in which a variety of international forces and strategies combine to make great strides toward achieving a livable climate and an equitable political and economic system on a global scale. Ministry contains no miraculous technological leaps, no alien interventions, and no escapes to sanctuary on distant worlds. It delivers no thrilling exploits by heroic individuals. Instead, it demonstrates the ability of the science fiction novel as a polyphonic form to suggest viable ways in which ordinary people—working together as a global collective and backed by solid scientific understanding and progressive socioeconomic theory—can make a better world, free of climate catastrophes and capitalist-driven economic injustice.


1 One element of the considerable educational project undertaken by Ministry is to introduce the uninitiated to concept of wet-bulb temperatures, which has gained increasing prominence in recent discussions of climate change. By combining the effects of temperature and humidity, the wet-bulb temperature is a better measure of human survivability than temperature alone. 35°C is roughly the maximum wet-bulb temperature that humans can survive.

2 For coverage of the long left-leaning engagement in science fiction with the threat posed by climate change, see the collection edited by Gerry Canavan and Robinson himself.

3 The quote is from Jameson’s A Singular Modernity (29).

4 Robinson also refers to both Althusser’s definition of ideology and Williams’s notion of structures of feeling in his 1997 novel Antarctica, suggesting that these concepts are important to his thinking.

5 Robinson’s typical decision not to name Jameson as a source seems to be part of an ongoing game. However, that Robinson does not name Jameson as his source here can be taken as a clever reference to the fact that Jameson identifies his own source only as “someone,” which is a typical Jamesonian gesture.

6 For an extended leftist meditation on the need to move beyond capitalism in order to combat climate change, see Wainwright and Mann.

7 See Wark’s chapter on Robinson for an interesting recent discussion of the Mars trilogy as an exercise in utopian theory with special relevance to climate change.

8 That Robinson might be included in this suggestion becomes clear in Johns-Putra’s book-length study of climate change and the contemporary novel, which concludes with a chapter on Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Robinson’s “Science in the Capital” trilogy.

9 Lukács felt that the historical novel (which, for him, includes the novels of Balzac) was particularly effective for literary representation of historical change. Interestingly, Jameson has discussed the “dialectical and structural relationship” between science fiction and the historical novel (Postmodernism 284). Or, as Carl Freedman (another former student of Jameson’s) puts it, science fiction and the historical novel are related because both “manifest a radical critical impulse, for both are radically dialectical and historicizing literary tendencies, and both are determinate products of the capitalist-revolutionary dynamic that produced history (in the modern sense) itself” (54).

10 Robinson has understood the interrelationship of ecology and economics throughout his career. Markley notes how Robinson was combining these two into the concept of “ecoeconomics” at least as early as the Mars Trilogy, then moved that same kind of thinking to earth in his later works: “No fiction writer today exhibits a better sense than Robinson of the rhythms, nuances, and complexities of scientific discussion, and his commitment to the utopian possibilities of change focuses on humankind’s recognition of its planetary responsibilities—an ecoeconomics for twenty-first-century Earth rather than terraformed Mars” (118).

11 Of these, U.S.A. is the one that most resembles Ministry in a formal sense, combining different types of chapters (both fictional and nonfictional) featuring multiple characters to deliver a message that is highly fragmented, yet also quite coherent and politically charged.

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