When I was a freshman at Notre Dame I wound up in an international relations class. It was 1982, when Ronald Reagan was cranking up the heat on the Cold War. Apparently our professor thought some of us might consider nuclear war an acceptable strategy, because he had us read a post-apocalyptic novel.
I can’t tell you the author or title of that novel, but its scenes of nuclear winter still disrupt my sleep. I’m not a fan of dystopian novels, although every so often I wander into one of them. Nowadays it’s not nuclear winter we fear; it’s biosphere collapse and plague. The often-violent, always-desperate visions of such novels are just as disturbing as what I read for class 40 years ago.
So it took considerable prodding from a friend for me to pick up Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest science fiction tale, The Ministry for the Future. True to the genre, it opens with a deadly heat wave but then turns away from the dystopian formula. Yes, the characters are living through the end of the world in a not-so-distant future, but they are doing something about it.
The protagonist heads a United Nations ministry tasked with protecting the future. She confronts international bureaucracy at the highest levels while her staffers stabilize glaciers in Antarctica, change the banking system, alter social media and challenge legal blockages everywhere. Interspersed among these storylines are short testimonies from more grassroots characters who are reclaiming wasteland with back-breaking labor in India or protecting wild animals in North Dakota. The book is a mosaic of the vast variety of efforts that will have to happen in order to reverse climate change and keep the Earth habitable for humanity.
If I had read this novel as a freshman in any class, my life would have taken a different path. Instead of the petrifying vision of utter calamity that I could do almost nothing to avert, I might have contemplated an array of things that I could do. It’s too late for me to become a glaciologist, a U.N. lawyer or a central banker. But if I apply a little imagination and thought to the shorter stories in Robinson’s novelistic kaleidoscope, I find ways in which I can — in fact must — contribute to saving the Earth from right here in my hometown.
Remarkably, The Ministry for the Future is a novel about global catastrophe that offers a blueprint of hope. It’s not a plan. It’s more like an old-fashioned, folding-paper road map of an entire continent of things that could and need to be done. It’s up to us to plot our route from where we are now to where we want to end up.
Megan Koreman lives in Royal Oak, Michigan. She is a historian and author of The Expectation of Justice: France, 1944-1946 and The Escape Line: How the Ordinary Heroes of Dutch-Paris Resisted the Nazi Occupation of Western Europe. A young adult novel, Dark Clouds over Paris is forthcoming. Read more at dutchparisblog.com.