Enough About “We”

When sci-fi needs a little less sci and a little more fi
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In times of national tragedy, we hear a lot about what we will do: how we will survive this, how we will suffer losses but endure, how we will learn from our mistakes. The indomitable we, the hero of these sorts of sentences, was often invoked during the months leading into the Trump presidency, and throughout it, and then again during the pandemic that arguably ended it. The phrase invited the reply: Not all of us. Bad policy or bungled responses to large-scale misfortune both mean, pretty much by definition, that people will die who might have been saved, and they are locked out of any such we. This rhetorical device has thus, and with good reason, come to sound both cosseted and callous to many ears. Yet the comfort it holds out, the secular life-after-death it offers, speaks to a common need — a desire that something vaguely human should survive all this. Surely some of those who, a few years ago, sought such comfort in this language are among today’s unnecessarily dead.

Reviewed in this article
Orbit ~ 2020 ~ 576 pp.
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Can a good novel be written about we? To attempt to do so would require a largish and somewhat unlikely skill set. We — or we — would need, first of all, a writer relatively fluent in, and curious about, both the physical and life sciences: someone who could not only tell you, for example, why we are in the midst of a mass extinction, but how and whether to re-engineer a vanished genome. We’d need a writer who could make disciplined and careful extrapolations from the known to the yet unknown, from the existing to the potential: a writer working in the tradition of “hard” science fiction, then — the branch of science fiction most concerned with scientific accuracy.

But our writer would also have to know something about politics, about culture: how a society is likely to respond to historically new situations or technologies. Such a writer would need to have a relatively deep awareness of the social sciences as well, and of history. These traits might also help our writer avoid glibness and callousness in telling the story of we, by directing compassionate attention to the hecatombs of them that every we leaves behind on its way to survival.

Kim Stanley Robinson seems to fulfill both of these criteria: competence in science and seriousness about politics. He does his homework — his conjectures about future technologies and discoveries are extraordinarily disciplined, informed, and specific. His wife is a chemist, and he seems to spend a great deal of time in the company of various sorts of scientists. His novels and stories often answer crucial technical questions in such detail that one sometimes gets distracted asking oneself, “How can I get my senators to read this?”as during the long section of his most recent book, The Ministry for the Future (2020), that details how a team of engineers reverses glacial melt. And though all science fiction writers must sometimes resort to “handwavium” — the practice of positing some mysterious and underexplained substance, or process, or newly discovered law of nature, that allows the plot to happen — Robinson’s handwavium is unusually difficult for the non-scientist to detect. He is a “hard” sci-fi writer in this sense, as interested in telling a story about, say, Martian geology as a story about people.

But he has also learned from the writers of the 1960s and early 1970s who are often associated with terms like “new wave sci-fi” and “speculative fiction,” and whose curiosity extended as well to the social sciences: Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delany, Joanna Russ, Thomas M. Disch. Like these writers, Robinson realizes that the mere discovery of a technical solution to a problem tells us nothing about whether, and how, that solution will actually be implemented in a society composed of actual people who believe and want different things. If he is writing about a Mars colony he may, frankly, overwhelm you with information about the stratigraphic layers of the landscape, but he will also be sure to let you know about the wildly opposed desires that those Mars rocks trigger in his characters — the urge to preserve them, the urge to worship them, the urge to strip-mine them and get rich selling rare elements.

This means that the politics of his work, too, are somewhat anomalous in the world of hard sci-fi — an ideologically diverse field, but one that has often attracted libertarians of various stripes, who tend to plot the triumph of heroic scientists subduing both nature’s and man’s antagonism. Consider Robert Heinlein, for example, whose novels focus on small groups, usually composed of a single genius entrepreneur, scientific visionary, or can-do soldier surrounded by malingerers and incompetents. Heinlein’s novels are the richest possible artistic rendering of the story Elon Musk must imagine he is living.

Robinson believes as surely as Heinlein did in problem-solving, engineering, and Progress, but he envisions these as arising from political struggle between flawed people. Robinson considers the capitalism beloved of Heinlein a mere modern form of feudalism, destined for the ash bin of history. Heinlein’s best work — “The Man Who Sold the Moon” (1950), Glory Road (1963), and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) — undercuts his triumphalism with melancholy scenes of heroic self-sacrifice or lovers’ separation. But Robinson actually seems to care about the fate of people who are not his heroes. If his works depict a we surviving, they also owe some of their appeal to the ways that they try to record the irremediable losses, the victims of history, the corpses who stand outside any surviving we with their faces fixed in horror or longing or confusion. He is not as simply, glibly Whiggish as a novelist with his preoccupations risks being.

To write about we, a novelist must get creative with both character and point of view. Luckily, Robinson’s genre permits him a certain latitude in these areas, and he has taken imaginative advantage of this freedom. You can see many of his books as clever solutions to the technical problem of creating protagonists or point-of-view characters who are somehow big enough to bestride the large stretches of history that interest him.

Aurora (2015), for example, which tells the story of a generations-long trip to the Tau Ceti system, is largely narrated by a spaceship. The spaceship’s AI, we are told, has been fed some novels, and also some textbooks on narratology, enabling it to do the novelist’s job. We are even treated to some cutely meta asides on the inherent distortions and elisions of fiction writing. In the Mars Trilogy — Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993), Blue Mars (1996) — the colonists happen to discover a treatment that allows them to live to an extreme old age, which allows Robinson to look at multiple centuries of space colonization through the same pairs of eyes. In The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) — an alternate-history novel where the centuries between the Black Death and today are dominated by the Middle East and China — he adopts Buddhist and Hindu notions of reincarnation and posthumous judgment, which allows his two main characters to reappear together, century after century, giving us a panoramic view of a modernity that could have been.

In structuring his novels, too, he seeks to accommodate the largest view possible. Science fiction publishers are known to prefer trilogies over standalone novels, for commercial reasons, but just as Dickens’s genius was ideally suited to serialization, Robinson’s imagination lends itself to the thesis–antithesis–synthesis rhythm of the three-part saga. In more recent novels, he uses a collage structure, alternating not only narrators but narrative modes: third-person limited, third-person omniscient, fictional oral history, essayistic interludes, jokes and riddles.

Prolific as Robinson is, his major works fall into a recognizable pattern. They are stories about how Humanity, writ large, tackles a seemingly impossible technical problem that is simultaneously political and economic. How, for example, might we live on after a nuclear disaster? This is the subject of, among other works, his first novel, The Wild Shore. How might we colonize Mars, and where else might we go from there? See Icehenge, the Mars Trilogy, Galileo’s Dream, and 2312. How might we have turned out very different, had history taken a different turn? Consider again The Years of Rice and Salt, and the short story “The Lucky Strike,” which imagines the bombing of Hiroshima not working out as planned.

One would expect such a writer, sooner or later, to turn his attention to the question “What can we do about climate change?” Moreover, one would desire him to do so. We need books that depict ongoing human life in a climate-shifted world, in a mode that is neither dystopian nor utopian, on a canvas big enough to contain the many questions such a world poses: What political program would cut carbon the fastest? What political program that we can actually imagine people adopting would do so? What are the fairest ways to mitigate disaster? How can we increase the likelihood that our institutions will adopt these ways, and not the ways that they tend to adopt? What are the various moral and technical tradeoffs we should think about as we try to be responsible citizens? How do I as an individual fit into all this?

These are the exact sorts of questions that Robinson is better situated than most living writers to answer intelligently. I am speaking of Robinson’s potential contribution to culture generally, but I am also speaking for me. I began reading him in a moment of acute climate-related despair. I wanted to feel that there would be, later in this century, people around to remember me, or the sort of world I had lived in. Even more so, I wanted to feel that there would be, later on, people around to forget both me and my world — that people would continue to live on this planet long enough for the knowledge not only of my own existence but that of my entire historical period, my nation, my epoch, to be lost. I was in an agnostic mood, unsure about the continuity of my physical existence after death, and I wanted to cover all my bases. It is a childish desire, but only in the sense that, say, needing to eat is childish. If I won’t be around some day, perhaps I can find a bit of comfort in the survival of we.

Robinson turned his attention to climate change first with the Capital trilogy (2004–2007), and then with New York 2140 (2017). Now he has done so again with The Ministry for the Future.

By the end of his new book, we have indeed figured out how to survive. We have figured out how to combine the lowest-risk forms of geoengineering with the right amount of reforestation. We have successfully rejiggered all the incentives that lead to the burning of carbon, via a combination of oddly effective diplomacy, eco-terrorism, and sweeping institutional reform. We have, more or less, muddled through.

Like the century in which it is set — a period beginning four years from now and ending several decades later — The Ministry for the Future is crowded and chaotic. Its hero is Mary Murphy, an Irish diplomat. She works for the titular agency, a (fictional) arm of the United Nations that advocates for the human rights of future generations. In this capacity, she wheedles world leaders and, with more success, central bankers. She appeals to their natural preference for stability, and secures the introduction of a “carbon coin,” a form of currency that monetizes carbon capture. The more emissions you scrub from the air, the richer you get, incentivizing the development of better carbon-capture technologies.

The novel’s other hero is a former aid worker named Frank May, the lone survivor of a massive heat wave in India. Traumatized, and then radicalized, he turns to eco-terror, while Mary seeks to Work Within the System. Robinson’s characters are often conceived in such dialectical opposition to each other — the optimist and the pessimist, the meliorist and the radical, the idealist and the pragmatist. Material progress arises from the struggle between the two approaches.

If the novel seeks a synthesis of Mary’s and Frank’s visions — more about this later — the book’s structure seeks to include everything. As Robinson describes his approach in an interview with the Chicago Review of Books:

I have a lot of faith in the novel as a really capacious form. And I like formal experiments in novel structure as a reader, and have tried quite a few of them as a writer….

So for this one, I decided I would anchor the story in Zurich, and in the lives of Mary and Frank and a small circle of secondary characters around them…, and then give over the rest of the novel to eyewitness accounts, which I discovered is really a separate genre with its own norms, which turned out to be incredibly useful to me for this job. That discovery was my favorite part. Then a few other modes as well, including the 18th century’s “IT” narratives, and riddles out of old English, and meeting notes, radio show transcripts, and so on. I’m aware the result is kind of cumbersome and strange, but oh well. I tried to keep it quick too, and form follows function, so you do what you have to. And when I found the form for this particular function, it all came together for me.

One can see here the exact sort of geeky curiosity, the excitement about the possibilities of various forms, that makes Robinson a very appealing novelist to read about, and it is fun when the writer you are reading knows things you don’t and is creative in finding new ways to write about it.

Unfortunately, when one turns from Robinson’s theory to his practice, one encounters passages like this:

The Gini coefficient, devised by the Italian sociologist Corrado Gini in 1912, is a measure of income or wealth disparity in a population. It is usually expressed as a fraction between 0 and 1, and it seems easy to understand, because 0 is the coefficient if everyone owned an equal amount, while 1 would obtain if one person owned everything and everyone else nothing.

This is not bad pop-science writing, and at least it’s clearer than the Wikipedia entry for “Gini coefficient,” but it does not exactly rivet. A page later, Robinson lets us know that “inequality has now reached levels not seen since the so-called Gilded Age of the 1890s.” This may be true, but by now the reader is hoping for some sort of punchline, that perhaps this passage does double-duty: Robinson is giving us a necessary info-dump, while parodying, perhaps, the speaking style of the better-intentioned sort of economics professor. The “so-called’ before “Gilded Age” is so pedantic as to faintly suggest this possibility.

But when he goes on to list several “alternative measures that compensate for” the failures of both the Gini coefficient and GDP — “the Happy Planet Index, created by the New Economic Forum, which combines well-being as reported by citizens,” and so forth — one realizes that, no, Robinson is not parodying anything. His junk-drawer narrative strategy has simply allowed him to include material that, whatever its value as information, is narratively, well, junk. Robinson has told us some interesting things about how social scientists define human flourishing, but he has used the idea of narrative collage to cover up, to himself if not to his readers, for his failure to novelize this information, to incorporate it into the book’s action or structure or dialogue in a way that gives the information meaning within the story.

There are many such parts in this book, including some distractingly silly sections in which, for example, blockchain and encryption, speaking in the first person, direct readers to “Put me to use.” (These sections reminded me of the old Reader’s Digest “I Am Joe’s Pancreas” essays that my parents used to make me read.)

Info-dumping isn’t always bad in a novel — you find plenty of it in the novels of Thomas Pynchon, for instance. But in Pynchon, it is done with some flair, in that very particular Pynchonesque tone and voice that, over the course of his books, come to function as characters in their own right: the voice of an all-seeing but impotent observer, the Enlightenment God as paranoid burnout. If the narrative voice is going to lecture and hector, it has to become, somehow, a presence in the story. The bland style that Robinson uses here has just the opposite effect. He even seems to recognize as much, ending the chapter from which I’ve just quoted as follows:

But it’s important also to take this whole question back out of the realm of quantification, sometimes, to the realm of the human and the social. To ask what it all means, what it’s all for. To consider the axioms we are agreeing to live by. To acknowledge the reality of other people, and of the planet itself. To see other people’s faces. To walk outdoors and look around.

To which the reader, now deeply exasperated, is tempted to respond: Yes! Yes, it is important to take this whole question back into the realm of the human and the social, something that a novelist might do by means of his characters and plot. Robinson’s have idled for several pages at this point, and they continue to do so at frequent intervals throughout the rest of the book. (The following chapter involves Frank killing a rich person, which at least enlivens matters a bit.)

As a novel, then, The Ministry for the Future is flawed, in ways that are both new and familiar in Robinson’s larger oeuvre. In the Mars Trilogy or The Years of Rice and Salt, his dialogue is also blandly informative. The tic-like frequency with which his characters use variations on phrases like “you know that” or “you know why” and then go on, anyway, to tell each other what they know is a tell. Throughout Red Mars, a character named Frank Chalmers spends much of the book engaged in what are, to judge from the narration, impenetrably clever manipulations of other characters, and yet every time he opens his mouth, he makes his “secret” agendas so obvious that you could probably spot them from Earth. At least in that book, one could see Robinson going to the trouble of giving us information through the confrontations between his characters, their questioning of each other, their arguments; he did not simply serve it to us undigested, in lists and mini-essays.

In The Ministry for the Future, it’s as though Robinson wants to do an end run around character — an impression that is only reinforced when we turn to the book’s plethora of fictionalized “eyewitness accounts.” By these means Robinson includes dozens of nominally diverse voices in his novel, representing many walks of life. But they all sound exactly the same.

It’s revealing, in this connection, to consider the one section of The Ministry for the Future that almost every reviewer — both the enthusiastic and the disappointed — has noted as a specifically artistic success. It is the book’s captivating and appalling opening section, in which we follow young Frank May in India as he attempts to rescue the residents of a small city from, and then simply to survive, a heat wave that reaches “wet-bulb” conditions of 95 degrees Fahrenheit — the parboiling heat of that temperature plus one-hundred percent humidity. In such conditions, people who can’t access air conditioning may die after several hours, and few power grids are strong enough to survive the electricity demand for long. Robinson has often been effective at writing scenes of disaster on a massive scale — such as the plague deaths of The Years of Rice and Salt and the various acts of terrorism that run through the Mars Trilogy — and the beginning of The Ministry for the Future ranks among the most appalling descriptions of disaster I’ve ever read.

As the day opens and power goes out, Frank sets up a generator to run a window air-conditioning unit and brings as many people into his building as he can. (You feel the sickening heat, the agonizing stillness.) Frank isn’t sure how long the generator can run, but this turns out not to matter, as he is robbed of it at gunpoint the next day. As temperatures rise, everyone decides to head to the lake. It is already so crowded there that the water itself is no comfort; it is as hot as a no-longer-fresh cup of tea.

Still he had a thirst that couldn’t be slaked. Hot water in one’s stomach meant there was no refuge anywhere, the world both inside and outside well higher than human body temperature ought to be. They were being poached…. People were dying faster than ever…. 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.

Ultimately Frank, seemingly the only one of millions, survives the heat wave. When he is capable of thinking semi-coherently again, he comes to suspect that his survival was enabled by his previously well-nourished and well-hydrated American existence. Thus does Robinson allegorize one of the most grotesque implications of climate change: Some of the countries that contributed last to it will be the first to suffer. (Or that contributed the least — consider Micronesia or any low-lying island nation.)

It is a powerful sequence. And yet its very success points to one of Robinson’s major weaknesses. Trauma depicted in this way, as a reduction to the most basic sensations — the terror and thirst and exhaustion that anyone would feel — de-individuates Frank’s character. We do not hear, for example, much about Frank’s weird dreams or reveries as he wavers in and out of consciousness through the Indian night. “Many years passed for Frank that night” is all the subjectivity Robinson grants him. Even in the moments when his writing is most narratively compelling, Robinson can only get so close to his characters.

As I read The Ministry for the Future, to keep my irritation with these flaws in check, I began mentally comparing it not to Robinson’s other novels, or to any other novels, but to nonfiction books on climate, of which my aesthetic expectations are far lower. As a novel, it is a failure. As a compendium of research on possible solutions to climate change, strung together by story-like thought experiments, it has genuine value. It engages questions that often keep me up at night: If all the earth’s current resources were shared out equally, what would be left over for me? Could a group of clever engineers do something about the glaciers? When — and it increasingly seems a matter of when, not if — a government decides to try geo-engineering, what methods are they likeliest to use, and what are the best- and worst-case scenarios that accompany those methods?

In this book, India’s government responds to the heat wave by spraying particles into the sky to reduce solar radiation — a risky and temporary solution that, in real life, a Bill Gates–funded Harvard project was meant to investigate before it was canceled due to pressure from scientists and environmentalists. The recent episode in which a giant container ship got accidentally stuck in the Suez Canal also echoes a moment in the book in which eco-terrorists torpedo cargo ships so as to hasten the development of less carbon-intensive forms of transit.

At the same time, the aesthetic failings of The Ministry for the Future are bound up with Robinson’s larger project: telling the story of humanity’s survival, of the enduring we. One often feels that he is insightful about group behavior and dynamics, about human needs and tendencies, but, somehow, not about people.

This is plainly so in his treatment of religion. Like many skeptics, Robinson spends a fair amount of time theorizing about a new and better religion, one that would consist, essentially, in attending to the marvelous world that good scientists continually uncover for us. The Mars Trilogy, for example, features a sect composed mostly of scientists. They do some chanting, and then eat some Martian dirt while engaging in orgies.

In a 2010 talk, “Science, Religion, Ideology,” Robinson makes this point explicit. Science, he says, is “a religion in the sense of religio, it’s what binds us together. It is a form of devotion. The scientific study of the world is simply a kind of worship of it, a very detailed, painstaking, and often tedious daily worship, like Zen.” This does not happen to be my religion, but it’s a good one as religions go, and it certainly involves a set of mental habits useful both to the ecologically conscientious person and to the novelist.

Robinson’s books that are set in the future often envision some similar new religion, based on the love of the world’s small details, the glorious facts of botany, geology, metallurgy. His novels set in the past, too, often make heroes of some conventionally religious people who nevertheless see their own scientific or proto-scientific activity as a way of loving God.

The motif recurs again in Ministry, in a thinly-sketched, mostly allusive way. “We make a new religion! Some kind of Earth religion, everyone family, universal brotherhood,” suggests one of Mary’s subordinates, a fellow bureaucrat named Tatiana. Much later, we hear the same suggestion from another of Mary’s allies — her chief of staff, Badim, who turns out to be secretly involved in the acts of eco-terror and sabotage throughout the novel. Late in the story, when carbon levels have finally begun to drop, we find that this religion has somehow sprung into existence, with the ministry’s help. Three billion people participate simultaneously in a worldwide ritual. The details are not clear, but it involves all of the participants looking at things, then listening to a meditation podcast, while singing praises to the Earth.

Like many scenes in Ministry, this one is at once prolix and short on convincing details. Reading it again, what strikes me is that Robinson seems so excited about the mere idea of paying attention, the potential world-renewing power of it, its potential benefits for humanity, that he has forgotten to actually do it. He is too busy extolling attention as a way of life to attend to his characters’ particularity.

Along with the motif of a new, nature-worshipping religion, Robinson has also often returned to the idea of Switzerland. This makes sense, because Switzerland features in the liberal imagination — and in the imagination of liberalism’s critics — less as a place where people actually live than as a parable about humanity’s future. If you’re a certain type of liberal, you imagine Switzerland as a post-history social democracy, an end state of human struggle, and you rejoice. If you hate liberalism, you might imagine Switzerland as a dystopia of the sterile and depressed — a nation only good for making cuckoo clocks, as The Third Man’s Harry Lime puts it, and for inducing despair. Switzerland as an actual place disappears in both visions.

In Red Mars, the larger-than-life Martian hero-politician John Boone exhorts his fellow colonists to allow themselves to develop a distinctively Martian culture. One perhaps-ironic section of the novel makes it clear that Boone’s “Martianness” is basically just Swissness: “To be part of the world but to stand away from it at the same time; to use it, but hold it off; to be small but in control, to be armed to the teeth but never go to war; wasn’t that one way of defining what he wanted for Mars?”

Robinson’s admiration for this country reasserts itself in Ministry, which ends at a celebration of the Swiss festival known as Fasnacht. Having saved the Earth, Mary, now silver-haired and retired, is finally allowing herself to go out on a date with a character named Arthur, who is just her type. Fasnacht in Robinson’s telling is a bit like Festivus, the secular alternative to Christmas: an idea about celebration, a placeholder for the value that celebration holds in human life, but a blurry one.

Not accidentally, it is in this sketched-in setting that Mary, in the final sentences of the book, turns her thoughts to the survival of our old friend we:

We will keep going, she said to him in her head — to everyone she knew or had ever known, all those people so tangled inside her, living or dead, we will keep going, she reassured them all, but mostly herself, if she could; we will keep going, we will keep going, because there is no such thing as fate. Because we never really come to the end.

And perhaps Mary is right. Through some combination of ingenuity, pain, and endurance, perhaps some we will carry on, one way or another. But whatever minor personal comfort I may take in this thought, there is not, finally, much aesthetic interest to be found in the story of we. That entity is too pallid, too abstract, too busy Surviving and Enduring to develop much of a personality. We is a gesture: an acknowledgment that there are still particular people alive somewhere. But it is not itself alive, and novels are for the living.

Phil Christman, “Enough About ‘We’,” The New Atlantis, Number 65, Summer 2021, pp. 83–93.

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