There was a curious coincidence in recent years, when two of science fiction’s top authors released books with major similarities roughly within 12 months of each other.
The books – “The Ministry for the Future” by Kim Stanley Robinson and “Termination Shock” by Neal Stephenson – both revolve around the issue of how humanity might address worsening climate change. They both have a global scope, feature a diverse cast of characters, and include around rogue actors unilaterally attempting to geoengineer temperatures down by spraying sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere.
Despite the surface similarities, the books are wildly different. “Termination Shock” is an entertaining, manic romp with diversions into topics as varied as falconry, the economics of sulfur, and the Sikh gatka fighting style.
“The Ministry for the Future” is a sober drama driven by realistic characters working diligently to redirect the titanic global political and economic system in a direction that allows humanity to survive the centuries ahead. The book takes its own deep dives into topics like the global central banking system and the legal rights of future generations, though they’re more central to the plot than Stephenson’s digressions.
The bottom line: If you want action and a more propulsive read, try “Termination Shock,” by Neal Stephenson. If you want a more realistic and emotionally compelling treatment, read “The Ministry for the Future,” by Kim Stanley Robinson.
If you’re still not decided, here’s more about the books to help you choose.
by Neal Stephenson, 720 pages, published Oct. 27, 2021
“Termination Shock” follows Frederike Mathilde Louisa Saskia, an imagined queen of the Netherlands, as she travels to Texas to meet with oil billionaire T.R. Schmidt and tour a facility he’s built to launch rockets that will inject hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere. He built the plant in Mexico to help cool the planet and protect his and his friends’ property investments on the low-lying Texas coast. A Texas oil billionaire stepping up to save the planet? Even if the motives are selfish? Sounds great, right?
Not surprisingly, the plan has its detractors, including the entire country of India, which expects that Schmidt’s plan will disrupt the monsoon that it relies on for much of its annual rainfall. That part of the plot ensnares Deep Singh, a Canadian who has become internet famous for fighting the Chinese in hand-to-hand combat on a disputed area of the countries’ border.
Also involved in the plot is Rufus Grant, a half-black, half-Comanche former soldier who now makes a living exterminating feral hogs.
The characters are generally interesting, though they share a Stephensonian brand of cleverness that makes them less realistic, and the plot has lots of action and explosions and gun fights and natural disasters. It’s often funny, sometimes dry in its digressions, sometimes unbelievable, but sometimes completely believable in its portrayal of how humans may act with less-than-altruistic motives and the unintended consequences that can result from poorly conceived actions.
If that all sounds a bit wild and scattered, it’s because it is. It all comes together at the end, and it does make for an enjoyable read, but much of the plot is spectacle for spectacle’s stake.
THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE
by Kim Stanley Robinson, 578 pages, published Oct. 6, 2020
“The Ministry for the Future” follows Mary Murphy, a former Irish diplomat who’s selected to lead a new UN organization (the one the book is named after) that works on behalf of future generations, who’ve recently gained legal status.
Mary is goaded to work faster by Frank May, an American aid worker who was the sole survivor of a deadly heat wave in India. Partly because of Frank’s prodding, Mary encourages her co-worker Badim to set up a “black wing” for the ministry to do non-legal work that would help their cause, but that she can’t know about so she can disavow its actions.
While the book features peripheral subplots like the Children of Kali, a terrorist organization that shoots down private jets and kidnaps billionaires as revenge for the heat wave, it most closely follows Mary and her attempts to revamp the entire global economy using mechanisms including the courts and national central banks.
Stanley also mixes in other genres, including first-person monologues from inanimate objects, to enliven the text. Even with those flourishes, the book reads like almost like non-fiction, and comes across as a well-thought-out blueprint for humanity’s best-case scenario over the coming decades.
Beyond the varied stylistic approaches, “The Ministry for the Future” and “Termination Shock” have major substantive, philosophical differences.
Stephenson’s book subscribes to the “Great Man” theory of history, where individual actors (usually men — even in this book the Queen of the Netherlands is basically a passenger to the male characters’ actions) change the world through their own determination, force of will, and disregard for the approval or understanding of others. You can see this in the profile of oil magnate T.R. Schmidt and Sikh warrior Deep Singh.
The book also belies a sympathy for ruggedly individual billionaires of the type that loom so large culturally and societally right now. Stephenson seems to have an affection for their ability to say “Fuck it” and do whatever they want, dithering governments be damned.
To me, that added a disturbing bleakness to the story. For anyone who’s not a billionaire, all you can do is sit back and hope one of the people who actually matters has an attack of conscience and decides to save the world.
There’s a chance Stephenson is right. Governments may be unsuited to the task of heading off climate change, and our only hope may be some plutocrat who has enough resources to reshape the global atmosphere. But I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that knowledge. Just say “screw it” and try to keep myself entertained while praying some fat cat decides to put out the fire?
I still had the bad aftertaste of this book a month later when I read “The Ministry for the Future,” and I suspect that’s part of why Robinson’s book affected me so deeply.
Where Stephenson’s heroes are billionaires and mercenaries, Robinson’s heroes are scientists and bureaucrats. Their battlegrounds are conferences and courtrooms. Their weapons are persistence, intelligence, innovation, and persuasion.
I understand that this setup may sound boring to some readers. A friend of mine described this book as “speculative non-fiction,” and the label is apt. It’s deeply researched and proceeds methodically and realistically. That didn’t make it boring to me, though.
There are real, personal dramas involved. The stakes – the fate of the world – are high. Seeing a well-thought-out, best-case scenario for the next few decades was compelling, and I couldn’t stay away from this book for long while I was reading it.
In that way, I’d recommend reading the books as a pair, starting with “Termination Shock” and ending with “The Ministry for the Future.” The first will reveal the ego and nihilism that got our climate into this mess, and the second will show how to roll up our sleeves and get ourselves out of it.