A critique of Ministry for the Future

The title says it all. Favorite Paragraph:

As with other themes, Kim Stanley Robinson’s parody of techno-solutionism gets so heavy-handed that even the most Blockchain-loving reader must take it as obvious satire. The man got to the point of including a poem about the Chain within his book. That is some real dedication.


Thanks for this! I referenced the review in a recent panel discussion hosted by NCAR and ASU titled Co-creating Useful and Usable Climate Intervention Simulations. This networking platform is certainly serving it’s purpose.


Thank you both for linking to my review!

@zazizoma please let me know if there’s any interesting discussion stemming from the panel!

You might also find the “Solarpunk Prompts” podcast - Solarpunk Prompts (@SolarpunkPrompts) • Episodes - useful for discussing possible future scenarios. We specifically created a lot of non-trivial, community-based story hooks which could encourage discussion and exploration!

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Hello @alxd , fancy meeting you here, welcome! I believe we had an exchange on Mastodon a while back. :slight_smile:

You have a point in your review – several, actually, and thanks @Tim_Reutemann for posting it. KSR himself admitted that referencing the b**chain had been a mistake. Rather than debating your impressive critique, I will say this: I never thought about Ministry as a prophecy or an attempt as a definitive statement about the transition to a non-doomed world. It’s just a near-future cli-fi novel. And yes, one by an author with his own obsessions and idiosyncrasies: the Mars trilogy has several references to the Swiss (as well as the Sufis, who do not feature in Ministry) too, with first-generation native Martian Nirgal visiting Switzerland in his ambassadorial trip to Earth in Green Mars.

As far the economics plays out, same story. In the great tapestry of Ministry, several things are waved through. Again, this is similar to Mars, where KSR resorts to having the economic model (“Vlad’s eco-economics”) explained by Coyote, a character that admits he does not understand it. In this sense, indeed, the organization of the Martian economy is only a narrative device: it enables the stories of the characters (for example Maya working for a water cooperative), but is neither explained nor understood.

Within these limitations, I still find KSR’s work – including Ministry – inspiring. For two reasons: one, he sets stories in economic systems we (and him) don’t really understand, but they are different from the late-stage capitalism we live in. If we find ourselves longing for these systems, then we can sit down and try to reverse engineer them. It is what we did in the Great Retrofit world two weeks ago.

Two – and this is specific to Ministry – he attempts to chart a path that takes us from here to a there where GNG emissions have been put under control. This is a fantastic contribution, and a major call to actions for economists and policy makers. Most solarpunk sci-fi starts in medias res, the transition has been accomplished or is underway (the mind goes to Ruthanna Emrys’s A Half-Built Garden – Cory Doctorow’s review is here). KSR’s dogged insistence on charting the entire journey translates well into the concept of subgame-perfect equilibria from game theory, and has been the inspiration for our own Sci-Fi Economics residency.

As a bonus, KSR occasionally even gets some economics right! For example, his statement that necessities should never be exploited for profit, because markets for human rights just do not work, is great. I found it echoed in subsequent papers, like this one (from 2023, so two years after Ministry).

So. Yes, let us by all means critique Ministry, but I would submit that its contribution is not (and was never meant to be) “getting it right”. It is to be thought-provoking, and in that sense, well, mission accomplished. You wrote a long review and even imagined a “perfect” version of the book; we organized an online discussion (three years ago!): and here we are, debating it again. This is what science fiction economics is about!

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Hey @alberto and thank you!

The point of my review is not to argue that the book needs to be “perfect”, but that without an appropriate warning label / foreword, “The Ministry…” is misleading and more harmful than helpful to the debate.

Let me focus my criticism on just one point:

KSR has never apologized for using Blockchain (as a magical technology) in the “Ministry…”. Thanks to you I was able to find his exact wording:

In the list of mistakes I’ve become aware of making in Ministry, using the word blockchain is prominent. I should have said “encrypted digital money,” or even just “digital encryption.” The computing experts I’ve spoken to, a pretty big group at this point, have often assured me that blockchain as such doesn’t require the huge “proof of work” action demanded by the designers of bitcoin. Nor, they told me, is it a particularly great form of encryption; they judge it as code to be (perhaps deliberately) awkward, and very likely to be superseded in years to come.

KSR apologized for using the name of this version of encrypted digital money, but is absolutely okay with its notion in itself. For me this is the problematic part, because I see no difference between a “fix-all digital money” and “fix-all geoengineering quantum-nanorobots”. The deus ex machina just allowed him to swipe a lot of problems under the rug.

You could write a really good climate economy book on digital money, but it would need to describe a lot of processes which were completely ignored in “The Ministry…”. What is its environmental footprint? Which agency safeguards it? How are people / corporations trying to game it, and how can it be defended from that? Without those questions, all we get is technosolutionism.

I do appreciate the value of the “The Ministry…” as a book which tries tackling economy, which a lot of Solarpunk and climate books are not attempting. At the same time I believe we should preface every reading of “The Ministry…” with a warning that it does handwave a lot of crucial details.

I believe that our job of creating better future visions is to learn from “The Ministry…” and do better, without blindly hating on it, but also without internalizing its mistakes and allowing others to take them as scientific and true.

Actually, this is an idea. Would it be worthwhile to make a crowd-sourced list of actual proposed solutions and problems found in different Solarpunk / climate books?

I believe my review was pretty exhaustive for “The Ministry…”.

For “A Half-Built Garden” we could go with the criticism of “foregoing to describe the transformation”, “naive economic outlook on trade with the corporate aislands”, but at the same time praise “the emphasis on the role of communication algorithms within the society / communities”.

Maybe a wiki would make sense?

P. S.

I’m actually preparing a Solarpunk Prompt on the notion of Digital Money and economic problem solving in a climate-focused world. The current version reads:

A small team of researchers is woken up by their notification inboxes exploding: their mundane and unexciting report might have just stared an economic war between multiple regions and communities. In a world with tightly-controlled carbon budgets, the production, use and recycling of every product is a subject of LCA, or a LifeCycle Assessment. A bad result might change the design, or move the production to another region, with potential political consequences. How will the researchers deal with their newly acquired (in)fame? Will they trust their analysis, buckle under pressure, or decide to play politics?

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We have one, with a less critical and more “listing what’s out there” approach:

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I don’t quite understand this objection. I am also OK with it, without this implying that I think it’s some kind of silver bullet. The real-life digital euro (still under development) is going to enable interesting forms of monetary policy: the ECB will be able to do things like deliver COVID relief money directly to EU residents, one-click, just like it can now do for banks only. And it is going to use encryption, though not necessarily distributed ledger. So it’s encrypted digital money. Does this mean it will solve everything? No. Does it mean it can be useful? Absolutely.

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This is my point, actually. If you start analyzing “The Ministry…” you will see that the adoption of Blockchain is the turning point of the plot, the deus ex machina. The technology is not discussed or analyzed, shown as a potential solution, it is the total solution.

There are books which propose ideas, but Blockchain in “The Ministry…” didn’t feel like a proposal. It felt like KSR needed “and something happens here to make the transition possible” and just scrawled “DIGITAL CURRENCY” all over.

In this sense I consider “The Ministry…” problematic and harmful to the debate, because most people reading it do not have the expertise to realize that Blockchain is not the silver bullet the plot suggests it is.

The book gets even more absurd (as I describe at the end of my review). Even I wasn’t able to process that KSR describes creating a religion backing a shadow government and manipulating people using AI and total surveillance through the blockchain social networks. I needed someone else to point that out to me. It’s… very dystopian.

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I take the “encrypted money” as a short hand for “Anything that you can create in a video game could be the law of the land” and must admit that it is charming me, too.

A lot of the “there is no alternative” in 2nd millennium governance can be attributed to high cost of basic information processing.

You could say “a half baked garden” did the same with the “Dandelion Networks” and its “Threads” that solve everything, albeit I do like their User Interface description in the novel a lot more than the hand waving at architectural problems in the “ministry”.


I appreciate that the “Garden…” doesn’t claim to be as total as the “Ministry…”. It has a lot of problems - with focus, with pacing, but I think that the Dandelion networks are more fleshed out in the Garden than the Blockchain is in the Ministry:

The plot is happening around them. We can see that they are fallible without oversight, without humans working on it, and we see the people doing the care work, making sure that the infrastructure can support the communities. It’s a very surface level look, but it makes it possible for us to think about the social networking as something to discuss, to look into.

Compare that to the mathematical finality of most solutions in the “Ministry…”, which have the same ring to them as the uncaring cosmos of the “Three Body Problem” and the following books. They just must happen, this is the structure of the world. We do not need to see those fleshy imperfect humans maintaining them, the mathematics protects!

For me one of the most important aspects of Solarpunk / climate fiction is making topics tangible, especially when it comes to infrastructure and ecosystems. Without that, we cannot really discuss them, they’re too invisible, “obvious”, “cannot work differently”.

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That’s not what I see. What I do see is the politics. Mary needs to convince the main central bankers to put their weight behind an idea. She fails,then eventually succeeds. She could have continued to fail, there is nothing necessary here. There is a constraint: any sufficiently dramatic change needs to either co-opt or destroy those who have the power.

That digital money would be encrypted is just an element of realism in the book, and a fact of life in the world we live in. Unencrypted digital currency being issued by a major central bank would be bizarre. So would non-digital currencies: we can’t expect the central banks in Ministry to print assignats on paper, like the First Republic after the French Revolution.

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However, the Ministry says nothing about how the currency is backed by value.
Who is forced by whom to pay taxes in that currency?
Which global commodity monopoly of the currency is violently enforced?
Or (preferably) which other realistic ways are there to engineer a global currency? And how many of them exist in parallel?