So I read my first cli-fi novel, and I’m pretty stoked to be able to say that. It is not too often that a longtime dedicated reader gets introduced to a new genre, or sub-genre I guess, of literature. But here I sit, having just read The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, and I am having the delightful issue of struggling to evaluate the novel amidst a lack of understanding of the genre to which it belongs.
Some of this naivety is due to my lack of deep reading in science fiction in general. And that bias comes from my lack of love for what I was exposed to early on. Instead, in my teenage years, I chose the less intellectual realm of the mythical and magical that fantasy offered rather than the hypothetical realities of science fiction.
I guess I fell prey to the harmful side of the double-edged sword that is science fiction. As far as I can ascertain, the genre’s greatness and weakness is that science and fiction do not blend easily. One reads fiction to learn about reality through that which is not, and science strives to limit what we accept as reality based on what we are able to experience. Blend them together and we have an unwieldy beast.
To be more specific, I struggle with science fiction in the moments where the science takes over. A science fiction book introduces characters, setting, plot- everything a fiction book needs- and then it will, oftentimes without great transition or segue, break into the theoretical technicalities of how humans might, say… mine diamonds from asteroids… and I’m lost.
I am recounting this from the first person because I know this is a ‘me’ thing. I know many people who love this genre, and it is easy for me to comprehend that love, but as for me… I’m kinda okay with the plot just having people mining diamonds on asteroids. Or better yet, I am okay with the vague and often scientifically unsatisfactory explanations that purely fiction novels offer. They work for me, but I can also see how they would be maddening, or worse, harmful to the verisimilitude of the novel for the more science-minded reader.
I am not science minded. It was my worst ACT section. So I don’t mind. And in fact, the blending of fiction and scientific writing often sounds to me like one of the sins of composition that William Zinsser outlines in his must-read book on writing, On Writing. In his chapter on ‘Unity,’ he discusses selecting a form for your writing, one form, and that an author’s work suffers if there are more than one form present. He uses the example of a tourist manual to elucidate. A tourist manual is equal parts narrative of some Dick and Jane as they tour Vienna, as well as helpful how-to-guide about how Dick and Jane should prepare or where they may want to go, and it is because of this mashing of forms that the writing is intolerable.
I prefer using the example of Dan Brown novels to explain (especially the later ones, Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code manage to blend the writing style’s fairly well). They are equal parts thriller novels and history textbook. The story will build to a climax at the discovery or solving of some enigmatic clue when, all of a sudden, we are reading about some ancient civilization and how they fell into decline in relation to the rise of the Roman Empire… and the magic is lost…
Where was I? Oh yeah… cli-fi… The Ministry for the Future. I selected this novel because I was reading a lot of nonfiction about climate change (The Uninhabitable Earth, The World Without Us, The Great Derangement, and the New York Magazines three-parter on the subject) when Ezra Klein interviewed Kim Stanley Robinson on his podcast (The Ezra Klein Show) about the book. I thought it would be a wonderful addition to my reading. And it was! I just don’t know if I liked it.
The book was written from approximately…. 37 different points-of-view, which was actually pretty engaging. Each chapter took on a new narrator, and a lot of the narrators took on multiple chapters, some only showed up once- like photons, carbon, and the block chain (yeah, they all narrated a chapter).
This set-up serves multiple functions. One is to overcome the much-discussed problem of finding a structure that adequately addresses climate change. The Great Derangement is largely a book about how we struggle to fit climate change into our thought patterns, and by extension our literature (although that is oversimplifying The Great Derangement by quite a bit). And Robinson is able to overcome this challenge by changing points of view from the macro to the micro and everything in-between. From my limited perspective, it worked really well. It felt grand and heartfelt, broad and specific.
By extension, Robinson also introduces us to a multiplicity of writing forms. There are chapters that are interviews, minutes from a meeting, eye-witness testimony, and personified portions of our world. And this may not be a function of his structure as much as a necessity, but this makes the potentially jarring nature of switching points-of-view so frequently much more welcoming. It also creates the paradoxically broad and narrow view necessary to adequately write about climate change, which is both dauntingly massive and uncomfortably personal.
But out of this solution is borne my struggle with the novel, and it has to do with my issues (mentioned above) with science fiction in general. Some of those chapters were written as what I can best surmise were articles in science and/or economy magazines, based on my very limited reading of science and economy magazines.
And this had to happen, this is cli-fi, which if you haven’t figured out yet is a sub-genre of sci-fi, so the realistic explanations of climate change and what might happen to the economy if X or Y happened were prerequisites. And I enjoyed a lot of those explanations, but also, at a certain point, I wondered if the impact of that information could not have been better conveyed in the fiction half of the science fiction genre. If the personal could not have also informed the universal.
But again, this is the problem and the greatness of science fiction. How can one blend two opposing genres?
And as for The Ministry for the Future… I think I liked it, but I think it got so caught up in what it wanted to say, that it buried what it was saying. You know what I’m saying?
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