Posts Tagged ‘Kim Stanley Robinson’

A utopian novel of climate change

November 23, 2020

Kim Stanley Robinson is an award-winning science fiction writer whose novels have appeared on the New York Times best-seller list.

His newest novel, THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE, is about the effects of climate change and environmental devastation, but is different from most SF novels on this theme.

Such novels typically are set in a future in which all the bad things we’re being warned about have come true.  In contrast, Robinson’s novel is utopian, not dystopian.  It is about disparate people struggling for decades to achieve a better world and eventually making headway.

It belongs on the same shelf as H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887.

The novel begins in the near future, where an American named Frank May is doing humanitarian aid word in a village in India. A heat wave strikes in the start of the monsoon, combined with a failure of the electrical grid across India.

Robinson tells in grim detail what it would be like to die of inescapable heat and humidity—the humidity preventing sweat from evaporating and cooling you off.

The catastrophe causes the Paris Climate Agreement signatories to meet and consider what to do.  Their only action is to create a subsidiary body with ample funding, but no powers, to advocate for future generations, children and those who have no voice.

The new organization, nicknamed the Ministry for the Future, is headed by an idealistic, middle-aged Irish politician named Mary Murphy, who becomes one of the main viewpoint characters of the novel.

Her team comes to the conclusion that the main barriers to action on climate change are the legal system and perverse economic incentives. 

For example, one principle of economics is the discount rate—the idea that a dollar next year is worth less than a dollar today.  Even a modest discount rate, that $100 next year is only worth $99 now, effectively makes it uneconomic to invest in anything with a payoff more than a few decades away.

The Ministry comes up with ideas for changing this.  The most important one is the “carbon coin.”  It is a currency to be paid to anyone who sequesters a ton of carbon, either by removing it from the atmosphere or preventing it from being burned.  Its value is guaranteed by making it legal tender for payment of carbon taxes.

The world’s bankers aren’t interested.  Not their job, they say.

A terrorist organization called the Children of Kali emerges.  Like the Thugs of old-time India, they worship the goddess of death.  Their program is to kill plutocrats and politicians responsible for heating up the world. 

From that they move on to downing aircraft and sinking ships that burn diesel fuel.  Their weapon of choice is flocks of bird-sized flying killer drones, guided by artificial intelligence.  They are widely dispersed until they converge on their targets, and cannot be defended against.

Ocean and air travel by fossil fuel becomes uneconomic.  A worldwide economic depression results.  But then high-tech dirigibles and sailing ships emerge.  They have battery-powered electric motors, which are charged by photo-electric and piezoelectric materials that cover all surfaces.

So progress comes about, as one character remarks, through a combination of “arbitrage and sabotage.”   Mary Murphy gets her carbon coin, which is a form of block-chained BItcoin, which can be deposited with a guaranteed rate of interest.

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Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon

November 16, 2018

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my three or four favorite science fiction writers.  Red Moon, which just came out, is not his best, but I like it. 

The action takes place in 2047 in China and on China’s future colony on the moon. The main viewpoint character is a young American named Fred Fredericks, who seems to be on the autism spectrum.  

He goes to the moon to deliver a secure two-way communication device based on quantum entanglement, and is framed for murder by mysterious Chinese political conspirators.

He becomes involved with a pregnant young Chinese woman, Chan Qi, who is both the spoiled, proud daughter of a powerful member of the Politburo and the figurehead leader of a vast Chinese protest movement.

They escape capture, flee, are captured again, escape again and flee again back down in China and up on the moon again. 

The growing relationship of these two characters, so very different in personality and cultural background, is the emotional core of the novel.

The second most important viewpoint character is Ta Shu, an elderly poet and celebrity Chinese poet, who takes a liking to Fred and tries to befriend him.  He engages in conversations with various old friends that provide the reader with background information on Chinese history, culture and current and future problems.

Ta Shu sees Chinese history and culture as continuous. and the Communist regime as the latest Chinese ruling dynasty, not as a revolutionary break with the past.

Then there is a rogue agent within the Chinese Great Firewall surveillance network, who is trying to track Qi and Fred while trying to teach an artificial intelligence program, nicknamed Little Eyeball, to think autonomously.

Robinson’s future China has benefitted from Xi Jinping’s reforms, of which the most important he sees not as  the Belt and Road Initiative (aka the New Silk Road), but landscape renewal and restoration.  The benefit is not only repair of the environmental damage created by China’s rapid industrialization, but in reduction in the amount of poverty and improvement in public health.

China in 2047 is the world’s foremost economic and technological power, and has used its new wealth and knowledge to colonize the southern hemisphere of the Moon, leaving the northern hemisphere to late-comers—the USA, the European Union, Brazil and other great powers.

But many problems remain.  First and foremost among these problems is a vast underclass, comparable to unauthorized immigrants in the USA, consisting of 500 million poor peasants who have left their villages without authorization to seek a better life in the cities, but who are mercilessly exploited because they are outside the protection of the law.

The goals of the protest movement are to abolish the hukuo system, which forbids Chinese to change residences without permission, to restore the “iron rice bowl” (guaranteed job security) and to establish the rule of law.  None of the characters wants to overthrow Communism, only to make the Party live up to its ideals.

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An SF writer’s diagnosis and cure for capitalism

April 27, 2017

In the opening of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new SF novel, New York 2140, two unemployed financial software engineers known as Mutt and Jeff—unemployed because they refuse to design a possibly illegal program for high-speed trading—contemplate a flooded lower Manhattan from atop the former Metropolitan Life building.

One of them says he has figured out what’s wrong with capitalism.

The basic problem with capitalism, he says, is that the forces of the market forces producers to sell products below cost.

How can you sell below cost and survive?  By offloading your costs onto someone else—onto customers, onto neighbors, onto taxpayers, onto the wider community and onto future generations.

This enables an individual enterprise to survive (sometimes), but, in the long run, leads human society into bankruptcy.

In the novel, global warming has taken place, sea levels have risen and lower Manhattan is under water.  Skyscrapers such as the Met Life building are still survive amid a kind of new Venice.  Uptown Manhattan is 50 feet higher in elevation, and is dry.  In the middle is a tidal zone, where the poor and homeless congregate.

Some environmental problems have been solved, or at least are being coped with.  Gasoline, jet fuel and other fossil fuels no longer exist.  Air travel is by dirigible, ocean travel is by sailing ship and land vehicles are electric.   But the financial structure and distribution of income are more or less like they are now.

New skyscrapers—”superscrapers”—in uptown are owned by the world’s wealthy elite, as investments or as one of multiple homes, and are often vacant.

A hurricane late in the novel leaves many homeless.  They try to storm the vacant uptown towers, and are turned back by private security forces, who outgun the New York Police Department.

Rather than attempt a violent revolutionary overthrow, the common people attempt a political and economic jujitsu.

They join in a nationwide debt strike.  On a given day, they stop paying their mortgages, student loans and credit card balances.  The financial system is go highly leveraged with debt upon debt that it comes crashing down, just as in 2008.   So the financiers go to Washington for another bailout, just as they did then.

But this time, the President and Federal Reserve Chairman, who are in on the plan, act differently.  They tell the banks and investment companies that they would be bailed out only on one condition—that the government be given stock of equal value to the bailout, as was done in the bailout of General Motors.   Those who refuse this deal are allowed to fail.

Now the federal government has the authority to force the banks to act as public utilities.  And the huge profits that once flowed to the financial elite now flow to Washington, which makes it possible to adequately fund public education, infrastructure improvement, scientific research and all the other things the country needs.

And so the American people live happily—not ever after and not completely, but for a while.

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Did China bungle its age of discovery?

April 21, 2014

Voyages_of_Zheng_He_1405-33

More than 50 years before Columbus, the great Chinese admiral Zheng He (aks Cheng Ho) voyaged throughout the Indian Ocean, and down the coast of east Africa.  Some historians think he may have reached the Cape of Good Hope.  But he had no successors.   His voyages were merely a stunt, for the sake of prestige, like the U.S. moon landings.

Some historians have speculated that if the rulers of the Ming dynasty had followed up, there might have been a Chinese age of exploration and discovery, to rival the great European explorers.  Zheng He’s fleet was larger, both in numbers and in the size of the individual ships, than anything the European explorers sent out.

I’m not so sure.  As James C. Scott wrote in The Art of Not Being Governed, Chinese rulers historically have sought to control large numbers of people, not large areas of territory.  I have read a smattering of Chinese philosophy in translation, and it is all about a ruler who is wise and just can increase his wealth and power by encouraging people to migrate to his realm.

In the light of history, this might not have been a bad choice..   The English, French, Spanish and Portuguese spread all over the world, and they have millions of descendents in North and South America and other parts of the world, but this no longer adds to the power of the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese nations.

Today China, which did not seek to rule an overseas empire, is much more powerful than any of these countries.  That is not to deny that China is an empire.  Just ask the Uighurs (in what used to be called Chinese Turkestan) or the Tibetans.   It is that China is a more unified and enduring empire.

China never needed a merchant fleet or overseas outposts to participate in the world economy.   Since the days of the Roman Empire, merchants traveled the Silk Road across central Asia to buy Chinese silk, porcelains and other manufactured products.

Spain and Portugal sent out explorers to find routes to China and India so that their merchants could bypass the Muslim countries in between.   The Spanish conquistadors were greedy for gold and silver because it was scarce.  China and India had favorable balances of trade for centuries and a large fraction of the world’s precious metals ended up in those countries.   The Spanish regularly sent out treasure galleons from Mexico to the Philippines to trade with China.

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