It has been said that science fiction is not about the future, but a way of commenting on the present. With that in mind contemplate a vision of New York City in 2140. The seas have risen, and downtown Manhattan is flooded like Venice. The streets have become canals, and boats have replaced cars and busses. Skywalks between buildings have replaced sidewalks. The wealthy have fled uptown, living in “superscrapers” made possible by new building materials. In the “intertidal” zone of lower Manhattan former corporate headquarters, such as the Met Life building, have become housing units run by cooperatives. Here the less well to do live in cramped living spaces so small that meals are taken in communal dining halls. They are the comparatively lucky ones. Others, less fortunate, are squatters in crumbling buildings in danger of falling into the canals. This is the vision conjured up by Kim Stanley Robinson in his latest novel New York 2140.
In this dystopian future, it seems that every bad idea for dealing with climate change has already been tried. After the first Pulse, or meltdown of the Greenland and Antarctic ice fields, in the late 21st century geo-engineering was tried. This of course temporarily slows the meltdown, but does not prevent a second Pulse from occurring in the early 22nd century, raising sea levels further. “Vertical farming,” the conversion of floors of urban buildings into spaces for growing food, is widespread, but serves only to supplement the diet of the residents of those buildings. Most unbelievable of all, despite a major financial crisis in the wake of the first Pulse, capitalism thrives and continues to grow. The government has bailed out the banks and financial firms once more. Neoliberal austerity has been imposed on the people yet again.
Not for long though. Kim Stanley Robinson identifies himself politically as a democratic socialist, and the dystopian picture he creates sets the stage for a revolt against the capitalist world-system. The main characters in the novel are those who hatch a scheme for bringing the system down, and then nationalizing rather than bailing-out banks and financial firms.
The novel is largely structured around its’ characters, and in two cases pairs of characters. The novel is divided into 8 parts, with 8 chapters in each part. Each of the 8 chapters focuses on each of the 5 characters, and 2 pairs while a separate chapter has various titles such as ‘the citizen’ or ‘the city.’ In these separate chapters the narrator provides us with background information regarding the history of his imagined world.
Mutt and Jeff are the first characters introduced. They are unemployed “quants”-financial analysts- living in a “hotello”- an inflatable shelter- on the farm level of the Met Life building. Inspector Gen Octaviasdottir, an African-American policewoman with an impressively Scandinavian surname, is the second character we meet. A fellow inhabitant of the Met Life building she is assigned the case when Mutt and Jeff mysteriously disappear. Inspector Gen then interviews Charlotte Armstrong, who works for the Householders Union and is chairperson of the building co-op. Inspector Gen then interviews Vlade, a Ukrainian immigrant who is superintendent of the cooperative. Also living in the Met Life building are: Franklin Garr, an upwardly mobile financial trader engaged in arbitrage who comes to be dissatisfied with his function in society; Stefan and Roberto, two ‘river rats,’ homeless orphans whom Vlade is concerned for (his own son having drowned years ago), and who spend their days diving in the canals and river trying to find the site of the wreck of the HMS Hussar which sank during the American Revolution; finally Amelia Black, the star of a “cloud show” in which she travels the world in her airship, the Assisted Migration, helping to move animal populations to more appropriate locations on the post-climate change planet. These are the characters who conspire to bring the world’s financial system to its’ knees.
The trigger for the revolt is a hurricane, a superstorm that wreaks havoc on New York City in 2143. Living a precarious existence in the intertidal zone thousands of people now find themselves homeless. They crowd into Central Park, where all the trees have been completely flattened by the storm. Facing a city government more sympathetic to corporate interests than the welfare of its’ citizens they become an enraged mob that heads uptown to storm the superscrapers of the wealthy. For there is surplus housing in New York, much of which belongs to absentee owners who purchased it primarily as an investment, or as a place to stay for the few times in the year they actually visit the city. The angry masses confront the security personnel of the wealthy owners, and a bloodbath is narrowly avoided by the timely actions of Inspector Gen who takes the side of the protestors. Returning from upstate New York where the Assisted Migration has had to flee from the storm Amelia, viewing these events from above, issues a call to action to the audience of her show. The plan: a debtor’s strike in which all rents, mortgages and student loans will now go unpaid. The revolt spreads worldwide and the overleveraged financial system crashes.
New York 2140 is a brilliant novel, yet is not without flaws. That capitalism continues until 2143 without running into any ‘limits to growth’ strains credulity. So does the idea that a second financial crisis occurs in the 21st century without engendering any anti-systemic revolt. Can we seriously believe that a second such event in this century involving a government bailout for banks, and financial firms, while further imposing austerity on the masses would be accepted with resignation? We are told that in the wake of the first and second pulses global civilization has had to rebuild, but could all this actually happen in a political climate of greater austerity, without government intervention for the welfare of the citizens? While we are informed that a process for sequestering carbon from the air leads to the creation of new building materials allowing for the construction of superscrapers, little to nothing is said about the energy sources used for what is clearly a high tech society. While buildings have vertical farms, we are also told that large swathes of the Midwest have been depopulated to provide corridors for migrating animals. How does this society manage to feed itself? Some things Mr. Robinson relates here strain credulity.
Keeping in mind the maxim that science fiction is less about the future than a commentary on the present, it is possible, but just barely, to overlook these flaws. The strength of the book lies in Mr. Robinson’s abilities as a storyteller, in his creation of sympathetic characters that one can identify with, and in the way that the novel is structured. He is also skillful in writing dialogue. There is a wealth of obscure historical information regarding Herman Melville’s life in New York, or the facts relating to the HMS Hussar. He creates an interesting tapestry of the life of the city and its’ inhabitants. That, along with the political message the author successfully transmits, certainly makes for a compelling story. The concept of a debtor’s strike is an interesting suggestion for future political action. Perhaps it is best to approach the novel as a warning for our time rather than as a picture of the 22nd century. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 is a brilliant, if flawed, masterpiece.
New York 2140
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit Books, New York, 2017