New York 2140

by Kim Stanley Robinson

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Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: March 2017
Printing: March 2018
ISBN: 0-316-26233-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 624

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About forty years in our future, world-wide sea levels suddenly rose ten feet over the course of a decade due to collapse of polar ice, creating one of the largest disasters in history. It was enough to get people to finally take greenhouse effects and the risks of fossil fuels seriously, but too late to prevent the Second Pulse: a collapse of Antarctic ice shelves that raised global ocean levels another forty feet. Now, about fifty years after the Second Pulse, New York is still standing but half-drowned. The northern half of Manhattan Island is covered with newly-constructed superscrapers. The skyscrapers in the southern half, anchored in bedrock, survive in a precarious new world of canals, underwater floors, commuter boats, high-tech sealants, and murky legal structures.

The Met Life Tower is one of those surviving buildings and is home to the cast of this novel: two quants (programmers and mathematicians who work on financial algorithms) living in temporary housing on the farm floor, the morose building super, the social worker who has headed the building co-op board for decades, a chief inspector for the NYPD, a derivatives trader who runs a housing index for the half-drowned intertidal areas, a streaming video star who takes on wildlife preservation projects in her dirigible Assisted Migration, and a couple of orphan street kids (in this world, water rats) endlessly looking for their next adventure. The characters start the book engrossed in their day-to-day lives, which have settled into a workable equilibrium. But they're each about to play a role in another great disruption in economic life.

This is my sixth try for Kim Stanley Robinson novels, and I've yet to find a book I really liked. It may be time to give up.

I really want to like Robinson's writing. He's writing novels about an intersection of ecology and politics that I find inherently interesting, particularly since he emphasizes people's ability to adapt without understating the magnitude of future challenges. I think he's getting better at characterization (more on that in a moment). But this sort of book, particularly the way Robinson writes it, elevates the shape of the future world to the role of protagonist, which means it has to hold up to close scrutiny. And for me this didn't.

As is typical in Robinson novels, New York 2140 opens with an extended meander through the everyday lives of multiple protagonists. This is laying the groundwork for pieces of later plot, but only slowly. It's primarily a showcase for the Robinson's future extrapolation, here made more obvious by a viewpoint "character" whose chapters are straight infodumps about future history. And that extrapolated world is odd and unconvincing in ways that kept throwing me out of the story. The details of environmental catastrophe and adaptation aren't the problem; I suspect those are the best-researched parts of the book, and they seemed at least plausible to me. It's politics and economics that get Robinson into trouble.

For example, racism is apparently not a thing that exists in 2140 New York on any systematic scale. We're at most fifty years past what would be the greatest refugee crisis in the history of humanity, one that would have caused vast internal dislocation in the United States let alone in the rest of the world. Migrant and refugee crises in Syria and Central America in the current day that are orders of magnitude less severe set off paroxysms of racist xenophobia. And yet, this plays no role whatsoever in the politics of this book.

It's not that the main characters wouldn't have noticed. One is a social worker who works specifically with refugees on housing, and whose other job is running a housing co-op. In our world, racism is very near the center of US housing policy. Another, the police inspector, is a tall black woman from a poor background, but the only interaction she has with racism in the whole book is a brief and odd mention of how she might appear to a private security mercenary that she faces down. It seriously tries my suspension of disbelief that racism would not be a constant irritant, or worse, through her entire career.

Racism doesn't need to be a central topic of every book, and sometimes there's a place for science fiction novels that intentionally write racism out as an optimistic statement or as momentary relief. But the rest of this book seems focused on a realistic forward projection, not on that sort of deep social divergence. Robinson does not provide even a hint of the sort of social change that would be required for racism to disappear in a country founded on a racial caste system, particularly given 100 years of disruptive emigration crises of the type that have, in every past era of US history, substantially increased systematic racism.

In a similar omission, the political organization of this world is decidedly strange. For most of the book, politics are hyperlocal, tightly focused on organizations and communities in a tiny portion of New York City. The federal government is passive, distant, ignored, and nearly powerless. This is something that could happen in some future worlds, but this sort of government passivity is an uneven fit with the kind of catastrophe that Robinson is projecting. Similar catastrophes in human history, particularly in the middle of a crisis of mass migration, are far more likely to strengthen aggressive nationalists who will give voice to fear and xenophobia and provide a rallying point.

Every future science fiction novel is, of course, really about the present or the past in some way. It becomes clear during New York 2140 that, despite the ecological frame, this book is primarily concerned with the 2008 financial crisis. That makes some sense of the federal government in this book: Robinson is importing the domestic economic policy of Bush and Obama to make a point about the crisis they bungled. Based on publication date, he probably also wrote this book before Trump's election. But given the past two years, not to mention world history, these apathetic libertarian politics seem weirdly mismatched with the future history Robinson postulates.

There are other problems, such as Robinson's narrative voice convincing me that he doesn't understand how sovereign debt works, and as a result I kept arguing with the book instead of being drawn into the plot. That's a shame, since this is some of the best character work Robinson has done. It's still painfully slow; about halfway through the book, I wasn't sure I liked anyone except Vlade, the building super, and I was quite certain I hated Franklin, the derivative trader obsessed with seducing a woman. But Robinson pulls off a fairly impressive pivot by the end of the book. Charlotte, the social worker and co-op president who determinedly likes all of the characters, turns out to be a better judge of character than I was. I never exactly liked Franklin, but Robinson made me believe in his change, which takes some doing.

Amelia, the streaming video star, deserves a special mention due to some subtle but perceptive bits of characterization. She starts out as a stereotype whose popularity has a lot to do with her tendency to lose her clothes, and I wish Robinson hadn't reinforced that idea. (I suspect he was thinking of the (in)famous PETA commercials, but this stereotype is a serious problem for real-world female streamers.) But throughout the story Amelia is so determinedly herself that she transcends that unfortunate start. The moment I started really liking her was her advertisement for Charlotte, which is both perfectly in character and more sophisticated than it looks. And her character interactions and personal revelations at the very end of the book made me want to read more about her.

There were moments when I really liked this book. The plot finally kicks in about 70% of the way through, much too late but still with considerable effectiveness. This is about the time when I started to warm to more of the characters, and I thought I'd finally found a Robinson book I could recommend. But then Robinson undermined his own ending: he seemed so focused on telling the reader that life goes on and that any segment of history is partial and incomplete that he didn't give me the catharsis I wanted after a harrowing event and the clear villainy of some of the players. For a book that's largely about confronting the downsides of capitalism, it's weirdly non-confrontational. What triumph the characters do gain is mostly told, narrated away in yet another infodump, rather than shown. It left me feeling profoundly unsatisfied.

There's always enough meat to a Kim Stanley Robinson novel that I understand why people keep nominating them for awards, but I come away vaguely dissatisfied with the experience. I think some people will enjoy this, particularly if you don't get as snarled as I was in the gaps left in Robinson's political tale. He is clearly getting better on characterization, despite the exceptionally slow start. But the story still doesn't have enough power, or enough catharsis, or enough thoughtful accuracy for me to recommend it.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-01-20

Last modified and spun 2019-01-21