Monday, April 24, 2017

New York 2140 - Kim Stanley Robinson

In his previous novel Aurora (2015) Robinson tackled a well known science fiction trope, that of a sub-lightspeed generational space ship, designed to hold enough people and supplies to survive a voyage of centuries and establish a colony on a new planet. His conclusion is sobering. Taking a human out of the environment they evolved in, Robinson claims, will almost certainly lead to extinction. Our bodies are so attuned to our environment and the organisms we share it with that survival, even elsewhere in the solar system, will be an almost insurmountable challenge. His message to humanity is clear. There is no Earth 2, try not to break the one we do have. Given this message, it is not surprising Robinson returns to Earth for his next novel. New York 2140 is set, as the title suggests, in the Big Apple a dozen decades from now. In that time a lot has changed, but in some respects, the city remains much the same.

In two separate cataclysmic events the sea level rose fifty feet. Coastlines around the world were flooded and many people have been displaced. New York is partially under water but this is not enough for people to abandon the city. The city has adapted to life in a partially submerged city. Many of the skyscrapers are still inhabited and innovative ways to connect them have been developed. One such building with its feet in the water is the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower. Once the tallest building in the city, it is now into its third century and run as a cooperation of the inhabitants. The disappearance of two men living in the building is the first of a series of events that will challenge the inhabitants of the building and the city greatly.

It is clear from the start the same ingenuity and imagination that brought the red planet to life in stunning detail in the Mars trilogy is at work here. Robinson has done his homework on the city and it shows in many details. From the geography of the region to the layout of the city, all of it is worked into this semi-submerged future New York. Quite a bit of attention went into what the new conditions would do to infrastructure as well. The tidal zone in particular is hard on steel and concrete. Robinson's research into the city didn't stop there. He pays attention to the legal status of the coastline as well, which has very interesting implications for the story, and he takes an interest in the history of the city. Many obscure, sometimes funny, little details about the city precede each shift in point of view. I'm not sure what a native would make of it, but for an outsider the setting works very well.

Given the description on the inside flat and the striking cover, you would be forgiven for thinking this book is about climate change. You would also be wrong. Climate change is a given in the novel. The city has for the most part adapted. The mechanism Robinson uses to explain this rapid sea level rise is considered not terribly likely, but it does fit the requirements for the story. What he really wants to discuss in this novel is global finance. New York is the self-proclaimed capital of capital, and even fifty feet of water is not enough to wash that away. The characters are very much aware of it and discuss the state of global finance, neoliberal economic theory and the economy of the US in detail. Robinson has never shied away from using the social sciences in his books, but to my knowledge this is the first time he goes into economics this extensively.

The way he goes about it is very interesting. While the characters debate the economy as a whole, how global finance works and how wealth is distributed, the story itself focusses of the effects on a much smaller scale. Capital has fled the city when it flooded. Much of the real estate was wrecked and deemed a total loss. Years of human ingenuity and advances in material science has shown investors how there might still be money to be made. Soon, the cooperation finds itself under pressure to sell to an unknown bidder. When money is not enough, other means are employed. Through the characters we get the rationale of why capital behaves this way, while showing us the effect in intimate detail.

Robinson uses quite a large cast to tell his story, no fewer than eight different points of view. One of them is simply named 'a citizen'. Robinson uses this citizen to speak to the reader directly. His writing is often criticised for containing large sections of scientific theory, usually related as an interior monologue (or as some would have it, a plain infodump). In this novel he concentrates that for a large part in the citizen point of view. The citizen is an observer, as far as we can tell he or she does not play a role in the story. You might even go so far as to say Robinson inserted himself in the novel. The citizen informs us about the state of the city, the economy, the geology and natural history of the region and of course the mechanisms of sea level rise. Saves the characters quite a bit of thinking. I very much doubt it is going to convince the people who don't like Robinson's style, but it is certainly an interesting experiment.

The question of how we should shape our world and society often comes up in Robinson's work. It goes all the way back to the Orange County triptych. In these novels there is almost always a sense of optimism. There are ideas to make the world better, technology is there or can be developed, there are people willing to throw themselves into it, and there is enough common sense not to turn away from a problem. If, for instance, climate change cannot be prevented, we can at least mitigate it and adapt to the new circumstances. In this novel, the sense that humanity is willingly doing something dreadfully stupid prevails. There is a sense of disbelief and irritation at the continuous cycle of bubbles and busts that does so much damage to society.

Over the course of the book the citizen gets angrier and angrier. His main argument is that the global economic system heavily favours those possessing extreme wealth while making life unnecessarily  hard on everybody else. The book illustrates this by a look into the world of finance. He details how capital tends to accumulate with those that already have a lot and how, at some point, money is not invested back into the real economy but rather funnelled into what its detractors call the casino economy. Speculating on indexes, derivatives and the like. In this way, capital becomes detached from the physical reality of the world, yet the bubbles it creates (and busts) still have a significant impact on society. The citizen can't help but wonder why the vast majority of people put up with this blatant bit of tyranny. With another bubble popped, even for the people in the capital of capital, enough is enough. The minute chance of becoming filthy rich is not worth the misery it imposes on others. Revolution is brewing.

What is most striking about the economics in the novel, is the way one of the characters thinks about investment and how it is a sin to sink money into a specific project rather than 'keeping it liquid' and moving it around to where the most profit is to be made. As many other reviewers point out there is a parallel between the way water behaves in the novel and how capital flows. Throughout the novel various economists appear to be looking over the shoulder of the characters. Not surprisingly, Keynes is the most prominent among them. The novel frequently refers back to the great depression. Robinson criticises Ben Bernanke, and implicitly the European Central Bank for the quantitative easing and bailing out of banks going down in a self-inflicted bust. The capital pumped into the system does not trickle down, so he argues, but only serves to fuel the next bubble. It is, he feels, not worth the austerity policies necessary to service the public debt. To break the cycle of bubble and bust, one of the characters suggest Piketty-ing the tax system, a form of progressive tax making it virtually impossible to live on capital gains alone. Given the way global politics are developing, it may well be another century before that happens.

Robinson may have shifted his attention a bit compared to other books, New York 2140 is nevertheless a fine example of his writing. Socially engaged, well researched and infused with a great sense of location. Whatever you may think of his view on the world, he manages to get it across in a fascinating way. It is another way of looking at a set of challenges humanity faces. Although he revisits themes he has covered before, you can't say Robinson is repeating himself. It is always building on what has gone before, adding a new angle or refinement to his world view. I greatly enjoyed reading it. In a way it is as controversial as Aurora, knocking around the idea of the American Dream a bit. As such, it will divide readers. When reading Kim Stanley Robinson, this is as it should be.

Book Details
Title: New York 2140
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 613
Year: 2017
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-356-50875-7
First published: 2017


  1. I really like the intro to this review. Indeed, New York 2140 forms a natural stepping stone from Aurora: where humanity should focus its energy toward mitigating the damage we are doing to Earth: economic practice. And the rest falls into place from there. And I also like that you link New York 2140 to Robinson's California trilogy. There are a lot of elements in common, and I haven't seen too many reviewers pick up on it.

    I heard in an interview that Robinson's next novel will feature the Chinese colonizing the moon. Should be interesting...

    1. Looking back on the Orange County books I think they foreshadow almost everything he has written after. I keep coming back to them when I read a new Robinson.

      Definitely look forward to reading the next one. That book might make a nice pair with McDonald's Luna novels.