I’ve written about Kim Stanley Robinson before, when I reviewed his Green Earth. I mentioned his environmentalist and anti-capitalist concerns, his lyrical descriptions of landscape, his long passages where nothing much happens except characters talking to each other about stuff they find important, and his tendency to veer into occasional implausibility so as to get his characters into a situation he wants them to experience and reflect on.
So, there’s more of all that in New York 2140, which is already garnering Robinson’s usual U-shaped profile of reader reviews—five-star raves from those who share his concerns and love his slow and discursive style; one-star denunciations from those who loathe his politics and/or hate his narrative pace.
This one is to some extent a successor to Green Earth; another example of what’s nowadays a recognized subgenre of science fiction, cli-fi—climate-change fiction. It deals with a future New York, flooded by fifty feet of sea-level rise and battered by even more extreme summers and winters than it currently enjoys. And to some extent it’s a revisiting of the flooded Manhattan we glimpsed in his state-of-the-solar-system novel, 2312*—but Robinson has previously said that he tends to “self-plagiarize”, rather than attempt to link his novels together, so it’s probably a mistake to imagine that New York 2140 is in any sense a prequel to 2312.
And in this one, Robinson brings his issues with capitalism in general, and the global finance industry in particular, front and centre. In his New York, the banks and financial traders have simply shrugged off the devastation of climate change, which they see as having merely changed the sort of loans it’s worth risking, and the sort of commodities it’s worth trading.
His New York is richly textured—the buildings of lower Manhattan are now flooded in their lower storeys, but equipped with boat docks from which New Yorkers venture forth into their flooded streets and squares as if travelling through the canals and bacinos of Venice. Overhead, sky bridges link the towers, and airships are tethered to the old mooring masts. Upper Manhattan is still above water, and is home to even more towering skyscrapers. And between the two is the intertidal zone, legally problematic and structurally failing. Everywhere, there are vertical farms and roof gardens.
He tells his story by shifting among a varied cast of point-of-view characters, all of whom live in the old Met Life Tower on flooded Madison Square. There’s the building supervisor, the building manager, a financial trader, an airheaded “cloud star” (read “internet personality”), a couple of coders disillusioned with their jobs programming the financial markets, a couple of vagrant kids, and a policewoman. Their lives weave together in increasingly complicated ways as the novel progresses. The characters are interesting, their interactions are interesting, and they also have a narrative purpose to serve—Robinson needs to pass on a lot of information to us, and having his various experts explain things to his various innocents does the job.
But Robinson isn’t shy about just coming out and delivering a bit of a lecture from time to time (and gad, that drives some of his reviewers crazy). In this novel, there are chapters that are narrated, first person, by “a citizen”—who is of course just Robinson, leaning into the story to tell us a bit more about history, geology, economics, rewilding … whatever he feels we might find interesting or need to help us understand the narrative. Robinson even pokes self-referential fun at himself via the words of “a citizen”:
… certain awesome writers fond of lists would have already inflicted this amazing list of coastal cities on the reader …
The “citizen” is impatient and polemical and downright rude as only a stereotypical New Yorker can be, which makes him entertaining as well as informative. And Robinson has made his feelings clear about readers who complain about his “expository lumps” or “info dumps”:
I feel they are bad readers who aren’t getting it, who are in effect being narcissistic, as if nothing could be interesting but dramatized scenes about people interacting. In fact, those scenes are often the most clichéd and boring parts of a novel, and many a novel is boring from start to finish because of that. The world is often more interesting than what people do to each other. That said, novels are about people, so that has to be kept in mind. What I do is give up on the idea of balance, also these various workshop categories like world-building or characters, which in effect pretend to know how fiction works, when they really don’t know how fiction works. Fiction is highly mysterious. So I let myself go crazy and see what happens.
In effect, if you don’t like it, then Robinson would prefer it if you went away and stopped moaning about it; and probably you should stop reading those writers’ manuals, too. It’s an interesting stance, and maybe one only a mature, successful writer with a couple of degrees in English and Literature could adopt.
So Robinson builds another interesting and multilayered world, in his own leisurely, eccentric way. In Green Earth I reported how I found a few of his characters irritating, but this lot seem an amiable enough bunch, and each one interesting in a different way. On top of that there’s a hunt for buried treasure, a building collapse, a kidnapping, a boy trapped in a broken diving bell, an encounter with a ghost, an edgy showdown between police and corporate security, polar bears loose in an airship, a hurricane and storm surge, and a plot to deliberately crash the financial markets and nationalize the banks.
So, as ever, if you like Robinson, you’ll like this. For me, it’s up there with 2312 and the Mars trilogy, in terms of it’s variety and descriptive verve. And if you don’t like Robinson—Why do you keep reading his stuff and making yourself ill with stress like that?
There are some errors, as there always are when you write a book this big and complicated. Robinson repeatedly refers to “neap” tides in contexts that suggest he really means spring tides, which are the tides with the largest variation in water height. And the wrong name is given for the coiner of the word monocausotaxophilia, “a love of finding single causes to explain everything”. That was neuroscientist Ernst Pöppel, but a typo turns him into “Pöpper”. Harmless enough, except that, since Robinson’s novel was published, I see the interesting word has already had a few mentions on social media, but misattributed to philosopher Karl Popper. Sigh.
And there’s one mysterious omission. It seems to be OK for Robinson to write about housing cooperatives and communal dining, to quote Karl Marx, to depict a renters’ revolt, the redistribution of the property and capital of the wealthy, the fall of capitalism and the nationalization of the banks … but amid all his wordy pyrotechnics I never noticed him mention the “s” word. I can’t help wondering if Orbit, his publisher, felt that all this edgy stuff was fine, just so long as he never actually used that word abhorrent to a large fraction of an American readership … socialism.
* Robinson describes how the 2312 version of Manhattan was part of the genesis of this novel in an interview with the Sierra Club.