New York City is history.
Not in the sense that the great metropolis is somehow over, ended, kaput. No, New York City is history. It is a family album of hope, work, dedication, good times and ambition. That album is also interleaved with mysteries, unspoken but well-known secrets, discouragement, and loss.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 captures this sense of past, present, and future. I’ve been a fan of Robinson since reading his Mars Trilogy a number of years ago. As an author, Robinson has big ideas based in hard science and he lays these out not as framed portraitures but as large tapestries. He shows this ability again in New York 2140.
The 600-page novel is set in a New York that has been inundated by a sea-level rise caused by global warming. Manhattan and environs experience a 50-foot increase in water level. New York has become a sort of super-Venice, with familiar streets serving as canals. The population goes about life and we see scenes of surprisingly familiar tasks involving work and daily living. Many of the buildings of the Manhattan we know have been saved using technologies developed as preservatives against the detrimental effects of floodwater. This includes advanced composite sky-bridges, a sort of diamond-based sealant that keeps salt water out of structures, and Syd Mead-like hydrofoils and streamlined, energy efficient watercraft. The city still hums with vibrancy, despite the wrath tossed down upon it due to worst-case climate change.
The novel features almost a dozen main characters. All have very different lives and they all interact via the central locale of the MetLife Tower near Madison Square. As New York is a character in this novel so is the MetLife Tower and it serves as a sort of anchor for characters and events. Here and there, Robinson discusses a sampling of its history, including its intersection with the lives of such New Yorkers as Melville and Teddy Roosevelt, all in the light of the goings-on within the narrative. Like the city, the building has a past that goes down to the bedrock. When we first gather at the entrance of its bacino the old structure has been preserved and reinvented to meet the needs of its residents within the 50-foot intertidal zone of the inundated city. The irony that the survivors of climate change might find a habitat within an old insurance company building is not lost upon us.
Most of the characters work best in pairs. There is the spritely Amelia Black who is a sort of internet star. Literally travelling on the four winds within a high-tech dirigible she provides a narrative for the world outside the city, giving us a big picture view of the forces that have changed the planet. Meanwhile, a more grounded character is Vlade, the superintendent of the MetLife building. Vlade is emblematic of the dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist who sees the bigger picture but is always willing to roll up his sleeves to do the dirty work. Vlade is dedicated, hard-headed, yet never unwilling to help his building or its occupants. This extends to a pair of street (canal?) urchins named Stefan and Roberto who go upriver and even under it in a manner that reminded me a bit of a futuristic Huck and Tom. The two boys are a key to the novel and represented both youth and the city’s future. They pair nicely with Mr. Hexter, an elderly denizen of a dangerously washed-out section of town who can remember the day New York was permanently flooded. Mr. Hexter is also a keeper of maps and old records and instigates a treasure hunt for a ship lost near the Bronx in the 1770s. This leads to a surprising find.
Other paired characters include finance trader Franklin whose specialty is inter-coastal property and Charlotte who is a social worker and activist. These two opposites find some mutual advantage despite their tensions. The reader comes to understand that like all government and free-market forces these polar opposites are, in a sense, symbiotic. This is a key theme in the novel.
Police officer Gen Octaviasdottir comes from a long line of NYPD cops and her personal motto, like her ancestors who kept the city running during its worst years, is Hold The Line. Gen is part of the glue that holds societies together and ultimately her partner is the City itself. And that flooded, urban landscape knows many a secret, including the whereabouts of two programmers with the handles of Mutt and Jeff, who attempted to hack the planet. They released a virus designed to interrupt computerized market trading and thereby disrupt entire economies. This didn’t work out for the pair of quants, and their disappearance is a key driver of the story.
And to me, this is where the story gets interesting. Years ago I read the works of Ayn Rand. Those novels and that philosophy have always left me very uncomfortable. I won’t go so far as to say that Rand’s novels left a stain on my soul, although I did have a friend express it this way to me once. The basic issue I have with the philosophy of the selfish ego is that unlike Rand I am the product of a democratic (little d) society, in which the common man can do great things while also recognizing that we are all in this thing together. Hence the winning of the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention, exploration, scientific advancement, the struggle for social progress, and the ending of slavery and the defeat of fascism in the 1940s are emblematic of what can happen when every-day people work together for a joint purpose. Hell, we even had the audacity to create rock-n-roll and build an amazing interstate highway system that is a veritable touchstone of our culture.
Since the Recession of 2008 there has been a great deal of debate as to whether or not a taxpayer funded bailout of Wall Street was appropriate. I won’t go into that here, but such economic cycles, and even the ability to make a buck during a grievous disaster, are the paired blessing and curse of capitalism. These issues are confronted directly in Robinson’s novel, and his solution was something of an antidote to the things I read in those Rand novels many years ago. A bloodless coup for the common men and women over the powers of Wall Street? Maybe…this is a science fiction novel after all. But I cheered at how Robinson laid it out and I found his everybody-wins (including to a certain extent the financiers) scenario both hopeful and heartening.
Another plus to this novel was the fact that the characters offered virtually no hand-wringing and I-told-you-so’s regarding global warming. Indeed, the politicians and industries that are leading us into the world of New York 2140 are not even mentioned. The reader is left with a sense that the good people of this world are so busy surviving and getting by and at times enjoying their lives that the self-proclaimed masters of our age are not even remembered. Which, in a sense, is very fitting. The heroes of the past are engineers, doctors, police officers, scientists, construction workers, seafarers, and no few men and women of goodwill who manage to rescue both life and society.
I finished the 600 page novel with a sigh and a feeling of hope. It pleased me that Robinson opted to end his novel with several of the characters enjoying a very proverbial night on the town. Things may get bad, but we don’t have to lie down and accept dystopia.
Whatever comes, we’ll Hold The Line.
(New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, h/c 613 pages is available from Orbit Books)