Fiction Reviews

New York 2140

(2017) Kim Stanley Robinson, Orbit, £20, hrdbk, 617pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50875-7


A study of the simultaneous dangers of global warming and rampant global capitalism, centred on a flooded New York, over one hundred and twenty years into the future.

Robinson plays heavily on the languages of money and water bearing very striking similarities, liquid assets, stock-floatation, rising, falling. Businesses and buildings alike are in danger of going under. The shrinking city is seen as rich real estate, Wall Street rules still apply. The streets have become canals. Many wealthy characters travel by privately owned hydrofoil. The poorer people live closer to the waters, in constant danger of being swept away or sunk under collapsing infrastructure.

While most finance is now centred in Denver, Manhattan is still seen as prime real estate, with many characters in the novel residing in the (real) Met Life Insurance Tower, itself modelled on Venetian architecture. It seems unrealistic to expect so much of the city to avoid collapse in the two huge pulse waves that have brought the waters to the streets.

Within the Met, as with other buildings, everyone lives communally, eating together, watching for cracks and leaks, having meetings to discuss their rights and whether new occupants can be taken in. The Metís building superintendent is the first to uncover clues to the conspiracy to bring down the property.

There are several stories that occasionally overlap. Mutt and Jeff, financial hackers squatting in the Met, find themselves kidnapped. Their endless info-dump dialogue runs like an extension of Tom Stoppardís Rozencrants & Guildenstern Are Dead. Amelia Black, a feisty TV camera hogging adventurer, with her own airship, The Assisted Migration, sets out on a mission to rescue the last polar bears from the melting Arctic icecap regions. She seems to have strayed in from a steampunk novel somewhere, except for her transmissions being aimed at the video blog market with high ratings gained by sensationalist escapades in mind. The similarity of her name to aviator Amelia Earhart shows how lacking in subtlety Robinson can be at times in this novel.

There are many moments of unlikely dramatic comedy. The boys trapped in their own home-made diving bell, and Amelia, stuck on her vertically slanted airship with polar bears roaming loose between her and the lavatory she needs with increasing desperation. The ever changing mix of voices, writing styles and author asides would sink many novels but Robinson is good enough to get away with endless rule breaking here.

Stefan and Roberto use old treasure maps to seek their fortune under the waters, and help an old man whose skyscraper home has collapsed. The boys, aged about twelve, constantly need rescuing from their own get-rich-quick folly and often draw the other characters together through their credibility-stretching escapades.

Police Inspector Gen struggles to solve the mysteries, while hedge funders like Franklin gamble on the rising and falling fortunes of the people, properties and businesses in the intertidals (where the ebb and flow of the waters change everything). Flow charts for the water and the money become barely distinguishable from one another.

The great city has adapted to the water with surprising ease. The vast skyscrapers are largely waterproofed on the lower levels, with only poorer down-town tenement block crumbling and falling. Characters debate whether to take boats or sky bridges to move around.

Chapters are short and broken apart by lots of quotations and expositional explanation of how the two waves of the great flood came. Robinson actually interjects through the fourth wall and advises the readers that we can skip some of these bits though they are often the bookís most entertaining ingredients.

Many authors preface their books and even chapters with quotations but 2140 reads like a book of quotations in its own right with so many saturating the narrative that they add about 50 pages to the book. Many are hugely informative and entertaining though.

Someone wants the Met Lifeís land badly, so attempts are in progress both to buy out the property and destroy it. There are shades of John Brunnerís environmental SF classic The Sheep Look Up, but the work is surprisingly optimistic in showing that characters accept the drastic changes affecting them and still look forward to improving things for the future. The flood has been a disaster but not an apocalypse. There is however no doubt that life would be better if we stop the deluge by changing our life style now rather than later. With Trumpís ongoing denial of the dangers of catastrophic climate change just around the corner, Robinsonís novel becomes more prophetic than ever.

Marred at times by a tendency to forget writing rule one: show, donít tell. Robinson continually reminds us what is going on instead of letting the narrative flow along by itself. Nonetheless this is an impressive, ambiguous work.

Arthur Chappell

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