“It was funny to see how little New York changes through the centuries,” a financial-industries “quant” observes deep into Kim Stanley Robinson’s sunny sunken-city future-trip New York 2140. That line could serve as a blurb on the cover: The most immediate pleasure of Robinson’s latest speculative epic is its tour of sea-swallowed Gotham. Lower Manhattan’s a city of canals, the Hudson and East rivers now New York’s least predictable thoroughfares. The waves lap up Sixth Avenue, in a barely regulated intertidal zone, as financiers work their own speculative fiction, selling futures on likely sea levels. Chelsea, built on a landfill, is still collapsing decades after the last surge of water, but that doesn’t stop the squatters from squatting or the financiers from profiting. The big money has moved uptown, to high ground: The towers of the Cloisters Cluster rise some three hundred stories, mostly filled with the vacation residences of the global super-rich.
Yes, gentrification is a crisis even in the flood zone, and that’s the heart of Robinson’s novel, a brick-thick but buoyant survey of life among the residents of the Met Life tower at 23rd and Madison, now a canal-straddled co-op housing thousands, complete with boathouse, rooftop farm, and airship dock.
The plot, loose as it is, centers on a mystery consortium’s attempts to snatch the building up for billions — and the possibly related disappearance of that “quant” — a quantitative analyst — and his partner, who in the opening pages hatch a scheme to rewrite, via an uploaded worm, the rules of global capital so that it works for the people rather than the quants’ bosses. That doesn’t go well, and after a scene of brisk dialogue comedy, those two vanish from “the Met,” where they have been living in a shelter on the roof.
That story’s just a current in Robinson’s deluge. Mostly, New York 2140 surveys life as it’s lived in the city to come. Like Dickens, Robinson examines class and capital through the serialized misadventures of caricatures. Like Dos Passos, he pauses the story for chapters of context, in this case the musings of a garrulous unnamed local steeped in the history of the city and the twin “Pulses” of water that soaked it: “So that very disregard for the consequences of their carbon burn had unleashed the ice that caused the rise of sea level that wrecked the global distribution system and caused a depression that was even more damaging to the people of that generation than the accompanying refugee crisis, which, using the unit popular at the time, was fifty katrinas.”
We meet Stefan and Roberto, a pair of orphaned canal-rats, as they putter across the waterways, searching for salvage the way the heroine of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend searched the Thames for corpses to loot; thousands of feet above, an online-media star soars across continents in an airship named the Assisted Migration, broadcasting video of her (comic, sometimes disastrous) efforts to help endangered wildlife find its way to suitable climates. Robinson plunges us from the penthouses and into the drink; his characters scuba through flooded subway tunnels, treasure-hunt beneath the canals of the Bronx, shoot pool and dance in an underwater speakeasy hollowed out of the train station beneath 23rd and Sixth. In the first half, the adults of his cross-section (a cop; the leader of the Met’s co-op board; the super who fears there’s a conspiracy to sabotage the waterproofing of the lowest floors) put occasional effort into tracking down those missing analysts. Everything grows more urgent halfway through, when the Met crew sets itself a task inspired by what the missing men had attempted in the opening pages: As they fight the hostile takeover of their co-op, they vow to try to pop the real estate bubble and then, in the ensuing crisis, goad the Federal Reserve into nationalizing the banks — all this, of course, as a hurricane bears down on Manhattan.
Over nine previous novels and a clutch of Hugo and Nebula awards, Robinson has established himself as the great humanist of speculative fiction, insisting that collective effort might yet stave off the usual paperback dystopias. His most famous novels reveal in their titles their narrative of mankind’s efforts to terraform a neighbor: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars. Aurora, a bliss-out from 2015, found colonizers from Earth arriving at the habitable moon of a nearby star; the worst thing that happens in the establishment of the first shelters is one engineer breaking his arm. Robinson is fascinated by processes and practicalities, by the question of what it would mean to be in these futures and how we, together, might shape them. Readers eager for thriller plots and derring-do will get stymied in these discursive, thoughtful works.
New York 2140 tests Robinson’s belief in us. Here is a day-trader early in the book, just after he’s noted that the water’s rise has been a case of “creative destruction”: “Am I saying that the floods, the worst catastrophe in human history, equivalent or greater to the twentieth century’s wars in their devastation, were actually good for capitalism? Yes, I am.”
Of course we rebuild New York. And of course it stays the same: impossible, glorious, money-mad, ruled by real estate yet pocked with the weird and the desperate. That is, until the good folks in the Met tower put into practice thinking that dates back to the early 21st century: Klein’s shock doctrine and Piketty’s charge against global inequality. This time, Robinson’s characters’ great project isn’t the establishment of some new home for humanity. It’s the humanizing of an old one.
New York 2140
By Kim Stanley Robinson