Tuesday, January 2, 2018
Sunk Costs: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
I always enjoy reading Kim Stanley Robinson. I'd probably enjoy reading his grocery list. Still, I wasn't sure about this one. I bought this a few months ago, but I kept putting it off due to its size and subject. Still, I can report that I really enjoyed New York 2140, more than I thought I would to be honest.
I'm a huge fan of Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR). His Mars Trilogy is rightly praised as a science fiction classic. His more controversial book, Aurora, was my favorite book of 2015, maybe one of my favorite science fiction books of all time. I've also loved 2312, Shaman, Galileo's Dream, and The Years of Rice and Salt.
Now that I've established my status as a serious KSR fan, it may be surprising to hear that I couldn't get too excited about New York 2140. It doesn't take place in space or on another planet, for one thing. Also, New York City is an interesting place, but c'mon, the city gets more than enough attention in, you know, all media on planet Earth. Although many New Yorkers don't seem to believe this, there are other interesting places. While the climate change aspect sounded interesting (if depressing), much of the rest of this 600+ page novel is about... finance? Really?
I'm happy I put aside my worries and plunged in, anyway, because I really did enjoy the book. Is it my favorite KSR book? Not even close. But even a mediocre KSR book is better than most anything else.
Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first. While a lot of the pages are honestly delightful in KSR's geeky, kooky way, the book is a bit too long. The stuff on finance is more interesting than I thought it would be, but not interesting enough to support a novel. It's not that I disagree with anything KSR seems to be implying (by all means, let's stop rewarding the assholes who destroy the world economy every few decades). I personally just don't find economics all that interesting. I've never even warmed to Marxism, because even viewing things in non-capitalist economic terms bores me. I understand that economics is a part of life, and like KSR, I harbor the deep suspicion that we could easily find a way to provide for everyone's needs if we stopped letting stupid, greedy people make our economic decisions. But for whatever reason I can't geek out about economics the way I can about other things like physics, biology, and (of course!) philosophy. Maybe it's that I've never much cared about money or property beyond what I need to be comfortable (besides books, which I hoard like dragons and one-percenters hoard wealth); I basically want other people to think about economics enough to get me what I need so I can think about other stuff.
The deeper problem, though, is that the treatment of finance and economics in New York 2140 is far too ... contemporary. The frequency and depth with which the characters discuss the 2008 financial collapse, for example, doesn't feel plausible for a book taking place 120 years in the future. KSR is usually good about making his future characters relatable yet distant, which made this aspect of the book particularly jarring.
Aside from these issues, I really loved the novel. The climate change angle is interesting. I'm not familiar enough with local New York geography to appreciate everything, but the idea of lower Manhattan flooded into a "SuperVenice" is pretty cool. I always enjoy KSR's little humorous touches, like the trouble-making Twain-esque boys Stefan and Roberto and the frequent dissing of Denver (as a stand-in for people who moved away from drowned coastal cities). His quirky characters are always fun. I really loved Amelia, the blimp pilot with a nature show on the web, Vlade, the cranky superintendent of the Met Life building, Charlotte, the lawyer with big plans, and of course "the Citizen," a mysterious character who directly addresses the reader and gives KSR a chance to info-dump with jokes (a nice touch that reminded me of his info-dumping work around in 2312).
Most of the main characters live in the same building: the Met Life building at Madison Square, which is more of a lake in 2140. Apparently the concept of a novel focusing on a single building is a thing, according to KSR himself in this interview on the excellent podcast Imaginary Worlds. The characters get around in boats, since the flooded streets are now canals. There's also a lot of homelessness and buildings are wont to collapse in the water.
The Philosophy Report: Plain Old Topia?
For all the dismal effects of climate change and economic disparity, you might think this is a dystopia. But it's not. Nor it is exactly a utopia. Maybe plain old topia? The people of 2140 are getting along alright, maybe not quite as well as middle class people of 2018, but it's not exactly Mad Max, either. The super rich of both times, of course, are more than fine. My method of distinguishing utopia from dystopia is whether I'd give up my relatively comfortable life to live in that world. I probably wouldn't in this case, but I'd be tempted, because the people of this world, at least the ones we meet in the novel, seem to be a bit more generous, intelligent, and interesting than most of us. They also maybe make some key decisions to turn toward a utopian direction (as opposed to our apparently deliberate turn to dystopia in recent years).
Another nice touch of New York 2140 is how KSR puts the city and its people in its historical context of famous New Yorkers like Teddy Roosevelt, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman and of course the landmarks of the city itself. Although New York is a different place in 2140, it's still New York (and thankfully, not Denver...). My favorite science fiction taps into a larger historical understanding (think of Frank Herbert's Dune or Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning), but New York 2140 accomplishes this by anchoring the novel in a single city.
This historical sense reveals, I think, KSR's deeper optimism (perhaps even utopianism). Climate change is going to suck for our descendants. A lot. Human-made economic disasters seem almost as inevitable. But through it all, humans will continue to love, laugh, form bonds with one another, and maybe even engage in a little treasure hunting (did I mention the treasure hunting?). While the world KSR paints here isn't as rosy as some, it's not completely terrible, either. Imagining a future like this inclines me to feel something almost like hope: it might take us another 120 years, but humanity might begin to plot a course for something better eventually.
See also my Goodreads review.