Review: New York 2140

Set, unsurprisingly, in the year 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 sees the Big Apple thriving in the aftermath of climate change. The sea level has risen about fifty feet in the aftermath of two “Pulses”, about a hundred years apart, leaving lower Manhattan underwater. Which hasn’t stopped people living there, using boats, skybridges, water taxis and airships to get around. Otherwise, life in the city continues pretty much as it always has: people still commute to work, pick up dates in bars, grab coffee with exes, etc., etc.

The novel focuses on the inhabitants of the Met Life building, repurposed as a residential community housing about two thousand people, with a communal dining room and farm level. Our main players are: a superintendent in the NYPD; a reality TV personality who traverses the world in an airship, showcasing and supporting conservation efforts; a pair of quants with ambitions of overhauling the financial system; an analyst who’s developed a financial index linked to sea level rise; the head of the Met Life building’s resident committee, who’s determined to fend off a hostile takeover bid; and a couple of treasure-obsessed kids.

One of the novel’s core themes is volatility: specifically, the volatility of the changing climate and the volatility of the markets that changed it. 2140 New York is still a financial centre, and is thus positively sloshing in volatility, both metaphorical and literal: much is made in the text of the intertidal, the places in the city that are flooded at high tide and walkable at low tide. It’s here, in buildings abandoned by capital, where this future New York gets most interesting:

Hegemony had drowned, so in the years after the flooding there was a proliferation of cooperatives, neighbourhood associations, communes, squats, barter, alternative currencies, gift economies, solar usufruct, fishing village cultures, mondragons, unions, Davy’s locker freemasonries, anarchist blather, and submarine technoculture…Also…art-not-work, the city regarded as a giant collaborative artwork; blue greens, amphibiguity, heteregeneticity, horizontalization, deoligarchification

(Notice here how Robinson’s very sentence structure performs volatility, that pile-on of commas turning sentence into paragraph, or straight-up list; this is a style that’s present to a greater or lesser extent throughout the book.)

Of course, having abandoned the intertidal when things got bad, the markets want to re-capitalise on it now it’s exciting again. So the relationship between the radical volatility of the intertidal and the volatility of the markets is essentially parasitical. We see this in the person of Franklin Garr, the aforementioned financial analyst. For him, highly-paid as he is, flooded New York is a glamorous SuperVenice, an opportunity to impress women in fast boats and make a lot of money shorting the intertidal property bubble. He sees the intertidal, and the markets, as abstract things, games to be played in the quest for individual wealth. His attitude stands in stark contrast to those of other characters who are more directly affected by the games the markets play: the residents resisting the buyout of the Met Life building; the quants targeted by ruthless investment companies; the old man who loses his crumbling home and all his possessions to the sea. These are people for whom the markets, and the volatility they produce, are not a game; they have damaging, real-life effects. Their values of mutual support and shared humanity are, in fact, in direct opposition to the selfish principles governing the markets (as represented in microcosm by Franklin, who notably wants nothing to do with the two dispossessed boys he keeps running into in various pickles).

Volatility also comes into play in the narration of a character named only as A Citizen, who puts the New York-focused action of the book into context by drawing our attention to global developments. Although the text tends towards optimism, the efforts of the Met Life collective to hold out against the pressures of capitalism eventually spreading to the wider city and even nation, A Citizen reminds us that such efforts are always contingent, a happy ending never assured:

there was no guarantee of permanence to anything they did, and the pushback was ferocious as always, because people are crazy and history never ends, and good is accomplished against the immense black-hole gravity of greed and fear.

One of the lessons of New York 2140, inasmuch as good novels have lessons, is that volatility will always be with us, the forces of capital and greed and an uncertain future attacking the structures we try to build. But that is, in itself, not a good reason to stop trying.

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