New York 2140
Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, 618 pages
Review by Callum McSorley
New York, New York, it’s a helluva town! So goes the song, and from Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it’s certainly a city that’s inspired writers and artists for generations, and its prominence in media and finance has made it the capital of the world. Even over a hundred years in the future, where melting polar ice caps have caused worldwide floods and left half of Manhattan under water—the premise of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140—the great city of New York is still a thriving metropolis, setting the bar for all the so-called ‘intertidal’ cities of the world.
This is not a post-apocalyptic story. Manhattan may be in the drink, but hardy New Yorkers simply get on with it, traversing the new canals in ferries and souped-up speedboats, farming fresh fish and seafood in the streets and avenues downtown, and attending water-sumo wrestling matches in the illicit subterranean drinking dungeons in the former subway. The book follows a group of such folk who all live in the Met Life building on Madison Square in the heart of the ‘SuperVenice’.
New York 2140 is overtly political, wearing its ideas on environmentalism and the economy on its sleeve, and in many places it’s a straight critique of the 2008 crash, openly lambasting the bail out of the banks and the return to the status quo of high finance gambling. The main plot point involves a similar crash predicted by Wall Street trader Franklin Garr (his Patrick Bateman persona hiding the fact that he’s really a do-gooder at heart) who joins up with a rag tag group of coders, counsellors, politicians, bureaucrats and water rats to change the future. (All of them happen to live in the same building—a fact brought to the reader’s attention by Robinson himself in a knowing bit of metafiction.)
The characters are diverse—reflecting the mongrel nature of the city itself—and boast strong female leads in Claire Armstrong, who spends her time finding homes for the city’s many immigrants and is tired of the indifference of the rich and political classes, and NYPD inspector, Gen Octaviasdottir, a former water sumo and old-school cop who lives and breathes the force’s motto of ‘protect and serve’.
Despite a couple of near-drownings and a deadly hurricane that batters the city, New York 2140 is relentlessly upbeat, with characters rarely unable to quickly overcome problems, something which weakens the thriller elements of the plot (two coders—Mutt and Jeff—are kidnapped at the beginning of the tale and somebody is drilling holes in the Met Life building in an act of sabotage) that largely fade out.
Another weak point is some of Robinson’s anachronistic twentieth-century pop culture references that seem odd coming from the mouths of people living over a century in the future. Likewise, interludes by ‘The Citizen’ break up the plot with snarky-toned discussions of New York’s past both real and fictional (in the years between now and 2142 when the book is set) are sometimes genuinely interesting but other times are just large information dumps – ‘The Citizen’ even jokes that you should skip these if you simply want to get back to your little story, and you might just want to take his advice on occasion.
New York 2140 is about the present. It’s about the climate change we’re currently causing and ignoring. It’s about the growing inequality between rich and poor—above Central Park, still on dry land, there are ‘superscrapers’ lying empty, owned by the rich as holiday homes or as investments. It’s a call for action and reform, a speculation on communal living, and, most of all, a vibrant love letter to the city of New York.
This last is the most important factor, and whether you’re digging for buried gold in the old underwater streets in a home-made diving bell with water rats Stefan and Roberto, or taking in the famous skyline of the sunken city in a swish open-terrace bar with Franklin, it’s a joy to be in New York in 2140.
This review originally published in Shoreline of Infinity issue 10.