Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2017 novel New York 2140 is something of a return for the author. Having started his career in fiction with an abstractly connected trilogy of near future science fiction novels depicting a post-apocalypse, dystopia, and ‘utopia’ respectively, often called the Orange County series, he used three very different future histories of Southern California to examine social, economic, environmental, and political issues. His later novels going to Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and deep space, New York 2140 looks back to the Orange County series for method, moves to the East Coast for setting, and, unsurprisingly, finds that a lot of the issues requiring address in the 80s still require visionary imagination in 2017.
After a decades-spanning series of Pulses, the Earth’s ocean waters have risen 50 feet. New York City, like the remainder of the world’s coastal urban areas, has found its landscape entirely changed. Lower Manhattan a gridwork of canals rather than streets as a result, the super-scrapers are now being built in upper rather than lower Manhattan. Completing the migration, the city’s wealthy and affluent have also moved up-town, leaving the crumbling inter-tidal zone to those who can make life happen.
New York 2140 centers on the lives of eight people, all of whom call the New York’s Met building home. Their lives intertwining, two boys attempt to dig up a treasure now buried beneath sea water, a day trader in the new futures market tries to find a meaningful relationship, the Met’s building superintendent investigates why so many not-so-coincidental accidents are happening to the foundation, an NGO rep negotiates on behalf of the Met’s residents’ for an offer twice as much as the building is worth, a (classic) sharp-tongued New Yorker delves into the history of his city and what brought it to be inundated by 50 feet of water, a wildlife celebrity attempts to re-locate a group of polar bears to the Antarctic, and two hackers attempt to find out how they ended up in an underwater prison.
Not a zombie-infested wasteland, New York 2140, like Robinson’s earlier The Wild Shore, is a post-apocalyptic/catastrophe setting that assumes humanity picks up the pieces of what’s left over, then adapts. Boats and hovercrafts replace cars, bridges are built between the buildings, subway lines are used for water, sewage, and other piping—in general life moves on. Paralleling the relative dystopia of The Gold Coast, greed and corporate self-interest continue to plague New York in 2140, and the world. Franklin Gar, the aforementioned day trader, works in an economic model even more virtual and abstract from reality than the one currently in place, meaning yet another Depression looms. Moreover, the ascent of wealth toward the top 5% has only continued, in turn pushing the middle class toward the bottom.
But, like Pacific Edge, Robinson offers some simple but far-reaching ideas for these problems, a heavily-limited utopia the final result. Certainly many liberals will blanche hearing things like nationalized banking or proportional corporate taxation, but, it seems apparent from Robinson’s presentation in the novel, he believes when left alone these sectors are unable to police their own interests. Depressions and recessions like those we have already seen in history will occur again, though, given scale will only increase with each iteration, and prove more and more devastating. I won’t argue the conclusion of New York 2140 is as smooth and coherent as could be, but the underlying sentiment is certainly one for everyone, regardless which side of the socialist/liberal spectrum they fall upon, can think about.
Complementing the largely economic theme, New York 2140 uses the inundation of water as a metaphor. LibraryThing member dukedom_enough puts it nicely saying: “Robinson explores the idea of liquidity, both of rising water, washing away buildings, and of money, enabling capitalism's washing away the livelihoods and lifeways of the poeple who live within its system.” And New York, having a dynamic coastal landscape and being as the US’s financial capital, provides the complementary setting allowing Robinson to explore economic theory from both tangible and intangible perspective.
In the end, New York 2140 is a novel that is both a return to ideas Robinson explored early in his writing career as well as a confirmation that those ideas remain worth exploring, particularly in the freshly imagined, nicely symbolized flooding of a future New York City. Like those earlier novels, Robinson balances basic plots with ontological exposition, realistic worldbuilding, and theory crafting, the latter of which is neither complex or requires stretching of the imagination. New York 2140 is a feast for the imagination (the setting really does spring directly into the mind’s eye) that resolves itself in material worth pondering, and, for like and unlike-minded persons.