New York 2140 - Kim Stanley Robinson *****
The cover of Kim Stanley Robinson's latest exploration of man, nature and science might be a little deceptive, but only just a little. The image of a future New York with lower Manhattan flooded, presumably in the year 2140, is certainly representative of the focus that the author places on an important city and how it might very likely be affected by climate change in the near future, but this is not just another work of speculative environmental disaster fiction. Kim Stanley Robinson doesn't waste time on the hows and whys of something that seems inevitable to anyone who knows that we've already passed the point of no return as far as environmental change is concerned and just how likely such disastrous repercussions will be. No, Robinson is more interested in how we choose to move forward after the inevitable happens.
This is typical of Kim Stanley Robinson. He's not content to just spin an entertaining science-fiction adventure in a futuristic New York, nor does he simply rest on the received wisdom or the limitations of current scientific exploration and projections. He's prepared to push the scientific model further, prepared to consider human reactions, behaviours and responses, and he arrives at some conclusions that one might not expect to find in eco-dystopian fiction. For example, the only other literary fiction of similarly speculative enquiry and rigorous exploration that I've come across on the subject, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver, posits what seems to be an inevitable collapse of the whole global capitalist economic system. Kim Stanley Robinson on the other hand actually sees the capitalist system thriving after a huge rise in sea level washes though some of the most important cities in the world. Well, thriving up to a point, which is the crucial distinction here.
Disaster is good for business, particularly if you are Franklin Garr, a financial modeller and consultant who specialises on the Intertidal market that has grown up around the ruins of the cities on the American coastline. There are no shortage of investors and hedge fund managers willing to play the short and long risk game in the housing market. There are no shortage either of New Yorkers willing to reclaim the partially submerged buildings of lower Manhattan, forming Housing Cooperatives, but there's a conflict of interests between the reality of life on the ground (above and below the new 50 foot higher waterline) and the financial bubble that has been inflated around it. Something's gotta give, and the continuing unstable conditions of the climate could push that conflict to the brink.
Kim Stanley Robinson builds New York 2140 around a diverse group of characters who inhabit the semi-submerged Met Life tower on Madison Square, and the author at least is on very solid foundations here. Each character has their own sections in the book, but they are all very much interconnected. There's Franklin Garr, mentioned above, a financial expert and - significantly? - the only first person narrator in the book. There's also Mutt and Jeff, two computer coders who attempt to introduce a piece of code that will 'correct' the financial market and find themselves 'disappeared' very soon afterwards. There's Amelia Black, a cloud broadcast celebrity who undertakes missions - sometimes naked - to save endangered wildlife on her airship the Assisted Migration. There's Stefan and Roberto, two 'water rats' who have grown up semi-feral in the SuperVenice of New York who are looking for buried treasure. There's Charlotte Armstrong and Vlade, who are part of the managerial and administrative team of the Met Life, resisting sabotage attacks on the tower and trying to fend off hostile takeover bids.
A section is devoted also to police inspector Gen Octaviasdottir, who has quite a few challenges not only with investigating such matters, but in also keeping public order, which is always going to be an issue in a place like New York while it is in such a vulnerable position. That position is outlined by "a citizen", who has more of an authorial presence in their sections, covering the history of New York, filling in the details of the First and Second Pulses of sea level rise that inundate the city. These entertainingly delivered info-dumps help give a wider overview of the financial climate and the complex operations which will ultimately determine the survival and progress of the citizens of New York, and even the wider world, through the challenges to come. Who knows what further environmental disasters loom on the horizon? Every one of these characters has an interesting facet and something to add to the richness of the book as a whole. There are no weak elements here.
Among various quotes relating to New York and the subject at hand, Kim Stanley Robinson spins his own bits of wisdom, one of which applies here as much as to his treatment in his other books, whether set in the far future, in prehistoric times or on other planets; "History is humankind trying to get a grip". The challenges in New York in 2140 are considerable. Typically, the author is not pessimistic about the future or about mankind's role in history, and the novel is by no means all doom and gloom. Nor is the author naive or idealistic about human nature, motivation and behaviour, but realistic and perceptive in his observations. Critically, Robinson shows that there are always ways and means, that there are always solutions, that things can be fixed. Science can help, but it's not the only answer. People power is far more important in the greater scheme of things, and Robinson - as usual - has some "revolutionary" ideas here.
This is what separates Robinson from other science fiction writers. He's not just concerned with science and the environment, he's interested in what makes people tick. He's not just looking for solutions either, but looking for the best in people and showing what can be achieved if we trust in our better nature. Robinson is a good enough writer to make you care about the characters he writes about and see yourself in some of them. New York 2140 is also a love letter to the self-mythologising greatest city on Earth, a testament to its resiliency, its history, its grandeur, its unique position in the world and its unique climate. It's the natural and exciting choice to consider the particular challenges that we might well face in the not so distant future, but it is also indicative of how we as a people might and should react. We are all New Yorkers.
New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson is published by Orbit on 16th March 2017
New York 2140 - Kim Stanley Robinson *****