NEW YORK 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson THE UNSEEN ACADEMIC
This is the second in an occasional series of posts drawing on my excursion into the academic side of creative writing. Having taken a career break from secondary schooling to further my own education with some post graduate study I’ve completed an MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s University Belfast. I’ve now started on a PhD project at the same university with the catchy title “Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.”
This PhD will involve me reading a lot of climate fiction novels as well as thinking and writing about the ways in which they address aspects of climate change. My thesis will also look at crime fiction and how boundaries between genres can be usefully breached in hybrid novels, for example China Mieville’s The City and The City.
So the Hive is kindly offering me space to post reviews of climate fiction books as well as blogging thoughts and articles on other aspects of my PhD experience.
So without further ado, here are my thoughts on Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140.
New York in popular literature seems to have inherited the mantle of old Rome in its visceral appeal to sense and experience. From Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) or Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) to Sami Rami’s animated Into the Spidey-verse (2018), film makers have cast the city as a character and made a tacit assertion that when you are tired of New York you are tired of life. The film The Day After Tomorrow (2004) flooded and froze New York in an abrupt climate change disaster. Robinson takes a more robust scientific approach in his depiction of a city and a people that insist on enduring in the face of rising sea levels that have made a Venice of New York.
Robinson’s story, like his city, requires a diverse cast of characters whose stories are told in distinctive ways. The IT geeks (quants) Jeff and Mutt appear as little more than talking heads, in an exchange of untagged speech and minimal present tense narrative such that the resemblance to the duos at the centre of Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead or even Waiting for Godot will occur to the reader long before it occurs to the characters themselves. The fate of this duo who disappear from a rooftop farm in the opening scene forms the mystery that drives the plot and binds the rest of the characters to each other. Franklin Garr tells his own story, in a more conventional first person past tense narrative, the market trader with the magic “intertidal” index that ensures his hedge fund always profits from uncertainty. A nameless citizen interjects passages as part historian, part tour guide, an opportunity for the narrator to exposit in a brisk and entertaining way the city’s current circumstances. Other characters take the stage in simple third person past tense, but the whole effect is a pleasing weave of different styles and perspectives that reflect the diversity of the city itself.
Robinson builds the verisimilitude of his future story on high fidelity to the contemporary geography and history of New York. Real history becomes integral to the plot, such as the revolutionary war loss of H.M.S.Hussar with its alleged cargo of gold coins or the truncated design for the Metropolitan Life Building – the Met – which is the home that links the story’s diverse cast. The building becomes both a plot point and a character in its own right. Its deep foundations, designed to support a hundred stories but in the aftermath of the great depression curtailed to a mere 30, help it withstand the challenge of rising sea levels and flooded streets. In a similar way, Robinson’s anchorage of his story in the depths of New York History and the realities of its geography form an emphatic bridge from the present to make his vision of the future accessible – more so than the rampant defamiliarisation employed by Will Self in The Book of Dave (2006).
Nonetheless, the seventy-foot sea-level rise Robinson envisages, although less than the absolute inundation seen in The Book of Dave, is still too rapid for currently accepted scientific trends. Robinson understands this and plants a plot lever firmly in the slight crevice of uncertainty about the stability of the Antarctic ice sheets. While the historic record of the end of the last ice age suggests even a 2.5 metre or eight foot sea level rise in the course of a single century would be exceptionally fast, Robinson alludes to the issue of buttresses within the Antarctic ice-sheets. The seaward edge of the great glaciers trapped by a lip of rock such that it is possible to envisage a sudden collapse that sends mountains of ice flowing into the ocean to melt. Robinson uses this possibility to invent two periods of accelerated sea level rise each a decade or so in duration, triggered by the collapse of one or other Antarctic ice sheets. These periods known as the first and second pulses present a profound shock to global populations and economy but Robinson’s world still remains eminently recognisable to a modern eye.
While the notion of Marine Ice Cliff Instability is a convenient scientific macguffin for authors to invoke in a bid to make climate change tangible by exaggerating its most high-profile effects, it does a disservice to the reality of climate change by implicitly underestimating the dramatic global impact of just a one metre sea-level rise. Like the film makers of the utterly dreadful 2012 (2009) and the less awful The Day After Tomorrow (2004), authors hunger for the heightened effect of dramatic visual imagery to engage an audience’s attention, but at the expense of the more prosaic reality of the peril facing the world.
As with Self, in focussing on sea level rise, Robinson finds less to say about temperature. Climate change may have exaggerated the extremes of weather that make modern New York so loved and hated by its inhabitants. The depths of winter may freeze the river Hudson like a Maunder minimum Thames of the 1600s, but summers do not stretch much further than the envelope of typical East Coast climate. Robinson does allow for freak weather events inventing categories beyond 5 for the severity of hurricanes in an extrapolation of current trends. But he does not make New York into a tropical rain forest like Ballard’s London in The Drowned World (1962).
The flora and fauna too are relatively unchanged. One of Robinson’s characters, Amelia the environmentalist, pursues a broadcast career assisting the relocation of threatened species in her airship appropriately termed The Assisted Migration. The means of circulating information has morphed from the internet into the “cloud” but, like much of the technology Robinson presents an evolutionary rather than revolutionary development of invention. While Robinson pays a certain lip-service to the threat of mass extinction with Amelia policing migration corridors, the plan to relocate polar bears to the still icy steppes of Antarctica emphasises the light relief offered by Amelia’s largely comic episodes. I mean who can forget the disastrously misguided relocation of cane toads to Australia or Japanese Knotweed to the United Kingdom? Robinson skates over the complexities of habitat destruction and the fragile window of survivability that most species inhabit with a simplified matching of creature and temperature. But then, this isn’t a story about animals, or even the whole world. It is a story about people and one city, New York.
Robinson deploys concepts of crisis capitalism and the power of capital to profit even when people face adversity. This rings horribly true in the current circumstances of a global pandemic and billionaires getting richer even as the poor starve. He extrapolates from the 2008 crisis to imagine that capital has been not just uninjured but actually enhanced by the consequences of the first and second pulse. Part of the story’s engine is if, in a further disaster, anybody could find the political will to finally bring capital to heel, separating it from the levers of government power so that government does become of the people, and by the people. Again, this is as much a story of our time as it is of the twenty-first century. Robinson’s characters fight elections and contend for power in Congress and in the Capitol as though in any contemporary political thriller. Climate change, with the crumbling and collapsing buildings of New York’s intertidal may be the inciting crisis, but for Robinson it is the tool with which to examine capitalism and challenge his city, rather than being the story itself.
And the story is essentially, the characters save New York, New York saves the world, New York is the world. Robinson’s everyman narrator even refers to a famous old cartoon of our time that encapsulated “New York’s self-absorption” and yet he also recognises the jaded eye the rest of the world turns on
“the most desired but least beloved of cities.”
Robinson channels great disasters of our time, like Hurricane Katrina, in making his world real and comprehensible. However, scaling up from the reality of Katrina to the potential impact of climate change is as hard as scaling up comprehension from the Hiroshima bomb to the Tsar Bomba of 1961. The human imagination struggles with orders of magnitude that need logarithmic scales even to fit them on the same graph. But Robinson is perhaps most self-aware when he has Mutt and Jeff – his resident savants – pronounce that
“No one cares about books, that’s why you can write anything you want in them. It’s laws people care about.”
Ultimately, New York 2140 is a book about how a bunch of people use climate change disaster as the impetus to change the law.