Over the course of his career, Kim Stanley Robinson has written some of the best known — and most plausible — works of science fiction: Red Mars, 2312, and Aurora, just to name a few. Robinson’s books are incredibly detailed, chock-full of realistic science, and almost always carry with them a relevant message about the present.
In his latest novel, New York 2140, Robinson takes a look at the future of the planet as sea levels rise due to a warming climate and the changes civilization needs to make in order to survive. It’s surreal to be reading this book right now, especially against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s dismissal of the dangers that climate change poses. There’s already a number of fairly bleak novels out there about the affects of climate change. (Look no further than Paolo Bacigalupi’s excellent novels The Windup Girl and The Water Knife.) But Robinson’s book feels like the most optimistic take on our future yet. Sure, the water levels will rise, the Earth is going through a mass extinction event, and a lot of people will die as a result, but when things get really bad, society, he seems to suggest, can still manage to survive.
Robinson imagines a world where humanity doesn’t react in time to slow down climate change. In 2140, New York City is the new Venice, with canals replacing its streets, and people going about their lives in this new world. Robinson depicts that life with a multitude of characters, all of whom come together around the building that they all inhabit, Manhattan’s MetLife Tower. There’s Mutt and Jeff, a pair of programmers who are kidnapped after they unleash a bug in the financial markets, while Inspector Gen, an imposing and well-connected city police officer, sets off to look into their disappearance. Franklin is a hedge fund manager who’s making a decent living betting on a housing bubble with real estate prices in the drowned coastlines, while 12-year-olds Stefan and Roberto are looking to literally strike it rich when they come across a centuries-old sunken treasure under the ruins of the Bronx. Amelia is a bubbly nature video blogger who travels the world in an airship, documenting the fragile nature of the world’s biosphere. Charlotte is a social advocate who helps run the Met building, and Vlade is the building’s super. Finally, there’s an anonymous, sarcastic “citizen” who helps narrate, outlining the events that led up to novel.
Robinson has a ton of plates up in the air for this story, and he largely pulls off this enormously ambitious, complicated narrative by following an unconventional structure that creates a mosaic of events instead of a straightforward plot. That complexity adds to the feeling of realism as the characters come together to fend off hostile takeovers of their home building and the rising floodwaters of New York City, and all of this happens as the forefront of Robinson’s larger exploration of humanity’s impact on the planet.
The result is a compelling, if at times, complicated read. New York 2140 is an intriguing book that’s part thought experiment, part character drama, and part world-building exercise to look at the varied impact that climate change will have on human society. He plays with a number of ambitious ideas here, linking climate change to centuries of destructive economic policy and the financial and social impact of climate change. This is a book influenced by the 2008 financial crisis that occurred the beginning of the Obama administration, and it’s keenly aware of the relationship between the state of the economy and the world’s climate. By the end of the novel, Robinson comes up with some ideas that would make the Bernie Sanders / Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party pretty happy: putting the brakes on unfettered capitalism to help save the planet.
There are a couple places where Robinson takes his eyes off the story right in front of him, and a big, climactic storm feels a little too convenient for the plot. However, the flaws in this novel are outweighed by the glorious future New York City that Robinson has lovingly put together. It’s a setting that feels completely real, vibrant, and visceral as he takes us up and down a city that’s adapted to water life: buildings have installed waterproofing measures and garages for boats, while people walk overhead in skywalks that connect the buildings to one another. The city is easily a character in its own right.
The Earth’s climate is changing: the oceans are growing more acidic, hundreds of animal species are going extinct, and the atmosphere is growing warmer and warmer. New York 2140 points to the reasons for why: humans simply can’t recognize how their short-term actions play out on a geologic scale, and now that we’re starting to reap the consequences, his characters are trying to make the world better in their own ways. Robinson’s novel is a dire warning for the future that likely faces us if enormous, civilization-changing fixes aren’t made. It doesn’t seem likely that those fixes will be made anytime soon, but he’s at least optimistic that people will eventually come around and start to do something. Better late than never.
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