New York front and cen­tre in a flood of char­ac­ters

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley’s

The Big Ap­ple of Kim Stan­ley Robin­son’s new science fic­tion novel, New York 2140, is both recog­nis­able and strange. Cli­mate change-driven sea level rise has flooded much of Man­hat­tan, trans­form­ing its streets into a 22nd-cen­tury Venice, its grid of canals home to a riot of wa­ter­craft and criss­crossed by sky­bridges.

The un­fa­mil­iar­ity of this pic­ture dis­guises how much re­mains the same. The so­cial ge­og­ra­phy of Robin­son’s New York is de­press­ingly fa­mil­iar. Up­town, glit­ter­ing tow­ers of glass and steel rise a kilo­me­tre into the air, cli­mate­con­trolled eyries for the su­per-rich cap­i­tal­ist class. Down­town, the poor and dis­placed crowd into the crum­bling maze of the In­ter­tidal.

El­e­ments of this will be fa­mil­iar to read­ers of re­cent science fic­tion, in­clud­ing Robin­son’s 2312, Aurora and the Mars tril­ogy. But New York 2140 is no cookie-cut­ter dystopia. On the con­trary, it is a novel dis­tin­guished by its am­bi­tion.

In a cul­tural mo­ment when re­treat­ing from the big pic­ture is seen as a badge of hon­our, New York 2140 de­lib­er­ately harks back to the panop­tic so­cial vis­tas of the 19th-cen­tury novel, seek­ing to ex­plore not just the ex­pe­ri­ences of char­ac­ters from all lev­els of so­ci­ety but to drama­tise the so­cial and eco­nomic re­la­tions in which they are en­meshed. To this end Robin­son presents a sprawl­ing cast of char­ac­ters: two plucky street kids, a po­lice de­tec­tive, a build­ing man­ager, an im­pas­sioned lawyer who works with refugees and the dis­en­fran­chised, a pair of coders with rev­o­lu­tion­ary in­tent, a cal­low but ba­si­cally good-hearted com­modi­ties trader and an air­ship-fly­ing, en­dan­gered species-res­cu­ing in­ter­net (or cloud) star with a ten­dency to get naked … to name just a few.

This ini­tially (but ul­ti­mately for­tu­itously) mis­matched as­sort­ment of in­di­vid­u­als is thrown to­gether by an ac­ci­dent of ge­og­ra­phy: all call the retro­fit­ted Met Life Tower on Madi­son Square home. Yet even de­spite that it takes the kid­nap­ping of the coders — and a triple help­ing of co­in­ci­dence — to bring them into con­tact with each other.

Yet while the as­pi­ra­tions and dilem­mas of Robin­son’s cast are di­vert­ing enough, ul­ti­mately they’re not the point of this novel. In­stead, as its plot un­furls in its of­ten de­light­fully di­gres­sive man­ner, chas­ing off af­ter a lost Bri­tish naval ship sup­posed to have been loaded with buried trea­sure and a mys­te­ri­ous box that may con­tain Her­man Melville’s lost mas­ter­piece, Isles of the Cross, it be­comes clear the real star is the city it­self.

Per­haps ap­pro­pri­ately for a novel in which the cen­tral char­ac­ter is a place rather than a per­son, New York 2140 strives to em­body some of the teem­ing var­i­ous­ness and lay­ered his­tory of the city in its fab­ric, shift­ing be­tween voices and quot­ing lib­er­ally from an as­ton­ish­ing range of sources. The re­sult is poly­phonic, even ex­ul­tant at times, echo­ing not just the work of The Day Af­ter To­mor­row mod­ernists such as John Dos Pas­sos but also John Brun­ner’s clas­sic novel of over­pop­u­la­tion, Stand on Zanz­ibar.

Yet de­cen­tring the hu­man ac­tors also al­lows Robin­son space to ex­plore the mul­ti­fac­eted ques­tions with which the novel is en­gaged, from the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of flood­proof­ing and spec­u­la­tive tech­nolo­gies de­signed to al­low build­ings to shift and move with the wa­ter, to the in­tri­ca­cies of the fi­nan­cial and com­modi­ties mar­kets and in par­tic­u­lar how risk and un­cer­tainty are priced and traded.

Th­ese — and the his­tory lessons pro­vided by the nar­ra­tor iden­ti­fied only as “The Cit­i­zen” — pro­vide the drum­beat of dark­ness that gives New York 2140 its power. For in them Robin­son of­fers a fright­en­ingly plau­si­ble pic­ture of what lies just over our hori­zon, imag­in­ing two in­stances of rapid, cli­mate change-driven sea level rise that in­un­date coastal cities world­wide.

There is noth­ing new in this, of course. But by his­tori­cis­ing the fu­ture Robin­son makes this now al­most cer­tain yet some­how un­imag­in­able sce­nario bru­tally real.

Yet this is not this novel’s only achieve­ment. For along­side this por­trait of the ef­fects of ris­ing seas, Robin­son ex­plores how mar­kets might re­spond, ar­gu­ing that de­spite the cost, cap­i­tal­ism will not falter but ac­tu­ally thrive, gen­er­at­ing vast prof­its from re­build­ing and re­lo­ca­tion while tight­en­ing its grip on those un­der its yoke.

The fi­nal sec­tion of this huge, dizzy­ing, of­ten thrilling and de­lib­er­ately op­ti­mistic novel con­cerns a sce­nario in which the char­ac­ters en­gi­neer the over­throw of pre­cisely this eco­nomic or­der, ush­er­ing in a new kind of fu­ture.

And while th­ese sec­tions strike me as utopian in the less gen­er­ous sense of the word, they none­the­less un­der­line a point that needs to be made of­ten and loudly if we are to es­cape the dis­as­ter we seem hell­bent on bring­ing down on our­selves, which is that “his­tory does not stop hap­pen­ing. Seem­ingly frozen mo­ments are tran­sient, they break up like the spring ice, and then change oc­curs.” new novel is The Silent In­va­sion, the first vol­ume of a tril­ogy for young adults.

Ris­ing seas threaten New York in a scene from the film

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