Paul Di Filippo reviews Kim Stanley Robinson

New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit 978-0-316-26234-7, $28, 624pp, hardcover, March 2017

Although I have read almost everything written by Kim Stanley Robinson, I regret to say that one major gap in my coverage of his work exists: the Science in the Capitalcli-fi” series, which consists of Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting (recently updated and abridged into a single novel, Green Earth). Luckily for me, his new book, although thematically allied by obvious signifiers to this earlier series, offers a fresh and welcoming reboot, with ten years of additional insights, into Robinson’s take on the immense and impactful climate change problem.

Newbies and veteran fans alike are immediately plunged—my use of that watery verb is deliberate—into what might be called “Tales of Drowned Manhattan.” Our nexus of action, we learn, will be the old Met Life building, now a cooperative residence complete with “farm floors,” still standing—flourishing, even—due to being effectively sealed off from the surrounding yucky waters. Forty storeys hosting over two thousand inhabitants. In this choice of using a single structure as the organizing lens on a future milieu, Robinson nods towards such classics as Disch’s 334 and Niven and Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty. A more recent iteration of this mode, Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station is also a kissing cousin. It’s a great and effective hook.

Each chapter is divided into the same sections, revolving around different protagonists. Of course, their lives become completely and wonderfully and unpredictably entangled. First comes the “Mutt and Jeff” portion, dealing with two roguish software geeks or quants. Next comes the POV of Inspector Gen Octaviasdottir, a hard-nosed black female cop. In her chapter we also meet Charlotte Armstrong, who helps to manage and run the Met Life building. She gets her own separate focus later. Next up is Franklin Garr, a rich financial investments expert, somewhat callow but good-hearted. Following his turn on stage, we meet Vlade Marovich, competent super for the Met Life co-op. Amelia Black is a media celeb, as she travels about the planet in her smart airship, Assisted Migration, with its AI named Frans, making nature documentaries for the cloud audience. Stefan and Roberto represent the lower classes, being young “water rats” out for any way to make a quick buck and continue to survive. And lastly comes a chapter titled “that citizen” (variant titles to swap in and out), representing an omniscient voice that allows Robinson to deliver his patented, smooth, fascinating infodumps, whose presence he has convincingly argued are integral to SF. (He even goes meta in a later chapter, making fun of the very concept of infodump.)

Consider this typical bit of history:

And so the First Pulse and Second Pulse, each a complete psychodrama decade, a meltdown in history, a breakdown in society, a refugee nightmare, an eco-catastrophe, the planet gone collectively nuts. The Anthropocide, the Hydrocatastrophe, the Georevolution. Also great new options for investment and, oh dear, the necessity of police state crowd control as expressed in draconian new laws and ad hoc practices, what some called the Egyptification of the world, but we won’t go there now, that’s pessimistic boo-hooing and giving-upness, more suitable for the melodramas describing individual fates in the watery decades than this grandly sweeping overview.

It’s this last self-aware mocking sentence that perfectly captures the tone of the book. Yes, the future has brought what might be deemed a kind of apocalypse—New York City underwater!!!—at least when viewed under the old twentieth-century paradigms. But hey, indomitable, crazy, persistent human life goes on, and can even be enjoyed and recognized as vital, valuable and vigorous as ever it was in the past.

This book is amiable, humorous, good-natured, optimistic, in love with the quotidian and with the crazy quilt adaptive existence that life under stress assumes. Robinson gives us a host of fascinating, interlocking plots, and some of them have global resonance. But the planetary situation is never paramount. Instead, the texture and busyness of the characters as they go about trying to survive and prosper and do right in their environment is always center-stage. Not to say there is no suspense or drama. Far from it: buried treasure, a hurricane, building sabotage, kidnappings. the ghost of Herman Melville—Robinson rings in plenty of cleverly delineated action. Nor are emotional relations scanted, as several love affairs commence and reach fruition. The timespan of the story is about three years, and we really come to inhabit the existences of these people, as we watch the seasons turn.

Robinson is meticulous with new technologies, new social customs, new recreations and ways of urban living. The skybridges that connect buildings are just one of the smaller innovations he details. The various watercrafts and their uses are another, in this Venice of America. But surprisingly, the hardcore economics of this future receive as much attention as any of the other aspects. Robinson delves deep into the financial world, the old capitalist and socialist paradigms that drove climate change and the new formulae which now seek to undo it and/or profit by it. The ethics of liquidity, it might be called.

In this focus, Robinson has adhered to the essence of all New York novels, which have to be about three things: money, real estate, and social status. He’s pulled off a kind of Tom Wolfe The Bonfire of the Vanities for the year 2140. Also analogous is the underrated Turn of the Century by Kurt Andersen. Of course, we need not look outside the genre when we have also books like Fred Pohl’s The Years of the City and Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House for comparison.

Long known for his insightful evocation of futuristic life on the West Coast, Robinson in this book has proven that his empathy and insights port over to the Big Apple just as fluidly and entertainingly and complexly.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

2 thoughts on “Paul Di Filippo reviews Kim Stanley Robinson

  • March 19, 2017 at 8:27 pm

    Paul: Having not yet read the novel (though greatly looking forward to), I am somewhat confused by your reference to the “Met Life building” as the book’s main setting. Other reviews I’ve seen gave the site as the Met Life Tower at 1 Madison Square (1909, Napoleon LeBrun), but you refer to it as the Met Life “building” and give its height as 40 storeys, suggesting that it may instead be the 41-floor former New York Telephone HQ, now owned by MetLife, at 1095 Sixth Avenue (1974, Kahn & Jacobs). (How vividly we recall this building in its original, pre-facelift state from an early scene in “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins”!) The Met Life TOWER, on the other hand, has 50 floors; perhaps ten were shaved off the top in circumstances described in the novel?

    Personally, I’d feel more secure in Robinson’s future scenario living in the Met Life North Building, which has only 30 (large) floors but was originally designed to support 100.

    Hoping you can clear this up.

  • March 20, 2017 at 7:38 am

    The author has always impressed me with his ideas and his science, but not with his storytelling. He’s a bit dull. But this book is a lot more lively. I’m about halfway through, and it strikes me as very much like a Neal Stephenson book–info dumps, humor, all that. I’m liking it.

    And did the author mean to describe a character as “callow” or “callous?” I think the latter.


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