It’s no denying I’m a KSR fanboy. It’s also no denying I avidly share the same concerns as so many: climate change, rising inequality, the grip of finance on global politics. So I really wanted to like this book. And I did – up unto the first 250 pages. The remaining 363, not so much.
As the cover and the title make clear, New York 2140 follows firmly in the line of Kim Stanley Robinson’s near future novels: there was Washington & climate change in the Science of the Capital trilogy, refurbished in 2015 as the mammoth Green Earth, and California & three different scenarios in his early series The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988) and Pacific Edge (1990).
This time the sea level has risen spectacularly and New York has turned into a New Venice. The book follows nine characters that all live in the same building: a market trader, a police inspector, an environmental activist/nude model internet star, the building’s manager, two orphan boys straight from Huckleberry Finn, a lawyer and two coders trying to rig the Wall Street system.
At first the book is simply great. Robinson uses a mature, daring voice. It is his most ironic mode yet, his most openly self-aware book. He even addresses the reader straight on about his tendency to infodump. In between chapters there’s snippets of quotes from various sources about New York and its history, often funny. They work wonderfully well in tandem with the main text. New York 2140‘s subject is quite heavy, but the writing often manages to be light and breezy. I laughed out loud several times. KSR uses language creatively, with stuff like “thinking they are great gestalters” or “I pikettied the U.S. tax code” and a newly coined adverb like “realworldistically” – all examples of a playful intellectualism. A joy to read.
The story starts with a disappearance that has the smell of a high tech heist movie. There’s also an old school treasure hunt going on, and there’s the general vibe of 22nd century New York with all kinds of new technology dealing with the new water level. It all contributes to a Big Sense of Anticipation, especially since the story has 613 pages, and I know what KSR is capable of: I was set for a long, boisterous feast. (More on the cake later.)
But after a while I slowly started to notice some problems, and those problems only got worse. After I read the book, I started reading some interviews (collected on the excellent, extensive fan site kimstanleyrobinson.info), and those interviews confirmed and explained my suspicions of what went wrong.
In the remaining part of this review, I’ll quote a few parts from various interviews, and use those to explain why this will be the first KSR book I’ll probably sell at the local second hand shop. But – and this needs the extra stress – that does not mean New York 2140 will be a bad read for you, dear reader: that also hinges for a big part upon what news and non-fiction you have consumed the last couple of years, as I’ll explain in my next paragraph.
CLIFI & FIFI
I went to my editor, Tim Holman, and said, “I want to write about global finance.” He said, “Oh God, never say that again. Horrible idea.” And I said, “But I want to do it.” So he thought for a while and said, “Well, remember that drowned Manhattan from your 2312? If you want to do finance, New York is the logical place to do it. Could you put the book in that drowned Manhattan?” In terms of picking the time, it was just a matter of making it far enough off that the sea level rise could be justified but close enough that we still have the current set of problems. (Sierra Club)
Apparently CliFi is a thing. An existing abbreviation. Some call New York 2140 an important CliFi novel. But, like Kevin McVeigh argued on his blog, it isn’t. I would call this a FiFi novel. Financial fiction, not climate fiction. And to these eyes, that is one of its main problems. If you’ve read some Paul Krugman columns in the NYT, or have seen the excellent 2010 documentary Inside Job, or overdosed on some Chomsky or Richard D. Wolff or Thomas Piketty, there is nothing new under the sun in New York 2140. References to 2008 and Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke aplenty – straight out of the mouths of 22nd century characters. Rants against rating agencies, casino capitalism, austerity politics, bailing out banks, hedge funds, shorting, nanosecond computer trading, tax havens, etc., etc.
Do not get me wrong: I agree 100% with KSR. Most regular people do. But does it make for a good book? Regular readers of this blog know I generally don’t like literature that is too obviously MESSAGE. That is not to say I mind political books. I loved Green Earth. I loved Slaughterhouse-Five. I loved Stand On Zanzibar. But there needs to be more than message, and I feel New York 2140 is a story that is too obviously constructed to hit home this and that and that and this.
As I said, if you’re uninitiated in critiques of the current form of capitalism, all this doesn’t apply to you: you’ll probably find lots of interesting new insights, and as such maybe experience New York 2140 as an eye-opening book, “at its core a lecture, or perhaps a seminar, on economics” as McVeigh puts it.
Naturally, most speculative writers actually write about themselves and about today. As such, that is not the problem of Robinson’s 18th novel. The problems are structural, and twofold. For one, the construction work shows: it is too much and too visibly tailor made for current events. Will this still be read in 2140? I don’t think so, as this book doesn’t rise above its own time: themes can be contemporary, but then the construction work needs to be solid – and that’s the second problem: a shaky story that’s unsuccessful as a narrative construct. Why?
MUTT & JEFF
I often start with ideas that are global or historical or scientific that don’t have any characters in them at first, and then as I write, the characters appear and become more distinct, and do things — it’s a strange process, and I don’t feel in control of it. So that’s very interesting. It keeps me writing. (Chicago Review of Books)
I’ve read reviews stating the reverse, so this is partly in the eye of the beholder, but to me, the characters did not feel real. They sounded too much like KSR mouthpieces: a lot of them too intellectual, too well read, too well informed on the 2008 economic crisis.
Some of them share the same fascination for Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Melville, FDR. These figures – especially Thoreau, Emerson and FDR – played an important role in Green Earth too, so for the recurring KSR reader it feels like more of the same. Been there, done that. It also doesn’t help suspension of disbelief: 2140 characters with the exact same literary preferences of those in early 21st century Green Earth flashed “KSR writing! Not someone real talking!” the entire time, and that took me out of the narrative flow often.
Picking 9 different characters from a building with 2000 inhabitants and letting their lives collide isn’t a bad narrative mechanism per se. The problem is that I felt these are stock characters, at times used to insert familiar KSR tropes: there is a character moving animals (something featured in 2312, Aurora and Green Earth), another character pointing out we are social animals (a lot like Frank in Green Earth), etc.
The role of the stock market trader is glaring – this is FiFi, remember – and the two orphans are used to insert the adventure treasure story to add a bit of variation with some old fashioned action at sea. Similarly, the chapters about the coders Mutt & Jeff are written in a comic dialogue, explaining the faults of our economic system some more, and the reference to their comic strip namesakes is loud & clear. Yet another example of too visible, artificial construction.
The only character I cared for was Vlade, the building manager who had a subdued but emotional backstory. It is no surprise that this is the only character without an obvious agenda in terms of MESSAGE.
What Robinson does well is give all these characters their own distinctive narrative voice. Another useful invention are the chapters narrated by a nameless “citizen”, as they are used to dump information – the character itself even urges the readers to skip these parts if they’re not interested in the bigger picture. They work a bit like the separate dump chapters in 2312, but the tone is much more tongue in cheek.
What is crystal clear throughout all these characters is Robinson’s anger and frustration with our system.
“We’ve got good tech, we’ve got a nice planet, but we’re fucking it up by way of stupid laws.”
REVERSE THE QUESTION
But it also sounds like you’re very passionate about this. How many of these ideas are just plot devices for you? I’m an American leftist. (…) My books have a utopian slant to them that is best explained by a coherent political view. And I have no problem with art being political—art is always political, so you might as well be coherent. So I’m happy with that identification, and it’s sort of inevitable at this point. Whatever people might call me, I think I’m much like almost everybody else—I’m surprised at the fearfulness and the stupidity of global finance, the greed involved. I think there’s reason to be angry at what happened in 2008 and at the system that still exists, and to want a better system. (Scientific American)
In the above fragment Robinson says some familiar things, but I had rather asked the reverse question: how much of the plot are just devices for the ideas? The answer isn’t hard to give.
A lot of New York 2140‘s story depends on happy coincidences. Franklin runs across the boys 3 times. Charlotte’s ex is the chairman of the Federal Reserve. He also turns out to be an important player in another, crucial way (to say more would be a spoiler). Vlade’s ex happens to own the right boat. That boat happens to cross a certain container. The cop happens to run into the same private security contractor twice. Amelia happens to be in the mindset to give a crucial rant to millions of viewers. Franklin happens to be rejected by a women, flipping his core personal beliefs. Etc. Coincidences like this happen in a lot of books, all stories are constructed and need to move forward, but the trick is to make the movements invisible to the reader. Again, in this novel it’s too much and too obvious.
I have to admit Robinson is aware about it. He even goes meta often, like here:
Note that this flurry of social and legal change did not happen because of Representative Charlotte Armstrong (…). Nor was it because of here ex (…), nor because of the president herself (…). Nor was it due to any other single individual. Remember: ease of representation. It’s always more than what you see, bigger than what you know. That said, people in this era did do it. Individuals make history, but it’s also a collective thing, a wave that people ride in their time, a wave made of individual atoms. So ultimately history is another particle/wave duality that no one can parse or understand.
How great that quote admittedly is – and make no mistake about it, there are numerous other great parts throughout the book – it doesn’t excuse it. KSR tries to have the cake and eat it, and ends up with messy hands and smeared paper.
He similarly has a meta passage about preaching to the choir. And it even gets a little pathetic when he makes Charlotte say this:
“(…) I’m sorry I’m such a sucker, but my mom read books to me and I guess that did it. I believed the stories. I still do. And I’m a hard worker, having nothing better to do with my time.”
Another structural nuisance: repetition. If you write a 613-page story, all those pages better are necessary. Time is a currency. But no: a lot of the ideas (e.g. how a non-violent revolution could take place, or certain faults of the system, or the immorality of the 1%) are unnecessarily repeated. If you expect your readers to understand a word like “delaneyden”, or that “gestalters” I already quoted, you can expect them to not need all that repetition. Message received loud and clear already, captain. MESSAGE? What message?
This is just one moment in a long battle between science and capitalism. That’s the story of our time, and the story won’t end in our lifetime, but we can pitch in and make a contribution toward the good, and I trust many people will. Is that optimism? I think it’s just a description of the project at hand. (Singularity Hub)
Concluding thoughts? While this is a dense book at times, with lots of sweeping descriptions of flooded NYC and various financial mechanisms, New York 2140 doesn’t feel as rich as Green Earth. That book was about “climate change, science administration and politics, Buddhism, biotechnology and investment capital, homelessness, sociobiology, surveillance, life in Washington D.C., life in a treehouse, life with a fractious toddler” dixit KSR himself. NY2140 seems to be about money strangling the planet only. At first entertaining and fun, but a drag settled in before the halfway mark, and while redeeming parts kept on popping up, overall it was a bit of a bore. There, I’ve said it.
Green Earth is the better novel, and its political analyses also seem broader and even more urgent, in the face of the current science denial of the Republican administration. But I have to admit it is the grip of the financial sector that is a big part of politics’ dysfunction today. So I do not have any beef with the relevance or the truth of the message – just the way it is transmitted.