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NEW YORK 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson (2017)

New York 2140It’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.

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MEMORY OF WATER – Emmi Itäranta (2012, transl. 2014)

memory-of-waterA few years ago I visited a specialized tea place in Barcelona, Spain. A quiet space, with dozens and dozens of fresh, handpicked, rare teas to choose from – each tea requiring its own precise water temperature & seeping duration. I don’t know anything about tea, and I asked for the “most complex” tea they had – thinking tasting tea was like tasting wine or whiskey. The woman serving me looked at me in surprise, at first not even understanding my question. It turned out tea is not about complexity at all. Those reviewers that complain about this book being boring, about having a plot in which nothing happens, similarly miss the point.

Emmi Itäranta’s debut novel is a quiet dystopian novel, set in a future where climate change has happened, fresh water is scarce and China has annexed Scandinavia. The 266 page book’s protagonist is Nario Kaitio, 17, and the daughter and apprentice of a tea master in a rural Scandinavian village, way up north. At the beginning of the novel, her father lets her in on a secret: he guards a hidden spring that has been her family’s responsibility for generations. This is not without danger: all water belongs to the military, and water crimes are punishable by death.


Fiction about futures with water shortage isn’t particularly rare. Itäranta does not break new ground, but nevertheless has managed to write a book with a voice of her own. Expect no action packed book like The Water Knife, nor something like the Fremen with a fully worked out water mythology as in Dune.

What you do get is Continue reading

GREEN EARTH – Kim Stanley Robinson (2015)

Green Earth

   

Enough is as good as feast.

Green Earth is a revised version of The Science In The Capital-trilogy, a near future series on climate change, American politics and science. The original trilogy consists of Forty Signs Of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005) and Sixty Days And Counting (2007). They were meant to be one long novel all along. In movies, most director’s cuts are longer, but not here so… Robinson cut about 300 pages, still leaving Green Earth to be a mammoth of 1069 pages. It’s unclear how much updating took place, if any – there’s about a decade of extra research and data on climate change since the first volume was published, and it’s not unthinkable that KSR tinkered a bit with some of the data in the original books too.

You can read the 6 page introduction of the book on io9 here. It is an excellent text by KSR himself on the reasons for this revision, and he tackles some other interesting topics too. His take on the ethics of contemporary literature & science fiction is bold, and rings very true to these ears.

Also, my original idea had been to write a realist novel as if it were science fiction. This approach struck me as funny, and also appropriate, because these days we live in a big science fiction novel we are all writing together. If you want to write a novel about our world now, you’d better write science fiction, or you will be doing some kind of inadvertent nostalgia piece; you will lack depth, miss the point, and remain confused.

I’ll start with some remarks about the book in general, and afterwards zoom in a bit on the 3 parts. I should probably mention that I made about 7 times as many notes while reading as I do for most reviews, and some of that is surely on behalf of the 1000+ page count, but still. Green Earth is an extremely rich book, and this review should have been at least twice as long to do justice to the scope of its ideas: I’ll leave a lot unsaid. So, don’t forget to read the book too!


Green Earth is set in Washington D.C. in a not so distant 21st century future: conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh (°1951) is still active, and the book features several Vietnam veterans that are very much alive & kicking.

The main thematic focal point of the book’s setting is climate change: as the original books’ titles hint at, pretty damaging flooding happens in the first part, and a crippling winter in the second. Contrary to what you might think, the book doesn’t have a broad time scope: only about 3 years pass. Yet climate change ultimately is only the backdrop to a much broader, interwoven story Robinson wants to tell, and so the themes of Green Earth are diverse. KSR identifies a few in the introduction himself: “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.” And since Green Earth is first and foremost a realist novel, all that results in “a peculiar mix of historical fiction, contemporary fiction, and science fiction, in the sense that some of it has already happened, some is happening now, and some of it will happen soon.”

Reading that list of themes might leave readers with a couple of wrong impressions.

One. While Green Earth – as the bulk of KSR’s other books – is extremely well researched, and obviously features a lot of scientific stuff, it still is mainly a book about characters and their lives. Not that many characters even. The cast is rather limited: there’s about ten important characters, with a major focus on just two of those. There’s Charlie Quibler, a White House staffer with two young children, and Frank Vanderwal, a scientist from San Diego who works at the National Science Foundation. I cared about every character. They all have depth, they all are real persons, and none are obviously flawed-as-a-token as in the work of many lesser writers trying for complexity. But, all that doesn’t make Green Earth a 100% success on the character front: there’s one major quibble which I’ll point out when I get to Fifty Degrees Below.

Two. While the list of themes I quoted is extensive, it lacks maybe Green Earth‘s most important theme: America. Green Earth is one of the great American Novels. Simple as that. It his heavily steeped in American history, American thinking and even American literature. And while Green Earth is definitely a book about the climate systems of our entire planet, it focusses almost solely on what climate change means for America: catastrophic extinction events in China are mentioned for a few pages, and a disastrous flooding of Prague too, but that’s about it. That’s not critique by the way: I think it’s one of this book’s many strengths that it doesn’t try to be all-encompassing.

It is no secret that Kim Stanley Robinson is a progressive thinker. People who have watched his extremely interesting 2011 talk  Valuing the Earth and Future Generations: Imagining Post-Capitalism on YouTube (it’s over an hour) will find a lot to recognize in Green Earth. The book’s nuanced and broad analysis of the political and economical system faults that still keep the world from taking the necessary action to halt climate change (and poverty and war and global injustice) is dead on and scorching.

Most readers of KSR’s work probably don’t need convincing on climate change. As such, this book might be accused of preaching to the choir. And while that may be true, it also misses the point. As Robinson himself hints at in his introduction (“fiction doesn’t have to come true to make it useful”) this book still is necessary – it has an ethical “use”. As I experienced it, the purpose of Green Earth is to offer hope. Robinson is an optimistic writer, and should be applauded for that.

It is easy to become depressed reading the papers – this week alone I came across 3 pretty alarming articles on that state of our biosphere in a mainstream newspaper. It is also easy to become afraid watching the ever widening rift between the “two Americas”, and the economical system’s dysfunctions are becoming obvious in Europe too. The myth of apathy is a real danger. While Green Earth doesn’t offer quick fixes or a naive silver bullet solution to Earth’s problems, it does sketch hints of a possible future in which humanity will get on the right tracks eventually – but not without the loss of an enormous amount of biodiversity: the coral reefs have all died in the book, and polar bears have gone extinct. We can all use a bit of realistic hope, even need it. Green Earth supplies in that need. It is very much a novel for these times: a hopeful call to arms.

Robinson’s optimism echoes a feeling I have held for a long time myself: I’m pretty pessimistic about humanity’s near future, but I am a hopeful optimist about the long run. Just look at what giant steps we have made (both bad and good) the last 400 years – science and rational thought have proved to be helpful, and will continue to do so – unless a total catastrophe happens (not unthinkable either). Green Earth is a solid and convincing defense of the scientific method. Its main message is probably this: the sciences should get urgently involved in politics.

“You’re suggesting we need a paradigm shift in how science interacts with society.” “Yes I am.”

Green Earth might be preaching to the choir at times, but it enhances the choir’s awareness nonetheless. It sharpens existing insights, refreshes theory, adds stuff you didn’t know, deepens the understanding. It’s a feast for the inquiring mind.

Before I zoom in, a bit about those 300 cut pages. I didn’t miss them. On the contrary. I think KSR should have trimmed a bit more. At times Green Earth was repetitive, I hate to say. Somewhere between page 500 and 800 it had me bogged down, it truly dragged. 300 pages more of that might have worked when the 3 parts were published separately, with some years in-between reading, but read cover to cover even this trimmed version was work. 850 pages would have been better than Green Earth‘s 1069.

Still, Robinson’s prose is extremely readable, light and clear throughout, funny at times. That’s a stunning feat, if you think about it.

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THE WATER KNIFE – Paolo Bacigalupi (2015)

The Water KnifeThe Water Knife is first and foremost two things: it’s a warning, and it’s a thriller. Its science fiction elements only play a supporting role, but that’s not to be taken as an objection. I hadn’t read anything by Bacigalupi, and I’m surely reading more of him in the future – good thing The Wind-Up Girl was a Christmas gift last year.

The book is set in the American Southwest, in a not so distant future  – Britney Spears is still alive! – where climate change and the current Californian drought have worsened to apocalyptic proportions. The population has decimated and states fight over dwindling shares of the Colorado River. It focuses on three characters: Lucy Monroe, an East Coast Pulitzer winning journalist, Maria Villarosa, a poor Texan refugee and Angel Velazquez, a former gang member and current “water knife” – hired muscle doing all kinds of covert dirty work for Southern Nevada to ensure its water rights. The point of view changes between these characters, and sooner than later they run into each other.

The first half of the 369-page novel is mainly used to set mood. The part of the USA it’s set in has devolved to a violent dust world. Not Mad Max, but still. The USA is in political tatters, climate refugees from other states are lynched, psychotic drug lords rule over their territory and the law as we know it is hardly enforced anymore. Water obviously is scarce and valuable,  with almost Dune-like consequences, and Chinese companies build high-tech closed ecosystem resorts with excellent climate control, for the wealthy only, of course.

So, this book is a warning. Continue reading