New York 2140
Coming to grips with the sheer imaginative immensity of Kim Stanley Robinson’s futurist novel, NEW YORK 2140 prompted a brief journey to my past --- to New York circa 1959.
I was almost, but not quite, 10, and my world-traveling independently single eccentric great aunt (every child should have such a relative!) treated me to a trip to this most iconic of great cities. One of the must-do’s, of course, was riding by high-speed elevator to the top of the Empire State Building. Back then, it was the highest free-standing structure in the world and would remain so for about another decade, until overtaken by the ill-fated World Trade Center.
It was a crystal-clear autumn day as Aunt M. pointed out the wonders of the metropolis spread out 102 stories below us, informing me that it had been built on an island enlarged by humans to make room for an ever-increasing forest of skyscrapers and port facilities. I was one fascinated geography nerd, but remember complaining that I could not see the “edges” of Manhattan Island --- the buildings seemed to be marching right into the water without any reference to a natural coastline.
Back then I knew nothing of impending global climate change, nothing about polar ice caps and glaciers melting, nothing about inexorably rising sea levels that in the future are predicted to drown numerous major coastal population centers.
"How this motley crew of protagonists all end up after more than 600 pages of supple, riveting and even optimistic narrative is well worth the trip."
Robinson’s NEW YORK 2140 powerfully envisions the city nearly two centuries out from my childhood alarm at the vanished “edges” of lower Manhattan, a time when vast networks of urban streets have become permanent canals, and an entire society has reinvented itself to survive alongside nature’s non-negotiable tidal rhythms.
To even begin gathering in the myriad implications of a literal sea-change in planetary human society is a daunting task for empirical science, let alone the realm of speculative fiction, where the storyline has to be as credible as the known facts on which it is based. But that’s both the charm and challenge of NEW YORK 2140.
As one of the most flexible, eclectic and seriously diligent science-fiction writers of our era, Robinson shows once again how vast catastrophes are both precipitated and overcome through numerous seemingly insignificant human actions --- the stuff of daily life and people coping with it.
This is where we enter 22nd-century New York --- not in the midst of apocalyptic crisis like a 3D Hollywood disaster movie, but during a time when the new normal era of post-flood life has become so well established that few residents have any idea that there was once life below the waterline.
Like the lives of Robinson’s haphazardly intersecting characters, who all live in or near the former Met Life building (reinvented as a communal housing complex), the numerous short episodes of NEW YORK 2140 come at you thick and fast like pieces of a gigantic exploded mosaic or jigsaw puzzle.
At various points, just when the logical part of the brain needs something to bite down on, a character known only as “citizen” (but suspiciously suggestive of Robinson playing the omniscient author) comments on larger enveloping issues, ranging from science to politics, to ecology, to human psychology, back to science and so on. Within this vast scope of contextual commentary, his very human and usually well-meaning characters run the gamut of personal fears, disappointments, adventures, successes, hopes, love interests (lost and found), and even genuine epiphanies, as their lives are pulled closer and closer together.
How this motley crew of protagonists all end up after more than 600 pages of supple, riveting and even optimistic narrative is well worth the trip. While writing against a scientific backdrop that may well prove inalterable and inevitable, Kim Stanley Robinson shows that human destiny is, fortunately, far less predictable.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on April 7, 2017