Orbit | 2017 (16 March) | 632p | Review copy | Buy the book
The New York City of 2140 has been transformed by the First Pulse and then the Second Pulse of flooding, two catastrophic events which announced more clearly than anything that had gone before that Earth was well into its latest mass extinction level event. The environmental disaster was matched by financial collapse and political exploitation – most human life is now centred on the planet’s cities where it can be managed but many of the greatest cities are coastal, their streets flooded into canals, their skyscrapers towering like cliffs above the water, linked by high pathways, boats weaving around their roots. With land more valuable than ever before, the poorest live the most precarious lives in the intertidal zone where the collapse of old inundated buildings is a constant risk.
In New York’s flooded Lower Manhattan the skyscrapers are now themselves self-contained, self-sufficient cities, in which communities eat together and live closely. Everyone must contribute to the building’s well-being and productivity. The Met is one such tower and in it live people of every different type whose primary duty is for the good of the building, whether they care for its infrastructure, fixing its leaks, working its farms, dealing with waste, feeding one’s neighbours, putting a roof over everyone’s head, or governing its population, or entertaining them, perhaps occasionally saving their lives.
In New York 2140 Kim Stanley Robinson tells the story of the Met during a period of two or three years of crisis through the lives of a handful of people who live within its creaking walls. The novel moves between them, carrying on these separate stories, which sometimes collide but all contribute to the whole, which is a vivid and rich portrait of a building and a city during this extraordinary period of man’s descent into extinction. This isn’t an apocalyptic tale nor, as it informs us, one for happy endings. There are no endings. This is a portrait of life trying to continue in the face of disaster. There are triumphs and there is hope – mankind is not an easy species to write off – but running through the novel is a commentary, overt and explicit in places, about the damage that has been and is being done to our planet.
The grand progression of the novel is frequently interrupted by some fascinating interludes – Amelia (the star of the cloud – a kind of YouTube star of the future) who spends much of her time aboard her airship, the Assisted Migration, trying to save the lives of the world’s endangered species, all in front of the cameras; Stefan and Roberto are two boys who constantly endanger themselves while diving for treasure; Mutt and Jeff find themselves caught up in a conspiracy that threatens them all; Charlotte is the manager of the Met trying to fend off a hostile bid to buy the building. And then there’s Franklin, surely the most selfish of them all, who seems to find himself constantly in the position of having to save Stefan and Roberto, when really all he wants to do is impress the glamorous Jojo. No easy task because, well, it’s quite clear, she doesn’t like him.
The shadow of finance and business looms over the events of the novel every bit as much as the environmental message. Man continues to inflict evil and he can do this in other ways than melting the ice caps. I must be honest and admit that I did get a little lost in some of this talk of hedge funds and so on and, for me, it all went on a bit too much. But I am a complete ignoramus when it comes to finance and numbers and so this inevitably left me cold. The human stories on the other hand were fascinating and the world building is superb – this is such an immersive read, rich in layers of life and experience. While reading it, I couldn’t shake it from my mind.
New York 2140, like so many of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels, is clever, thought-provoking, memorable and absorbing. So many types of people can be found here, their motivations, relationships, hopes and fears shaping their lives. Instead of spaceships (as in Aurora), people are confined within a stranded city within a city, and instead of the Ice Age (as in Shaman), we have a new world evolving under environmental strain. Yet again, Kim Stanley Robinson takes the themes that fascinate him – the environment, the climate, man as a political animal – and places them in an original setting. Everything here is designed to make the reader think while being entertained. These are big themes and the overall message is, arguably, rather bleak, but it is dealt with with humour and kindness as well as with a warning finger.
A new Kim Stanley Robinson novel is always an event and New York 2140 shows yet again why. And what a fantastic cover!