While Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 could have done with a haircut – to the worth of 30,000 or so words – that doesn’t change the fact that it’s both enormously entertaining and has something to say.
Set in a partly flooded Manhattan, with flashbacks to the boroughs of New York, KSR tells a story of climate change and adaptability and resilience where the global market (capitalism) is the villain and the people take a stand against corporate greed. It’s told through the varied perspectives of 10 characters including a tough, female cop, two hackers, a rakish hedge fund manager, a grouchy citizen(s), the font of all knowledge, and two precocious and mostly homeless waifs who get up to all sorts of mischief. And it’s this variety of voice that is both the book’s great strength and it’s weakness. Because as the stories of each character begin to intertwine – whether coincidence or fate they mostly all reside in the same building – there’s a great deal of repetition. Also as the plot heats up, as certain characters grow in importance, the compulsion to keep telling the story from each perspective means that people like Amelia – a documentarian and YouTube star – are given greater exposure than what’s probably warranted by the plot. But all that aside, I appreciated the novel’s structure, how it brings out KSR’s playful, experimental side.
While KSR doesn’t flinch from the tragedy that will be wrought from the affects of climate change – his almost technical description of how flooding across the world comes about is fascinating and terrifying and sadly less a cautionary tale and more a probabilistic model of what’s going to happen – the novels overall tone of optimism is actually a breath fresh air in a market saturated with books where global warming has us living in caves and murdering each other for resources. If there’s a sour note, it’s that implicit in the novel’s philosophy is that true social and economic change can only happen after the shit hits the fan (although I’m sure KSR is hoping we come to our senses before then). Having said that it’s good to read a novel that wears its politics on its sleeves and actually proposes – whether practical, possible or not – an alternative to the status quo.
Yes New York 2140 didn’t need to be as long as it is, but it’s size shouldn’t get in the way of its importance, of the optimistic and political message it screams out to anyone who might be listening. The sort of novel that you hope transcends the echo chamber of like-minded people.