New York 2140
by Kim Stanley Robinson
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This is more a character-driven story than I expected, even though Robinson has always been good at balancing scientific speculation with his character's reactions to their changing world. By 2140, there have been multiple negative environmental changes, the two most relevant to the story being the First Pulse in 2061, which saw sea level rise more than ten feet in just a few years, and the Second Pulse around the turn of the 22nd Century. Now the oceans are about fifty feet higher than current levels. All coastal cities suffered, so even though the novel concentrates on what is happening in and around New York, it can be assumed similar events are occurring around the globe. Many buildings in Manhattan and other boroughs were constructed on top of landfill, and most of those collapsed. Others built on bedrock are still standing, even though their basements and lower floors are either permanently under water, or as you move north on the island, some are in the intertidal zone, only underwater at high tide. Uptown, beginning around Central Park, north to Harlem, Washington Heights, and The Cloisters, is at an elevation to be above the high tide mark, so commercial and residential developments have moved in that direction. Major thoroughfares at the south end of the island have become canals, and since many buildings in the area around Madison Square Park had been designed in the style of Venice, Italy, the neighborhood becomes known as SuperVenice. Even Italian terms such as vaporetto (public water buses) and bacino (a dock or wharf) are in common use.
New York 2140 focuses on Lower Manhattan and the intertidal, with Uptown only playing into the narrative as developers seem eager to move back south, and this portion of the story echoes many gentrification scenarios of the current era. Alternating chapters present the perspective of a wide range of characters, the majority of whom live in the original Met Life building at 23rd & Madison, with a subordinate character living a couple of blocks away in the Flatiron Building. Basements and lower floors have been protected by a newly designed waterproof coating, and skybridges made from lightweight, high-density plastic composite connect many buildings at higher levels. The Met has become a co-op apartment house, complete with its own vegetable farm on one of the upper floors, as well as another floor dedicated to raising livestock for food. I'm not sure why, but one character's story is written in first-person, the others in third-person, except for one, "the citizen", which is second-person. The latter consists of interstitial bits of information, starting with how Manhattan, the Hudson River, the East River, Long Island and the Sound, were formed after the last Ice Age. Later info-dumps are about weather conditions during different historical periods, the construction of the Met Life building, the two different Pulses, and the manipulations by the financial sector in response to those.
The first-person narrative is from Franklin Garr, a trader for a prominent hedge fund, his focus being gambling on which intertidal buildings will survive, which will collapse. I don't consider him to be the most important character. In the third-person chapters we meet other residents of the Met; Charlotte Armstrong, both the chairman of the building's co-op board and head of the city's Householder's Union; NYPD Inspector Gen Octaviasdottir (most likely an homage to Octavia Butler); Vlade Marovich, the building's superintendant; Amelia Black, part-time resident when she's not flying around the world in her airship Assisted Migration, doing just that, moving endangered species out of harmful habitats into ones more suited to their continued survival, at the same time broadcasting her adventures to the Cloud; and Mutt and Jeff (Ralph Muttchopf and Jeffrey Rosen), two freelance coders who live in a temporary tent (hotello) on the farm floor. In the first chapter, Jeff is explaining to Mutt his idea of how coding can determine value, and outlines the sixteen changes he would make to financial laws. He even uses his wristpad to enter his program onto the servers of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, including a tag for the SEC to investigate one of his former employers for fraud. It doesn't take long for his wristpad to ping him with a warning that the incursion had been detected, and they decide it is best that they disappear. End of scene. In the next chapter Charlotte tells Gen about the disappearance of the two men, with the disconcerting news that power had gone out at the Met and no surveillance cameras were working at that time.
That's not the only mystery. Vlade has detected evidence of what he thinks is sabotage of the building, and wonders if it is connected to an offer that has been made to buy the building from the co-op. They don't know who the offer is from, only the real estate agency that is representating them. The initial vote is very close, but it is to reject the offer. They expect to be presented with an even higher offer, and it does come, but before that can be voted on several other things happen. Mutt and Jeff are rescued, there are suspects for the kidnapping, but no hard evidence to pursue the case. A side story is of two pre-teens, Stefan and Roberto, orphans who live under the wharf of the Met's North annex. They reminded me of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and later a man they are working with gives them an electronic version of Twain's novel. Neither of them can read, but as they listen to the audio version the text also displays on the screen of Roberto's wristpad, each word highlighted as it is spoken. Vlade is very fond of the boys, helping them when he can with food, clothing, and tools. They have a small boat with an electrical motor, which they have been using to explore an area near the Bronx, which their friend Mr. Hexter believes hides the treasure of the HMS Hussar, which sank north of Hell Gate in 1780. Left to their own devices, the boys would probably have come to an untimely end diving for the treasure, but after Vlade learns what they are doing, he brings his ex-wife Idelba in on the venture. She runs a barge and tugboat service, her current project dredging sand from the devastated Coney Island and using it to rebuild a beach further north.
It is easy to imagine this book written as non-fiction some time after the events. Everybody is just living their life as best they can under the circumstances. The high water, the vapo buses and private boats, the worry of buildings in the intertidal 'melting', all are just this world's day to day reality. New Yorkers are a resilient lot, no reason to believe they couldn't cope with these extreme conditions, and do it with panache. There was an initial exodus from the city, with Denver becoming the financial heart of the nation, but slowly but surely, people began moving back into New York as if it was a magnet, somehow magical, where dreams could be fulfilled. Franklin has an idea for the next stage of development for lower Manhattan and the intertidal, one that can be accomplished without an influx of capital from Uptown developers. Another trader, Joanna, with whom he has a very short-term relationship, accuses him of stealing the idea, but if he was honest in his first-person accounts, he didn't. They later decide to partner on the venture. Just in time too, as the city has to rebuild anyway after a devastating hurricane.
So many levels to the story, the private and personal lives of the individuals, the way they interact with each other, how they cope with the mundane, how they rise to the challenge of hardships. Throughout it all you can sense their love for the city, their determination to make the best of every situation, and not only for themselves. During the hurricane, Vlade and Idelba and her crew go out in her tug to rescue thousands who have been stranded, dropping them off at various hospitals still open. That is an intense sequence, filled with heroism, but also with the aching hurt as they realize there are so many they cannot save. There's even a bit of humor in the mix, especially in the story of the two boys, and the many times Franklin becomes exasperated that he has to come to their rescue. The sequences I think could have been eliminated feature Amelia and her airship. We get a look at what's going on in other parts of the world, but that doesn't fit with the rest of the narrative. I can't comment on the many financial discussions, I have no knowledge of that world, it's a language I'm likely never to learn. But I know Robinson is a thorough researcher, and many of the proposed fixes sound logical. I'd rate it higher except for elements that are not that realistic. I can accept that at any time in history there are people who are smart enough and capable enough to fix the problems that plague society. In reality, most of the time they are not the people who get to make the decisions, but they do here. Charlotte runs for Congress and wins. She convinces the President (a woman, yeah!), and her ex-husband who is Chairman of the Federal Reserve, to implement the policies proposed by Jeff Rosen, along with amendments from Franklin Garr. The good guys win for a change. I guess I'm skeptical enough to consider that fantasy.
In spite of that, it is still a very good book. It doesn't make it onto my Top 5 list for the year, but still recommended.
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