Reviews: Sinking Feelings – Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140
New York 2140,
Kim Stanley Robinson,
At some time in the not so distant future the waters across the face of the world arose and down beneath the waves went whole chunks of the sprawling metropolis that is, was and will be New York City. Improbably, that most adaptive of cities adjusted to these vastly changed circumstances and a New Venice for a new era of mankind’s history was born, and Kim Stanley Robinson tells the stories of those who live in just one of its surviving tall buildings.
Oddly, so fresh are my memories of those stories and how authentically the author managed to convey them that I find myself thinking of those future fictional events as events which have already occurred in the past, rather than some attempt at future archaeology. It is perhaps the trick our method of retaining information in our brains plays upon us sometimes as we swap speculative story telling conceits for the surety of actual world events, they bleed into each other. Storing memories of things which have really happened to us alongside the accumulation of stories read and imagined and hoping we have the discernment to know the difference when we press the big red recall button.
The partially submerged but still defiantly vibrant city has many, many stories to tell but, all said, the author focuses on the ones lived by the residents of one apartment building which has become to all intents a vertical village. A village where people of all walks of life survive, as all big city folk do beneath a series of single roofs. It may not be a village which was originally built to house a certain number of residents below the waterline but New Yorkers ( Neu-yawkers?) are nothing if not resilient. It has some quality that draws folk from all around the world to share in a destiny that is infinitely evolving.
New York is not even the capital city of the USA and it sounds odd to even have to point this out. Yet it remains at the epicentre for so many epic movies dealing with the fantastic and fantastical and serves as easy familiar shorthand to engender a sense of world threatening urgency. For goodness sake even Godzilla managed to hide there in the Emerich epic of the same name. Even when a huge UFO hangs over the White House we are actually waiting for the screen to cut back to New York where we all know the real action is going on. In Washington Godzilla would have had to crouch behind the Lincoln Memorial to disappear from view for a while, looking slightly awkward, perhaps even a little embarrassed.
Still, stories of survival in the aftermath of such a city being almost submerged will not write themselves, an infinite number of scuba wearing monkeys taping away at an infinite number of underwater word processors could not achieve that. It takes a writer of Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic story telling talent (just check out the man’s oeuvre to find the very definition of the word epic) to tell a series of seemingly random tales and magnetically draw them together for an epic finish that celebrates diversity in the humanistic aspects of its building dwellers. They are better together but allow each other room to live their own lives as comrades in a shared humanity and not in a religious, ethnic or political hegemony. How few of those there are in life or even human history. Although that said it must occur more often than not or where would we all be now?
It is a dramatic vision is it not. A half submerged New York twinkling on a dark night like a water rooted Christmas tree bedecked in an endless array of lights, the surface of the water a mirror to vertical and marooned city-scape. Yet, as written, it is not a marooned city state filled with helpless refugees and survivors of an eco-disaster. New York and its people survive as they always have, adapting to the changes thrust upon them and making the most and more of an overwhelming and unavoidable situation. There is more than enough above the water line for Spiderman to swing around should he still choose to and enough going on beneath to satisfy the most eager future archaeologists and history hunters.
The residents of the building in which most of the stories take place are an eclectic lot in that what remains of the humane waterfront is well covered. From the very young to the very old, the very poor to the very rich, surviving in more of a Sesame State than a Sesame Street. People do as people have always done. They aquire and they reject, they band together and they fall apart, some have sex and some do not. All at every stage try to avoid, with good cause, getting wet in the water that surrounds them and upon which they attempt to survive with as much dignity and good grace as they can muster and make happen.
It is something of a sobering thought , and yes even terrifying to no small degree, that water levels world wide are rising and threatening to engulf whole swathes of the man-made world as we know it. The internet abounds with theories regarding this and all manner of conspiratorial notions about just what is going on in Antarctica (honestly, check it out. You will stumble into a Mulder’s Basement of things you will not want to believe in.) Whatever you beliefs are regarding climate change and the natural and unnatural causes for this phenomenon it is one we will all have to adapt to and learn to survive through if we are to continue to prosper as a species.
The ice that covers that vast region is melting and the water generated must go somewhere. The ice that covers Antarctica has been there longer than man has walked the Earth, perhaps just patiently waiting for a time to introduce itself to us in a possibly extinction-level greeting. New York 2140 does not directly address this notion, not in any sense attempting to explain away or suggest, at best, fanciful solutions. It does however speak fluently about learning to survive its aftermath with grace and humanity in the face of the coming great disaster.
In one of his previous books, Shaman (reviewed here), the author hugely entertained and dare I suggest it, educated the reader about a period in human history long past. In New York 2140 he does a similar thing with a period we collectively have yet to experience. If the past can truly be said to but prologue to the present and the future I can think off no more trusted a scribe to speculate on days to come.
Kim Stanley Robinson. A real world wizard of space and time.
New York 2140 will be published mid-March by Orbit Books