Zach's Reviews > New York 2140

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
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I heard this book described elsewhere as Robinson doing world building for a pen-and-paper RPG, as opposed to writing a story for that world. I absolutely get where that's coming from, and it's true: Robinson novels are almost never plot driven. He cares deeply about setting and character, but is content to let his characters fart around aimlessly for several hundred pages and then just call it a wrap. That's a bit unfair to Robinson (his novels, including this one, definitely have plots), but it's hard not to get the palpable sense that plot movement isn't the main motivating factor for him as a writer.

So you end up with a book like this one, where (like many of his novels) the setting takes center stage, including completely taking over the title. He does this a lot: you've got the Mars trilogy (Red, Blue, Green), The Three Californias triptych, Antarctica, 2312, Aurora, and now New York Future Year. Judging from titles alone, you could be forgiven for thinking that Robinson cares about settings to the exclusion of all else, and I think a fair reading of his work must acknowledge this fact. Whether or not this sours you on him is really down to taste. Speaking personally, I am so engrossed by the worlds he builds and characters he creates that I completely forget to care about the lack of strong plot movements. I am fascinated by his settings and fall in love with his characters; what they actually do during the story is secondary for me (and, it would appear, for him). In the Mars trilogy, Robinson's descriptions of Sax's triumphant scientific idealism, Anne's slow slide into depression, and their unlikely late-life reconciliation and romance are some of the most affecting and memorable characterizations I've read in any literature, let alone science fiction. But what actually happened on Mars to these memorable characters? Well, the planet definitely turned different colors, and I remember a space elevator falling to the surface, but beyond that... it hardly seems important, does it? Robinson fans surely know what I mean here.

So OK: New York City in 2140, got it. What's it like? It's fair to say it's a partially fallen world, with life continuing surprisingly normally despite being ravaged by the long-emergency effects of global warming. In this future, the antarctic ice shelves have collapsed into the ocean, raising sea levels 50 feet or so. Unlike the typical slow-unfolding disaster scenario we usually envision for global warming, in Robison's view this happens in a series of dramatic shocks, the First and Second Pulses, that each raise sea levels by meters in a matter of days. This is a disaster scenario that Robison just can't leave alone, first invoking it in the Mars trilogy, and I'm very much afraid that he's probably right about the likelihood of it happening in my grandchildren's lifetimes. The story begins some decades after the Second Pulse, which sinks downtown Manhattan pretty far underwater and leaves uptown high and dry, the island being substantially lower at the southern end. As you can expect from Robinson, he's done the math: this is what would basically happen if most of the Antarctic ice shelf did fall into the sea suddenly.

Life in the drowned zone continues more normally than you might think. Sunk capital having the lure that it does, the city waterproofs the bottom 30 floors of the skyscrapers and keeps using them, turning the downtown into a scenic Supervenice. The biggest real change is that in the chaos of the Second Pulse, most of the buildings manage to become co-ops owned by the residents. In fact, many of the plot movements involve the strange legal status of underwater land. There isn't much legal basis for owning submerged or intertidal property, and since the sea level rise there's been an ongoing legal battle to determine who actually owns the lots and building submerged by the Pulses. In the case of New York, the high rises end up in the hands of the co-ops, who have a thriving community structure to their lives, including daily shared meals largely grown in the buildings themselves.

With this dramatic and scenic backdrop, a variety of lovable characters scamper about and have a lot of somewhat inconsequential adventures. Two finance quants try to crash the system and get kidnapped for their trouble. A YouTube star transports polar bears to the Antarctic in her private blimp. Two orphan boys and an old man search for buried (submerged) treasure. A day trader tries to woo a trader at a rival firm. A building super deals with mysterious leaks that he thinks may be sabotage. And the head of the co-op where they all live wants to Do Something About Capitalism. In general, the various plot lines interact somewhat too little, and feel rather unimportant, both as they're happening and in hindsight. This is probably the greatest weakness of the book: the characters aren't as well drawn as Robinson typically achieves, and their adventures feel quite disconnected and episodic. The plot lines do interweave in significant wants at various points throughout the book, but each narrative feels relatively isolated, moment to moment, and it never feels like what's happening to anyone truly matters. Again, you could make similar arguments about many of Robinson's novels, but it seems like a bigger problem in this one than most.

Overall, I was definitely interested in the story and setting presented and never felt quite bored with the narrative. But it wasn't as engaging and compelling as many of Robinson's other novels, on either the macro or micro scale. I did think that Robinson's revolutionary, anti-capitalist agitation was articulated better here than in most of his other works (this is a theme he has been toying with since at least the Red Mars days), but even that felt strangely anti-climactic in its execution.

Robinson fans will find plenty to love here. Neophytes might be turned off by the overabundance of characters and the strange lack of lovable ones, as well as a plot that meanders in and out, back and forth, like the tides that Robinson so lovingly describes with his singular talent for environmental exposition. 3.5 stars, rounded down because I have very high expectations for Robinson novels.
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Reading Progress

July 24, 2018 – Started Reading
July 24, 2018 – Shelved
August 9, 2018 – Finished Reading

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