Book Review: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
New York 2140 is an ambitious novel about what New York City will be like in the year 2140 if human-caused global warming continues unchecked. If you’re interested in New York, global warming, science fiction, political fiction, or all of the above, I strongly recommend that you read this novel.
The story starts with a series of chapters that introduces a colorful cast of characters who all live in New York City in the year 2140. At first, these characters and their stories seem mostly unrelated. As the novel progresses, however, their lives intersect in various ways, eventually coming together to tell a single complex and multi-faceted story, more or less.
The build-up of the plot will seem very slow to some readers, especially those not used to reading a 624-page novel. Robinson spends almost a novel’s worth of words simply introducing the many main characters and the city that they call home. However, the stories of the individual characters were interesting enough and diverse enough that I found myself staying engaged from cover to cover. I also quickly realized that the main character of this novel is in fact, as the title suggests, New York City itself. Even when the characters haven’t had much interaction with each other yet, their individual stories were made all the more interesting by the fact that they served as glimpses into various aspects of life in the city.
New York 2140 is half love letter to New York City and half treatise on human-caused global warming. I consider it a success on both fronts — and the two aspects of this narrative fit together almost seamlessly. However, it’s important to consider both aspects separately.
Let me start by staying that I’m not from New York. I’ve only passed through New York a few times without really getting to know the city. I’m not sure if that makes me unqualified to assess the novel’s portrayal of New York City, or especially qualified. I’d say it’s a little bit of both. I have no way to assess how accurate his portrayal of life in the city is — and frankly, I’m sure I was missing out on the significance of some of the frequent detailed references to particular streets and history of the city. There were times when the details just blurred together for me. A New Yorker would have gotten much more from the novel in that sense. But I can also say that as an outsider to the city, I found his depiction of New York in the year 2140 very interesting and compelling. I don’t know if he’s captured the spirit of the city in any real sense, but he’s definitely played well to the romanticism of the city as viewed by outsiders.
As for New York 2140’s depiction of human-caused global warming, it combines a rare and refreshing mix of utopian and dystopian elements.
Some areas of New York (and other coastal cities) are permanently flooded and have either adapted to the new reality or fallen into the sea. Others are part of the new “intertidal,” the zone that’s underwater during high tide and above water during low tide. Oceans have risen significantly, coastal cities have gone partially underwater, and there’s been tremendous economic and political fallout because of it. The flooding-related aspects of the plot and setting often seemed dystopian and semi-apocalyptic, which I appreciated since it seems very much in line with some projections about what the world may actually be like in 2140.
But the overall tone is more hopeful than anything else I’ve seen in such a catastrophe-laden setting. Yes, we’ve lost the coast to the oceans, and there are some major problems associated with that. But life goes on. The people of New York City have shown remarkable resilience in their adaptation to new circumstances. The rich have built incredibly tall high-tech “superscrapers” and sealed the first couple of floors of inhabited buildings in flooded areas using advanced materials specially developed for that purpose. The poor have made due as they always do, squatting abandoned buildings in the intertidal as they slowly decay and collapse into the ocean. Together, they’ve resettled the drowned coast and intertidal zone in spite of the technological and legal challenges of doing so. It’s a strange yet compelling situation where something horrible has happened, but people are still living and thriving there anyway.
This rare combination of utopian and dystopian elements actually left me with a slight twinge of renewed hope that human civilization won’t actually self-destruct by the end of this century. The consequences of human-caused global warming will be extreme, and the novel did a good job of portraying some of those consequences. But it also portrayed our uncanny ability to survive and thrive even in the harshest of circumstances.
Honestly, given our current trajectory, I suspect humanity’s lot in 2140 will be worse than what this novel indicates. Even so, New York 2140 offers a very believable version of events where catastrophic global warming occurs, yet humanity has done its best to adapt and survive anyway. That combination of a grim portrayal of the very real problems we face and a visionary look at what we can do about those problems really sets this apart as a unique and powerful exploration of the realities of anthropogenic global warming and our response to it.
No novel is without its flaws. The sheer length of this novel seems a bit indulgent, as do a number of other elements, including the nameless citizen character’s meandering musings and some of the side plots that establish character and setting without really relating to the main plot. However, both by virtue of his award-winning track record as a science fiction author and by the truly epic scope of the tale that he’s telling, Kim Stanley Robinson has more than earned a bit of our indulgence. Even after six hundred pages of reading, I still found myself fully engaged and not wanting the novel to end. This is excellent fiction — and it speaks powerfully to the theme of anthropogenic global warming, which I believe to be the greatest existential crisis humanity faces today.