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New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (2017) 613 p.

new york 2140

Kim Stanley Robinson’s last novel, Aurora, was both a culmination of themes he’d explored for the latter half of his writing career and a sober-minded skewering of one of science fiction’s sacred cows. First Mars in the Mars trilogy, then the rest of the solar system in 2312, then to the stars: that’s how science fiction readers expect the future of the human race to play out, and that’s how we thought Robinson’s books would go. Except Aurora very wonderfully broke the rules. Robinson used his take on the generation spaceship story to propose that colonising other star systems wouldn’t work, that such a venture was doomed to failure – and just what are we trying to get away from, anyway? That’s what made it not just his best novel, but one of the best and most important science fiction novels of the last few decades.

Thus it makes sense that New York 2140 brings us back down to Earth – metaphorically, anyway, since neither this nor any of his other novels are set in a shared universe, and in fact space travel is never mentioned at all throughout this book. The ice caps have melted, the sea level has risen, and Manhattan has been transformed into a “SuperVenice,” with its streets and avenues transformed into canals. New York 2140 takes us through a few years in the lives of the varied residents of the original MetLife building on 23rd Street – cleverly chosen because the building was modelled on the Campanile in Venice. There’s Franklin, a hot-shot Wall Street trader; Charlotte, a social and community worker; Amelia, a sort of futuristic YouTube-esque web star; Gen Octaviasdottir, a police chief; Roberto and Stefan, a pair of 12-year-old orphans who live a picaresque life as scavenging “water rats;” Vlade, the building’s Slavic super; and Mutt and Jeff, a pair of shambolic middle-aged coders whose mysterious disappearance from the building in the opening passage sets the plot in motion.

All of this seems like a great set-up for a novel, and for the first third or so I found New York 2140 very engaging: a more memorable cast of characters than Robinson usually populates his books with, an interesting future vision of a city we’re all familiar with, and a mystery-driven plot to kickstart it all. But my interest began to wane halfway through, and towards the end I was checking how many pages left until I was done with it.

If I had to put my finger on exactly why New York 2140 doesn’t work, it’s because it’s clearly not quite the book Robinson wanted to write. He mentioned recently on the Coode Street podcast that he went to his editor and said he wanted to write a book about the global financial system. His editor said no, nobody would ever read that – then suggested he set it in the future, in the drowned New York briefly featured in the novel 2312. And so Robinson did, which meant he had to render the society of 2140 as not very different from the society of 2017.

Which is fine in some ways. I have no doubt that human society, if it’s still around in the 28th century, will be unrecognisable to us today – but I had no problem when the starfarers of Aurora returned to Earth in that century and it felt more or less like society right now, because that’s not what the point of Aurora was. I have much more of a problem when the still-corrupt and capitalist-driven society of 2140 is reformed implausibly easily by a bunch of Wall Street traders, community workers, coders and a celebrity after a bunch of repeated discussions about the 2008 financial crisis, about which they all seem strangely well-informed. (How much do you, for example, know about the Long Depression of the late 19th century?)

That seems like a small thing to pick on, but it’s emblematic of the greater flaw in New York 2140: it’s two books trying to be one. Robinson could have written a great book about a flooded future New York, or he could (and should) have written a great book about the economic semi-feudalism we live under here in 2017. This novel suffers from trying to be both. Which is a shame, because after Aurora I’d like to see Robinson – an author who’s always covered many topics, usually in the same book – write another single-minded, narrowly-focused deconstruction of a perceived truism. Maybe next time.

Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett (1992) 381 p.
Discworld #14 (Witches #4)

lords-and-ladies-2.jpg

It’s interesting to compare the Witches arc with the City Watch arc. Both are generally considered the best threads in the Discworld series, but the Witches came along much earlier. Here we are at book #14, arguably the fourth entry in the Witches series, and I would say its peak; we’ve had only one City Watch book, and its own zenith won’t come along for another fifteen books (#29, Night Watch). I don’t think there’s much to be read into there; Pratchett had no master plan, he was just writing each new book as it took his fancy. Probably the only explanation is that the Witches – as a coven of Old-Englandey villagers in a magical kingdom – segued more naturally out of Pratchett’s initial fixation on fantasy tropes, wizards with pointy hats and dribbly candles and pentagrams chalked on the floor, all that sort of thing. (Indeed, Granny Weatherwax is first introduced in Equal Rites, which opens with a wizard arriving in the Ramtops and closes with another incursion by the Dungeon Dimensions at Unseen University). The City Watch books, on the other hand, hew much closer to satire of the modern age: of the city, of politics, of a multicultural society, with fantasy tropes merely serving as a stand-in.

Anyway. Lords and Ladies follows on almost directly from Witches Abroad, with the coven arriving back in Lancre after their long absence in Genua. While the cats were away the mice were playing: Granny and Nanny are irritated to discover that a group of local teenage girls have started dabbling in witchcraft themselves, and are mortified to learn that they’ve been dancing by moonlight near a ring of “boundary stones.” The stone circle is one of the few borders between the human world and the faerie world: the land of the fey folk, the gentry, the lords and ladies, the elves. It’s been centuries since the elves threatened Lancre, and most people think of them as beautiful and benevolent creatures out of a fairytale, but as witches Nanny and Granny know better.

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

So as Midsummer’s Eve draws near, as the kingdom prepares for the wedding of Magrat and King Verence, and as the younger witch Diamanda challenges Granny to a duel, Granny and Nanny are left to try to stave off an invasion by the feared and powerful elves.

I’ve complained in the past about how much of the early Discworld books culminated in a threat by the Lovecraftian horrors of the Dungeon Dimensions. The elves are much, much more interesting, tying into Pratchett’s fascination with the power of myth and belief. They draw their strength precisely from the folklore and fairytales that surround them, blinding people to the truth, enchanting people with their glamour and beauty. (“If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are,” Granny says. “Style. That’s what people remember.”) The most obvious parallel for a contemporary reader is Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – and in fact looking back at that review now, which I wrote eight years ago, I compared Clarke’s fairies to Pratchett’s elves. Although obviously both Pratchett and Clarke were drawing on the same old European myths and folklore: they may be magical and mysterious and beautiful, but elves and fairies still ultimately represent the frightening, ineffable things in the darkness beyond the glow of the campfire.

As with Mort, Guards! Guards! and a lot of the later books, this is one where Pratchett’s central conceit maps very well onto his plot. He doesn’t get carried away with too many jokes or flights of fancy. There’s a particularly good setpiece midway through the book in which Diamanda defies Granny Weatherwax and runs between the boundary stones, and Granny has to follow and retrieve her from the world of the elves. There’s a lot of stuff to like here: the first confrontation between humans and elves, Granny’s use of her Borrowing trick (in which she can enter the mind of an animal) to trip up the elves’ horses, and the general eerie atmosphere of an aurora-lit snowscape in the middle of summer. What I like most is Granny’s reaction to Diamanda getting wounded by an elf’s arrow. She carries the girl back to the boundary stones, and – although she does unashamedly tell Nanny that she draped Diamanda over her shoulder in such a way that if another arrow were to strike it would provide her with some cover – there was no chance whatsoever that Granny would have left her there. Granny has nothing but contempt for Diamanda – more than she does for people in general – but the girl is nonetheless one of the townspeople of Lancre, and Granny has an obligation towards her. Like a doctor or a teacher or policeman, she feels that she has an unwritten duty of care towards all the people in her little country – or perhaps all people, anywhere in the world, even if she thinks they’re mostly a collection of greedy, selfish dullards. It’s a very similar thread to what we come to see in Sam Vimes: a cynic about the human race who nonetheless dedicates their life towards protecting and helping people.

But neither has Pratchett quite Flanderised these characters, which sadly happens towards the end of the series, or at least it does with Vimes. Granny is far from infallible. Much is made of her skills at human manipulation and psychology, or ‘headology’ as she calls it, but the conclusion to this passage – when they bring the wounded Diamanda to Magrat to seek her help – stuck in my mind over the years:

Magrat’s cottage traditionally housed thoughtful witches who noticed things and wrote things down. Which herbs were better than others for headaches, fragments of old stories, odds and ends like that.
It was a cottage of questioning witches, research witches. Eye of what newt? What species of ravined salt-sea shark? It’s all very well a potion calling for Love-in-idleness, but which of the thirty-seven common plants called by that name in various parts of the continent was actually meant?
The reason that Granny Weatherwax was a better witch than Magrat was that she knew that in witchcraft it didn’t matter a damn which one it was, or even if it was a piece of grass.
The reason that Magrat was a better doctor than Granny was that she thought it did.

There’s plenty of other stuff I could talk about. I have no particularly cogent analysis or insight, just a whole bunch of things I really enjoyed: the horned Cernunnos figure who serves as king of the elves, the gaming of the witches’ duel between Diamanda and Granny, Granny’s neat trick with the bees at the conclusion of the book. But I’ll leave it at that. Lords and Ladies is up there with the very best of Pratchett’s work: a tightly plotted fantasy novel which just happens to have a comedic thread running through it, rather than a lot of jokes strung together with a plot. It’s not perfect – the younger coven is brushed out of the story about halfway through (which is odd, considering Agnes later replaces Magrat) and apart from Ridcully himself, the Unseen University emissaries seem a bit out of place. But as I said before: this is, I think, the peak of the Witches series, probably the best Discworld book in the series thus far, and would easily make it into the top ten of the series overall. An excellent book.

“Go back,” said Granny. “You call yourself some kind of goddess and you know nothing, madam, nothing. What don’t die can’t live. What don’t live can’t change. What don’t change can’t learn. The smallest creature that dies in the grass knows more than you.”

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