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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.

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