''A towering novel'' ... ''Après nous, le déluge.'' #KSR first review in GUARDIAN of ''New York 2140''
New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson review – an urgent vision of the future
Environmental catastrophe has hit New York while the world’s richest continue to get richer in this towering novel
by ADAM ROBERTS
Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel is set in the year 2140, more than 100 years from now, in a world where climate change has bitten deep.
The waters have risen 50 feet, half-submerging much of New York City. Every street has become a canal; every skyscraper an island, linked by sky bridges and boat taxis.
This is a large-scale novel, not only in terms of its 624 pages, but also the number of characters and storylines Robinson deploys, the sheer range of themes and topics.
There are eight main narrative strands, focusing on a group of characters who all live in the same building, the Met Life skyscraper on Madison Square.
Each strand elaborates a different type of plot: kidnap; politics small and large; Wall Street; police investigation; polar exploration; even a treasure hunt for buried gold.
The premise is reminiscent of John Lanchester’s 2012 novel Capital, with a NY skyscraper instead of a London street, though New York 2140 is considerably broader in scope and ambition.
This range and variety make summarising the plot a tricky business. Lots goes on.
Robinson is not a writer who does villains; none of his characters here is evil, although some are grubbier and more compromised than others.
The villain in this novel is capitalism itself.
“Immiserate the same people who keep you alive?” boggles one character, talking about the 1%. “Which god or idiot in Homer did that? None of them. They’re worse than the worse gods in Homer.”
This means that in place of melodrama we get fine-grained future-realism. New York 2140 does what Robinson’s award-winning Mars books did: it creates a whole world in such compelling detail that the reader starts to suspect the author has actually been there, in a time machine, and has come back to file what amounts to documentary reportage.
The fact that all these individuals are so different from each other makes its early stages a little sticky. Robinson also has a habit of blithely info-dumping about everything from New York history to arctic fauna, from the structural engineering of waterlogged buildings to the flow of international capital. Don’t get me wrong, though: these insights are fascinating, and the novel does accumulate a magnificent momentum, a richness rare in contemporary fiction.
Amitav Ghosh recently asked: “Where is all the fiction about climate change?” New York 2140 makes you want to grab him by his lapels and tell him: “Here! here!”
To be fair, Ghosh's lament was that “serious” literary fiction is failing in its duty when it comes to addressing climate change. He exempts science fiction from his rebuke, but insists that the literary establishment disregards the genre.
I’m not sure that’s true any more; SF is threaded everywhere through culture nowadays, and it would take an act of critical myopia to miss the fact that Robinson is one of the world’s finest working novelists, in any genre.
And that’s the bottom line.
New York 2140 is a towering novel about a genuinely grave threat to civilisation.
Impressively ambitious, it bears comparison with other visionaries’ attempts to squeeze the sprawl and energy of the US between two covers: John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy and Don DeLillo’s Underworld.
Dos Passos orchestrated his multifarious account through a literary-experimental approximation to news media: daily papers, newsreels and so on. DeLillo is similarly capacious in his ambition and uses baseball as his governing metaphor.
New York 2140 is more urgently relevant than those two masterpieces. Robinson organises his novel around the flood: the literal waters, the metaphorical sense of events – environmental change, technology, immigration – overwhelm us. And the deluge is not only metaphorically eloquent, it is dangerously close to becoming a reality.
Critics sometimes praise a new novel for being “challenging”. The term is often just another piece of reviewers’ jargon, but it happens to describe New York 2140 unusually well.
Robinson’s fiction challenges us to pay attention, to try to grasp how broad and complex the situation of the world is now, and above all it challenges our climate change complacency. Après nous, le déluge.
• Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself is published by Gollancz