In some ways I’m an old fashioned reader: I find things to admire in experimental writing and I’m not automatically put off by syntactically or formally challenging writing, but mostly I prefer reading that gives me something to care about driven by a narrative force, even if that narrative is internal to a character. The “speculative” part of good “speculative fiction”—the ingenious ideas and world-building—still need those things.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 gave me very little of the things reader-me needs. The central characters, as the title tips us, are none of the mostly cardboard people living in the submerged-but-only-half-drowned city of Robinson’s dreams (current and future, I suspect), but the many faces of New York City. If you love New York City as a place and an idea—if it holds something of your heart—then perhaps this weird ode to it will resonate. For someone like me, for whom New York City is of no particular interest, much of the book relies on a shared aesthetic and affection and belief that isn’t there. I (used to) experience the opposite side of this imbalance often, when I would wax on—and on, if not eloquently—about a book or piece of music or work of art that so moved me I couldn’t imagine the person I was speaking to (or at) didn’t share my basic feelings about it, rendering most of what I was saying moot the moment the words left my mouth.
New York 2140 preaches to a Big Apple choir. It seems unlikely anyone who didn’t already feel the love will come away from reading it thinking “My God, what a city!” despite the innumerable assertions that it is so. New Yorkers and the people who love New York can pat themselves on the back at their real and imagined resilience.
Nor are there any human characters in the novel possessing much in the way of actual humanity. Most function like Westworld hosts, seemingly there to convey and portray messages without ever giving the reader a feeling that their existence extends beyond their particular paragraphs or sections in the text. Backstories are hinted at, but more in the way an abstract of a book hints at the whole than a well-fashioned piece of clothing conceals and reveals. For all its insight into the chaotic clockwork of finance, the naiveté of the portrayal of politics is astounding.
The paradox is that Robinson seems deeply concerned with humanity—a friend mentioned that Robinson is on a mission (my word) to promote a utopic vision of and for humanity. But lost in the utopic Yes We Can! and Hope! intended to inspire, or at least console, we living humans, many seeing through—and reflecting off—a glass darkly, are the actual people. Perhaps the diffidence with which Robinson portrays misery, deaths and die-offs is meant, in its nonchalance and sterility, to itself be a statement of some sorts…but it just left me without much reason to care.
New York 2140 isn’t without interest. This “cli-fi” book is a melange of:
a collection of sometimes ingenious ideas about a city under climactic siege in search of a plot,
a study in the minutiae of big finance in service of a morality tale, and
a hang-in-there-kitty bit of humanitarian self-help in the guise of a novel.
The first two of these mean there are all kinds of little, admirable touches and observations; there’s a reason I’ve enjoyed Robinson’s work, such as the Mars trilogy and Aurora. I imagine the third is what probably resulted in some reviewer on NPR lauding the book in stentorian tones as “the novel we need now”—and I desperately need help to alleviate the acidity of my view of humanity’s prospects—too bad there wasn’t enough of the human in this book to help with that.