New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Book Review

NEW YORK 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, p/b, 640pp, £8.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

One of the reasons why some authors choose to write Science Fiction is issue a ‘dire warning’ in such a way that the reader will be entertained as well as informed. With luck, enough people will take the message on board. Although a non-fiction book, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (published in 1962), had an impact. Not all readers will want to try a book like that today so other approaches to environmental issues are necessary. Kim Stanley Robinson takes the environment and what we are doing to it, very seriously. His Science in the Capital series published between 2004 and 2007, was a hard-hitting prediction of what will happen if we continue on our present course of heating the atmosphere. Though a dire warning, the third book ended on a note of hope. Shortly afterwards, Obama was elected president of the USA and the situation looked hopeful. Things change.

New York 2140 begins as a pessimistic outlook of our future. Climate change has not been halted, the ice caps are melting at such a rate that sea level has risen by about forty feet. The coastal cities of the world are under water. New York resembles Venice where all the streets are now canals. Transport is by boat or sky-bridges between buildings. In some areas, new materials have enabled buildings to be built taller, in others, they are slowly crumbling into the water. The city has not been abandoned. As now, New York is a draw to incomers and people of all social strata live there. It is still an important financial centre. The events of this story are told through the eyes of a number of people all living in the MetLife building.

Mutt and Jeff are coders. They write the code behind the financial structure of commerce. They live in a hotello (basically a tent) on the uppermost, farm floor of the building. It is their idea to adjust the code so that a very small fraction of the money in the system is diverted to the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) to fund the fight against corruption – and drop their former employer in it. Then they go missing.

Charlotte’s job is to find accommodation for those in the city who have none. She is also the chair of the co-operative that runs the Met building. She is the one who realises Mutt and Jeff are missing. She reports it to Gen, a police inspector and also a resident. Gen takes the disappearance seriously.

Vlade is the person who has responsibility for the building’s maintenance. He has noticed that the diamond skin that keeps the water out of the lower levels seems to have been deliberately damaged. It is tenuous, but when he tells Charlotte she wonders if this has a connection by the shell company that wants to buy the tower. They can only sell if all the residents agree and the sabotage could be a way to persuade them.

Franklin is a hedge fund manager. He only lives in the Met and is more interested in his job, his speed boat and wooing a woman from another company but finds himself involved when he encounters Stephan and Roberto. These boys, about twelve years old are water-rats, living under the boat dock and seem to constantly need to be rescued. Their friend, the aged Mr Hexter, has a collection of maps which he is sure indicate the position of a treasure ship that sank in the bay centuries before. The boys are determined to find the treasure.

Amelia spends most of her time floating around in her dirigible, though when in New York, she moors it to the Met’s mast. She is a ‘cloud star’, her video shows are followed by thousands, especially as many of her adventures end in near calamity. People listen to her.

A lot of the events turn on coincidence but bring these characters together especially as a hurricane heads in their direction ready to cause mayhem and destruction. Beneath the events is financial chicanery.

Although the theme of environmental disaster is still in the forefront of this novel, Robinson is also hitting out at the malpractices of financial institutions and  showing that ordinary people can make a difference if they work together to take a stand. Like all his books, this is thought provoking, hard-hitting and enjoyable. It should be on any climate change doubter’s reading list.