Review: New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson

Woah this took me awhile to get through! I’m not keen on the term ‘hard sci-fi’ and anyway I don’t think it is novels like this one that people mean by the term. Let me suggest instead that some science-fiction makes more effort to reduce suspension of disbelief. Kim Stanley Robinson has taken this approach before – for example his Mars trilogy was crafted to give almost a sense of a drama-documentary of the colonisation of Mars.

With New York 2140 Robinson looks at our future with two lenses – climate changes and world finance – and to do it he picks a specimen that can convey both. Future New York is a partially flooded neo-Venice that has survived (sometimes barely) catastrophic sea-rises. While much changed from its 20th century form, it remains a city of hedge funds and high-finance even as older semi-flooded districts crumble into the sea. The city has adapted with reinforced buildings, new materials, suspended walkways and yuppies in fast boats.

The book’s global microscope zooms into a small set of characters who have made their home in New York’s famous Metropolitan Life skyscraper near Madison Square Park. Each chapter follows a character (or character pair) in sequence including:

  • Vlade – the building supervisor who suspects the building has been sabotaged.
  • Mutt & Jeff – two eccentric ‘quants’ whose unorthodox perspective on financial instruments has led to them having powerful enemies.
  • Gen – a NYPD detective who finds that her life in the building and her work intersect.
  • Roberto and Stefan – two semi-feral children making a living scavenging in the flooded parts of the city.
  • Amelia – a celebrity nature documentary/environmental activist with a tendency towards accident prone adventures in her airship.
  • Franklin – a financial whiz-kid with an (apparently) cynical outlook and a fast boat.
  • Charlotte – Head of a NGO and chair of the building’s residence association.
  • A ‘citizen’ who provides a more omniscient overview of world events and history.

Each chapter follows parts of each characters day over several months, with various incidents and events, some of which are just stuff that happens and some of which tie into a wider plot.

It took a long time for me to warm to this book. I can’t fault the writing, each chapter has its charm and they are all well crafted. Without a doubt, Robinson is an excellent writer and constructs prose that’s readable and engaging…but I really didn’t warm to the individual characters and often the book felt aimless. It is not that there aren’t major events (a storm, even a quasi-revolution of sorts) or intrigue (kidnapping, rogue private security firms, nefarious drone submarines, sunken treasure) but 50% of the way in, I still didn’t feel drawn into the story. I would read a chapter and think ‘that was quite nicely written’ and then put the book down. It wasn’t the info dumps either (which I thought were very nicely done actually) – I’ve a high-tolerance for quasi-factual stuff in the fiction I read. Basically, the book just didn’t draw me in and did not compete well with other distractions! 60% in and I considered putting it aside and reading something else but in the end I stuck with it. As plot lines resolved and the story headed towards an almost utopian wish fulfilment ending, I enjoyed it a lot more – the dreaded ‘message fiction’ aspect of the book gave it the extra spark it needed.

Maybe I would have enjoyed it more with an uninterrupted read over a lazy holiday? I’m not sure but I certainly liked it better by the end!

Hugo wise? Yeahhh…not going to top my ballot. It is a decent addition to the six finalists and helps demonstrate the breadth and ambition of contemporary science-fiction & fantasy but it’s more a book that will gently warm your socks than eject them from your feet.

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14 thoughts on “Review: New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson

  1. I read this before the Hugo nomination period, and while I haven’t read all of KSR’s work, this was the weakest out of all of what I’ve read (Mars Trilogy, The Years of Rice and Salt).
    There is a meandering quality to the book as you point out, and frankly, after a 50 ft. sea level rise, I would’ve expected more changed politically and socially than what’s in the book. In the end, it seemed like wish-fulfillment that things will eventually get straightened out in finance without any great struggle.

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    1. I really enjoyed the meandering, history of New York aspect of the novel, but the end of the novel is pure wish fulfillment in its most boring sense. (In contrast, Charlotte Perkins Gilman makes the wish fulfillment moments of Herland, such as developing cats that don’t hunt song birds though eugenic artificial selection entertaining in their preposterousness.) As Camestros notes, it just happens too quickly and too easily.

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  2. I’ve read several of KSR’s books, and despite how interesting I find the premise to each one, my reaction to each has been, essentially, the same as your reaction to this one — some on the order of, “Huh. I ought to like this a lot more than I do. I wonder what’s up.”

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  3. I’m a KSR fan, and while this book has merit for how he approaches narrative voice, this was too visibly constructed to convey a message for me to really enjoy it. I argue about it at lenght in my own review on my blog, using quotes from various KSR interviews to frame it.

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  4. I liked it a lot, enough to nominate it. I guess I was in the mood for meandering fairy tale. I liked the characters.
    Also, stuff happened, unlike 2312, which OMG, that part in the middle…

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    1. I actually thought that 2312 was more readable. Yes, it dragged in the middle, and I didn’t find it remotely award-worthy, but I found the protagonist somewhat interesting, and I didn’t find myself wanting to throw it at the wall the way I did with New York 2140 and Aurora (both of which I DNFed; the first for its endless infodumps and cardboard characters, the second for its extremely unpleasant characters, about whom I did not care or want to know more).

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    1. I think it was an effective way of info dumping- there was a lot of humour and passion in those chapters (maybe too much – a faceless narrator shouldn’t be the character with the most emotional depth)

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      1. “Citizen” wasn’t just a faceless narrator — he was another character. Possibly even an anonymous online guy whose meat puppet also lives in the building, extrapolating from what he knew and snarking about it.

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