Report on discussion of New York 2140

On the 4th of February we met at the Keynes Library, Birkbeck, to discuss New York 2140 (2017) by Kim Stanley Robinson. The novel follows a series of characters living in the Met building in New York city, after ecological catastrophe has flooded coastal cities and severely damaged the wider environment. The various intersecting narrative threads explore the difficulty and excitement of a city transformed by ecological disaster and the ongoing inequalities of capitalism.

The notes below cover a number of different themes that were discussed during the evening. Unfortunately I was there for only half an hour and so, although I was impressed by the breadth and depth of the topics discussed, I was unable to do complete justice to the myriad insights of the participants.

Themes Discussed:

Architecture

Movement within New York is undertaken via sky-bridges– a new form of pedestrian walkways linking together skyscrapers. The isolated design of skyscrapers, often seen as separating people and privatising space, is joined together as common and useful space. The lack of ground floor/street level and the changing water levels forces people to find new ways of negotiating the city, potentially more creative and less hierarchical. Boats though seem to be mostly private travel. Where there are buses, they are slow and rarely used by characters.

The Commons

Much of the organisation of the lower part of Manhattan is done via cooperatives– the residents of each particular building own the building in common and make decisions collectively via representatives. This seems to be an alternative mode of organisation that has come about because of the lower value of property in the intertidal zone. We follow the Met building in particular; most of the characters are in some way connected with it. Their relationships are partially determined by the working of the cooperative and it functions also to bring them together. Robinson puts forward the cooperative as an alternative model to rentier capitalism, under threat from gentrification and financialisation. 

Radical v Reformist Politics

The novel suggests that to overcome capitalism, it must be done via existing institutions– ie Congress. This is a theme of Robinson’s in Pacific Edge (1990) and Blue Mars (1996) as well. Problems are worked through legislature. There is less focus on alternative modes of activism– there is a noticeable lack of counter-culture and where there is, it is only briefly explored. The novel tends to follow those who are in a position to effect change as individuals– Amelia Black as influencer, Charlotte as Head of Householders Union, Gen as a well respected police officer, Franklin as insider in finance. 

History and Representation

The novel mentions the concept of ease of representation, which to an extent is used to preempt criticism of its focus on individual movers and shakers in a particular location as actors at the heart of historical change. Possibly the novel tries to have its cake and eat is as regards whether history is made/changed by individuals or collectives. Elsewhere, the temporality of finance (numbers changing on the screen) is compared to history, only quantified (and thus ripe for gambling). The novel doesn’t necessarily present a concrete theory of history, but it’s clearly a concern at the heart of the later chapters.

Character

There was discussion of the references to the social novel/Victorian novel. The novel follows a set of interlocking characters as an exploration of the social. I didn’t quite follow this as the discussion started before I arrived. Amelia Black functions more like a film star (Marilyn Monroe) than a new idea/job of the ‘cloud-star’. 

Form

The form of the novel mimics works by John dos Passos (Manhattan Transfer (1925), USA Trilogy (1938)) and John Brunner, (Stand on Zanzibar (1968), and The Sheep Look Up (1978)). It follows the form of a kaleidoscope of different characters interspersed with quotations, in which an entire society’s cultural and economic history is delineated: a socialist novel. However, where Passos’s quotations and non-fiction sections are radical (biographies of union leaders, histories of strikes etc), Robinson’s are quite conservative (Herman Melville, Ambrose Bierce, anecdotes about artists meeting each other on park benches). Also, the outcome of the form is highly optimisitic– society is actively working towards change, whereas Passos and Brunner are less certain (pessimistic). 

Genre

It was pointed out that the novel contains a number of different genre narratives/tropes. For instance there is a treasure hunt, a police/detective drama, an adventure narrative, as well as having the trappings of sf. It was also suggested that the novel is both a society novel of New York (perhaps a bit like Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)) and a frontier novel.

Finance and Ecology

The financialisation of ecological disaster that is implicit in our financial system now, is made explicit in the world of the novel. Seemingly no event however violent can disrupt capitalism (there have been two almost apocalyptic water surges that have caused major destruction): in fact, it may very well function on instability. The novel’s movement towards overthrow of the system plays a bit like a re-run of 2008 financial disaster, but in this case the banks are not bailed-out, leading to change. 

Motif and Metaphor

Throughout the novel, similarities are drawn between finance and aquatic landscapes/flow, the latter serving as a metaphor for the former. Equally, Franklin reflects on how his work as financier involves the selection of correct metaphors. Both of these dynamics seem reflective of science fiction itself: firstly, the interplay between landscape and culture, then secondly, the fact that finance behaves like sf in its work of selecting/finding the right metaphors to encapsulate a given moment or situation. In a sense, finance is just as science fictional as the novel’s flooded landscape, if not more.

Labour

There are new types of jobs and labour– cloud-stars, muscle-farming etc, but many of the jobs are either expanded because of ecological change (ie sand dredging, scuba diving repair/building jobs, etc) or from before (police, finance etc). How is class constituted in New York or USA? We only see quite middle-class people or people who fall out of the class system (‘water-rats’). 

Reproduction

Though the novel follows a range of different characters or different ages, genders, race, etc, there is a noticable lack of parents. How are children brought up in this future? We have a model based on the ad hoc adoption of the ‘water-rats’ Stefan and Roberto by the characters living in the Met building suggesting an alternative model of communal care. 

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