One of the things I wanted to do when I started this blog was provide a resource for myself: a place where various reviews and essays that had only ever appeared in print would be readily accessible in one place online. But I rather got out of the habit over the last year or so. Therefore, I shall attempt to get back up to speed over the next few weeks with more of these reprint posts, beginning with this review of New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, which appeared in Interzone 270, May-June 2017:
In the first few months of his presidency, Donald Trump has begun to dismantle the environmental protections introduced by his predecessor. In Britain, the bonfire of the regulations following Brexit will probably cut environmental safeguards. Protecting the environment costs money; it’s bad for business, bad for the economy. And in our modern world, the banks, the investment houses, the hedge fund managers, the financiers, the multi-national corporations, have much more say in the running of our governments than any voters. Witness the fact that in the last financial meltdown in 2008, the banks got the bail out, while the poor got hit, are still being hit, by the austerity needed to pay for that bail out.
It is a situation that has been a long time developing, but it is all too obvious now. As the Occupy movement of recent years characterised it: money and power flow towards the 1%; money and power flow away from the 99%. That’s us. And since modern capitalism equates money and power so closely, those in a position to make the system more equable, the 1%, have steadily less incentive to do so.
As inequality increases, so does the likelihood that only violent and dramatic action could change the system. That is the issue at the heart of Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel. Here it is catastrophic environmental collapse that serves as the trigger for economic revolution, and more significantly as the metaphor to explain that revolution. In this instance, global warming has melted the ice caps and, in two devastating pulses, sea levels around the world have risen by some 50 feet. In consequence coastal and low lying areas have been flooded. Lower Manhattan in particular has become like Venice, skyscrapers arising from canals rather than avenues. But people are persistent, turning office blocks into dormitories, roof gardens into miniature farms.
Robinson is at pains to make clear that capitalism itself is to blame for the environmental failures. But capitalism is remarkably resilient: even among the ashes, the hedge funds make money. The intertidal zone, that flooded portion of Manhattan where tower blocks like the old Metropolitan Life building on Madison Square now house thousands of people in their own little islands, is disputed territory, its legal status now unknown. But life here has settled down since the last pulse, which means it is ripe for the money men to move in. One of Robinson’s characters has even devised an index that records the tidal movement of populations, the collapse of old towers, that provides a guide for hedge funds on when to invest, when to sell.
Anyone with the right information can make money out of the difficulties of intertidal life. Which is why a mysterious corporation is trying to buy the Met Life tower from under the people who live there, why the tower’s caretaker discovers sabotage under the water line, why the two computer guys who live right at the top of the Met tower are kidnapped.
But the people who live in the Met tower don’t want to lose their home. An unlikely alliance forms, involving, among others, a weary, middle-aged chair of the tower’s board, a police inspector disturbed by the rise of private security armies, a financial whizz-kid, a flighty media star, and a couple of feral kids who risk their lives diving for treasure in the Bronx. Together they set out to secure their home and also, incidentally, to destroy capitalism. But by now the 1% has more money and more power than ever, so it takes dramatic violence (the most powerful hurricane ever to hit New York, the most spectacular scene in the novel) before they are even able to start putting their plan into action.
New York 2140 is probably the best novel Kim Stanley Robinson has written in a good few years, but that doesn’t mean it is free of the besetting sins (and virtues) that have become all too typical of his work. Names are often clunky: one poor character is saddled with the impossible name Muttchopf, just so he and his partner can be referred to as Mutt and Jeff throughout. The police inspector, a large black woman, is called Octaviasdottir, a knowing but unconvincing reference to Octavia Butler. Then again, there are peculiar literary references all through the novel, “pynchonpoetry” to describe a vista, “melvillemood” to describe an evening, that ring false every time they appear. There’s the all too familiar tendency to send his characters off on a scenic tour every now and again, as if we can’t be relied upon to visualise the scene unless he rhapsodizes about it. And there’s the now obligatory structural experimentation, in this instance a modification of the straight lift from John Dos Passos he employed in 2312: an extensive selection of quotations, real or fictional, between each chapter; and occasional chapters headed “a citizen” or “that citizen” or even “the city” in which Robinson editorialises about how the world got to be in the state it is, chapters that become more knowing, more self-referential and more irritating as the novel progresses.
Yet to offset this, there is a large cast of engaging characters, there are several interesting and at times exciting stories that run through the novel, and how can you not cheer a book that sets out to destroy neoliberal capitalism? If the destruction seems a little too easy, if the situation on both sides seems simpler than it would be in reality, still it is a polemical work that we want to succeed.