Through a 3D Glass Starkly, New York 2140 Redux

by Bill Benzon

IMGP1570rdI didn’t even know he had written a book set in New York City in the wake of catastrophic climate change. By “he” I mean Kim Stanley Robinson. But there it was on the table, New York 2140. A couple quick glances told me that, yes, it was set after the sea rise. That’s something very real to me. I’d lived through Hurricane Sandy’s flooding on the Jersey shore – I was living in Jersey City at the time. I was without power for four or five days (I forget which), but others were without power for two or more weeks–not to mention flooding and homes destroyed, and the effects ripple out from there. They’re still rippling.

When climate change hits home – we can’t stop it, it’s already started, and the sea will rise appreciably no matter what we do – will we survive? Well of course we will, “we” meaning humans, some of us. But how will we live? Our spirit, what of that?

Perhaps Robinson offers some insight. Not, mind you, that I somehow think KSR is a prophet. He isn’t (a prophet) and he doesn’t (know the future). But he’s a smart guy with a good imagination and really, that’s the best we can do under the circumstances, no?

And so I began to read the New York 2140.

Caveat: This is not a review, it’s a consideration, a meditation? It’s full of spoilers. I’ve been re-reading the book and coming to grips with it. Or something. An earlier and somewhat different piece on the book.

Not about the future, but the present

As I was reading my mind collided with that old cliché:

Science fiction’s not about the future, it’s about the present.

But then isn’t all fiction like that? No matter when and where it’s set, it is necessarily about the authorial present, because that’s what the author lives, day in and day out. The rest is costumes, stage sets, blocking, and action.

That’s what I was thinking. But I was also thinking that THAT’s not why I’m reading New York 2140, not at all. It’s about NYC after the climate apocalypse, and that’s why it interests me. It’s as though I was almost looking for a how-to-do-it book. I say “almost” because when you put it that baldly it seems silly and I wasn’t really thinking that. But sorta, kinda’, almost.

As I read through the book – which is both complex (lots of interacting characters) and simple (little in the say of intricate scheming, but some) – I read about the financial collapse of 2008. That’s something very real to me, as it diminished the value of my inheritance and hence my wellbeing.

By the time I got to the end I was telling myself, whoa! this isn’t about the future, it’s about the present! Financial collapse, massive debilitating storm crushing New York City, those may well happen in the future, but I’ve already lived through them. And as for a spontaneous uprising of people in protest, that’s Occupy Wall Street: I marched in that! In the end, nothing got occupied but our minds, with the idea of inequality: the 1% vs. the 99%. Occupy created the cultural mind-space that allowed Piketty (Capital in the Twenty-First Century) to make a splash.

But just what is THE PRESENT?

That’s a very tricky question.

What time scale do we use to measure the present? There’s a body of research in psychology that pegs the perceptual present at about three to four seconds. That’s certainly not the appropriate scale for this discussion. But what is? A year, a decade, a century? There’s a reasonable sense in which the financial crash of 2008 and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 are nonetheless part of my present. They’re certainly in the time horizon Stanley invokes/evokes in his book.

Events unfold in nested waves. Some waves have a frequency measured in seconds, or less (even way way less). Others have frequencies measured in decades or centuries or more. We’ve also got hours, days, weeks, months, years. Nested waves on all scales, with casual links of various kinds crossing from one scale to another. It’s complicated.

If I’m going to extend my present a decade into the past, then perhaps I can also extend it a decade into the future, call it 2030. That’s still over a century short of Robinson’s start date. But then climate change looms large in his imagination and surely we can push that back to the beginning of the carbon-spewing Industrial Revolution. Now we’re going two centuries back to the beginning of the 19th century, and that entitles us to push two centuries into the future, to the end of the 22nd century. Our imaginative present (Robinson’s novelistic present?) now runs roughly from 1800 to 2200, leaving him a little wiggle room after the imaginary events he’s detailed for us.

In his penultimate chapter, attributed merely to ‘the citizen’–who functions a bit like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action–Robinson tells us (p. 604):

Every moment is a wicked struggle of political forces, so even as the intertidal emerges from the surf like Venus, capitalism will be flattening itself like the octopus it biomimics, sliding between the glass walls of law that try to keep it contained, and no one should be surprised to find it can squeeze itself to the width of its beak, the only part of it that it can’t squish flatter, the hard part that tears our flesh when it is free to do so. No, the glass walls of justice will have to be placed together closer than the width of an octopus’s beak–now there’s a fortune cookie for you! And even then the octopus may think of some new ways to bite the world. A hinged beak, some super suckers, who knows what these people will try.

For you see, capitalism had just suffered a crushing defeat. But the book’s gone on for 604 pages at this point, so it really must come to an end – though I note that KSR’s Mars adventure extended over three volumes. But we mustn’t think that the end of the book is also the end of the causal forces it cast into wicked struggle.

So no, no, no, no! Don’t be naïve! There are no happy endings! Because there are no endings! And possibly there is no happiness either!

Though there a few more sentences in this chapter and then, yes, there’s one final chapter. It takes place in “some submarine speakeasy” called “Mezzrow’s” – named, we presume, after a mid-20th century jazz musician and scenester who hung with the cats and supplied them with joints (aka mezzes) – where we dance to West African rhythms.

And the take-home? The lesson, what does it tell us about, I suppose, radical historical change? That’s tricky. Or perhaps not. Whatever it is, it would be about chance favoring the prepared mind and how in this case, in KSR’s New York City and the world of 2140, there were lots of minds prepared by decades upon decades of subservience to the 1% (which, we know, is actually a tiny fraction of the 1%) in which 100s of millions managed to eek out a more or less self-sufficient existence in the tidal boondocks created by massive coastal flooding.

And things just happened!

What is fiction anyhow?

Sometime during the period when I first read New York 2140 – I’m now reading it again – I had slipped over to Manhattan for a panel discussion about artificial intelligence that was held – wouldn’t you know? at the New York Yacht Club, an honorable establishment with old money written all over it, not to mention a handsome stash of full and half-hull ship models – and was delighted with the Times Square area at night. It’s like something from the future, all bright and slithering lights. Next time I’ll take my camera.

Would the New York of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2140 be like that? Times Square itself, of course, would be under water, but many of the tall buildings would still be sticking around, their middle and upper floors rising above the water. And that’s where a lot of the electronic signage was. That would be quite a sight, to see all those animated lights reflecting in the water.

So, I ask you: Does New York 2140 exhibit a distinctive mode of fictional being? That’s perhaps not the best way to put the question, but there’s no really good way. What I have in mind is the way Robinson combines rich array of details about New York’s past – something Adam Roberts reminded me of on Facebook – with a richly imagined future. We’ve got the real and the imaginary combined into one seamless extended novelistic present. I could almost have said “the real past–as Robinson imagines it–and the future–as Robinson imagines it”, for the imagination is a faculty we use for everything, not just fantasy and fiction. It’s all imaginable, and some is real, some not so real.

What’s real?


Here’s what Robinson had to say about his craft in Nature (20 December 2017):

Here’s how I think science fiction works aesthetically. It’s not prediction. It has, rather, a double action, like the lenses of 3D glasses. Through one lens, we make a serious attempt to portray a possible future. Through the other, we see our present metaphorically, in a kind of heroic simile that says, “It is as if our world is like this.” When these two visions merge, the artificial third dimension that pops into being is simply history. We see ourselves and our society and our planet “like giants plunged into the years”, as Marcel Proust put it. So really it’s the fourth dimension that leaps into view: deep time, and our place in it.

Yep, that’s what he’s done in New York 2140. He’s given as a world where the overall social organization is pretty much what it is today. We seem to have pretty much the same bunch of nation-states – he doesn’t say this that I recall, so it becomes ‘true’ by default. The World Trade Organization is still doing whatever it does. The Federal Government is still there, though a bit weakened, private security forces are more prevalent. The 0.001% stays on top by trading in ever more exotic financial instruments.

Robinson uses the future as a device to tweak these arrangements so that when a hurricane triggers a flood (like Sandy) and the flood triggers a financial collapse (like 2008), we get a different outcome (p. 521).

Strategic defaulting. Class-action suits. Mass rallies. Staying home from work. Staying out of private transport systems. Refusing consumer consumption beyond the necessities. Withdrawing deposits. Denouncing all forms of rent-seeking. Ignoring mass media. Withholding schedules payments. Fiscal noncompliance. Loud public complaining.

And the banks are nationalized.

Do I believe it? How should I know? Does it matter? Of course it does, I guess so, maybe. It’s like that. Reality. Fiction.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s there was something called “the new journalism”, in which writers like Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Hunter Thompson wrote about real events using literary techniques. They gave up the conventions of journalistic objectivity and entered into the events they chronicled. At the same time E. L. Doctorow was earning praise for his “fictionalized history”. What about alternate history, for example, P. K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, set in a world where Japan and Germany won World War II? How does New York 2140 fit into that, whatever that is?

This, it seems to me, is something for Latour’s conception of modes of existence, where each mode has its own truth conditions. What is the mode for New York 2140, versus, say, The Tale of Genji, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Interpretation of Dreams, or On the Origin of Species, and what are the respective truth conditions for each?

And what of those scenarios beloved of futurists, such as the team at Royal Dutch Shell? You study the situation from all angles – economics, political, demographic, cultural, meteorological, whatever – and explore the space of possible futures by crafting two, three, or more possible futures. But it’s one thing to do this five, ten, or even twenty years into the future. But a century and a quarter?

Robinson posits two major climate events – he calls them Pulses – before hurricane Fyodor. It causes massive damage, but not, I believe, as bad as that of the two Pulses. But still, basic social structures managed to survive those two catastrophes, otherwise the social world of 2140 wouldn’t look so much like that of 2018, or 17, 16, 15, whenever Robinson was thinking, researching, and writing.

What held things together through all the troubles?

And in the end…

I have a guess, perhaps a wish, a hypothesis. Something that’s missing from the book until the very end.

Remember how I said they ended up dancing in an underground club named after Mezz Mezzrow – just up there ^ move your eyes, scroll the window – (p. 611):

Everyone in the room is now grooving to the tightest West African pop any of them have ever heard. The guitar players’ licks are like metal shavings coming off a lathe. The vocalists are wailing, the horns are a freight train.

Well, that’s what kept people together through the dark times. Lots of dance and music.

Aretha Franklin just died. Where’d her music come from? It came from the church, the African-American church. And that music was/is a hybrid of African and Western musical traditions. It’s that music that kept enslaved Africans and their descendants alive during the years of slavery and Jim Crow racism.

Yes, I know, that’s an assertion that needs an argument. I’ve provided some of that argument at book length, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, where I argue that it’s music and dance that opened up the social space in which clever apes could become proto-humans. Ever since then music and dance have been a central vehicle of social cohesion. It connects us and gives us hope.

How could Robinson have missed it? Well, he didn’t miss it, not completely. He added it on to the end, perhaps to give closure to a story that otherwise was still very much unfolding?

How could you rewrite the book so that music and dance are central, bring them up out of the basement clubs? In some measure it’s a technical problem, a matter of craft? Do you just drop party scenes in here and there? No, that won’t do. What then?

I’m thinking we almost have to go surreal, perhaps magically real. You know, Leonard Bernstein used to talk of how, when fully cranked up in his conducting, he’d all but become the composer of the music. I’ve sometimes thought of using that as a time travel device: Go up on the podium, become Mozart, and exit the concert hall into 18th century Vienna. Take the Vivaldi to 17th century Italy, Glinka to 19th century Russia. But how do you get to the Middle Kingdom? Which Middle Kingdom, you ask? Does it matter? All of them.

Robinson does a lot of this, of course, through literary allusion, quotation, and direct reference, as Stefano and Roberto go looking for Herman Melville’s grave. But Stefano and Roberto are only two, and it’s we who get the allusions, each of us in our own reading space. It needs to be more collective, even more hallucinatory, prophetic if you will. Dance back through the Second Pulse, then the First, and keep on going.

Maybe THAT will keep us together.

Met Life Tower at dawn. You may recall that the story is centered on this building.