New York 2140: concluding thoughts

Today I’d like to wrap up our online book club‘s reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140.*

For weeks we’ve been working through the novel, chapter by chapterLast week we read the last section.  Now I’d like to make space for some additional reflections, both mine and yours.

(If you’d like more information on the reading plan and the schedule we followed, click here. For all posts on this reading, click here.)

Let me begin by pulling together online commentary and links from readers so far.  And there’s been plenty!  Once again the online, distributed book club model proves itself.

The novel was up for a Hugo award this year, but lost out last night to The Stone Sky.  (Congratulations to N.K. Jemisin!)

In response to last week’s blog post Paul meditated on comparisons to other novelsVanessa pointed us to the great archy and mehitabel.  Bill connected the novel’s conclusion to an odd and tantalizing Douglas Rushkoff article, while drawing a link to David Graeber’s important work on debt and debt jubilees and also finding this Kim Stanley Robinson thought about how science fiction works on the present and future.

Bill also published an extensive reflection on how the novel imagines and responds to the present and the future.

Vanessa Vaile has been very energetic over the past week.  She shared a BBC story about a another major world city, one that’s already starting to sink: Jakarta.  She also shared a link to a Harvard Business Review article urging business leaders to read science fiction, and citing New York 2140 as a good example.  Then Vanessa found a page of interviews and reviews about the novel on one Robinson website.

Daniel A. Zarrilli. the Senior Director, Climate Policy & Programs as well as Chief Resilience Officer for New York City (!), reflected on the novel on Twitter:

Bill Benzon has been taking and sharing more photos.  In this post he moves around NYC, always looking for the Met.  His blog now contains a host of posts about the novel.

George Station pointed out a recent Science Friday program about engineering ideas for protecting New York against the Atlantic.  Lots of rich stuff – and watch for the challenging bit about “managed retreat.”

Now, on to my own observations about the book as a whole.

Politics This has a specific, clear, and well developed programmatic political agenda.  In response to unmitigated climate change and escalating income inequality, New York 2140 calls for a massive, global left wing/green revolt.  Through it national tax policies would change, major banks nationalized, and the American Democratic party be shifted (dragged) to the left.  While its villains get some small voice, it’s clear where the novel stands.  As Babette Kraft observes in a comment on last week’s post, “In terms of politics, a democracy of the people is the good fight. It’s the financial system that’s the enemy.”

The novel also has an implicit politics for racial and gender justice.  More women than men occupy positions of power when the novel begins, and this only increases.  Women of color play decisive roles in saving people in New York and getting the revolution going.  (Bill Benzon identified an explicit shout-out to legendary science fiction writer Octavia Butler.) I’m not sure how the novel ends up on gender identity issues, beyond showing women in many traditional male roles (including sumo wrestling).

Immigration The novel begins by strongly emphasizing immigration as a topic.  One character works in immigration law, while many others are migrants themselves.  It is clear that 21st- and 22nd-century climate change has driven a great deal of involuntary population movement beyond levels we see in 2018.  By the novel’s end more people become migrants in the sense that they become homeless after the powerful storm.  The question of how we as a civilization handle these forms of immigration is perhaps the novel’s most powerful theme; I think the aforementioned politics are KSR’s answer.

Animal and human migration are key, intertwined themes throughout the novel.  As a lifelong writer about ecologies, it’s unsurprising to see Robinson so closely connect them.  I’m not sure that this integration is fully realized by the end, as animals are more character motivation devices than participants in the story, and I’m not convinced the revolution directly addresses climate change as much as income and wealth inequality.

Technological development While the novel depicts a world with some technological advances since the early 21st century, in many other ways such innovation seems to have stalled.

Speaking of technology, on Twitter P.F. Anderson asked me to summarize the novel’s invented tech.

Here’s my list:

  • AI – Amelia’s blimp has Franz, an AI pilot. (thanks to Bill for the reminder)
  • blocknecklaces (a nice pun, I think, referring to blockchain and city block) (500)
  • containerclippers (5630)
  • “giant robot freighter airships” (5542)
  • graphenated construction materials for buildings and connecting walkways, sometimes blended in a composite form (698, 816)
  • hostage boxes (4819)
  • hotello, a cheap, small, and portable hotel space: “rooms that could be packed into a suitcase. They were often deployed inside other buildings, being not very sturdy,” 281)
  • “mayflies” (little recording devices, I infer) (5721)“milk of amnesia” inducing memory loss (4917)
  • remotely operated submarines (5010)
  • skyvillages (5543)
  • stomach lining replacement (3544)
  • stretchtech (8382-8383)
  • superscrapers (341)
  • underwater sleds riding subway tunnels (4800)
  • waterbarn (for storing boats) (334)
  • wetbits (digital currency backed by… weather futures?) (500)

That’s a lot of invention.  In addition, some of our technology has persisted, but expanded.  Cloud computing, for example, seems to have become “the cloud” of all media and most communication.  It’s not in great shape, given one reference to

the cloud’s Very Bad Day in the aftermath of the Second Pulse [that] had wiped out millions of people’s records, and no country had completely recovered from that, except for Iceland, which had not believed in the cloud and kept paper records of everything.(3417)

I suspect the Icelandic exception is a nod to that country going after its bankers post-2008. Meanwhile, visual surveillance has expanded quantitatively, at least in the hands of the police:

“How many cameras do you have deployed now?”

“It’s a few million. The limiting factor these days is the analysis. I’ll try to figure out some questions and see what I find.” (4943)

On the other, subtractive hand, some tech has gone backwards.  Air travel has declined, or at least moved away from jets (3428), while sea travel has regressed from powered engines to wind (cf containerclippers, 5630).

Missing from this list?  Any biotech – no implants, no cyborgs, no change in life extension, transplants, gene modification, brain control.  Nothing from Soonish: no 3d printing revolution at scale, no space travel.

NYC skyline from the south_Benzon

Another great Bill Benzon shot.  Click for full size.

Education We read this novel in our quest to grapple with the future of education.  So far I think New York 2140 offers terrific ways to imagine the future of the world which education inhabits, but very little on education per se.

What little we see almost constitutes an unschooling agenda. The orphan boys learn at a ferocious clip, entirely out of school.  They proceed instead by following their curiosity, learning by doing, and being coached or mentored.

At the novel’s end we see glimpses of a very different agenda.  Free tuition becomes a revolutionary demand.  Apparently today’s student debt finance model has persisted for more than a century into the future.


  1. Re: technology, is the novel making a quiet argument that the combination of disastrous climate change and out of control inequality will be bad for technological innovation?
  2. The novel’s first line invokes the connections between computer software and real life: “Whoever writes the code creates the value.”   Yet Mutt and Jeff’s plan fails (although it appears later in the book), and no other hacking adventures amount to much.  Is this a condemnation of code as politics?
  3. How did humanity get past the deep problem of sunk costs, in its various meanings within the novel?
  4. Bill Benzon thinks the book is ultimately a heist story.  Do you agree?
  5. Is the novel more about the 2008 financial crisis than about the year 2140, as one reader argues?
  6. Overall, what did you make of the whole thing?

Let us know in comments below.  Or share your thoughts on your own blogs, Twitter, or wherever you like.  Ping me if you want to make sure I catch you.

If you feel a bit swamped (sorry, couldn’t resist) at this moment in your reading, take a breath.  Remember, all blog posts for this reading are organized under a single tag, NewYork2140, so all of that content is available in one spot.  It’ll be there for you when you need it.  Under that header lives the full story of this reading, including all comments.  I might turn the whole thing into a giant pdf, if people would like to see that.

Coming up soon: we vote for our book club’s next reading!

*Please use that link if you want to order a copy of the book.  We get a small benefit from each purchase.

(thanks to so many fine folks for contributing so much: Bill Benson, Tom Haymes, Steven Kaye, Babette Kraft, Joe Murphy, George Station, and Vanessa Vaile)

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10 Responses to New York 2140: concluding thoughts

  1. Bill Benzon says:

    Three thoughts, Bryan:

    1. Tech: Perhaps you should put Franz, the AI running Amanda’s airship, on your list. I thought it (he?) did some pretty impressive maneuvering, e.g. when the bears broke loose. Struck me as being a bit beyond today’s self-driving cars just shifted into the sky.

    2. Gender: I’ve been wondering about the romance between Charlotte and Franklin that blossomed at the very end. Why? It doesn’t seem in any way necessary to the plot. They had their causal roles to play and their romance neither advanced nor impeded those roles. It seems to me that the point is symbolic. It’s an inversion of the standard (rich) older man/younger woman relationship just as they roles they played in the plot inverted the outcome of financial collapse from what it had been in 2008.

    3. On the politics, you’re right, a clear revolt to the left. But the overall framework seems to be pretty much the one we’re operating in now. That framework managed to remain viable through two Pulses and on into 2140. Do I believe (in) that?

    Didn’t the framework of world politics shift dramatically during and after WWI (the death of old Europe, the Russian revolution) and then again after WWII (dissolution of colonial empires, creation of the UN, rise of Japan)? Does the collapse of the Soviet Union in 89/90 mark another such shift (w/ rise of China and India)? That’s two or three shifts in a century, but then no major shifts over the next century and a quarter?

    Of course, if there were a couple more shifts, what would they be?

    Better link to my tour of the Met Life tower from the Jersey side.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      1. Ah, good catch. Just edited this post to include Franz.
      2. I appreciated the reversal of age, except that it came very late, and seemed weirdly repetitive (Franklin muttering about the age gap again and again).
      3. The persistence of our political forms seemed strange, and I’ve mentioned it before. Even assuming some American imperial/hyperpower permanence, we do add new offices. Think about the LBJ/Nixon boom in federal departments, or the post-9-11 Homeland Security reorg. Agreed.

      • Bill Benzon says:

        I suppose one way to think about that strange persistence of political forms is through KSR’s remarks about science fiction as a 3D lens on the present. It’s the present political system that he’s looking at and so, of course, that’s got to be there at the heart of his construction of 2140. When then, is he revealing about the present system? That it depends on the acquiescence of the many, but if somehow the many can communicate their dissatisfaction to one another and coordinate their actions, it’s all over–is that what he’s saying?

        I keep thinking about what economists call a coordination problem. In the small, it’s like when you’re making a decision with a small group. You’re thinking, “if Ted goes for it, then I’m in.” Ted’s thinking, “if Mary goes for it, I’m in.” Mary’s thinking, “if Jake, then me.” Jake’s thinking, “if only Suzy would tumble.” What’s Suzy thinking? You got it, she’s thinking “I’m with Bryan, what’s he want?” But NONE of you know any of this. Someone’s got to go first, then the rest will know what to do. Who’s it going to be?

        That’s what’s at the heart of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Everyone knows that the guy doesn’t have any clothes on at all, he’s naked. But they also know that if they show any dissent, they’re in trouble. And then the kid blurts it out, “He’s naked!” Everyone hears the kid, everyone knows that everyone else hears him. And so they tumble.

        What finally triggers things in NY2140? Amelia gets an impulse in her balloon and calls for a strike. That’s not what they’d planned. Heck, at that point they didn’t have a plen for starting things off. They just knew they were somehow sometime soon going to start a strike. Amelia jumped the gun. She played the role of the little kid who called the Emperor’s bluff. Of course, it wouldn’t have worked if there wasn’t a large population ready to tumble.

        Now, back in the present, is that what Trump sorta’ did in the 2016 election? He yelled out “the Dems are naked” and it turned out there was a substantial population eager and waiting for that message. So he won the election. I note that, as decisions go, voting for a Donald Trump is a lot easier, has far less risk, than refusing to pay the rent, the mortgage, the college loan, or withdrawing your money from the bank.

  2. sibyledu says:

    1. Politics. While I certainly think the book’s political/economic agenda is central, I was surprised to see that our republic’s political institutions more or less persist for another century and more. I’ve been reading a lot of books about the end of liberal democracy, so this was oddly cheering to me.

    2. Immigration. I don’t have anything to add.

    3. Tech. The absence of biotech didn’t occur to me until you pointed it out. But now it seems very odd. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to develop biotech adaptations, like some kind of gill, or even new food crops to thrive in different conditions of 2140?

    4. Education. I agree that education is present in this story largely by absence; you were right to point to Hexter’s advice to the boys not to go to school because they will be bored. But I also think you missed one more reference to education: somewhere in the middle of the book (prior to Amelia’s mention of loans that you quoted last week, I think in a conversation between Charlotte and her ex), there is a reference to the possibility that people will not pay back their student loans and one character says blithely, “Oh, no one pays those.” There’s a world in that comment. Clearly, higher education still exists, and the typical way to pay for it is still to borrow money. However, no one thinks student debt is shameful for others to carry, nor does anyone seem to suffer any consequences for defaulting. I infer that by 2140, the feds have taken over student lending, because the banks would never carry loans that they know will default, and the feds simply carry the unpaid loans as part of the national debt. In effect, the feds are giving grants and calling them loans. No doubt that is for political palatability. “We can’t shift this to grants,” says a policy wonk in 2053, “because people think students should have skin in the game. So let’s still call it loans, and just never collect! That won’t be a problem for the economy until, say, 2100, by which point we’ll be dead!” That also means that our higher ed colleagues in 2140 have probably not solved the cost problem.

    Of course, one can only go so far down these roads. To focus on finance and climate, Robinson necessarily excludes a lot of things from the picture (e.g. global economy, geopolitics, privacy, etc.). Still, this was a good read, and a fun subject for the club.

    • sibyledu says:

      Sorry, I meant to add one more theme that you did not discuss.

      5. The persistence of life. Frankly, I would be one of those folks who hightailed it for Denver after the First Pulse. I found myself wondering why anyone would stay in New York — or even migrate! — to live in those wretched conditions. And I think it’s a way for Robinson to say, “Look, it’s too late to prevent catastrophe. But even though our great-grandchildren will not be able to see the Pine Barrens or Charleston, SC, and they will have to fight and scrape every day for a miserable existence, they will still find a way to survive.” Which is also pretty comforting.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        5. That’s a very sweet thought. I read it at first as being about the powerful allure New York has exerted for centuries, even during bad times. Also about the way that cities are damned hard to kill.
        But yes, life finds a way.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thank you for these rich comments, sibyledu. I’m really glad the book worked well for you,

      1. I wonder if the political framework’s permanence was supposed to be cheering. We should ask KSR, next time we can.
      3. Agreed on biotech.
      4. Good catch! And agreed on this:” our higher ed colleagues in 2140 have probably not solved the cost problem.” Which horrified me. (Did you see my post wondering about when we’ll see the first six-figure tuition bill?)

  3. Pingback: Book Club — “New York 2140”, part four and wrap-up – Mike Richichi Dot Net

  4. Babette Kraft says:

    For technology, I got the sense from the novel that technology will not save us from bad habits or choices. Technology is a tool and really exerts its influence only in the direction we (humans) give it. Franklin’s eelgrass housing solution may eventually help New York but he arrived at his innovation only when he began thinking in the direction of a creating an investment and then was able to combine elements of that timeframe’s technology. I’m not sure if the novel suggests climate change can be prevented but technology prior to 2140 doesn’t seem to have been used to address environmental issues and so its too late by the time we as readers arrive to make changes. So in the context of this novel, I don’t think technology is meant to be a potential savior in the sense of other science fiction novels. Tools can’t save us from ourselves, lolz. Definitely seems like the novel relies on people working with people to save themselves from the financial crisis and the hurricane crisis.

    A heist story! I do see it now with the way the different characters and their unique skill sets come together to concoct and execute a plan. I’m still wondering what exactly did they steal though? The financial system? Did they steal that back for the people?

    Education, this one seems to really exist in the background. Higher education appears in the form of student loans (STILL?!!). And there doesn’t seem to be a formal k-12 system. Maybe education is its own issue and the novel wanted to focus on politics and finance? Or just from Stefan and Roberto’s experience, maybe the kids should be the one showing us how they learn best.

    Migration, I enjoyed the different versions of this theme, the humans and animal. With the animals it seemed like it was more of a discussion on natural vs human involvement. Like where is the line between “letting nature take its course” for example extinction may naturally occur or migration patterns changing over time, as opposed to, “human intervention” when say extinction may be cause by us or migration was forced due to global changes. Also, I think animals in the novel play the role of “nature.” So when Jeff and Mutt point out humans as “monkeys” that we really are social animals, its our return to what’s natural in us the “social human” aspect that gets us back on track. Human migration/immigration that seems like a “natural” factor too. Its just that the way societies deal with human movement in the novel that creates the problem seems to be the focus on the money not the people.

    Overall, I found it a fun read! Glad to have had a chance to participate. This book got me closer to completing my reading challenge for 2018 so I’m satisfied!

  5. PF Anderson says:

    Bryan, thank you so much for the list of tech! I’m still only half way through the book, so haven’t encountered all of these. I’m thinking, though, that the tech innovations that fascinated me most are ones that didn’t make it into your list. I’m still fascinated by the idea of doing an intentional and properly focused #technoread of this book (and his others, like the Mars Trilogy!). Perhaps even coming up with a spreadsheet or tool to make it easy to capture and catalog tech appearances and innovations as part of the the reading process! It would help me, for example, to track multiple appearances of the same tech, and different words or phrases for it. Like with the diamond film coating for waterproofing, which is brought up repeatedly, sometimes with different descriptions. I’m imagining having a column for brief quotes in context.

    I know you’ll ask which caught my eye that aren’t listed. The past couple years I’ve been deeply intrigued by what is being called “reverse innovation,” a concept about encouraging high-resource communities to partner with and engage low-resource communities in creating tech solutions that are sustainable, green, and transferrable. I was absolutely fascinated in NY2140 with how the low resource communities illustrated tech innovation in connection with problem solving and developing tech to support innovation to fill gaps in the culture. For example, the surfing scene at high tide in the streets/canals where the kids got involved in an activity parallel to skateboarding. And the almost-homeless guys (Jeff & Mutt) who used data tracking and AI as white hat hackers to almost take down the entire financial infrastructure.

    Also of interest in a technoread, the portrayal of tech failures, like when someone hung a shopping mall from 4 skyscrapers and almost knocked them over. And the concepts that combined into some of the pieces you did include, such as how “newglue” is an essential part of the graphenated composities, but … what is newglue? I did some digging online, and following what I’ve noted as Robinson’s standard process of using actual existing technologies as things that have been developed into functional and available forms, I’m thinking it’s probably one of the new glues that use electricity as a catalyst for setting, which makes them appropriate for underwater.

    That’s part of what blows my mind about Robinson’s books. Each one I read, the new tech he talks about is not stuff he’s making up out of wish fulfillment, it’s conceptually constructed from existing research trends. He’s just better at this than I am, and wraps them in a story. Blows. My. Mind. Reading the Mars Trilogy and tracking the actual rollout and availability of the tech he describes is actually happening on a timeline in the same sequence he predicted, but even faster.

    PS – I am intrigued by the views in Garth Hallberg’s Amazon review:

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