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 novels. Vanessa 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.
Alright. I just finished #NewYork2140. A few thoughts… 1/
— Daniel A. Zarrilli (@dzarrilli) July 3, 2017
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.
Bless you! YES!!! I realized I wanted it, but am too deep in to go back, try to do it now, and have any remote chance of keeping up.
— P. F. Anderson (@pfanderson) August 9, 2018
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.
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.
- 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?
- 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?
- How did humanity get past the deep problem of sunk costs, in its various meanings within the novel?
- Bill Benzon thinks the book is ultimately a heist story. Do you agree?
- Is the novel more about the 2008 financial crisis than about the year 2140, as one reader argues?
- 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)