New York 2140: part four

Today we continue our online book club‘s reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140.*  We’re discussing the last two parts: “The More the Merrier” and “The Comedy of the Commons.”  Please join us in reading!

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

Today I’ll offer a summary of the plot so far, followed by observations and questions for reading.

But first, let me pull together online commentary and links from readers so far.

Mike Richichi blogged his thoughts about the novel so far, including the observation that perhaps the entire world received as “assisted migration” by the end, and offered examples of escalated commitment.

Mike also shared this fine glimpse of the Met from his morning commute:

Also on Twitter, Jen shares her thoughts:

From last week’s post, more comments: Babette Kraft reflects on assisted migration, building up to how the novel is about changing minds and hence about education.  Tom Haymes shares a grim bit of research arguing that the Earth is heading towards a tipping point into rapid climate change.  Bill Benzon wonders “How many science fiction narratives, stories, novels or films, are built around financial manipulation?”  We debate who’s to blame for climate change.

On his blog Bill Benzon identifies a beautiful and politically fascinating scene from the novel’s end, when Amelia takes Mutt and Jeff dancing in a small club.

But where’d it come from? That whole scene struck me as being uncharacteristic of the novel…

It’s as though KSR didn’t intend for it to happen, wasn’t part of his world building, but somehow at the very end a different world collided with KSR’s in that underground club and insisted on ending the story. There’s a counter narrative there, one about how such clubs came to be/continued to be…

He added on Facebook: “why stick it underground?”

Meanwhile, the latest United States Census data shows coastal populations steadily increasing.

Census data Atlantic Gulf coasts 2000-2016

One more point: some major internet connections now lie on or under certain coastal areas.  They may be inundated with water in twenty years or less.

Plot summary

A giant hurricane (Fyodor) clobbers New York for three days, causing terrible damage and destruction and which we see from every character’s perspective.  In the aftermath tensions boil up between homeless crowds and the semi-tenanted towers of the wealthy, and the plans for a financial strike go ahead. Private security outfits working for the oligarchy struggle with the New York Police Department.

Charlotte runs for Congress and blackmails her ex, the head of the Federal Reserve. Vlade and Idelba reconnect; Charlotte and Franklin connect.  New laws might turn elite housing into homes for the homeless.  A global movement nationalizes big banks and increases taxes on the wealthiest.  Inspector Gen and Mutt and Jeff quietly blackmail each other.  History keeps going. 

Another great photo from Bill Benzon – which he also labeled.


Animals become major drivers in the story.  They’ve been present since Amelia’s bears and Franklin’s tidal brainstorm, but now are more powerful.  A vision of many, many dead animals spurs Amelia to take a local revolution to the cloud and the world.  The boys spend time learning about animals after their muskrat adventure in the storm.

The theme of immigration morphs into one of homelessness after the storm. (Kindle \location 8340)  “[P]eople didn’t usually make great efforts to smuggle themselves into a disaster area.” (8349)

Education has been silent so far – as Mike Richichi puts it, “we see no mention of anyone participating in any sort of K-20 education” – finally makes an appearance in terms of student loans.  Amelia summons people everywhere to go on a debt strike, to declare a jubilee:

“What I mean by a householders’ strike is you just stop paying your rents and mortgages … maybe also your student loans and insurance payments. Any private debt you’ve taken on just to make you and your family safe. The daily necessities of existence.” (Kindle Locations 7977-7979; emphases added)

Our annoying citizen follows suit:

…even in Denver significant percentages of the population joined the various householders’ unions and refused to pay rents of all kinds, mortgages and student loans especially. (8047-8048).

The final political settlement includes free college education. (9107)

Technology: again we see uneven development.  Vlade follows a storm by checking NOAA’s web page (6810) (NOAA’s still around? only founded in 1970) and by using spreadsheets plus GANTT visualizations (7025).  Inspector Gen hopes for lifestraws, already in use now (7289). The Met’s farm uses “photovoltaic sheathing and paint” for power instead of solar cells, but also relies on generators, nondescript batteries, candles, and lanterns (6869ff).  People still watch telenovelas (7483).  Gunpowder weapons (assault rifles, laser scopes) are used alongside tasers.  Drones are still used (8276).

We get glimpses of new technology, but the innovations are often set aside, like this:

Some of the new stretchtech came from biomimicry, tricks learned from kelp beds or limpets or human fascia, and it was wonderfully effective, but relatively new and rare, and therefore expensive. (8382-8383)

It’s interesting to see digital technology downplayed as finance breaks down.  In turn, construction and agriculture become more important.  It’s as if politically progress is somehow technologically retrograde.

Some more fine language: “The great city was now a mass of rectilinear shadows, enduring under the flail of rain and wind.”  (7060)

I think hurricane Fyodor lasts for three days, after which, Christ-like, a new society arises.

Charlotte runs for Congress in a way that sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign:

My platform is similar to the left wing of the party’s current platform, you can check out the particulars if you like, the Rad Dems, but know that mainly I’m going down there to speak for intertidal people everywhere, and to speak against the global oligarchy every single day. I’m not taking campaign money from anyone and I don’t have any of my own, so I’m mostly doing this in the cloud… (8306-8309)


  1. Can the novel’s focus on immigration shed light on how to help the homeless?
  2. Thinking of the final section’s title, how did our protagonists and their allies avert a tragedy of the commons?
  3. Why does the novel end with that scene in the underground club?
  4. What aspects of life after climate change does the novel portray most effectively for you?
  5. Does New York 2140 leave you with a sense of urgency, a desire to act?
  6. How much of the novel is a reaction to our immediate history?  I’m thinking of how the 2008 financial crisis plays an important role in the story and echoes of the Democratic party’s subsequent left-center split.

NYC skyline, annotated: Bill Brenzon

What do you think?  Let us know in comments below.  Or share your thoughts on your own blogs, Twitter, or wherever you like.  I’ll harvest everything I can find with each week’s starting post – and ping me if you want to make sure I catch you.

…and that’s the end of our reading.  If you haven’t finished the book yet, don’t worry.  All blog posts for this reading are organized under a single tag, NewYork2140, so all of that content is available in one spot from now on.  That includes the full story of this reading, along with our guide and process.  These notes are there for you, and their attached comment boxes stand ready for your thoughts.

Coming up: we have one more post on August 20.  There I’ll offer some leftover and concluding thoughts and host more of yours.  This may include reactions to the 2018 Hugo best novel award, scheduled to be given August 19th, and for which New York 2140 is a nominee.

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

(thanks to Bill Benzon for more fine photos)

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11 Responses to New York 2140: part four

  1. Paul says:

    In reading New York 2140, I found myself thinking of connections to other books I had read in recent years. The Water Knife is obvious, of course. The dance scene at the end made me think of Blood Meridian and the Judge’s dance. The vision of oligarchy made me think of The Iron Heel. Maybe these connections only exist in my mind. There is a real contrast between the optimism in this novel and the darkness of the other two. Mutt and Jeff and Amelia helped incite a little revolution in the financial system, a small act of war. While the Judge celebrated war as an eternal and larger than life character, our NY characters are bit players, inexpert and clumsy, not even knowing the band, but realizing “there’s probably fifty bands like them playing tonight in this city. Dances like that going on right now, all over town.” It says to me that even the little guy can make a contribution towards making the world a little better, if only temporarily, and that a lot are trying. The vision of oligarchy is less oppressive and monolithic than London’s. The forces of law and order are not completely subservient, indeed even in conflict with the oligarchs. And there is conflict within the oligarchy that kept Mutt and Jeff from getting the full iron heel treatment.

    But mostly I want to look more into archy and mehitabel. They were briefly mentioned in passing, as if they’re common knowledge, yet the names were completely new to me.

  2. Bill Benzon says:

    The chapter is about Inspector Gen. An angry mob is heading for a plaza in front of one of the towers. Gen is with a contingent of police between the mob and the towers. Private security at the towers starts firing over people’s heads. Gen gets them to go inside and starts talking with their boss, now under arrest, whom she’d met a week earlier on the water. He’s thinking (p. 506):

    And it also looked like he was considering his options, not as this tower’s security head, but as an individual who could get sued or go to jail. Who had perhaps made mistakes, after being ordered to do an illegal and impossible thing, by bosses who did not care about him. Best options for himself, he was now considering.

    By way of comparison, Douglas Rushkoff was recently paid “about half my annual professor’s salary” to talk with “five super-wealthy guys…from the upper echelon of the hedge fund world.”

    Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska? Is Google really building Ray Kurzweil a home for his brain, and will his consciousness live through the transition, or will it die and be reborn as a whole new one? Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”

    The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.

    Had they been reading NY2140? But why would they need to have read the book to think in those terms?

  3. Bill Benzon says:

    FWIW, concerning the ancient and honorable concept of Jubilee, from David Graeber’s Debt (pp. 81-82):

    The problem was that Nehemiah quickly found himself confronted with a social crisis. All around him, impoverished peasants were un­ able to pay their taxes; creditors were carrying off the children of the poor. His first response was to issue a classic Babylonian-style “clean slate” edict-having himself been born in Babylon, he was clearly fa­ miliar with the general principle. All non-commercial debts were to be forgiven. Maximum interest rates were set. At the same time, though, Nehemiah managed to locate, revise, and reissue much older Jewish laws, now preserved in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, which in certain ways went even further, by institutionalizing the principle.19 The most famous of these is the Law of Jubilee: a law that stipulated that all debts would be automatically cancelled “in the Sabbath year” (that is, after seven years had passed), and that all who languished in bondage owing to such debts would be released.

  4. Bill Benzon says:

    So, here I am reading along in the Stefan and Roberto chapter of Part Eight: Comedy of the Commons. And I come upon this (p. 543):

    Maps were great; they were pictures of places from a bird’s eye view, easy to comprehend. Mr. Hexter wanted Amelia Black to give them a ride so they would be able to see how much the land looked like the map of it when you were up at the bird’s level.

    Says I to myself – for that’s how I like to write these kinds of things – says I to myself, “that’s got to be an allusion to a passage from Tom Sawyer Abroad, a lesser Mark Twain tale set in the time after Huck Finn, you know, when they’d lit out for the territory. The story is told to us by Huck and is about how Tom and Huck went adventuring in a hot air balloon. This is from the opening of chapter 3 and, as you’ll quickly see, it’s about map reading:

    WE went to sleep about four o’clock, and woke up about eight. The professor was setting back there at his end, looking glum. He pitched us some breakfast, but he told us not to come abaft the midship compass. That was about the middle of the boat. Well, when you are sharp-set, and you eat and satisfy yourself, everything looks pretty different from what it done before. It makes a body feel pretty near comfortable, even when he is up in a balloon with a genius. We got to talking together.

    There was one thing that kept bothering me, and by and by I says:

    “Tom, didn’t we start east?”


    “How fast have we been going?”

    “Well, you heard what the professor said when he was raging round. Sometimes, he said, we was making fifty miles an hour, sometimes ninety, sometimes a hundred; said that with a gale to help he could make three hundred any time, and said if he wanted the gale, and wanted it blowing the right direction, he only had to go up higher or down lower to find it.”

    “Well, then, it’s just as I reckoned. The professor lied.”


    “Because if we was going so fast we ought to be past Illinois, oughtn’t we?”


    “Well, we ain’t.”

    “What’s the reason we ain’t?”

    “I know by the color. We’re right over Illinois yet. And you can see for yourself that Indiana ain’t in sight.”

    “I wonder what’s the matter with you, Huck. You know by the COLOR?”

    “Yes, of course I do.”

    “What’s the color got to do with it?”

    “It’s got everything to do with it. Illinois is green, Indiana is pink. You show me any pink down here, if you can. No, sir; it’s green.”

    “Indiana PINK? Why, what a lie!”

    “It ain’t no lie; I’ve seen it on the map, and it’s pink.”

    You never see a person so aggravated and disgusted. He says:

    “Well, if I was such a numbskull as you, Huck Finn, I would jump over. Seen it on the map! Huck Finn, did you reckon the States was the same color out-of-doors as they are on the map?”

    “Tom Sawyer, what’s a map for? Ain’t it to learn you facts?”

    Is KSR pulling our legs about something or another?

  5. Bill Benzon says:

    A question about KSR’s fiction: This book is very ‘meta’, that is, very ‘aware’ of being a fiction–all those epigraphs (esp. the one attributed to Picasso, “Art is not truth…”), the allusions to other texts, the remark at the end about no happy endings, the talk about representation–is this typical of KSR’s books?

  6. Bill Benzon says:

    And another thing…KSR, 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. Some readers can’t make that merger happen, so they don’t like science fiction; it shimmers irreally, it gives them a headache. But relax your eyes, and the results can be startling in their clarity.

  7. Babette Kraft says:

    These last two section had interesting themes. One it seems like “The More the Merrier” plays into this sense of community as an aspect of democracy. Amelia says, “because at this point it’s democracy vs capitalism. We the people have to band together..” In terms of politics, a democracy of the people is the good fight. It’s the financial system that’sthe enemy. (Just read Mr. Hexter’s tale of the zombie making vampires.) Jeff says, “Self-reliance, my ass. We’re f’in monkeys. It’s always about teamwork.” And then the description of the Beaver dam, which “anchors the whole community). I wonder who represents thebeaver in the story? Who builds community? Maybe Charlotte?
    The underground club scene, I think is related to finding or feeling like a member of society or belonging. Amelia tells Roberto and Stefan about how she was isolated from people for seven years. She mentions, “Some bad things had happened and I just wanted to get away.” Jeff and Mutt comment about their trauma that it’s nice being outside and that feeling may never go away. I think Amelia in her way recognized in the two the feelings of isolation associated with that trauma and she showed them a small way back into finding wholeness and integration within the community of New York.

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

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