This week begins our online book club‘s reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140.* We’re starting off with the first two parts, “The Tyranny of Sunk Costs” and “Expert Overconfidence.” Please join us in reading!
In this post I’ll offer a summary of the plot so far, followed by observations and questions for reading.
But first, let me pull together commentary and links from readers so far. Yes, people have been excited about this novel.
On the web: one political scientist published a Chronicle of Higher Education column arguing for academics to become climate change activists. A new report appeared arguing that major chunks of the North American internet will be endangered by rising sea levels within a generation.
On Twitter some criticism of the novel appeared. D’Arcy Norman found the book too detail-drenched.
No. I think he had a good plan. Just too many threads going on simultaneously (but it apparently pays off). Making each thread human means a lot of tiny details. That's a lot of stuff going on. Not hard to follow, but exhausting at times.
— D'Arcy Norman (@realdlnorman) July 19, 2018
Each “part” follows a swarm of characters, tracing events through their perspectives. They include: two rogue coders/hackers (Ralph Muttchopf and Jeff Rosen, a/k/a Mutt and Jeff), police inspector Gen Octaviasdottir, financier and quant Franklin Garr (named for Ben), the repurposed MetLife building‘s superintendent Vlade Marovich, the Met’s most frequent leader and also a lawyer (Charlotte Armstrong), wildlife activist/social media star/blimp rider Amelia Black, NYC mayor Galina Estaban, and two adventurous boys, Stefan and Roberto. We also meet “a citizen,” perhaps a stand-in for the author, more reliably a Greek chorus offering us plenty of information and commentary.
Right off the bat, just a few pages in, Mutt and Jeff launch a cyberattack on the global economy, then go missing, triggering local responses. Amelia Black flies into town then tries to relocate polar bears. Someone wants to buy the Met co-op, and not everyone likes the idea; leaks start to attack, too. Stefan and Roberto dive the Hudson for treasure, find a sunken British ship, and meet Franklin. Franklin falls in love with another trader. A tower collapses, and Franklin conducts a second rescue.
Worldbuilding happens quickly. We get immersed in the future city’s daily life through detailed travel above and across it, along with stories about how people live in it and the many ways of fighting off water. Between our present and the novel’s time two “Pulses” occurred, huge superstorms that swamped New York and the United States government resettled to Denver, Colorado.
I’ve been enjoying the novel’s sense of humor. It begins with a comic back and forth, then continues by adding sarcastic asides, like this:
Efficiency, n. The speed and frictionlessness with which money moves from the poor to the rich. (Kindle location 1036)
Our opening characters are references to a classic American comic strip.
There are, in fact, many references being hurled in all directions. The programmer Ken Thompson gets name-checked, as does Pluto the animated dog, “pynchonpoetry” (for the author Thomas Pynchon, Kindle location 1106), and more.
Robinson follows the classic science fiction practice of inventing new words or repuporsing old ones to show (in Eric Rabkin‘s phrase) a transformed world through transformed language. Once you start looking for these, you’ll see them:
- hotello (cheap, small hotel space: “rooms that could be packed into a suitcase. They were often deployed inside other buildings, being not very sturdy,” Kindle location 281)
- wetbits (digital currency backed by… weather futures?)
- blocknecklaces (a nice pun, I think, referring to blockchain and city block)
- intertidal aeration (rising real estate prices)
- wet equity (like sweat equity)
- waterbarn (for storing boats)
- “The greatest generation” now refers not to the Americans who lived through the Great Depression and WWII, but to those who kept NYC from destruction (1389).
Technology has advanced in some ways, although not so rapidly as it did in, say, the 20th century. There are new building materials (graphenated composites) leading to new construction, more ubiquitous mobile devices, spoken word interfaces.
Immigration is a key theme so far. Note how many of the characters, small and important, have recently come from other nations. Immigration controls seem tight (1255).
Capitalism and anticapitalism are also major, coupled themes.
- The novel’s first line invokes the connections between computer software and real life: “Whoever writes the code creates the value.” What is your sense of that connection so far?
- Education: what do you make of the boys’ adventure, combining archival work, community resources, and epic diving?
- New York 2140 is a social novel, using multiple and diverse characters to represent an entire society. What does this approach tell us so far? What would you like to learn more about?
- What ideas and practices are sunk costs?
- Taking this sprawling, buzzing mass together… where do you think it’s headed?
Two personal notes. First, I have read the novel before, and did not find the detail to be too much. Possibly that’s due to what I saw as a crackling energy racing through the book. I read Mutt and Jeff’s exchange as rapid fire. The citizen’s monologues seem to run down the pages, like a manic New Yorker in the proverbial hurry. I could hear Inspector Gen’s rooftop directions in the voice of a local.
Which brings me to my second note. I was born in New York and grew up there. I never sounded like it (I was very shy as a kid, and watched a lot of tv), but absorbed many attitudes. I talked more quickly than other people and was more politically engaged, if I can risk some stereotypes. I also had a darker view of human nature – that’s due to the experience of 1970s New York. So this novel speaks well to me.
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.
If you feel a bit swamped (sorry, couldn’t resist), 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. That includes the full story of this reading, along with our guide and process.
July 30 – Part Three. Liquidity Trap; Part Four. Expensive or Priceless?
August 6 – Part Five. Escalation of Commitment; Part Six. Assisted Migration
August 13 – Part Seven. The More the Merrier; Part Eight. The Comedy of the Commons
August 20 – leftover and concluding thoughts. This may include reactions to the 2018 Hugo award, scheduled to be given August 19th.
*Please use that link if you want to order a copy of the book. We get a small benefit from each purchase.