New York 2140: part one

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!

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

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.

Chris Lott saw it as too thin in terms of plot and character.  Jason Green found the novel involving a lot of worldbuilding.

Summary

MetLife before the Pulses.

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.

Observations

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)
  • superscrapers
  • 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.

Questions

  1. 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?
  2. Education: what do you make of the boys’ adventure, combining archival work, community resources, and epic diving?
  3. 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?
  4. What ideas and practices are sunk costs?
  5. 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.

Coming up:

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.

(thanks to Phil Long, Tom Haymes, and Tim Lance for links and thoughts)

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37 Responses to New York 2140: part one

  1. Bill Benzon says:

    Love the Mutt and Jeff image, Bryan!

    Q: I wonder if Inspector Gen’s last name, “Octaviasdottir,” isn’t simultaneously a reference to Octavia Butler and an instantiation of Icelandic naming practice?

    I too have already read the book and have blogged about it, with my posts collected under the NY2140 tag at my blog.

    You don’t have to read very far into the book before you begin to suspect that each chapter is named after a character. As I am interested in form, and as the book lacks a TOC (at least the hardcover, don’t know anything about Kindle), I went through an listed them and I’ve collected them in an appendix to a post, New York 2140, Some notes about form and structure. I don’t think there’s anything spoilerish in there.

    In Part One (The Tyranny of Sunk Costs) we have eight chapters, each named after one of the central characters (or character pair, or collective character). Thereafter each Part has one or two pairs of chapters (though not adjacent) named after the same character. And that in turn implies that one, or in the case of Part Seven, major character does not get a named section. I don’t know if there’s any significance to that bit of (dis)order.

    (And why, you might ask, would I do such a thing? Because I can, and because I’m curious.)

    And the epigraphs, the epigraphs! Something is being sampled here.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Great point about Octaviasdottir.

      Re: chapter titles, indeed they are. My Kindle edition does have a ToC, and each one is titled by point of view character.

      Those epigraphs are rich and often funny. They feel like they’re spoken in the “citizen”‘s voice.

      PS: thank you so much for all of this blogging! Links in next post.

  2. Tom Haymes says:

    One thing that really strikes me about New York 2140 is the relative lack of technological change that has occurred. There is little mention of space travel. Instead, humanity has blithely settled into its watery cocoon.

    This novel is clearly a commentary on the impact of extreme wealth stratification. As it says, the 1% survive everything okay and are generally invisible to the story up to this point (I’m assuming Franklin and JoJo are not that wealthy). There’s a general “live and let live” attitude everywhere (with some hints that that situation may be changing). As a result, what we see is an almost communist-like freezing of economic development and innovation.

    I suspect that Robinson intends this as a commentary on wealth disparity being incompatible with innovation. Although on a very local level the boys seem intent on not accepting their lots in life, it seems as if most of the characters have accepted their status. Amelia is easily the most creative in her use of technology to have adventures but once you get beyond that, every character seems to have accepted life as it is. These lives, boats aside, are virtually indistinguishable from what life might be in 2018. The scales have changed somewhat but the roles are the same. Perhaps we are already in this mode of human existence.

    There seems to be no effective primary or secondary public education system in place. There are no truancy officers looking for the two boys and they are clearly having to teach themselves. However, mentions of Harvard and NYU indicate that higher education has survived at some level. Obviously, with the exception of Vlade and perhaps the old man, everyone here is blessed with a semi-elite education. This is also a commentary on the state of education today with an increasing gulf between have and have-nots when it comes to educational access and attainment.

    So far, I am a little incredulous that this would persist for 120 years. I saw quoted elsewhere that Robinson set the novel in 2140 for global warming effect as it will take that long for this level of impact to be felt. However, in many ways the other parts of the novel feel like they should be taking place in 2040, not 2140. In some ways this makes it more urgent and plausible, though (damn you, science!).

    • Bill Benzon says:

      “One thing that really strikes me about New York 2140 is the relative lack of technological change that has occurred. There is little mention of space travel.”

      Yes on both counts. Though I’m happy enough that we don’t have whiz-bang talking AI as in the Star Trek computer & Commander Data. But space travel, whatever happened to the fruits of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and others?

      • Tom Haymes says:

        There was no profit in it. It is the epitome of a non-liquid asset.

        • Bill Benzon says:

          Never got around to mining asteroids, eh?

          • Tom Haymes says:

            Too much initial investment and overhead. Why do it if you can maintain your position betting on human misery? New industries are also disruptive to the order that sustains you. I think that’s in large part why so little has changed in 120 years. The systems in this world would seem to tamp down on disruptive economic influences – hence little new innovation…

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            This might also be part of the author’s recent turn against space travel. His 2015 novel _Aurora_ concludes with a passionate denunciation of interstellar travel, and possibly of human spaceflight in general.

    • Bill Benzon says:

      “…it seems as if most of the characters have accepted their status.”

      But isn’t that most people, most times?

      • Tom Haymes says:

        Yes, but most speculative fiction (or fiction in general) tends to focus on the few that don’t. Even the apparent disruptors, Mutt and Jeff, almost seem to do what they do (0r seem to do) almost out of sense of boredom.

        This raises the interesting question: Does this novel have a protagonist? I’m not sure it does.

        • Bill Benzon says:

          “Does this novel have a protagonist?”

          Interesting question. And, having read the whole thing, I suspect you’re going to have a hard time finding a protagonist. So, just what kind of a novel IS this, then?

          • Steve Kaye says:

            Well, KSR even has an epigraph from John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer (which also influenced John Brunner in writing Stand on Zanzibar).

        • Babette Kraft says:

          Could the city, New York, be the protagonist in this case? Then the characters in the book would be aspects of its consciousness/personas? The title is New York 2140, lolz.

          • Bill Benzon says:

            Something like that.

            And that’s very important. Because, traditionally, classically, if you will, the novel as a form has centered on specific protagonists. The plot may have sprawled all over the place, but we had protagonists, e.g. Moby Dick, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, big sprawling baggy-ass novels, but with specific protagonists. And Samuel Delany’s Dahlgren into the mix. And look at science fiction movies, both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises center on specific characters; each film has one or two characters carry the story. For KSR to create a novel that is not only big and sprawling, but one that doesn’t have a protagonist, that’s significant.

            Other examples? I read his Mars trilogy years ago and don’t remember it at all well. What about Netflix Sense8, by the Wachowski’s? There we’ve got eight core characters.

          • Bill Benzon says:

            I posted a question to Samuel Delany on Facebook. Here’s his reply: “STORM (1941), FIRE (1948), and EARTH ABIDES (1949) are three novels without (human) protagonists, by George R. Stewart.”

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            First off, I’m blown away to have a Chip Delany intervention in this debate. He’s one of my heroes.

            Second, on sf novels without protagonists: not sure about EARTH ABIDES. Isn’t Ish the pov character?

            Third, NY2140 strikes me as a 19th-century social novel. A horde of characters from across the social spectrum, each giving us one perspective, combining into a kaleidoscope view. For a more recent example, consider the tv series The Wire. In which case I agree with Babette.

          • Tom Haymes says:

            I would say a 21st Century allegory. The further I get into the book (and I’m almost finished) the more he seems to be talking about what should have happened after 2008….

  3. Tom Haymes says:

    Oh, BTW, that’s the wrong Met Life “tower” in your pic. The one in the novel is on Madison Square. Here is the wikipedia article on it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Life_Insurance_Company_Tower

    • Bill Benzon says:

      Yes, that one started life as the Pan Am building and sits atop Grand Central Station.

      And you’re a New Yorker, Bryan!? 🙂

      And to be fair, though, I didn’t notice that glitch when I read your post. It said “Met Life” on the building, so that must be it. And yet, and yet, when I read the book, I looked “Met Life building” up in Wikipedia because it seemed as though the building in the book was too far south to be the one I see above Grand Central Station. So I actually knew what was going on, and promptly forgot it when I read your post.

      The mind sure does play funny tricks.

    • Tom Haymes says:

      One interesting aspect of the Met Life building is that is truncated. It was designed to be a 100 story building but construction was halted with the advent of the Great Depression. I’m wondering if this is a metaphor for human development in the world of NY 2140. Truncated by revenge of the climate in this case.

      • Bill Benzon says:

        “I’m wondering if this is a metaphor for human development in the world of NY 2140. Truncated…”

        I certainly noticed that this vision of 2140 is in many ways like our present world, just pulled and stretched here and there, & maybe compressed. But “truncated” is not a word that would have occurred to me. Maybe I was distracted because, really, there is A LOT going on in this novel.

        & maybe science fiction is giving us an unduly accelerated vision of the future (misoverestimation as it were). He Kubrick’s 1968 classic, “2002: A Space Odyssey”, travel to near space orbit was routine and we’d established a base on the moon. Yeah, yeah, I know, there was no internet in that movie. But the AI was way beyond anything we have even now, in 2018 and, as far as I can tell, nothing like HAL is on the immediate horizon. & meanwhile stagnation right now is a major theme of Tyler Cowen’s blog:

        https://marginalrevolution.com/?s=stagnation

        “Sunk costs, that could be almost everything in this novel.”–Babette Kraft

        & of course the pun on all that stuff’s that’s now under water.

        • Bill Benzon says:

          And all those mortgages that are now “under water” as a consequence of the financial collapse of 2008. Didn’t KSR say that the collapse was a major motivation for the novel?

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Thank you for the correction, Tom. NYC’s a big town.

          Bill, great link to Cowen.

          • This building is a few blocks from my office at the Baruch College “campus”. He describes it very accurately, and the fact that I’m in that area every workday brings a poignancy to the reading that makes it more real to me.

  4. Tom Haymes says:

    And here is a great Imaginary Worlds podcast interview with Robinson that I just re-listened to.

    https://www.imaginaryworldspodcast.org/new-york-2140.html

  5. Babette Kraft says:

    This is my first time reading the book and I never heard of it before the Book Club poll. I don’t think I ever would have picked this to read for myself so I’m glad to find I’m enjoying it. Thank you for pointing out all those lovely new and repurposed words! I considered making a list but decided I’d rather just enjoy them like characters in the book, lolz.

    I always have a hard time visualizing when authors describe physical locations and the topography of a landscape so I tend to breeze by those parts in books. Also, I’ve never been to New York so there’s no specific imagery to relate to when the author describes street locations and buildings. I don’t really recognize the specifics of the skyline in New York. Mentally, I’m just seeing a generic, high-rise city dilapidated and inundated with water. I love the skyways ideas and how Amelia floats around in a derigible. I know the focus is New York, but I’m really curious about those sky villages she mentioned!

    The first line: Whoever writes the code creates the value. I think the characters and their behavior represent different threads of thinking on this initial sentence, at least at this point: Jeff/Mutt, Franklin, Charlotte and possibly Jojo. The Jeff/Mutt pair they are the hackers, they make the initial statement and they set off a series of events (not yet known) with their initial cyberattack. Their sudden disappearance points to them both holding a certain sketchy value to shadowy figures in the book. Franklin, he used to quants (mathematicians/coders) to devise or create his IPPI which has proven financially valuable for himself and A LOT of people. Charlotte seems to be “ valueless” in that she works within a hybrid frame work of public/private codes and laws which render her “ nowhere” as well as the immigrants she works to assist. Jojo seemed to be similar in thinking to Franklin, but near the end of part two she seems to lean toward Social Justice issues like Charlotte, when she described the “low-income” neighborhood investments she was involved in refinancing.

    Sunk costs, that could be almost everything in this novel. I think most broadly its human civilization. The way humans persist in living in locations that are “dangerous” lolz. Could be considered madness at best? Let’s live in this place that we know will continue to collapse and flood, but we’ve invested hundreds of years into it so we must persist. The financial system seems to called into question. We know that its “fake” in some sense or would be illegal in any other context and there’s a consist pattern of failure but we are committed to it. Even my dear Amelia and the endangered species, the collapse of their ecosystems and animals drive to extinction (by humans no less) but we let’s relocate them and hope for the best. Literally, the treasure that the boys found in the ocean! The British and the boys now trying to receive gold that was sunk.

    My guess is these sprawling, buzzing narrative threads will meet up together in the end somehow. I think Charlotte’s ex husband Larry Jackman and Henry Visnon are tied to Galina Esteban in some dirty financial dealings which Gen will discover. I think, whoever is sabatoging the building wants the money the boys discovered. I think Jeff/Mutt are silly and just jumped the gun on something messing up his cousins nefarious plans so they were hidden away for safe keeping. Amelia please don’t get eaten by polar bears!! Jojo, what are you up to? I actually got the sense the Citizen was the real mastermind in all this mayhem.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Babette, thank you for a fantastic comment. Sunk costs: that phrase really does power the novel.

      And you’re right that many of these people will connect. I’ll resist spoilers. 🙂

  6. Pingback: New York 2140 | raptnrent.me

  7. Tom Haymes says:

    ONL Maps tweeted out this interesting map that shows what a 4 degree rise in temp would likely do to the planet. Timely.

    https://mapsontheweb.zoom-maps.com/post/162046709353/the-world-at-4-c-warmer

  8. Joe Murphy says:

    I’m quite enjoying the different voices Robinson uses, but I’m struck by one thing in particular. The only characters who address us directly are the manic New York chorus and Franklin, the trader. IIRC, the other narratives (while having distinct voices) are all told third-person. I don’t know what to make of that yet, but it feels like it means something.

    I don’t have a lot of New York geography knowledge myself. I’m finding myself much happier now that I’ve started consulting Google Maps to get my bearings.

    (Sidebar 1: Turns out Madison Square is the site of a rather vivid New York memory for me. Actually it’s that little sliver of not-quite-Madison Square carved off by Broadway… probably around 2010, I was pushing Calvin around in his stroller while Alison presented at a conference, and we ran into a childen’s music act there. They’d worked The Who’s intro from Captain Walker (from Tommy) into a children’s song, which is a wicked kind of reference.)

    (Sidebar 2: thanks to my local public library for providing me with an e-book. But Bluefire Reader, how about integrating a search tool into your app?)

    I’m having trouble figuring out the return of the dirigible. I suppose it’s a nod to peak oil, and those calculations we looked at in Soonish about how much fuel it takes to lift fuel off the ground. Clearly the society hasn’t actually slowed down; Franklin has his hovercraft and there’s plenty of discussion about which route or mode of transit will take longer. Yet here we are watching cargo slow down. Maybe it’s because of the number of airstrips which went underwater; being able to “land” vertically instead of horizontally might have a benefit. Or maybe dirigibles are kind of a niche, serving YouTubers and their audiences and vacationers the way luxury trains in the US serve PBS hosts and vacationers today.

    • Steven Kaye says:

      I’m wondering why sometimes chapters are “a citizen” and sometimes “that citizen.”

      Re: dirigibles – I suspect a combination of burning less fuel, being able to deliver to places with less infrastructure, and requiring less crew (see Amelia’s Frans). There’s already exploration today of autonomous or semi-autonomous ships – apart from the savings from needing less crew (and being able to carry more cargo), for some goods ships can move slower and burn less fuel (apologies if this was covered in Soonish, I haven’t read that).

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      What fine sidebars in a fine comment, Joe.

      Do you think the dirigible is a nod to the slow food etc. movements?

      • Joe Murphy says:

        That’s an interesting take. I was going something of an opposite direction, maybe closer to Steve’s. If we assume that the market still wants what it wants when it wants it, then to slow down cargo movement you have to increase the efficiency of the rest of the supply chain, maybe with more accurate algorithms predicting what needs to be in stock at any given place and time.

        (Actually, this all may be moot – I’m doing some research and finding that freight trains in the US only average 20-25 MPH. I think Amelia’s blimp is competitive for speed, if not capacity.)

        Though the food thing is an interesting component. Food at the Met doesn’t feel “slow” but it is hyper-local. Reminds me a little of an “Old New York” from the movies, with people in tuxedos going to their clubs for dinner…

  9. Bill Benzon says:

    BTW, Bryant. Chip Delany posts quite a bit on Facebook and is very approachable.

    On ensemble stories, what about Sense8?

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