New York 2140: part three

Today we continue our online book club‘s reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140.*  We’re discussing two parts: “Escalation of Commitment” and “Assisted Migration.”  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.  If you haven’t read the novel yet, you might want to avoid this post if you’re leery of spoilers.

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

Mike Richichi blogs about his reactions, including observations about infrastructure, technology, and today’s politics.

Many, many comments flowed like the risen Hudson from last week’s post.  A few to savor:

  • Babette Kraft notes the link between a section title (about value and price) and its contents (personal and urban backstories).
  • We continued to discuss the uneven or relatively low level of technological development.
  • A major article about climate change and failed attempts to address it appeared in the New York Times. (thanks, Tom)
  • Steven Kaye thinks Mr. Hexter echoes British historian J.H. Hexter.

Bill Benzon blogs about his views of the city, offering several terrific photos of downtown, including the Met.  For example:

NYC with Met_Bill Benzon

Summary

It’s winter, so New York ices up until a February thaw.  Idelba (Vlade’s ex) successfully extracts gold from under the Hudson using a giant dredge, much to Stefan and Roberto’s delight.  Vlade then discovered and helped free Mutt and Jeff from a hostage box.  We learn more about Henry Vinson, a shady trader.  The Met co-op’s population narrowly rejects a buy-out offer.  Most of our characters brainstorm what to do with the discovered gold.  Amelia survives another accident, then tours Greenland and Siberia.

Mr. Hexter tells the boys a Herman Melville/smuggling/ghost story (referencing the Moby Dick chapter “The Line“), which inspires them on a new project.  Franklin rescues them again and works on his floating building project.  Inspector Gen tries to close in on Vinson.  Our characters’ brainstorm for dealing with the gold has become a revolutionary effort to decapitate or reboot the global economy. The boys head out on the water once more, but run into a rising storm, and our selection ends there.

Observations

The politics are now openly revolutionary and anticapitalist.

We see more technology in these chapters, I think.  There are underwater sleds riding subway tunnels (Kindle 4800), hostage boxes (4819), “milk of amnesia” inducing memory loss (4917),  remotely operated submarines (5010),  “giant robot freighter airships” (5542),  skyvillages (5543), containerclippers (5630), and “mayflies” (little recording devices, I infer) (5721).  Visual surveillance has expanded quantitatively since our time, or at least the police have:

“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)

People still use personal response systems, a/k/a clickers (5041).  Automation of human work didn’t happen (5777). Most meat eaten by humans is artificially created (5796).

I enjoyed some passages, like “…the middle of the glaucous cronking of the upsuck…” (4699) and “‘We persist in living,’ Jeff said sardonically.”  (5080)  “Vlade the derailer” is a goofy pun that still makes me smile (5208). “Escher Protection Services” is a great name for a security firm (6259).

Henry Vinson is the novel’s only villain that’s a character and human being.  He has a lot of heavy lifting to do, and he has come too late in the tale, from my rereading.  Bill has some thoughts on this.

NYC Met _Bill Benzon

Questions

  1. “Assisted migration” is a theme from the book’s first section, and it keeps returning throughout (35 times by my count).  What do you think the term means at this point in the novel?  How many senses does it have?  Who assists whom?
  2. Education: still no sign of formal education.  Is the book celebrating informal learning?
  3. Escalation of commitment is when people double down on sunk costs.  Where do you see this in your world?
  4. Charlotte gives a speech against a certain kind of economy (it starts “Fuck money…”, 5048).  Is this the book’s idea?  Do you agree?

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:

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.

(NYC photos by Bill Benzon)

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17 Responses to New York 2140: part three

  1. There have been references to where some of the lead characters went to college or earned their MBAs, but nothing about anyone in the book currently being educated.

  2. Tom Haymes says:

    After reading the NYT article, it’s hard not to become truly pessimistic. But if you needed any help, this article would indicate that 2140 might actually be wildly optimistic on the climate change front.

    https://m.phys.org/news/2018-08-earth-hothouse-state.html

    One other thing to consider is our collective ability to respond to these activities. It’s interesting to see how KSR plays with the ability (or inability) of humans to collectively change. An interesting read on this subject is Donella Meadows’s “Leverage Points” at http://donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/

    Perhaps the villain is ourselves – but our collective selves….

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good catches, Tom.

      I think Robinson would disagree about the villain. Here it’s the oligarchy plus the hegemonic system we participate in.

      • Bill Benzon says:

        Naomi Klein’s response to the NYT article, Capitalism Killed Our Climate Momentum, Not “Human Nature”: https://theintercept.com/2018/08/03/climate-change-new-york-times-magazine/

        According to Rich, between the years of 1979 and 1989, the basic science of climate change was understood and accepted, the partisan divide over the issue had yet to cleave, the fossil fuel companies hadn’t started their misinformation campaign in earnest, and there was a great deal of global political momentum toward a bold and binding international emissions-reduction agreement. Writing of the key period at the end of the 1980s, Rich says, “The conditions for success could not have been more favorable.”

        And yet we blew it — “we” being humans, who apparently are just too shortsighted to safeguard our future. Just in case we missed the point of who and what is to blame for the fact that we are now “losing earth,” Rich’s answer is presented in a full-page callout: “All the facts were known, and nothing stood in our way. Nothing, that is, except ourselves.”

        Yep, you and me. Not, according to Rich, the fossil fuel companies who sat in on every major policy meeting described in the piece. (Imagine tobacco executives being repeatedly invited by the U.S. government to come up with policies to ban smoking. When those meetings failed to yield anything substantive, would we conclude that the reason is that humans just want to die? Might we perhaps determine instead that the political system is corrupt and busted?)

        This misreading has been pointed out by many climate scientists and historians since the online version of the piece dropped on Wednesday. Others have remarked on the maddening invocations of “human nature” and the use of the royal “we” to describe a screamingly homogenous group of U.S. power players. Throughout Rich’s accounting, we hear nothing from those political leaders in the Global South who were demanding binding action in this key period and after, somehow able to care about future generations despite being human. The voices of women, meanwhile, are almost as rare in Rich’s text as sightings of the endangered ivory-billed woodpecker — and when we ladies do appear, it is mainly as long-suffering wives of tragically heroic men.

        All of these flaws have been well covered, so I won’t rehash them here. My focus is the central premise of the piece: that the end of the 1980s presented conditions that “could not have been more favorable” to bold climate action. On the contrary, one could scarcely imagine a more inopportune moment in human evolution for our species to come face to face with the hard truth that the conveniences of modern consumer capitalism were steadily eroding the habitability of the planet. Why? Because the late ’80s was the absolute zenith of the neoliberal crusade, a moment of peak ideological ascendency for the economic and social project that deliberately set out to vilify collective action in the name of liberating “free markets” in every aspect of life. Yet Rich makes no mention of this parallel upheaval in economic and political thought.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Klein seems closer to Robinson, or at least the characters in this novel. Doesn’t the “citizen” refer to disaster capitalism in a way that recalls her Shock Doctrine?

  3. Bill Benzon says:

    I’ve got a simple question: How many science fiction narratives, stories, novels or films, are built around financial manipulation? Is this the only one, or are there, say, a half dozen others?

    • Tom Haymes says:

      Without giving away too much The Expanse series deals with a lot of economic issues and how those are impacted by extra-human events.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Great question. Not many.

      Charlie Stross’ _Accelerando_ had finance as a running theme. Apparently so do two other novels of his, _Saturn’s Children_ and _Neptune’s Brood_.

      I’ve been pointed to _Hostile Takeover_ by Susan Shwartz, but don’t know the book.

      Neal Stephenson’s strange _Cryptonomicon_ might fit the bill.

      • Tom Haymes says:

        I hadn’t considered Cryptonomicon. What about Diamond Age? I believe that had a finance element to it as well. And let’s not forget Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and FreedomTM.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          For Diamond Age I just forget everything beyond the Primer. Is it worth returning to?

          The Suarez novels are delightful. Hm, not sure about finance per se. Economic restructuring does happen.

          • Tom Haymes says:

            The Daemon in Suarez’s book uses financial manipulation as one of the key tools for its takeover of the system as well as a mechanism for manipulating humans. It’s not the central plot point but it’s arguably central to the overall story. Suarez does a good job of showing just how fictional our financial systems are and this is basically the same point that KSR makes.

            The financial aspect of “Diamond Age” is not as central to the plot but the financial system of Stephenson’s near future world certainly relies heavily on high finance and this is a key tertiary plot point to the story. I’d say it was less critical to the story. There is also Stephenson’s short story that connects “Diamond Age” with “Snow Crash” that has a heavy financial bent and certainly focused on financial manipulation: “The Great Simoleon Caper” (pdf here: http://www.electricinca.com/56/stephenson/simoleon.pdf). I’d say that alternative financial systems are explored in much of Stephenson’s work. How far you to interpret that as “manipulation” is certainly debatable.

  4. bill benzon says:

    I realize that Hoboken is at the periphery of this story, but it happens to be a periphery where I live. I’ve just read references to “the giant towers of the city and Hoboken to each side” and to the “Hoboken docks” (“Stefano and Roberto” in Part Six) and am wondering what KSR imagined to be there. Probably not much. Yes, it would be possible and the highest part of Hoboken, it turns out, is near the water, not further inland. But there’s not much of it. Here’s a map (http://betterwaterfront.org/?page_id=2350) that places 79% of the city in a flood zone, and that flood zone is less stringent than a 50 rise.

  5. Pingback: Book Club — “New York 2140”, part three – Mike Richichi Dot Net

  6. Babette Kraft says:

    Phew, caught up on my reading finally! Well enough to post a response. Yes, a heist story! I finally get it!😎
    For the theme of “assisted migration,” the book in this section could refer to Franklin’s investment in the floating housing. He’s helping city dwellers migrate from the current living situation, decaying and collapsing structures, to a method that is potentially more sustainable. There’s also the earlier sense of the phrase, with Amelia andher polar bears. In her case, humans assisting animals to preserve/extend their lives. In another sense, “gentrification” with its not so friendly use of the word “assists” (or forces) residents of a certain area to migrate or leave for the profit of other humans. This is what Charlotte is trying to prevent from happening to their co-op building. Also, nature has been assisting humans and animals in migrating since the ice age.

    Learning and adapting seem to be important to the novel. The novel seems to rail against systems that people “double down” on that serve no other function than profit such as the villaneous financial system. Maybe education as an institution falls in this category? It doesn’t seem like learning has anything to do with a formal education in the novel. Amelia turns to her recorded lectures not necessarily for new ideas, but for comfort. Inspector Gen prefers to rely on her intuition for problem-solving and Franklin’s “eureka” moment about the eelgrass the flavor of intuition. My guess is that social learning is important to the novel. Roberto and Stefan learn a great deal through exploration and are can be very self-directed but Mr. Hexter is really the one inpiring their pursuits of the Hussar and Herman Melville. Inspector Gen needs Olmstead to bounce ideas off of when she doesn’t have her whiteboard and Franklin goes to Hector Ramirez to share his idea and get his input. Just look at the tiny meeting that takes place just to decide on the best course of action for the treasure. It’s among several of the main characters, each contributing what they “know” that leads to them hatching a plan. I think that’s also what the heist imagery is referring to here (other than the financial aspect). People have skills and knowledge that they contribute and those involved in the exchange can learn from it. I think that’s what Amelia learned when people saved her and then she saved the sky village in return and her final thoughts were people need to organize!

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