New York 2140: part two

Today we continue our online book club‘s reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140.*  We’re discussing two parts: “Liquidity Trap” and “Expensive or Priceless?”  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 online commentary and links from readers so far.  There has been a lot of discussion.

Welcome to Jen!  On Twitter she offered a fine visual as she prepared to dive in:

(And you are very welcome here.)

Conversation buzzed all over last week’s post, with twenty-six (26) comments (not from me) as of this morning.  I can’t summarize the whole discussion because it’s too rich.  Just click through and dive in, like Stefan and Roberto.  However, I can pull out a few thoughts that struck me:

  • Technological development seems to have slowed since our era. Most tech in 2140 is either what we have now or just a little advanced.
  • Lots of fine close reading from Bill Benzon, Joe Murphy, and Steven Kaye.
  • Babette Kraft observed in a very rich comment that the book’s first section’s title, “The Tyranny of Sunk Costs,” is quite important.  It “could be almost everything in this novel.”
  • Tom Haymes thinks I identified the wrong Met tower, and offers this one instead:


Tom also spotted this scary map of the world after a 4 degree temperature rise:

The world at 4°C warmer.

On Facebook Scott Butki and Patricia F. Anderson found three quotes they especially liked.  One was:

She kept her eyes on the famous investor, speaking beauty to power, which is perhaps more common than speaking truth to power, and definitely more effective. (page 12; Kindle location 404).

Another was passionate and self-referential:

[Climate scientists] published their papers, and shouted and waved their arms, and a few canny and deeply thoughtful sci-fi writers wrote up lurid accounts of such an eventuality, and the rest of civilization went on torching the planet like a Burning Man pyromasterpiece. Really. That’s how much those knuckleheads cared about their grandchildren, and that’s how much they believed their scientists, even though every time they felt a slight cold coming on they ran to the nearest scientist (i.e. doctor) to seek aid.  (page 140; Kindle location 2203)

A third referred to an “accompanying refugee crisis, which, using the unit popular at the time, was rated as fifty katrinas.”  (page 140; Kindle location 2187) This is another example of the transformed language we discussed last week.

On Twitter Patricia added another fine quote, this time from an excerpt:

(Can someone find me the Mayakovsky in Russian, so I can see how this translation holds?)

Meanwhile, author Bill Benzon has a series of amazing posts on the novel here.  I’m going to refer to them from here on.  Please read ’em.

Raptnrent blogged about the novel, including approving notes about the audiobook version.  There are some bits online, like this:

Rap. also responds to last week’s criticisms of the characters as thin, like so:

The characters seem rather stock, but I don’t think that’s a problem. They’re more important for what they represent rather than who they are. It contributes to the lightness and humor of the novel as well.

Last but not least, Tom Haymes also shared a good podcast interview with Robinson about this novel.

Whew.  That was a busy week.  Now on to this week!


The novel continues its practice of following a swarm of characters, tracing events through their perspectives.

Mutt and Jeff have been kidnapped by forces unknown. Vlade and Franklin rescue Stefan and Roberto again, then help them dive some more for buried treasure. Amelia has bear issues in her blimp, then in Antarctica.  The mysterious offer to buy the Met unfolds a little, while water leaks threaten.  Charlotte meets with her ex, who now runs the United States Federal Reserve.  Franklin becomes disappointed in his love affair, but has a vision of a new way to build houses on water, plus an investor.

We learn more about the world, including the history of the Pulses, along with a scene of water sumo.


References continue being hurled in all directions. Stefan and Roberto get to read Huck Finn, appropriately (2969).  Franklin uses Karl Marx’s “M-C-M'” formulation without attribution (4256).

More examples of 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: “pikettied” (for Thomas Piketty; 2375), “lethemlucidity” (4170; presumably after this writer).  I also enjoyed learning the word mulm (3803).

Technology notes: air travel has declined, or at least moved away from jets (3428).  Medicine allows replacement of stomach linings (3544). There’s some criticism of cloud computing:

Lots of people were simply without papers or any cloud documentation; it was hard to believe until you met them by the hundreds and eventually the thousands, day after day for years. The cloud’s Very Bad Day in the aftermath of the Second Pulse 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.(Kindle location 3417)

The city’s transportation system is impressive and relies on some new ideas, but Bill Benzon thinks it probably wouldn’t work.

Immigration remains a major theme, as does the duality of capitalism and anticapitalism.  As an example of the latter, the citizen offers this glimpse of downtown as something radical:

Hegemony had drowned, so in the years after the flooding there was a proliferation of cooperatives, neighborhood associations, communes, squats, barter, alternative currencies, gift economies, solar usufruct, fishing village cultures, mondragons, unions, Davy’s locker freemasonries, anarchist blather, and submarine technoculture, including aeration and aquafarming. Also sky living in skyvillages that used the drowned cities as mooring towers and festival exchange points; containerclippers and townships as floating islands; art-not-work, the city regarded as a giant collaborative artwork; blue greens, amphibiguity, heterogeneticity, horizontalization, deoligarchification; also free open universities, free trade schools, and free art schools. Not uncommonly all of these experiments were being pursued in the very same building. (Kindle location 3240)


  1. What kind of novel is this, without a clear protagonist?  Babette Kraft suggests that NYC is the protagonist.
  2. Bill Benzon thinks the book is ultimately a heist story.  Do you agree?
  3. What does the opening frame of sunk costs tell us by this point of the book?
  4. The citizen describes a vast social experiment going on downtown (“a proliferation of cooperatives, neighborhood associations, communes, squats, barter…”).  Does this seem like the novel’s politics?
  5. Do the characters and plots work for you, or is the novel at this point what one critic and sf writer thought: “2140 is a textbook rather than a science-fictional possibility”?  Related: is there a villain in the story?  (sf writer Adam Roberts doesn’t think so.)
  6. What do you make of this observation from the citizen?  “History is humankind trying to get a grip. Obviously not easy. But it could go better if you would pay a little more attention to certain details, like for instance your planet.” (2297)
  7. Is the novel more about the 2008 financial crisis than about the year 2140, as one reader argues?

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 under water at this point (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 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 Beyond My Ken for the Met photo and to our splendid discussants)

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28 Responses to New York 2140: part two

  1. Bill Benzon says:

    Caveat: For those who are sensitive about spoilers, you might want to avoid my heist story post as it is a close reading of a passage from the book that is about a 100 pages or so beyond this week’s readings.

  2. Bill Benzon says:

    While I’m one of those who was a bit surprised at the state of technology in that world. But I’m not at all sure what to make of that.

    Just how are we to judge such matters? How does the world of NY2140 compare with that of Blade Runner 2019 or Ready Player One (set in 2045)? Elon Musk is talking of a human mission to Mars within 10 years. Really? FWIW I think that’s more plausible that a computer with super-human intelligence in 100 years, or perhaps even ever.

    In the mid-1970s I was doing doctoral work in the English Department at SUNY Buffalo and learning computational semantics in the Linguistics Department with David Hays (a first generation researcher in machine translation). For three years I read widely in the technical literature of computational linguistics, AI, library and information science, and cognitive science and then prepared abstracts for what was then The American Journal of Computational Linguistics. No one was anticipating what corpus linguistics (“big data”) would be accomplishing 20 and 30 years in the future.

    At the same time, based on my own work, I was expecting that by the turn of the millennium we would have computer simulations of language robust enough to read Shakespeare in some undefined but non-trivial sense of the word “read”. There was nothing like that in 2001; there isn’t anything like it now; and I don’t see anything on the horizon.

    How do we judge these things?

    • Tom Haymes says:

      Futuring is a general subject and it almost never works on the particulars. That’s because it cannot truly anticipate black swans. For instance, if we had taken the trillion dollars we’d spent on the “War on Terror” after 9/11 and spent it on education or other projects, what would the world look like?

      To me, it’s about the technological mindset changing very little. although as I get further into the book, I’d say it changed more than I originally thought. Perhaps, it’s just that technology is evolving at a more sustainable pace. The state of computing technology certainly hasn’t obeyed Moore’s Law over the intervening 120 years.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Tom and Bill, unless I misunderstand you, you seem to be making two different arguments.
        Tom sees the overall spectrum of innovation as flattened, while Bill argues that it’s a question of which areas experience rapid development.
        Is that close?

        • Bill Benzon says:

          I choose particular areas because those are things I happened to think about. Accidents of my personal trajectory, nothing more.

          Still, just how do we judge the pace of imagined change? On the one hand we can judge KSR’s future against the futures posited in other science fiction? If not that, then what?

          When I was thinking that the tech of NY2140 didn’t seem all that futuristic, what was the standard? I don’t know. On the other hand, the water level seemed a bit high, and KSR admitted as much in an interview somewhere.

        • Tom Haymes says:

          I would say that is close.

          All good speculative fiction (and I prefer Neal Stephenson’s term over the more commonly used one – especially with regard to this volume) is really about the realities of today transposed on a vision of tomorrow. This is really true in this book. You have essentially the economic-educational-political system of today with a single kicker – the sea level rise – as an intervening variable.

          Does that make this outcome more likely over the time scale it supposes? I don’t know. I think it comes down to whether you have a progressive or reactionary mindset. If you are progressive, you believe that human beings will evolve to see the world in different ways. If you are reactionary you believe that fundamental structures are unalterable. You can have progressive yearnings and still believe in the reactionary trajectory. I think KSR might fall into this group.

          My own personal take on this, is that we had better figure out the issues that KSR is confronting long before 120 years elapse or we will have a broader social collapse than the one described in the book. Societies, over the long term, do not Abide (like “The Dude”) they start to fray and then crumble.

          KSR’s society has “abided” for a lot longer than I think is socially feasible. It’s possible that KSR truncated technological developed so as not to give us a technological escape valve for our frustrations such as Cline does in “Ready Player One” but that’s precisely what I find so unbelievable about the overall scenario. I know that an adherence to science has dictated his timeline but I don’t think it is plausible on the social/technological front to wait that long for these kinds of pressures to exceed society’s ability to constrain them.

          On the broad technological front, I wrote last year in response to one of your blogs that, while we still don’t have our flying cars, the amount of invisible technological change we’ve seen in our lifetimes (I don’t know how old Bill is) is much more substantial than we give it credit for. (The Hidden Future: While I don’t necessarily think that Cline’s vision of the future is the logical outcome of this evolution, I think it does offer a very wide range of evolutionary social outlets that make changes on the margins more likely – thereby diffusing the revolutionary pressures that may be emerging. Of course, I may also be hopelessly naive.

          • Bill Benzon says:

            Lots of stuff here.

            1) On my age, I was 10 when Sputnik was launched in 1957. That was the first event that was both personally important to me and a world-historical event. A year or three after that I was picking a spot in the backyard for the family fallout shelter, though one never materialized. I can’t imagine how I ever typed my dissertation on a manual electric typewriter.

            The collapse of the Soviet Union took me by surprise. But I didn’t drink any of the subsequent ‘end of history’ Kool-Aid.

            2) If you look around on the web you’ll find that John von Neumann was the first one to use the term “singularity” to refer to a historical moment. But he didn’t have any specific event in mind, certainly not the coming of a super-intelligent computer. He simply meant a point after which the world is forever changed; we can’t go back. In those terms I have been playing around with the idea that we are now living in the Singularity. There are no magical super-intelligent computers in the future to either save us or destroy us. & what we’ve got right now is pretty remarkable.

            3) I’m with you, Tom, on social collapse. Though really, I don’t know. KSR gives us a world that’s survived two “pulses” as he calls them. I believe he’s said in an interview that he didn’t want to write a disaster novel so he deliberately put the disasters in the past. What if he had situated his novel in one of those pulses, would he have been able to bring the social order through it more or less in tact?

            Then we have de Tocqueville’s observation from The Ancient Regime and the Revolution: revolutions happen, not when things are at their worst, but when things are getting better, but not fast enough to keep up with rising expectations.

          • Tom Haymes says:

            Bill, “rising expectations” – you mean like now? 😱

            I am 20 years younger than you. My “seminal” societal technology event (aside from the acquisition of our first PC- an Apple ][+ in 1981) was probably the Challenger blowing up in 1986. There is a literature in political science that says that leaders (and thinkers) are shaped by such events. It sprung up from the theory that we got into Vietnam because the leaders there were shaped by the appeasement that led up to World War II. It might be interesting to look at technological thinking in the same way. (I’m sure it’s been done.) I wonder how much of the “divergence” of our world views on this come from the dichotomy of Sputnik —> NASA —> Moon Landing versus PC —> Challenger (big science will fail) —> Internet. Your disappointment with AI may be because you view it as a failed Big Tech project whereas my analysis often revolves around small victories on the margins. This may be a generational difference.

            KSR (b. 1952) is closer to your temporal zone than mine. I wonder what that means. 🤔

          • Bill Benzon says:

            You misread me on AI, Tom. No real disappointment and I certainly don’t think of AI as “a failed Big Tech project”. I’d formed certain expectations and they didn’t pan out, that’s all.

            I’ve never thought that AI would someday deliver real honest-to-Jake human intelligence. In fact, I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of AI as a bunch of unprincipled hackers. To some extent I got that from my teacher, Dave Hays. He thought of computational linguistics as engaged in serious scientific inquiry into the nature of language and the mind, where science implies empirical evidence and well-motivated theory. AI language folks, on the other hand, seemed more interested in getting a computer program to work regardless of the underlying motivation.

            I’m not even sure when I first noticed that my Shakespeare reader wasn’t coming through. By the turn of the century I’d become immersed in writing a book on music that had me all excited with ideas the like of which I never thought I would have.

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            I wonder if we should explore these personal technology autoethnographies. They’re easy and delightful to make and share.

  3. Tom Haymes says:

    I am still fascinated by the lack of any sort of an educational discussion in this book. I think it may be intentional. The world seems to be divided between those that “have” education and those that “have not” education.

    That makes sense. If education is a great equalizer it would have little role to play in this world. Of the main characters, Charlotte and Franklin seem to have a high level of education (Charlotte is a lawyer after all). Amelia and Mr. Hexter might (although the name “Hexter” might imply an education of the occultist variety – “Hexter” could be interpreted as “bewitcher” in German). Vlade, Mutt, Gen, and Jeff would fall somewhere in the middle (public school?). They are hackers of life. Stefan and Roberto are defiantly uneducated and (I think this is later in the book) when they ask Hexter whether they should go to school, he says that they would probably be bored, which also suggests that they haven’t fixed the fundamental flaws in the educational system, especially at the public, primary level.

    In a world confronted with massive challenges, you would think developing high level thinkers to keep up with the world’s challenges would be a high priority but you don’t see any sort of effort to recruit those kinds of thinkers among the proletariat or even the bourgeoisie. All ideas seem to flow from the elite and they seem rather doltish most of the time. Hexter, Vlade, and even Franklin seem very self-educated. Franklin, in particular, seems to be learning on the go.

    This is yet another way in which this world seems a lot like ours, just fast forwarded. Educational inequality and wealth inequality go hand in hand – and I’m talking qualitatively as much as quantitatively. Education is ultimately about getting a grip and the vast majority of characters – especially outside of the core group – seem to be unable to do that.

    • Babette Kraft says:

      Considering the role of education in the book, I get the sense that what is seen as elements of a “quality” education are not those of institutionalized education system. I think one reason Hexter says that Stefen and Roberto would be bored at school is because “institutionalized” education removes the wonder, and natural curiosity that drive Stefan and Roberto to explore the world around them and create “diving bells” from grain tops (although granted it can be dangerous!). The book seems to poke a lot at unquestioned institutions the finance system, politics and now education. How much impact did it really have in this environment, not having an education? I think the absence of the discussion speaks louder than actually addressing it directly. The boys learned to read by using the wristpad Hexter gave them and listening to an audiobook. They didn’t really need a classroom for that, the boys just needed the right tools. I think the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn mirror not only Stefen and Roberto’s sense of adventure, rafting down rivers and getting into mischief but also how they learn about the world around them by stepping outside the “social norms” and status quo which the institution of education often works to reinforce.
      I don’t know if high-level or critical thinking is key so much as creative thinking. With Franklin he invented the IPPI using critical thinking but it seems to have been focused on maintaining the system and driving the bubble which he knows is destined to fail while its creative thinking that aha moment that leads him to the idea of the eel grass type housing. A very different solution to his driving need.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        It certainly feels like a celebration of DIY learning. Project-based learning, in fact.

        Later on the book has some brief mentions of edu policy.

  4. Steven Kaye says:

    I wonder if Hexter is a nod to J.H. Hexter?

    Some interesting subversive elements, like the policewoman being an ex-gang member or the reality star being a vehicle for criticism of purity politics. I note the shout out to Alasdair Gray’s quote, “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”

    Several of the characters are self-motivated learners: Amelia in part for family-related reasons, Charlotte because she wants to keep the building from being bought from under the residents, Franklin because he hopes to get laid again.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      True about autodictats. For a novel about institutions, learning seems independent.

      “…better nation”: a favorite of Cory Doctorow in _Walkaway_, too.

      Hexter: oh, good catch.

  5. Chris L says:

    “The characters seem rather stock, but I don’t think that’s a problem. They’re more important for what they represent rather than who they are.” — that’s precisely the problem as far as Robinson’s project to sweeten readers’ world-view with some utopian sugar. The solutions—and the survival—aren’t particularly compelling, believable or interesting when you can’t believe in the people who are supposed to be at the heart of them. It would have been just as interesting to read KSR’s original ideas as a faux-encyclopedia.

    • Tom Haymes says:

      He’s even self-mocking in that regard.

      Mutt, thinking to divert Jeff’s no doubt withering critique of their young financier, says, “Have you ever noticed that our building is a kind of actor network that can do things? We got the cloud star, the lawyer, the building expert, the building itself, the police detective, the money man … add the getaway driver and it’s a fucking heist movie!” “So who are we?” Jeff says. “We are the wise old geezers, Jeffrey.” “But that’s Gordon Hexter,” Jeff points out. “No, we’re the two old Muppets on the balcony, cracking lame jokes.” “Lame-ass jokes,” says Mutt. “I like that.” “Me too.” “But isn’t it a little weird that we have all the right players here to change the world?”

      I couldn’t help but think as I read that of the scene from Spaceballs where the villains accidentally tune into the movie they are in at the moment they are in it (Brooks does this in Blazing Saddles too.)

      • Bill Benzon says:

        FWIW, “actor network” is a reference to the work of Bruno Latour, who has elaborated Actor Network Theory (ANT), where everything is conceived of as having agency, not just humans or animals or other animate beings. Everything.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        There’s certainly self-mocking going on throughout the book.

        Chris, do you think this is typical of Robinson, or below par?

    • Bill Benzon says:

      “It would have been just as interesting to read KSR’s original ideas as a faux-encyclopedia.”

      Hmmm… But could he have written them up that way? I don’t know.

      Some years ago a friend, Abbe Mowshowitz, hired me to ghost an article for him. He’s interested in the large-scale impact of computers on social organization and argued that they would bring about what he called “virtual feudalism”. He wanted me to present the idea in an approachable way. I decided the best way to do it would be to write scenarios set in a dystopian near-term future society (2020) where this virtual feudalism had come to pass. I wrote three scenarios, each organized around a person living in that world. So I presented three lives.

      The whole piece was only about 5K words long. I didn’t have the space to develop the characters in a rich way – and for all I know, I also lacked the skill (I’m not a fiction writer). But I’m not sure what I would have done if I’d decided to write straight expository prose. Telling stories about lives, even thin stories, places demands on you, but it also has affordances that are useful in organizing information.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Character development is a very precise craft. Quite different, although connected to, scenario development. Perhaps nonfiction biography comes closest, but with very different expectations of time and style.

  6. Babette Kraft says:

    So far the novel works for me. I enjoy meandering in and out of the different characters’ thoughts and lives. I like how fragmented it can be, but imagine that could feel chaotic to another reader For me, Part 4: “Expensive or Priceless” has been the best read. I think this part offers more character building and backstory. We get to know about Charlotte and her ex-husband, hints at Vlade’s past and loss, the early friendship of Jeff and Mutt, and meet Franklin’s mentor. Oh even a bit of New York’s past! I think the title relates
    to value. Really Franklin poses this question best,
    “How could it be about more than money, when money was the ultimate source of value?”
    I think we get to see what these characters valued in the past and/or do value now. In the case of Franklin, he seems to be in a state of revaluation. Also there’s varying degrees of grief and loss (sniffle..😭)

    Wow, Amelia’s anti-purity rant! I feel like this could refer to issues of race and immigration but also a stance against “purity of ideas.” In Gen’s section, there’s mention of the dialectic and how it can never be pinned down to a single definition because it keeps shifting and when she visits the “LAME ASS” collective, it’s this cacophony of voices “complaining, arguing and shouting.” Maybe this is the books politics, the town hall style assembly? This quote is just for emphasis, “Hang together or hang separately: the great American Realization.” It seems like in the body politic is where this book finds the “experimentation of ideas.” Jeff and Mutt’s conversation seems to highlight the political discussion, when a system doesn’t seem to be working and the power is removed from the people, how do you come up with something new? Also, that myth of America at the end was quite interesting.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I think that’s where the book’s politics are coming down, tbh. I’m biased, being a practitioner and fan of actual town meetings (I live in Vermont).

      Excellent point about price and value… right during chapters about personal and urban history.

  7. Buddy Galletti says:

    Alright, I am finally caught up!

    I would argue–based on the quote by the citizen in 6–that humans, in general, are the villains of this story. I think the quote posted above from p. 140 that outlines the contradictory behavior of human logic and ignorance of climate science also contributes to this fact. Also, the Antarctic preservation people (enough said). Everyone in this story, besides Amelia, Mutt and Jeff, and maybe Jojo, have been focused on more (selfish-ish) things. Thinking locally and not globally.


    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s a fascinating thought, Buddy.

      On the one hand it echoes what I’ve heard about last week’s grand New York Times piece on climate change. Apparently it concludes with your notion of humans being the problem.

      On the other hand… Robinson seems like a fierce lower-case-d democrat, someone who believes in our capacity for collective action. Perhaps we’re not the villains, but a character who needs to change, to grow?

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