Size / / /

The sharper you are, the deeper you dig. The deeper the truth, the clearer the world. The clearer the telling, the harder the dream. This reviewer had just sat down to begin to try to reduce into a seemly aliquot sample the muscly apodixis-heavy bigness of Kim Stanley Robinson's banyan-like New York 2140, when news reports began pinging the media: a very large sandstorm was just now hitting Beijing, the future once again redistributing itself in our faces: what had been next was now. One photograph of a cyclist trying to make headway through the "putrid, nicotine-shaded mist" of the beleaguered World City surreally brought to mind John Schoenherr's famous image of a sandworm (on the cover of the March 1965 Analog, where the second half of Frank Herbert's Dune first appeared), a conjunction of images that seemed to suggest it might take a different species to survive the planetary sand. Which made one think of the pit you dig when you are sharp enough to know exactly what you're talking about. In his new tale, very sharply, Robinson refers in passing to the sudden burial of the Beijing of 2140 in forty feet of loess, treating it as just another in the array of changes that the hands-on young savants at the heart of his tale would have to cope with. And in the terms New York 2140 deliberately restricts itself to, cope is exactly what they would do. So. Robinson's clarity is as ebulliently exemplary as ever, the escalation from dust storm to ozymandias, though linear, is well calculated. Here, reading in the year 2017, we can feel the loess in our bones. The deeper the truth, the clearer the world.

But the difficulty with clarity is maybe the same difficulty exposed by what I believe in engineering terms is called fining: that each time you reiterate a schema or prototype you fine it down. It gets clearer, just as a clone is clearer than the time-seared flesh it is modeled from. So a cost of progress—in a world some of us are getting pretty old in, it seems an inevitable cost of progress—is a slow disengagement from the sticker-shock multitudinousness of the given, the unexpectedness of the next, as though the tide of the world were ebbing. Each new clone generation is less porous than the previous. The more profoundly an SF novel knows what it is talking about, the more in other words it resembles a thought experiment, the more profoundly it reveals what it is not talking about.

It is certainly the case that although Kim Stanley Robinson knows what he is talking about in New York 2140, his exhilarating new novel about breasting the waves of climate change, he also gives us ample cues that he knows what is not being addressed. Nothing that he does not address could have been forgotten by an author this exceedingly sharp (just read everything else he's ever written). Something else is happening here, though it should be mentioned that there is certainly a lot left out of this future. A fair number of cars, mostly taxis, are either glimpsed in the mid-distance, or are perceived conveying members of the cast into new bits of their stories: but none of them seem to be self-driving. One 3D printer is mentioned en passant, but though the tale contains a refreshingly large amount of architectural thinking, and a lot of genuine desperately needed time-of-the-essence construction is urgently described, there's not a printed building in sight. Though various computer-driven devices are visible in the middle distance, there is no hint of the Singularity of Things. Screens and monitors are watched: but little is conveyed of the chymical marriage of media and self that embrocates us deeper by the day even now: no virtual reality: no sense of the world machine increasingly tabulating us: no sense (as in authors like Paolo Bacigalupi or David Marusek or Cat Valente) that we decreasingly present as distinguishable entities, but as avatars, fecund, voice-printed, fungible, insect-eyed. Most importantly perhaps, though the world population hovers around nine billion, and with way less turf for that huge number to fight over than before the oceans rose, there seems to be no mass anguish: no pity-the-planet small war on the heels of small war: no influxes of refugees by the million.

So then. What's going on here? Because this is not just the run-of-the-mill selective streamlining any SF writer will necessarily be inclined to, in order to make the world tellable, a variable requirement. The easiest streamline these years—over and above banging together story worlds otherwise generically incompossible but magically adhesive (dream on) in the author's mashup hands—is simply to start again, sometime after our Earth has been terminated. But an SF novel, certainly one set in the near future, will normally have to work moderately hard to scumble over those aspects of the world which have been blanked; but it has never been KSR's way to do this, and New York 2140 may be the most explicitly and extensively argued of all his many novels to date, and the most explicit about making a case. It is a perilously difficult case to implant. Almost all his books contain (though they do not necessarily embody) utopian arguments about the just and sustainable governance of the world; but even the Mars series—perhaps the most extensively developed utopian narrative to have been written in obedience to the toolkits and expectations of American genre fiction—begins with something like a tabula rasa, pre-human Mars itself, and incrementally builds its arguments from that relatively measurable and containable base. The Planet Earth of the current novel is of course nothing like that simple; it may, in fact, as we know, be untellable: this is a problematic and genuine anguish that authors of fantastika have had increasingly to address as the new century continues to fragment and swell. KSR's solution with New York 2140 is to brazen it out, and to embed a proposal for the just governance of the entire world through the drawing out of a story whose palpable refusal to model the whole of things is palpably part of our understanding of what it is we are reading. We are in a conspiracy with KSR to get this job done.

The rewards of this co-conspiracy are also palpable. New York 2140 reads almost like a game. It is a scherzo, something happening all the time (even if various members of the cast talk us through the action maybe a tad more often than needed). All the same, the tale is astonishingly full of joy: the joy of telling; the joy of sharing the reasoning behind events; the joy of inducing good people—i.e., more or less the entire cast—to cohabit. We are even allowed to follow one sex scene down to the last detail, which is further than KSR normally takes us (even though the scene is visualized entirely through metaphors taken from financial markets, but hey).

After 120 years, the globe has seen two catastrophic sea level rises: in the First Pulse, the oceans go up about ten feet over a decade; in the Second, they rise about forty feet over a similar period. The reasons are straightforwardly orthodox: global warming complexly affects the Arctic and Antarctic ice fields, causing the kind of convulsive shift the non-alt-right among us are expecting any decade now. We are at a halfway house here between holocaust-prevention (an American hard-SF specialty) and the Ruined-Earth dirge (more European perhaps): catastrophes have occurred, but America remains recognizeable.

Stephan Martiniere's marvellous cover for both the US and UK editions of New York 2140 luminously envisions Manhattan, seen from the south at an elevation of maybe two thousand feet, some decades after the Second Pulse. Lower Manhattan is awash, but its upper storeys glow under a clear blue sky. In the middle distance, just below and to the right of the Empire State Building, we can see the famous early twentieth-century faux-Venetian Metropolitan Life tower at Madison Square, the physical centre of the cover and of the action. The structure has evolved into a condo, with about two thousand sprightly inhabitants, who eat communally (food remains scarce) but mostly work elsewhere (120 years on, most people still commute). They include a senior police officer (female); a financial markets trader (male) specializing in intertidal property; a reality-internet star (female), though she's usually off elsewhere in her zeppelin saving animals from extinction [she is in fact almost entirely extrinsic to the central action, and though she's a lot of fun to write and read about, she could easily be lost, and the book would gain momentum rather sooner; a separate novella might companionably encase her exploits; unless copyright is already held, it could be called "Nude Zeppelin"]; the condo manager (male); "Mutt and Jeff", philosophical quantitative coders who are camping (with permission) on the roof and who want to expose the iniquities of the finance-driven neocapitalists who continue to own the world; and the union executive (female) who is also a lawyer and the ex-wife (or partner) of the man now head of the American Federal Reserve. Each of these characters, and a few more, provides point-of-view for various chapters, where they exemplify themselves and present to us the work they do. John dos Passos is mentioned more than once. This is fun, but needs upending, else utopia will never come.

It is here that KSR gets cunning. Though we are entertained and exhilarated by his astonishingly sustained and coherent portrayal of a Manhattan coping with the consequences of a fifty-foot rise in sea level, and his elated sculptural descriptions of the reshaped island, what carries us through to the inspired simplistics of the utopian ending (see below) are two tricks of the trade. The first, which may be new, takes up a narrative strand not mentioned above, which is spoken by "A Citizen"; his/her/their expositional narratizing of the implications of the action "below," of the nature of the world being exposed as the plot advances, and other various adjacent targets of discourse, is both remarkably sustained and exceedingly intelligent. But more than that, A Citizen is the kind of Secret Master of the Book that KSR has (I suspect) always wanted to create, a pure radiant heart of infodump who is creature and voice, manifest and immanent, a pure eidolon of the Book-as-What-It-Says. More than that (which is already a lot), A Citizen's intensely ironized, savvy discourses keep New York 2140 from becoming pure unanchored story, a tale full of aspirationals almost certain to set the world aright if they can only meet; rescue the tale from the save-the-world-cute topoi it is too easy for an instinctively storyable author to descend into, certainly a technophilic author from the First World: which is to say a lot of SF writers. The Citizen voice of this book is the true unfettered funny unrepentantly serious voice of Kim Stanley Robinson Unbound.

The second trick of the trade is to give A Citizen the finger and come to a climax that works the reader. Though we know that pretty well everyone lives in the same building, we also know that most of them don't know one another, yet. Long ago (in the 1990s) I wrote two linked entries for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy which I called "Dirty Dozen" and "Seven Samurai"; they described involuntary and voluntary associations of characters whose individual powers, once they were coerced together or formed into a voluntary family-like group of companions, were larger than the sum of the parts. The gestalt-like samurai companionship that the main characters of KSR's tale embrace, though they don't get their act together until four hundred pages have passed, generates a sense of fairytale empowerment from that point on. Two lads have (not implausibly) found a treasure trove of gold in the East River; already persuaded that the intertidal property bubble is about to burst, the dealer uses the gold to short the system, which topples, making the whole crew very rich. At the same time, a great hurricane causes a humanitarian crisis in Manhattan, after the local government refuses to allow the homeless and the starving into a vast array of three-hundred--storey condo skyscrapers whose trillionaire owners keep them vacant as investments. This scandal may make the reader's blood vicariously boil (even though we might think some other obscenity might well be ruling the markets a century on from now), and certainly infuriates the samurai, who parlay their initial gaming of the market into a general collapse, rather like 2008 back now, except this time, persuaded by blackmail and persuasion and the sheer good spirits of the Crew, the governments of the world are persuaded to nationalize the banks rather than reward them for screwing us all.

A utopian world of nationalized industries and instruments, and investments focused on sustaining those who make and embellish the world, and Democrats in office all over America, ensues. KSR is superb on the detail work here. One ends the novel (because the novel has been crafted not to address certain inbuilt patterns of humanoid behaviour) in a state of just slightly delirious affirmation. Why not? you say, almost aloud, almost raising the tankard. Why not just do the right thing? Power is a powder puff in the wind of hard thinking.

And then we close New York 2140, and the rest of the world, which KSR had so adroitly diked in order to gift us with the dream of reason, floods back, the hedge funds, the neoliberal hegemony that pays its winners so hugely that they will never give up the power that we dream will dissolve in that wind of incontrovertible right thinking. KSR is the master of that. But we close the book and although it is brave and profoundly correct, it is over. Comedy is like that.

About Seven Surrenders, a direct continuation of Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning, there is not much to say. This may seem sad; some readers might have reasonably expected—I'm afraid I did—that the climax would translate into some dance of action, some peripeteia from inspired cosplay gadzookery into flesh and blood, some body English of the sound of fingers being pulled out of the dikes of utopia. There are indeed seven surrenders in the continuation—what a fine title that is, by the way—but each fatal sin-eater flaw at the heart of each of the seven affinity-groupings that rule the world is reported to the parliament of the whole of the seven group leaders and their intimates. There is no dramatic presentation of the sins at work, no realized narratizing of these fatal flaws ostensibly devouring planetary peace from within. Palmer has in a sense been too convincing: we believe there is something worth preserving in the world she bespeaks; we are impatient with rumours that it doesn't wash.

As in the previous volume, the story is entirely audible: everyone deposes to everyone, sometimes from behind arrases, sometimes naked, mostly dressed, invariably guised. These are the voices they have rehearsed so long to run the world with. (This is the race that will talk the Sevagram to death.) We are to assume that every word spoken is ultimately intended to be conveyed or hinted to the ten billion humans on the planet who necessarily trust this lot to buckle down to the holy game of governance. All ten billion will surely feel the grief of the few, maybe. But maybe not. Palmer (to repeat) is too convincing about the virtues of her world for us to forgive her cast for its family-romance guilt-tripping. The world she has created is too interesting to be verbaled to death. In the end it is no secret that mea culpa is the secret name of power, and guilt is no excuse to stop exercising it.

Because somebody else will.

John Clute ( has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His novel Appleseed (2001) was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. His most recent book is a new collection, Stay, which includes both criticism and short fiction. He is currently working on the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
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