Sunday, March 26, 2017

New York 2140

I highly recommend Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book New York 2140, despite some significant flaws. He is one of the few writers, whether of speculative fiction or any other kind of fiction, who pursues the idea of utopia. After all, how often do you read a novel that refers to both the classic children’s novel The Pushcart War and the ground-breaking study Why Civil Resistance Works?

The general premise is a bit like that of David Brin’s 1990 novel Earth: Robinson picks a future point in time and builds an America that could still manage to be in existence, despite all the problems that will have occurred in the meantime. There have been two major glacial-melting events that he calls Pulses, one around 2060 and the other around 2100, which have resulted in a 50-foot sea level rise. And though the economy has been decarbonized for more than 70 years, that hasn’t stopped climate change.

I have arguments with the book. It takes place more than 120 years in the future, but culture and technology (other than some nifty building materials based on graphene) aren’t very different than they are now. Go back to 1897 and tell me that makes any sense. Even if you argue that technological advances stalled because of economic upheaval from climate change, that doesn’t account for the lack of culture change. But Robinson is just not that into culture, so his characters live in something like our present day, almost unchanged.

Also, Robinson’s ability to deal with the reality of poverty and cultural difference has never been his strong suit, so the book is shallow on those important topics. The characters are fun and relatively diverse given that he’s a white, male writer, but for a city of millions, many struggling to survive, there are very few glimpses of their reality.

But as an economic polemic it excels… if you can get past the depressing assumption that his economic analysis will still apply in 2140, since it’s really written to describe today:
[The sea-level rise of] the Second Pulse…. had been bad for people—most of them. But at this point the four hundred richest people on the planet owned half the planet’s wealth, and the top one percent owned fully eighty percent of the world’s wealth. For them it wasn’t so bad.

This remarkable wealth distribution was just a result of the logical progression of the ordinary workings of capitalism, following its overarching operating principle of capital accumulation at the highest rate of return….

…in that process—call it globalization, neoliberal capitalism, the Anthropocene, the water boarding, what have you—the Second Pulse became an unusually clear signal that it was time for capital to move on. Rate of return on all coastlines having been definitively hosed, capital, having considerably more liquidity than water, slid down the path of least resistance…

…capital has lots of better rates of return to flow to, indeed lots anywhere that was not on the drowned coastlines would do. Places competed in abasing themselves to get some of what could be called refugee capital, though really it was just the imperial move to the summer palace, as always.
I also found it a bit depressing that one of the viewpoint characters is a hedge fund trader, and we’re subjected to that twisted way of seeing the world for pages and pages. But in the end the character comes around, so that’s a bit of utopia all by itself. The character puts his realization this way in one of the later chapters:
I know how to trade…. But so what? What is all that really? A game. Games. Gambling games. I’m a professional gambler. Like on of those mythical characters in the fictional Old West saloons, or the real Las Vegas casinos. Some people like those guys. Or they like stories about those guys. They like the idea of liking those guys, makes them feel outlawish and transgressy.
The vision of New York as a new Venice, fighting gentrification, is pretty complete. Building superintendents spend their time waterproofing the basements and lower floors, “vapos” (water buses, just like in Venice) and boats carry the people when they’re not walking on connecting skyway bridges, and the piers are important once again. As in Robinson’s short story, Venice Drowned, there’s a lot of time spent diving. The area south of Central Park is called the intertidal, because it’s affected by the tides and generally has no streets. Buildings grounded in stone survive and thrive, but those built on landfill have a bad habit of suddenly tilting and falling.

I learned that an area like the intertidal would not legally belong to anyone because it falls under the law of the sea, which goes back to the Justinian Code:
The things which are naturally everybody’s are: air, flowing water, the sea, and the sea-shore. So nobody can be stopped from going onto the sea-shore. The sea-shore extends as far as the highest winter tide. The law of all peoples gives the public a right to use the sea-shore, and the sea itself. Anyone is free to put up a hut there to shelter himself. The right view is that ownership of these shores is vested in no one at all. Their legal position is the same as that of the sea and the land or sand under the sea.
But when the sea shore is the valuable real estate of Manhattan, things get interesting. People squat in buildings that are condemned, while developers want to tear them down to build new, but no one owns them:
…how do you build anything in the intertidal, how do you salvage, restore renew—how do you invest in a mangled ambiguous zone still suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous tide flow? If people claim to own wrecked buildings that they or their legal predecessors used to own, but they don’t own the land the buildings are on, what are those buildings worth?
The good news is, the people of New York are much more self-sufficient than they are now, both for energy generation and food. The story focuses on the two thousand people who live in the MetLife tower, which has a farm floor and a floor devoted to animal husbandry. Food is grown on roofs all over Manhattan, sharing space with water cisterns and photovoltaics. Madison Square is an aquafarm.

The whole place is lousy with co-ops, communes, gift economies, townships on floating islands. It's a “hotbed of theory and practice.”

So, all of that gives you an idea of the setting. Then mix in a hurricane that makes 2012’s Superstorm Sandy look like an afternoon shower, and you end up with a result that, while not utopia, sets back capital in its relentless pursuit of incidental destruction for another few decades.

Worth the 600+ pages, in my opinion.


A few favorite quotes from the text:
“…wherever there is a commons, there is enclosure.”

“It was as if nothing had been learned in the long years of struggle to make lower Manhattan a livable space, a city-state with a different plan. Every ideal and value seemed to melt under a drenching of money, the universal solvent. Money money money. The fake fungibility of money, the pretense that you could buy meaning, buy life.”

“I finally get what revolution means. It’s maximum volatility with no hedging.”

“Prices are systematically low, the result of collusion between buyers and sellers, who agree to fuck the future generations so that they can get what they want, which is cheap stuff and profits both.”

Oh, and finally, the chapters begin with multiple quotes from a crazy quilt of sources. Here are a few favorites:
“Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

“I am for an art that tells you the time of day, or where such and such a street is. I am for an art that helps old ladies across the street.” —Claes Oldenburg

New Yorkese is the common speech of early nineteenth-century Cork, transplanted during the mass migration of the south Irish two hundred years ago.

“Art is not truth. Art is a lie that enables us to realize the truth.” —Pablo Picasso

My mixed feelings but generally positive read are echoed in this review from NPR. The book is also reviewed in the Guardian and on Boing Boing.

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