Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140: To Save the City, We Had to Drown It

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A look at the Manhattan of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. (Courtesy Hachette.)

In New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the towering giants of the science-fiction genre, envisions our city after it has been vastly changed by global warming. The oceans are about 50 feet higher than before; Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx are shallow, toxic seas; and what life remains is mainly in the skyscrapers, which are firmly sunk in the bedrock. The natural rise of Manhattan’s landscape means the Cloisters are the new Wall Street, and lower Manhattan is the “intertidal zone,” where the water washes up to 46th Street every 12 hours and washes back down.

Sounds grim, right? But the book is, at heart, more an adventure novel than anything else, with a cast of characters — all living in a modified version of the MetLife building — making their way through a few years in a New York City that sounds a lot like New York today. There’s traffic, bad smells, and trying to figure out the shortest route to anywhere. They just happen to do it all by canal boat, diving suit, and sky bridge. We talked to Kim Stanley Robinson about his new book, why neoliberal capitalism was the only real villain in the book, and what it was like walking around modern-day New York City.

So, you look at the cover of this book. It’s set in New York in the year 2140. It’s a drowned city where the sea has risen 50 feet and every part of the city below 46th Street is underwater. Approximately. Depends whether it’s high tide or low tide, right?

Right. The tides come in to 46th Street, the tide goes back out to the bay of New York.

I was expecting this very dystopian, grim novel. But it’s remarkably cheerful! It’s like one of Dickens’s happier novels, or Les Misérables where it’s this exploration of a city from the sewer system up, through all these different characters.
I thought of the book eventually as a comedy of coping, and to do that I picked a time, perhaps 40 years after the disaster itself. If it was set in the midst of the catastrophic flood in 2100, the disaster would have dominated that work. It would not have been the comedy of coping — it would have been the disaster of refugee creation.

But I think, at some point, science fiction has to imagine the people who come after, when the situation will be natural, whatever it is. If that natural situation that they’re coping with is that new part of Manhattan that resembles Venice, there will be good parts to that as well as bad parts. There will be beautiful parts as well as moldy, horrible parts. So I wanted to convey that as part of the vibe of this novel.

It was also odd because, according to the book, my office would be underwater, my home would be underwater, and yet it’s a New York that I’d still like to live in. It almost seemed like a more humane city, a city that still calls to people, even if it’s a lot wetter.
I think if you don’t have some kind of radical-slash-social-slash-financial change in the near future, then you get a New York in the real world that becomes a rich person’s simulacrum, especially Manhattan.

So, I was invoking a somewhat nostalgic, more romantic New York of the imagination that’s more human scale, more neighborhood-focused, more localized, and more kind of hand-crafted, you might call it. And that involves social relations — going back to the neighborhood sense of solidarity where your neighbors are a kind of extended family and you help them out. It was part of my notion of the comedy of coping that 40 years later a flood might not be such a bad thing for New York — even if during the flood itself it would be a tragedy.

As I was reading it, I got the feeling this was a book you could have written in present-day New York. The canals and the airships and the intertidal zone in lower Manhattan wouldn’t make as much sense, but so much of it is actually about the money and the power and the community of New York.
Yeah, there were two goals going on that forced me to choose the date 2140, and those two goals cut against each other. I needed to put it far enough out in the future that I could claim a little bit of physical probability to the height of the sea-level rise of 50 feet, which is quite extreme. A lot of models have it at 15 feet, though some do say 50 feet. So I did have to go out like a 120 years from now.

Cutting against that future scenario, I wanted to talk about the financial situation we’re in, this moment of late capitalism where we can’t afford the changes we need to make in order to survive because it isn’t cost effective. These economic measures need to be revised so that we pay ourselves to do the work to survive as a civilization facing climate change.

I wanted a finance novel that was heavily based on what lessons we learned — or did not learn — from the crash of 2008 and 2009. All science-fiction novels are about the future and about the present at the same time.

There’s a bit where, for the average person, our needs are all illiquid — you know, I need food, I need health, I need home. These are assets that are illiquid. While the needs of finance are liquidity: You need to be able to move money very quickly, and the faster you can move money, the easier it is to make money.
It’s a contradiction of goals. Finance can predate on ordinary rent payers because in a battle between liquidity and illiquidity, the way the rules are written now, liquidity always wins. The banks and investments firms that are parasitical on us are actually vulnerable to the promise of us paying our loans as promised, but what if we didn’t? They’ve all over-leveraged themselves; given out in loans or borrowed out to 50 times as much as their own assets at hand. Promises are being treated as money, but when there’s a crash, only money works as money. A lot of paper turns to vapor. Firms crash. The economy crashes. Finance crashes. And the banks run to government, to the federal reserve, to bail them out for their bad gambling, their losing. And then we the people are paying them off.

The title is New York 2140, but you could’ve called it The Drowned City or The Sunken Metropolis or all these sort of grim titles but really, the book is almost picaresque. It’s all of these fun characters having these sort of small adventures. You have these two sort of street urchins who — not to spoil the book too much — but they find treasure.

You have a character who is essentially a high-frequency trader. In a lot of other books he would be the villain. He would be the guy that the other characters work against or figure out some way to take down. And instead you made him not the hero of the book, but he’s a tremendously sympathetic character.
I did that on purpose. People who succeed by using the currently shifting rules of capitalism are not villainous, nor have they broken the law or cheated. They don’t even really have to push against the boundaries of the law as it exists right now. You can indeed become enormously wealthy and still be a good person just playing the game.

That point needed to be raised because, as Orson Welles once pointed out, everybody has their reasons. Very few people are thinking as a sociopath might think, that nothing matters to me.

And yet we still get a bad result by way of the rules in capitalism being bad for environmental sustainability and bad for equality and adequacy for the people that don’t win at the game. So I wanted the financier — I must admit, in the first draft he was more of a jerk, but he began to step on the toes of the citizens. So with the changing of frighteningly few sentences I made him more of a geek. Not that different than my scientist characters who are funny because they try to evaluate social life as if we’re nothing but a theoretical problem in physics or sociobiology. I like my finance guy.

To truly spoil the end of the book, it ends on a tremendously optimistic note. The global finance system has for years and years created these bad outcomes because bad incentives allowed for sea levels to rise, to drown coastal cities around the globe. At the end of the book that system is, for the moment, destroyed, or at least back on its heels thanks to a political and economic revolution. And I was curious, did you feel like you needed this sort of disaster to put the global finance system in a position where it could actually be taken down?
That’s a really good question, because the novel does seem to suggest that, and I don’t think that it is a proper conclusion to make in the world at large — despite what that one book seems to say.

I don’t say it should be cause and effect. It’s just that it made for an interesting way to present it as a novel for me. I think in the world at large it’s best if we do that — takeover of the banks and nationalization of finance — sooner rather than later. Things are relatively stable environmentally, so that’s the kind of action that hopefully we would do right now. It’s just as easy to have a fiscal strike right now as it would be in 2140, and maybe in some cases easier because you’ve have less of a police-state, refugee-response-type situation.

But it’s a beautiful question to ask because it leads into, you know, what else could you do? Can you legislate fundamental change? Essentially we need fundamental change, so we have to hope the answer is yes. Because the alternatives to legislation are all terrible. Legislation is by far the best method for big social change. Get the right congress in and the right World Trade Organization technocrats in and you change.

I guess the other thing I want to suggest in terms of these changes — what Thomas Piketty suggested as one solution in his Capital in the 21st Century — was we have a progressive taxation. Well that’s an old idea, but what made his idea shocking and scandalous for places like The Wall Street Journal or The Economist, was to suggest that you don’t just tax incomes progressively, you tax assets progressively. If you were to progressively tax capital assets and you combine that with a bit of a nationalization of finance, you get a very, very different world where government — which you then want to redefine as of the people, by the people, and for the people — government would be wealthy. And that would mean you could get universal health care as just ordinary. Social security, free college education, public education through college. And all the good things that sit there as possibilities if you could afford to do it. And that includes landscape restoration and environmental stabilization, which is very labor-intensive and very expensive but also very necessary.

Jeff, one of your quants who wants to crash global capitalism, actually uses Piketty as a verb. He says, “Oh, I tried to Piketty the system.” His idea is that he would just break everything to the point where everybody can get out with ten million in assets and that’s it.
What I wanted to say with that part of the plot is you can’t hack the system, you have to legislate the system. Because hacks are reversible and they are too secret and they’re kind of like a desire for a technical, silver-bullet solution like you might get out of Silicon Valley people but in fact these are laws, global laws. So what you really need is legislation to change them and Piketty-ing the tax code.

But also what Jeff was saying, which I think is clever in terms of its human wisdom, is that there’s going to be resistance from the one percent saying, I’ve got wealth and I’m not giving it up. It would be bad for me and my kids. That’s arguable. But if you said to everybody, “No, you’ll always be left with $10 million,” then those people have a cost-benefit analysis to make. Is it worth risking their lives and their political careers and all of their moral energy in fighting for more money than they really need as human beings? Or do they take the $10 million and say, “Yeah, we’d like to share the wealth.”

What was it like creating the world for you and how much research did it take?
That was a lot of fun. Sea-level rise is coming so it’s worth thinking about because we’ve already initiated it. I took a graph of a map of Manhattan and of the greater New York region and U.S. Geological survey’s print then looked at the streets and the contour levels and I simply marked the 50-foot intervals to see what kind of an island was left, what kind of a bay. And then I walked around town with a tourist-map version of that that I had altered so that I could have a smaller version of that. I wandered around and I looked at the terrain and I looked at the streets running from like Fifth and Sixth avenues between the Empire State Building and say 20th — there’s a 10-foot drop there that would [in a 50-foot sea-level rise] be the tidal zone that is actually several blocks of the wetland at low tide, but underwater at high tide. Even though it would be the shallows with waves breaking.

The author standing in front of the MetLife Building in drier times.

But meanwhile there’d be all these fantastically expensive and very well-built buildings, although they’d be real bad on the first three floors. So you have the old MetLife [where most of the characters live]. It’s a tower, like 45 stories tall. Only about two to three stories would be underwater with this 50-foot sea-level rise.

The reason I chose that building is because that building was modeled on the Campanile in San Marco Square in Venice, so it’s a joke. The architect, Napoleon LeBrun, used the Campanile as his model and the old MetLife tower is about ten times bigger than the Campanile in San Marco, but they are visually identical. I was amazed when I found out Manhattan had a Venetian building there already. So that’s why I chose that building.

You’re a California guy, right? So you came out to New York and you kind of did these walking tours where you just imagined our poor city destroyed and underwater. What’s that feeling like? What were the emotions that you felt walking around?
It was a lot of fun. I took a boat tour that leaves from the Hudson River up in the 70s. I took one of the boat tours that goes all the way around Manhattan. I walked a whole lot. I went to Hell Gate where the HMS Hussar really did go down in 1780. It’s very fun to think that what would be about $2 billion of gold somewhere under the South Bronx. It’s really there but we can’t find it.

And I went to the Cloisters, I went to Coney Island, and I went to peculiar places compared to where tourists go because I wanted to see the sea level risings, see the New York Bay as a bay. And I would say that although it was very fun and I was laughing my head off most of the time, it was also very beautiful. I sort of fell in love with New York, not just as a city but as a physical space. And there’s a reason that it’s one of the greatest cities on Earth, maybe arguably the greatest city on Earth. It has to do with its physical landscape.

The whole thing is fantastically, interestingly beautiful and the infrastructure that’s been put into it is also like an Andy Goldsworthy landscape installation. How many generations — at this point, 200 years, certainly 150 years, of very intense construction work has been done and nobody ever planned it to be beautiful, but it ended up being beautiful. And also when you come from somewhere else, you don’t have to live with the hassle. I came in from California, and I would come here and it would just be like a …

It would be like taking LSD and wandering around going, “I can’t believe they built this place.” I still feel that.

(This interview has been edited and condensed.)

New York 2140: To Save the City, We Had to Drown It