New York 2140

Science-Fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson was my student at University of California, San Diego, in the late-70s and early-80s, both in an undergraduate class and as a doctoral candidate: I directed his dissertation on character systems in novelist Philip K. Dick, which he published with University Microfilms as a hardcover book a few years after his doctoral degree.  Since his time at UCSD we've been in touch as correspondents and also friends, so when he comes back to the campus once or twice a year for conferences or meetings with students, we have breakfast at the La Valencia Hotel.  When he was a student he went by Kim, but about the time he published his Mars Trilogy in the 90s he became Stan.  There's another more recent trilogy on climate change, beginning with Forty Degrees of Frost (where one character teaches geology at UCSD), but the most recent novel is New York 2140 (Tor publications, 2017), a projection over a hundred years into the future of the current trends of sea-level rise.  My letter to Stan, last summer, is my attempt to describe back to him where the novel admirably succeeds in its aims both artistic and political.  Maybe because his writing is so intricate in style and so forcefully political, no director has yet optioned one of his novels for film.  However, for me the New York novel is a major achievement, worthy of a grand epic film: urgent conflict, compelling characters, and panoramic visuals of the greatest of all cities in terrible distress.

July 14, 2017

Dear Stan,

  Here's my response to New York 2140, after a reading for pleasure and a second scan-reading to mark ten or eleven themes that caught my interest.  It was great to see that The New York Times Book Review gave the novel a couple of paragraphs in a portmanteau review (with other items) that came out in the same week as your book, but that review was so incomplete, so constrained by its imagined duties to its general public, that I am encouraged to do something more detailed, more full-hearted.  This because you have done as much for me recently in prompt and lengthy reactions to my draft book on animalist perception and interpretation, but mostly because I think this new imagination of yours is one of your best and really does give pleasure to the reader on several levels, not least on the topics of money and political community.  Why is it that venues like NYTBR refuse to touch the plotting of the second half of books for fear of revealing turns of the action to potential readers?  Why is it that they won't describe the tasty-crunchy language and sentence-making of a book when that's a most salient feature of the author’s craft?  Writing as friend and colleague in the mystery I want to emphasize such matters, to tell back to you what I think you have done well, because you've made a big complex imaginative historical epic that is packed with sly humorous ironies, a community of diverse lively characters, grand set piece scenes, and also not least parenthetic financial-political essays that are themselves at the Piketty-peak of entertainment.  Here to start off: a short set of things I'd list as superbly good, even better the second time round in my reading:

  • Amelia's polar bears in her assisted-migration vehicle: the image of them rolling around and moving weight dangerously;

  • Franklin's liberty of the city in his speedboat, with apparently the delight and freedom of having money, smarts, women, technology, and water-knowledge in a flooded Venice-analogy New York of 123 years in the future;

  • The feral boys in their sympathetic and yet fearful reaction to muskrats after Hurricane Fyodor, all of them, boys and critters, trapped in one of thousands of drowned buildings' top floors;

  • Surfing NYC up the tidal bore of one of the grand city avenues: athletes making the most of the new climate change circumstance;

  • Mr. Hexter's excellent literary analysis of a key chapter of Moby-Dick, reckoning that book into the history of the city along with Melville's biography, his work in the customs house;

  • Charlotte's long clever power play in a restaurant chapter at the book's turning point, where she muscles her ex-husband Larry of the Federal Reserve : forcing him to do the right thing by guarded threat;

  • The final asexual friendly orgy of dancing with Amelia and Mutt and Jeff, in the NYC underground  night club, a second ending that returns us physically to NYC experience: the dancing comes after the political ending on modified Revolution, the political cutoff that partly resolves the conflicts of the imagined historical moment of the plot.

  • The novel contains an unusual density of information that comes from reading and research and also walking the city: gathered from political theory, books on the 2008 financial crash, inside dope on how markets work and how hedge fund people actually think and live, literary analogues, geology of the region, building materials, sailing, and so on.  At Clarion sci-fi workshops over the summer I suppose they are still worrying about the effect of infodumps, and rightly so, but you integrate all your informational and essayistic materials--through humor, division into smaller packets, dialogue, different character-voices, and the devices of the pre-chapter quotations and the role of the anonymous Citizen.  I have an unusual love of and tolerance for this kind of thing, admittedly, but I sense other readers won't be bothered by this unless they disagree with you about money, politics, climate change, and the pre-eminence of New York as greatest city ever imagined and enjoyed and suffered by hominids. 

Characters.  I am remembering our conversation over breakfast at the La Valencia, where you mentioned having trouble concluding the novel, and while this may not be what you were referring to, I can see the potential difficulties with FRANKLIN as a main character:  he's a hedge fund player within the beast of city as financial center, making huge profits off betting on the movement of intertidal waters, so in order to keep him as a monitor of that action at the highest levels, the novel has to track him in a gradual change--he doesn't leave the finance industry, but he will try to bend it to communitarian interests, and he has a new idea of how to create more  and more affordable housing.  (Housing, it turns out, is one of the grand themes of the novel--housing as related to water, to money, banking, community life, so it's interesting that a major political force in second half of the novel is the Householder's Union, from which CHARLOTTE emerges to do battle in Washington.)  Anyway with Franklin, we have first his love-passage with the other hedge-fund person Jo-Jo, who puts into his head the idea of a more responsible form of investment, and  who steals his idea for a flotation-housing, thus beginning the change that occurs more fully in Franklin after he gets to discuss things with Charlotte and then finally gets together with her as a couple despite the difference in ages.  Charlotte solidifies the change in him as he takes her in his speedboat down to Washington DC so she can fight in congress for the householders. The change is credible because it occurs so slowly over the 3 year span of the novel's time, and because it has many slow stages carried by the sequence of the two women and by Franklin's own ingenuity once he gets to thinking and acting on communitarian motives.  We find a quasi-Marxist stock speculator at the end, rather on the analogue of a Marxist sci-fi writer.  And it isn't a contradiction!

  It is always intriguing and unpredictable to be within Franklin's mind, and to explore the physical NYC with his sensorium.  He plays a crucial role in saving the lives and fortunes of the two feral boys, and that connects him to others different in age and class, and it allows him to draw closer to people in his communal housing building, especially VLADE and Charlotte. 

  The novel's structured by a sequence of dartings-into the minds of the cast of characters, and the un-named Citizen is inter-leaved within that chorus of speakers/thinkers.  So the group mind is a feature of this novel--an implied larger consciousness that contains the single minds and voices, and the Citizen approaches that mind but does not coincide with it.  Yes, Shakespeare hides/reveals himself behind all the separate speakers of his plays, but the method in a novel seems to be learnt from Dos Passos but I see something similar in George R. R. Martin's fantasy epic, Game of Thrones.  The plot moves forward but the reader is always finding a new but known voice to advance the action.  A complex technique, and always skillfully woven here, bravo, Stan. 

  Strong women: JO-JO, CHARLOTTE, GEN OTTAVIASDOTTIR.  Jo-Jo is pretty much bypassed after she and Franklin get it on early in the book and he understands her idea of using finance profit for the public good.  Charlotte assumes greater importance as the book goes forward, because of her connection to public housing, her ability to interface with the lady Mayor of NYC, her lifetime of being a community organizer (Obama-like), her useful contact to Washington through her ("Fed-Ex", good  joke) former husband being appointed head of the Federal Reserve.  Acquaintance with Franklin leads to eating in the common restaurant, work together on helping the boys as they find a treasure in gold under the water, discussions about how to turn finance-thinking into more public projects, bantering about nice young man and old lady until they are drawn to each other through mutual influence leading to mutual attraction and yes love.  Gen is apparently a mixed race person, and extends the range that way; also she is older, has power, knows how to command, will do physical work if necessary, can fight, so she can bring to the mix blackness, police force, political will, wisdom of age, ability to move between classes and races and rhetorics. 

  MR. HEXTER brings the oldest person in the book into friendship with the two lads, the youngest, and he is the memory man: knows maps of the city, colonial history of the city under the rebels of the 1770s, Melville's city haunts and Melville's literary achievements. 

  AMELIA is another strong woman, who adds to the novel an international reach as she moves in her dirigible transport vehicle above the earth, assisting migration and saving threatened species, and we know that she has an engaging TV presence that appeals world-wide--all to the good for animals, and she's the main link to one of your themes in other novels, the role of companionate species....  she's a kind of sexy Donna Haraway, but oddly alone like Amelia Erhart her namesake.... useful later in the novel when she aligns with the householders' union and promotes Charlotte's candidacy: she brings her audience along, adding resonance, and the  paragraph where doing animal politics she stands unclothed next to an unclothed seated cheetah is one of my favorites.  She gets the last word in the novel, and that word is: New York. 

  MUTT AND JEFF are the computer geeks with political ideas who are the spring of the action as they're shown finding out dangerous info and intervening without knowing the consequence of their cyber-deed--they're in trouble in the murky part of the plot that involves evil property bosses and security guards, and this will be solved as part of the unfolding of the action, but really, with these names that are out of the newspaper comics of my parents' era, M and J are gimmicks, to add a layer of danger and suspense, and their rescue is needed but a minor development by the time we're deep in the hurricane-disruption; and that's OK, not all characters can be as fully drawn as Franklin and Charlotte, and the lesser ones can have a bit of formula about them.  I first saw the opening long dialogue of M and J included in the book where Fredric Jameson opens out his idea of using a national army as a step toward national health care and then socialist policies, and yours was the only fictional response to FJ: in that setting their exposé of anti-corporate thinking was tough, relevant, refreshing, useful as a side-step before the philosophers got to comment on the Jameson thesis.  M and J come first in your novel, and last in the jazz-dance of the ending pages: parenthetical quants, who exist mostly as words-in-dialogue and who have a somewhat limited inner life.

The Citizen.  Let's have more telling and less showing, why not?  The novel's range is expanded by the un-named, asexual Citizen, who usually hasn't a long section but who drags in historical, geological, political, and especially financial contexts, often in an ironic tone.  The Citizen is the main method the reader has to make out the differences and similarities between the date of the action of the novel, 2140-43, and the date of the writing of the novel, 2017.  So this helps us understand how we got to a drowned New York, along with a mile-high Denver as the laughable opposite in its high-dry simple easy status.  Climate change is exactly tracked by market shifts in the economics of late late late capitalism, for capitalism is never dead and adjusts with supreme alas intelligence to the main chance in any historical moment.  Citizen is closest of all voices to the author's mind if the author lived 123 years in the future and knew all that happened since 2017.  Citizen is the only speaker who talks direct to the imagined Reader, sometimes worried that the Reader will take a limited view or make mistakes, ironic toward the reader but also respecting the Reader's quickness of apprehension.  This is best done, with some little mocking, at the end where the Reader is warned not to expect Happy Endings or Near-Full-Resolutions to a fraught and complex action.  The Citizen is a wire-walker act, very stylish, dense with packed details, who brings waggish Stephen Colbert humor to the tough lessons of money and history.

The Plot.  I see why the under-water sealed-room prisoning of Mutt and Jeff is useful to open the action, and why several characters move between actual places and social levels to cover lots of space and time and social conflicts, and why there are several kinds of hunts that the action requires to move people around and get them to interact.  It is excellent in an eco-novel that a huge set-piece Hurricane Fyodor is a massive motivator of the plot, not only to show how climate has actually changed, but to threaten our main characters, and most importantly of all to disrupt the lives of thousands and thousands of New Yorkers who end up living rough and protesting in Central Park.  The citizens who get to the Park and then become aware of vacant housing all round in rich peoples' apartments, police-protected, are the force that lead the plot to a pre-revolutionary situation.  This leads to prominence of Householders' Union, Charlotte's power play against her ex-husband to get the banks nationalized, and Charlotte's election to congress.  That's a strong logical causal sequence that makes the end of the novel curl upwards to some better idea of community; a partial temporary success to beat back for a while the forces of financialization, and to bring real decrease of suffering as more low cost housing is delivered to actual NewYorkers.  (Housing is a theme mostly untouched in fiction, though I see that John Lanchester has faced the issue directly in his recent UK novel, Capital.)  So: It bloody took a hurricane to get random people to find each other, find a purpose, find a politics, find a new mind, but there were luckily nearby people like the novel's main characters to say the right words and work the right levers--insiders like Franklin and outsiders like Amelia.

Questions about History.  Your Galileo novel contains a projected history of several centuries ahead, with terrible periods of warfare, dyings-off, earth-wreckage, balkanization of populations, indicating that you have a schema somewhere of all that happens in your imaginary future, and your novel 2312 needs to pick up threads and catch a somewhat earlier moment for that action--using some of the same events and categories of time, including the nicely named Accelerando "as a confluence of revolutions."  The New York novel takes us only a century and a quarter ahead, and it emphasizes the climate change side of a future somewhat, here, less grim because the political and military aspects of change are not the focus of attention.  Of course the problem of the intertidal is global, and shown/known to be such, but mostly we've got to attend to the what and why of New York's drowning.  That's enough.  It includes what we need to worry about, namely how much is lost by being covered in water, who has suffered, how does this affect property and housing, how are capitalist titans still dominating the rest of society, and: follow the money!!!  because when you do you can strip off the facade of the whole show. 

The Role of Recent History in the Collapse of 2007-2008, in a Novel about 2140.  We see 2008 as a break in the skein of history, because the bubble created by banks and hedge funds and the mortgage industry and the Bush presidency and the Federal Reserve and Bernie Madoff, coached by Wall Street and allowed by congress, certainly hurt every person in the country and ruined many and set back the national purpose by the whole of Obama's next eight years: suddenly there the facade was peeled back, and yet no one among the causal class was punished and  the banks were bailed out and only one industry, autos, was nationalized, and that only for a short time.  This is the anchor point of warning for those in 2140, especially Franklin and the Citizen, more so than any recession that could be imagined in the time between 2017 and then.  It was bad, but not bad enough to shock the nation or world into political revolution.  (As a side issue related to coordinating the now and the future of now, I'd mention that I was tempted to track all the references to 20th Century, and specifically recent-time, names and events to see what the mind of the novel thought would persist into the future--not be forgotten, but rather turned into icons that stand for condensed meanings: a list might contain Amelia, Mutt & Jeff, Piketty, Jane Jacobs, E. O. Wilson, Katrina as a measure of hurricane force, Onassis as a meadow, Chernobylic as an adjective, and the new term of fashion for what follows the Holocene, the now-ubiquitous Anthropocene.)

Follow the Money.  It's most unusual to have a novel, especially in this genre, that takes seriously a critique of economic theory, seriously enough to put hedge funds, banks, the Federal Reserve, the factors of nanosecond-fast-trading and derivatives and mortgage deceit and insider trading into motion--into question--within the action of the plot.  Piketty; Lazzarato; Jameson.  It's all integrated, and amounts to a satirical sub-plot within the plot, with the point being, in the title of a book I'm currently also reading, Why We Can't Afford the Rich (Andrew Sayer).  SciFi can go there too, and should.

On Revolution.  The New York novel resonates with the 7 pages in 2312, titled "Pauline on Revolution," in its emphasis on periodizations, historical breaks, and class antagonisms.  Happiness is hard, and so is history, and so are revolutions....happiness and revolutions are always partial, because always contested, snatched away from their antagonists.  The account of how social change occurs in the New York novel is always attentive to the many political vectors in conflict, the immense power of those who run the show and the possible power of those who occupy, demonstrate, invent co-ops, unionize, expose ideology, get new better ideas, and so on.  The slight opening to a more equal distribution of social goods at the novel's ending is hard-fought and modest, thus believable.  It takes a shock to expose the strata of a society and to make the powerful people vulnerable in their isolation behind the masks of ideology: here the shock is climate change, and the hurricane, and some rather lucky exposures of the shady dealings of those in ruling class--and includes not least a class defector in Franklin, who can mediate classes and generate ideas, though of course he's a minor player in the shift to a more communitarian politics and economy. 

Language and Style.  We appreciate lively dialogue without stale phrasings where characters reveal their inner speech in unpredictable utterances, where jokes occur, where decisions and ideas emerge through talk.  We appreciate decisive cuts at the end of scenes, which are yet rhetorically rounded off with some elegance.  We like it that many speakers have dense perceptions involving several senses, so they see persons and cityscapes with vivid accuracy.  We especially like rhetorical exuberance in questions and exclamations and intentional overstatements for humor and quick turns of idea, puns, literary memories and references.  The Citizen is always the most stylish and outrageous of the speakers, the most dialogic with the reader, pushing the edge of insult sometimes, but the Citizen's information rants and historical back-fillings and apostrophes are dazzling from first time he or she appears. The Citizen may be the major innovation of the book, because SciFi has never been so literate, nimble in reference to history and economics, shocking in turns of idea, or inventive in structure of sentences.

The Literary Animal.  Thanks for all the references to the lives of companion animals in the era of the intertidal.  It's not only Amelia who recognizes them, but also her world-wide audience, and the two lads who live near and on the water.

Noo Yawk.  Through many short visual references and appraising judgments, across the whole text, and also wonderful detail-packed paragraphs to show the city in all seasons, times of day, conditions of light, and also grand set piece sections on sailing on the intertidal waters, on drowned buildings, on surfing the estuarial waters, on the hurricane, on Central Park, on underground jazz clubs, the novel describes and celebrates New York, New York, a hell of a bay, the capital of hype, the city that will eat your lunch, if you can make it here you can make it anywhere, lunatics going against the tide.  Even half-drowned it is still the supreme expression of human achievement, and not only that, in its outward look and its intensity of joy and sorrow, its multiplicity of encounters, New York is the pinnacle place of the experience of self-construction.  By complication and expansion the novel prolongs what Walt Whitman said about the city.

Good lines, Two from Baseball.  "Mother Nature bats last."  "Instead of financializing value, I need to add value to finance." "Keep your eye on the ball, which is coming in from the future." 

  So: a Very Big Achievement, Stan. 


  Yours: Donald.

Donald Wesling

Donald Wesling

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