In Kim Stanley Robinson’s new science fiction novel, climate change has raised the sea level 50 feet and has devastated the world’s coastal cities, but it hasn’t shut down New York. Lower Manhattan is a permanently submerged yet lively “SuperVenice,” while uptown, which occupies higher ground, hosts the city’s newest cluster of 300-foot-tall skyscrapers. “It’s what economists used to call the tyranny of sunk costs,” the sardonic narrator explains in Robinson’s New York 2140. “Once you’ve put so much time and money into a project, it gets hard to just eat your losses and walk.” Even a drowned New York remains New York.
In more ways than one. The book’s plot doubles as an exploration of the mechanisms and dysfunction of contemporary capitalism. Robinson imagines a financial crisis, modeled on the 2008 collapse, in which investors create a real estate bubble in the city’s risky “intertidal zone,” a treacherous stretch in midtown where the tides flow in and out twice a day and occasionally take down a moldy building or two. Then the bubble pops and political and economic chaos ensues.
The finance-centered narrative feels fresh largely because it is told against a remarkably plausible vision of a city responding to extreme climate change in the not-too-distant future. Hedge fund managers zip around Lower Manhattan’s canals in expensive hydrofoils and park them in the flooded first floors of old buildings. To avoid crowded canals, New Yorkers traverse skybridges high above the water. Activists and revolutionaries find cover in the subcultures of the “underwater economy.” Buildings stay dry thanks to superior sealants—imported from the Dutch, of course.
Unlike fantasy or other reality-bending genres, Robinson’s science fiction unwinds within the constraints and biases of the real world, which is part of its appeal. When I spoke to Robinson, he explained his method by quoting H.G. Wells: “ ‘If everything is possible, then nothing is interesting.’ ” He continued: “There’s a reality principal to sci-fi, even if it’s a hypothetical. It’s a thought experiment.”
Robinson’s thoughtful attention to design and planning, especially of late, has made his work a kind of cause célèbre among architects and design critics. In April, he appeared at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation to discuss New York 2140. Last May, he joined London-based architect Usman Haque for a lecture series at the University of California, San Diego, where they imagined London in 2080, as the Thames River rises ever higher, flooding more of the city. And in August 2015, he appeared at the Ideas City festival, in New York, with Bjarke Ingels, founder of BIG. The festival organizer had asked Ingels: “If you could pick anyone in the world to have a conversation with, who would that be?” At the conference, Ingels explained his choice—Robinson—by discussing the similarities he sees between science fiction writers and architects. They both change an essential variable, he said, and then explore “the potential of that idea, the cascading consequences, the side effects, the conflicts, the possibilities that erupt from this one changed factor.” In other words, he argued, science fiction and design share a process of innovation and speculation.
Meticulous Attention to Design Detail
Robinson, 65, wanted to be an architect when he was young. Growing up in Orange County, Calif. (today he lives in Davis), he loved ancient history and archaeology; he spent sunny afternoons sketching the Parthenon and designing fictional island towns on treasure maps. But he wasn’t a very good artist, and after a miserable ninth-grade drafting class, he turned his attention to words. His interest in architecture never waned, however: His most famous work, The Mars Trilogy, about the terraforming of the red planet over a span of 200 years, details the planning and construction of roughly two dozen Martian cities, from early underground settlements to glamorous, café-filled seaside towns.
In Red Mars (1993), the first book in the trilogy, colonists build the city of Sheffield (named after the American science fiction writer Charles Sheffield), one of many “tent cities,” as Robinson calls them, in which three layers, or membranes, of high-tech plastic form a dome over the landscape to keep in oxygen and provide insulation. Sheffield grows as immigrants construct smaller “tents” on the outskirts of the metropolis, soon connected to the city center by rail. Robinson imagines other cities tucked into found crevices and craters or perched on cliffs; he was particularly inspired by the villages of Crete while writing The Mars Trilogy, he said, because of their natural beauty and economically strategic location on the water.
In New York 2140, Robinson makes his visions of the future more specific and persuasive with his meticulous attention to design. Consider his skybridges, which are “clear plastic tubes, reinforced by graphenated composite meshes so light and strong they could span four or five blocks.” It’s a description that relies upon careful architectural considerations. “You don’t want a skybridge pulling a skyscraper sideways,” Robinson told me. “It isn’t designed to withstand that kind of pressure.” The author consulted his architect friends in Davis, as well as The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper (Penguin Press, 2011), by Kate Ascher, and determined that old, “pre-flood” buildings wouldn’t have been able to support skybridges; such additions in 22nd-century Manhattan would have to be ultralight, otherwise they would topple the structures. Like sci-fi, particularly utopian sci-fi, Robinson said architecture is “drawing in things that don’t exist and saying this would be good, and then urging people to do it in the real world.”
Robinson paints a romantic portrait of the design profession, one devoid of caricatures. In his reckoning, architects are not egoists or slaves to the market but artists making the world better, one project at a time. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that the design community has embraced the author: He sees them as they want to be seen.
Throughout New York 2140, Robinson plays to his audience with inside design jokes. Much of the action takes place at the Met Life Tower on “Madison Square Bacino,” as it’s called in the future. Robinson chose the tower because its architect, Napolean LeBrun, designed it to look like the campanile in Venice’s Piazza San Marco (which, by 2140, is long underwater too). Later in the book, when the story’s quirky elder recalls the day that Manhattan flooded, he refers to it as the “Breach of Bjarke’s Wall.” He’s referring, of course, to the Dryline or the Big U: the 10 miles of wall and public space around Lower Manhattan that the city has commissioned BIG to design as a buffer against rising sea levels. In the elder’s recollection, residents stood on the wall, watched water rise, and then, with echoes of September 11, fled uptown to avoid getting swept away.
As much as Robinson finds common purpose with architects, he sees limits to the comparisons. “A picture is often worth a thousand words,” Robinson told me, “but I’ve got nothing but a string of sentences to actually be clear about infrastructure.” Book critics have at times accused him of committing “info dumps,” a term he calls “stupid and snobbish.” “I do have a lot of exposition because things need to be explained rather than drawn,” he said.
Part of Robinson’s success, in fact, stems from his ability to bring lyrical, poetic flair to cityscapes and street grids. One of New York 2140 ’s best moments is its lengthy description of the tides flowing in and out of midtown, which Robinson intertwines with a scene of young “skimboarders” dangerously riding the surf, crashing into buildings and navigating algae-covered asphalt. “If you stood at Fortieth and looked south during the flood tide, you saw the bay’s edge sluice up the green slick in low waves, rolling over the mat of waxy seaweed leaves in rushes of white foam, reflooring the street a long way before the verge of foam stalled and sucked back,” Robinson writes. To determine where the water would rush in if the sea level were 50 feet higher, Robinson traced contour intervals on Manhattan maps. The low-tide line would be around 31st Street, his analysis showed, and the tides would swell to 41st Street or so, above which everything else would remain dry.
Attacking the System Architects Rely On
Writing about rather than designing the built environment also affords Robinson some significant freedoms, and not only because he can ignore the plumbing. “To convince people to part with hundreds of millions of dollars and effect the real world, this is a something that when you’re a novelist you don’t have to worry about,” he said. This means, among other things, that he’s free to go after those with the millions of dollars. The plot of New York 2140 offers a strong critique of the hedge funds, the real estate industry, and the perverse property speculation that caused the 2008 financial crash—the same system that most practicing architects rely upon for their paychecks. For Robinson, responding to climate change means responding to the injustices and excesses of neoliberal capitalism. “Capitalism won’t go away unless we change it and reform it,” he said.
And (spoiler alert), this is what Robinson does at the end of New York 2140—he changes capitalism. In the novel, rising sea levels and the consequent death and devastation have prompted politicians to intensify austere economic policies and harsh police tactics—until, that is, people demand something different. After the real estate bubble pops, fed-up voters clean out Congress and empower politicians to nationalize the banks. As he does in many of his novels, Robinson imagines a post-capitalist future.
It was this conclusion, of all the imagined things in the novel, that feels the most fantastical, probably more than Robinson intended. He finished writing the novel before the 2016 election, when fed-up voters made a very different sort of anti-establishment statement, and the ending certainly betrays the book’s pre-Trump origins—a time when it was easier to assume that American democracy and rule-of-law wouldn’t change very much over the next century. Robinson’s future is largely devoid of today’s anger, xenophobia, and propaganda; reading his portrayal of a flooded, slowly disintegrating city felt, at times, bizarrely escapist.
Part of the reason his vision of New York is so vibrant, Robinson told me, is that he greatly enjoyed his research. When he was writing the book, he visited Manhattan often. “It was amazingly fun. It was like a romance with the city,” he said of those trips. “The hassles didn’t bother me.” As often happens, however, the romance proved short-lived. “It’s already over. When I went back, I was like, ‘This is what it’s like?’ ” He paused, then quickly added: “While it lasted, it was like a little glow.” In life, as in sci-fi, Robinson prefers to end on an optimistic note.