Monday, July 9, 2018

Hugo Ballot Review: New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson

New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, 978-0-316-26231-1, $17.99, tpb, 615 pages) March 2017

A review by Rich Horton

Finally I’ve finished the last of the Hugo nominated novels, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. And guess what – it’s my favorite of the set. It still, to my mind, doesn’t rank with John Crowley’s Ka, nor with Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders, nor with The Moon and the Other, by John Kessel; but’s it’s pretty impressive work.

It’s been pitched, mostly, as a climate change novel – it depicts a rather sunken New York, a sort of new Venice (as with many coastal cities in this future) – and that’s important to the book. But more than that, this novel is about Robinson’s views on late capitalism, and most particularly on the way the financial system has evolved. It is, as with many of Robinson’s books, a very political novel, full of political discussions and digressions which are, for the most part, pretty interesting, and pretty one-sided.

The story opens with a couple of men, Mutt and Jeff, working as free-lance quants in the financial industry, who are sort of squatting in the farm area on the roof of the Met Life Building, which is now a residential co-op in the intertidal area of New York. Jeff, the more radical of the pair, releases a virus into the SEC’s system which will change key financial laws in a direction of greater fairness, just as a test. It’s quickly withdrawn, having caused a curious spike in the markets, and the two realize they had better run – but before they can get anywhere they are kidnapped, and end up in a container on the bottom of the harbor.

The point of view shifts quickly: the story is told through several rotating characters, all of whom live (at least eventually) in the Met Life building. These are Charlotte Armstrong, who nominally runs the co-op; Franklin Garr, a young financial wizard specializing in speculative investments about intertidal real estate; Roberto and Stefan, two orphan boys who are looking for sunken gold; Vlade, the Met Life building’s “super”; Amelia Black, a cloud star who has an apartment at the building but spends most of her time literally in the clouds, on her airship traveling around the world making nature films of a sort; Inspector Gen, a high-ranking NYPD cop; and a “citizen”, who presents essays about the financial and political history and current (as of 2140) situation in New York.

The plot twists around several events – the kidnapping and rescue of Mutt and Jeff; Roberto and Stefan’s adventures with the gold and later other things; Vlade’s investigation of what seem to be sabotage attempts on the building; Franklin’s risky speculations, his abortive love affair with a fellow financial expert, and his turn to the “good side” including investments in safer intertidal housing; Charlotte’s reluctant political career, sparked in part by a hostile takeover attempt on the Met Life Building; Amelia’s misadventures, such as trying to resettle some polar bears in the Antarctic; and a variety of investigations by Gen, covering some of the above issues. The climax results from a major hurricane reaching New York, and its aftereffects, which extend to radical political and financial changes.

It’s really a fascinating read throughout. As I’ve suggested, Robinson’s viewpoint is not in any sense balanced (I’m sure he would scoff at the idea that balance was possible or appropriate), and I think it behooves the reader to be a bit skeptical. But for all that, it’s really interesting and thought-provoking. And it’s not just political, financial, and environmental wonkery. There’s plenty of action, and plenty of nice character interaction. I was gripped throughout – though, also, I was able to set the book down for days when other deadlines impended. But that’s not really a bad thing for this sort of book.

Are there weaknesses? Yes. It might be a nitpick, but I don’t think Robinson has the knack of giving his characters individual voices – they all sound the same, despite some clear attempts at differentiating, for example, Amelia’s voice. And I thought the ending a bit fuzzy and slack. Robinson is a tremendously optimistic writer – he always has been, and I’ve always liked that in him, but in this novel it doesn’t always convince, especially at the close. (And Robinson realizes this, and addresses the reader at one point, telling us that really this isn’t a final happy ending, or even an ending at all.) One final thing – this is a big future world, just as big as our world, and the novel resembles that New Yorker cartoon in which the US is represented as a huge New York with a tiny appendage of the rest of the country. Again, Robinson knows this, and directly mentions that particular cartoon, but it still feels like a lack, that for all the inveighing against Denver in the book, we get no sense at all of what Denver is like. Probably this was unavoidable, but it still seems an imperfection.

Well, enough of that. It’s a big shaggy book, and a lot of fun to read. You’ll learn a lot, you’ll care a lot about the characters, you’ll be fascinated and maybe a bit frustrated. And it’ll be first on my Hugo ballot.

Here are links to the other Hugo novel reviews:

Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee;
The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin;
Provenance, by Ann Leckie;
Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty;
The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi.


  1. I enjoyed New York 2140 but it bothered me that its hopeful view of the future assumed humans would not change. This, of course, is logical, but depressing.

  2. My favourite as well. I really enjoyed the read.