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Widely regarded as a masterpiece of climate fiction and solarpunk, New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson is a sprawling novel about how New York City has adapted to climate chaos in the 22nd century. In this special two-part episode, I’ll first offer a plot summary and list of characters, followed by analysis of major themes. This is a long book with a lot to teach us about what a better world could look like and how we might get there, so I’m excited to finally discuss it on the podcast!
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- About Kim Stanley Robinson
About the creator
Kim Stanley Robinson is a literary science fiction writer from Davis, California. Born in Waukegan, Illinois in 1952, Robinson moved to Southern California as a child but has also lived in Washington, D.C. and Switzerland. His books frequently incorporate themes of climate change, sustainability, nature, environmental justice, and critiques of capitalism. The author of over 19 books and numerous short stories, Robinson has been awarded the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards for his literary contributions to science fiction. He holds a BA in literature from UC San Diego, an MA in English from Boston University, and a PhD in English from UC San Diego, and he has taught at UC Davis and the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. His latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, was published in fall 2020.
Official website: https://www.kimstanleyrobinson.info/
I’m Forrest Brown, and you’re listening to Stories for Earth.
[music: “Cold Descent” by Forrest Brown]
You’re listening to Stories for Earth, a podcast about everything climate change in pop culture.
Today, we’re talking about Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel New York 2140. It’s a long one, so we’re covering it in two parts. You’re listening to part one, where we’ll provide a plot summary of the book. Part two will cover a discussion of major themes and will be available a few weeks after the release of part one.
If you’d like to support further production of the show, consider becoming a member on Patreon for as little as $1 per month. We’re on Twitter and Instagram, and our website is storiesforearth.com.
And now, here’s part one of our discussion of New York 2140. I hope you enjoy.
Introduction to “New York 2140”
“The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority.” -Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
“Ecology without class struggle is gardening.” -Chico Mendes, Brazilian trade union leader and environmentalist
During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s 2,365 billionaires became $4 trillion—or 54 percent—richer, according to a March 2021 analysis from the Program on Inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). While the pandemic has killed millions of people around the world and doubled the global poverty rate, it’s been kind to the world’s richest people, further widening the already gaping wealth disparity between the haves and the have-nots.
This should come as no surprise if you’re familiar with Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. The Shock Doctrine examines how capitalism has taken advantage of and benefitted from moments of crisis, subverting the popular narrative of free market capitalism’s peaceful triumph over the 20th century. From the collapse of the Soviet Union to the rise of the fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Klein demonstrates how capitalism pounces on moments of social upheaval and extreme violence to create economic opportunity.
We’re seeing the Shock Doctrine at play in real time with the COVID-19 pandemic, and many people, myself included, believe we’ll see it again and again as extreme weather events made worse by climate change become more frequent. Given shifting messaging from capitalists and neoliberal politicians, you might say it’s already happening.
Take, for example, recent remarks made by venture capitalist John Doerr, in which he called climate change the “…largest economic opportunity of the 21st Century,” according to MarketWatch. You can also see this in the way shipping companies are gushing about melting Arctic ice opening up new shipping lanes for trade. Or for a more lengthy analysis, consider the 2014 book Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming by Mckenzie Funk.
Summary of “New York 2140”
But it’s not just captains of industry and heads of state who hear cha-ching when they think of climate change. Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson has seen the writing on the wall for the next big money making crisis, writing his 2017 novel New York 2140 about this very phenomenon and exploring a possible solution for escaping it.
Set over a century in the future, New York 2140 takes place after some of the most cataclysmic effects of climate change have been felt. Based on the extremely high sea level rise seen in the novel, it’s safe to assume the world has blown past the Paris Agreement target to limit global warming to 1.5ºC above the pre-industrial average. Much of Lower Manhattan is now partially submerged, with neighboring boroughs like Brooklyn almost totally drowned. The ultra-wealthy live Uptown in superscrapers—dizzyingly tall skyscrapers—and Wall Street is fleeing for higher ground in Denver, Colorado.
Lower Manhattan is now known as “the intertidal,” where flooded roads have transformed into canals and skyscrapers have been converted into partially self-sustaining housing co-ops for the dwindling middle class. Those not fortunate enough to make it into one of these vertical villages survive by squatting in the crumbling ruins of shorter buildings, which now serve as poker chips for investors in a kind of climate-induced housing bubble.
Being a New York novel, finance plays a big role in this story, and it can be easy to feel lost at times if you don’t have a basic understanding of finance or economics. But more than anything, New York 2140 is a massive exercise in worldbuilding, where Kim Stanley Robinson has seemingly imagined every conceivable aspect of a future New York and chosen to follow the lives of ten main characters over the course of about three years. While most of the characters are neighbors living quite different lives as residents of the Met Life Tower, four of them are lumped into pairs and another one represents the city itself as a character.
To briefly summarize, the characters are as follows:
- Mutt and Jeff—two unemployed financial analysts living in a hotello (a sort of pop-up tent) in the vertical farm of the Met Life Tower
- Inspector Gen—an NYPD investigator who works on cracking a series of mysterious and seemingly unrelated cases throughout the novel
- Franklin Garr—a cocky young hedge fund trader who becomes the mastermind behind the largest debt strike in history
- Vlade—a middle-aged Ukrainian immigrant who works as the superintendent of the Met Life Tower
- The Citizen—a somewhat Shakespearean character who embodies the voice of New York City, often providing helpful historical context and snarky comedic relief in what I can only hear as a classic Manhattan accent
- Amelia Black—a futuristic streamer of sorts who hosts an internet show where she rescues endangered species and moves them to more hospitable environments as the climate continues to make ecosystems shapeshift
- Charlotte Armstrong—the chairperson of the Met Life Tower housing cooperative who works for the Householders’ Union, an NGO working to help those in need secure housing
- Stefan and Roberto—two “water rat” young boys orphaned in the intertidal who have had to learn to fend for themselves and are obsessed with hunting for buried treasure
New York 2140 is a sweeping novel that contains many subplots, but the overarching plot has to do with changing the global financial system for the good and transitioning to a post-capitalist economic system. Simple topics, I know. Stay with me.
The book starts with a sort of socialist realist version of a Statler and Waldorf skit from The Muppet Show. Jeff is lecturing Mutt on the problems with capitalism and how he has a plan to make tiny tweaks to what he has identified as the 16 financial laws that govern the global financial system. Thanks to computer access granted by a recent freelance project for Jeff’s cousin who works in finance, Jeff can actually deploy the code he’s written to change these laws and hopefully save the world from greed and exploitation in the process.
Except, right after Jeff pushes the code revisions, the two realize they’ve been caught and have to make a run for it. The men go missing, and Charlotte Armstrong—chairperson of the Met Life tower housing co-op—files a police report. While Inspector Gen gets started on the case, a peppy and opportunistic Franklin Garr boats to work at WaterPrice, a hedge fund firm that manages investments in sea level and housing securities.
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Franklin is somewhat of a wunderkind at WaterPrice thanks to his invention of something called the Intertidal Property Pricing Index, or the IPPI. This is where the book starts to lose some people since it can get a little technical with finance-talk, so I’ll do my best to explain it here.
In 2140, sea level rise is tracked religiously, thanks to the traumas of the past one-hundred-plus years when sea levels rose dramatically and rapidly, mostly in two events called the First and Second Pulse. These were episodes of massive sea level rise in a very short amount of time due to major collapses in the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Both Pulses caused incalculable amounts of destruction to coastal communities around the world, and everyone is paranoid about the prospect of a Third Pulse happening.
True to form, Wall Street and other financial hubs found a way to make betting on sea level rise a lucrative business. Now, sea level has its own index on the stock market, just like the top 500 publicly traded companies have the S&P 500 today. Housing has its own index as well. So, to put it simply, this index that Franklin Garr has created—the Intertidal Property Pricing Index—functions to produce an accurate, real-time price estimate of coastal property based on the global rise and fall of sea level.
This helps to explain why buildings in the intertidal zone of New York City are so valuable now. Even though the East Coast is largely drowned, people haven’t totally abandoned their homes, stubbornly sticking around through some drastic adaptation measures. The submerged ground floors of buildings are totally sealed off to prevent flooding, and buildings have been reinforced with graphene to keep them from tumbling into the polluted water.
However, this interest in betting on housing prices has led to a fiercely competitive housing market, which is causing some stress for Charlotte Armstrong. The Met Life tower housing co-op has recently learned of a bid from an unknown party to buy the building, and the size of the bid smells like an attempt at a hostile takeover. Forced to put the bid to a vote among the tower’s residents, the co-op narrowly avoids getting bought out, but Charlotte is rattled by this and determined to find out who’s behind the bid.
To complicate things, it seems someone is trying to sabotage the Met Life tower. Vlade, the building’s superintendent, gets an alert early one morning of a leak in the building’s basement. Upon inspection, it appears someone has intentionally drilled through one of the walls facing the outside canal. Vlade manages to contain and patch the leak, but the event is still unsettling. Charlotte suspects whoever tried to buy the Met Life tower might be behind it.
Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Amelia Black, a “cloud” star who hosts a popular show called Assisted Migration, named after the giant airship she flies of the same name. Amelia is on a mission to relocate some starving polar bears to Antarctica, where conditions are still similar enough to their ideal environment to give them a chance at survival. Stefan and Roberto—two orphaned young boys who live in the canals—make an appearance after Franklin Garr saves them from drowning. Vlade takes them under his wing, and they eventually spill the beans about their plans to salvage the wreckage of an old British ship they’ve found and hopefully recover some sunken treasure.
Vlade goes on a couple of other treasure hunts with the boys, eventually employing the help of his ex-wife Idelba and her boat to recover the gold from the wreckage of the HMS Hussar. It’s on one of these expeditions that Vlade accidentally finds Mutt and Jeff, who have been held prisoner in a kind of underwater facility on the bottom of the bay. This gives Inspector Gen some new leads, who eventually narrows the list of suspects down to Jeff’s cousin, a hedge fund manager named Henry Vinson.
Seemingly unbeknownst to him, Vinson’s hedge fund, Albany Albany, hired a private security firm to kidnap Mutt and Jeff, though we later find out it was Charlotte’s ex-husband and chair of the Federal Reserve who ordered the kidnapping under the guise of placing them in witness protection. Mutt and Jeff’s rescue also provides some evidence that Vinson’s hedge fund was going through Morningside Realty in the attempted buy-out of the Met Life tower.
These discoveries are soon overshadowed by news that a massive hurricane is heading for New York City, and the residents of the Met Life tower scramble to prepare for what is likely to be a nasty storm. Amelia Black is forced to delay her return home, flying north to ride out the storm, and Stefan and Roberto go missing after they’re caught in the storm while trying to find the grave of Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick.
The other main characters hunker down in the Met Life tower, which emerges relatively unscathed compared to some of the other nearby buildings. However, the intertidal zone where the poor live as squatters in crumbling buildings, is completely annihilated, and Vlade and his ex-wife Idelba venture out in her tugboat to save as many people as possible from the lethal storm surge.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, hundreds of people have perished, and thousands more are effectively climate refugees—now homeless and living in a massive open-air refugee camp in the wreckage of Central Park. Charlotte is overwhelmed with requests to the Householder’s Union, and she makes an unsuccessful attempt to convince the mayor to seize all the unused housing uptown that has been bought up by rich investors. A riot ensues after the refugees are essentially abandoned by the city, and the NYPD gets locked into a tense standoff with the same private security company who kidnapped Mutt and Jeff.
Inspector Gen manages to de-escalate the situation, but not without getting some important information on who the security company works for—Henry Vinson. By this point, Vinson’s name has been found to be connected to a number of mysteries throughout the novel, from the hostile buyout of the Met Life tower to Mutt and Jeff’s kidnapping to a private security firm threatening to shoot rioters attempting to breach a pretty much vacant building.
This eventually gets back to the hedge fund trader, Franklin Garr. Remembering a conversation he’d previously had with Charlotte Armstrong about how a debt strike could bring the global financial system to its knees to better serve everyday people, Franklin springs into action. He calls up Charlotte, and the two hatch a plan to make the debt strike a reality. Amelia Black also gets in on the action, using her enormous platform as a cloud star to send the rallying cry.
What is this debt strike? It’s basically an intentional recreation of the 2008 financial crisis. If you recall, the 2008 financial crisis happened because a housing bubble collapsed in the United States. This caused a domino effect of economic consequences that resulted in the global Great Recession.
In very simple terms, banks approved a lot of predatory mortgages to people who most likely could not afford them. And by that I mean they started issuing mortgages like what they called “No Income, No Assets” or Ninja loans. When these people inevitably couldn’t make payments on their mortgages anymore, thousands of houses went into foreclosure, and behemoth investment banks like Bear Stearns went bankrupt. If you want a really entertaining and accessible explanation of what happened, I highly recommend the movie The Big Short.
This is essentially the kind of financial crisis Franklin, Charlotte, and Amelia helped orchestrate. Except this time, mortgage payments stopped because hundreds of thousands of people made a choice to stop paying them all at the same time rather than being forced to stop making payments out of financial necessity. Just as they hoped, this caused a domino effect that brought the global financial system down. The banks asked for a government bailout, but this time was different from the series of stimulus packages Congress passed in 2009.
Governments around the world still bailed out financial institutions but in exchange for nationalization. In other words, governments gave them the cash they needed to survive on the condition that the money go towards buying shares. This effectively made governments around the world majority shareholders in the various failing financial institutions, thereby netting them a lot of revenue for their national budgets.
What happens next is a bit of a blur. With bolstered confidence from the successful nationalization of Wall Street, Congress passed a flurry of legislation straight from a progressive Democrat’s wildest dreams: universal healthcare, free college tuition, full employment, programs, aggressive environmental protections, a corporate tax rate of 90 percent, laws preventing capital flight to tax havens, et cetera.
Thus ends New York 2140. It’s a long and wild ride with lots to say about the fundamental brokenness of our current neoliberal era marked by extreme wealth inequality, climate breakdown, fascism, and disaster capitalism. And yet, despite a tendency to pontificate and perhaps lean too heavily on historical events from the early 21st century, it’s a pleasant and engaging read that has a lot to teach us about human resiliency and the power of collective action.
I’m doing this episode a bit differently from past ones, so be on the lookout for part two of our episode on New York 2140, where we’ll move beyond a plot summary to analyze some of the major themes in the novel.
In the meantime, be sure to follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and check out our website at storiesforearth.com. If you’d like to support further production of the show, consider becoming a member on Patreon for as little as $1 per month.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you soon.
Book: Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson
Book: The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein
Book: Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation edited by Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland
Article: “Solarpunk: Notes toward a manifesto” by Adam Flynn in Hieroglyph