17 MARCH 2017 • VOL 355 ISSUE 6330 1135 SCIENCE sciencemag.org
By Carl Abbott
When the oceans rise, how will the world’s great coastal cities man- age? Kim Stanley Robinson poses this question in New York 2140, a “cli-fi” novel (a subgenre of specu- lative fiction that revolves around
the impact of climate change) whose cover
image reverses the famous photograph of
lower Manhattan gone dark after Hurricane
Sandy, showing instead a partially inundated
city that is “majestic, watery, superb.”
New York in 2140 is still a hip financial
nexus. Three-hundred-story skyscrapers
crown the highlands of Hoboken and Brook-
lyn Heights, while Manhattan’s wealthiest
residents have taken refuge in the “Cloister
cluster,” a strip of high ground on the north-
ern tip of the island. In the new intertidal
zone, towers built on bedrock have sealed
their lower floors and continue to function.
Streets in the aquatropolis are busy canals,
and money is pouring back into the half-
drowned real estate of lower Manhattan.
The Metropolitan Life Tower has been re-
Mars trilogy and echoes John Dos Passos’s
purposed as a housing co-op, and Robinson’s
story unfolds through the overlapping lives
of its residents. They include a high-ranking
policewoman, an immigration rights lawyer,
a hedge fund trader, a media star, a pair of
computer nerds, the building superintendent,
and two canal urchins. This technique is remi-
niscent of the one Robinson employed in his
panoramic U.S. A., whose characters Robinson
has described as being “like pinballs in a pin-
ball machine, bouncing around America in the
1920s, trying to figure it out” (1).
This is what the Met Lifers do. They intersect, veer apart, and slowly come together to
plot a citywide rent strike that triggers the nationalization of major banks, preventing economic disaster in the wake of the collapse of a
bubble in “intertidal” real estate.
Robinson’s unifying theme is resilience. The
novel highlights the ever-present physicality
and adaptability of a natural world ruled by
weather and water. Tidal flows constrain everyday routines in the neo-Venice. Oyster beds
are returning, and aquaculture helps to feed
the city. Beavers and muskrats colonize the
new swamps in the Bronx and New Jersey. In
effect, Robinson projects forward the insights
of today’s ecologists, geographers, and environmental historians who are reemphasizing
the functions of nature in and of the city.
Robinson’s New Yorkers have the resourcefulness to craft new grassroots institutions—from building co-ops to neighborhood
associations to self-help groups—that strive to
maintain the upkeep of the island’s surviving
skyscrapers. Bureaucrats, first responders, and
ordinary citizens all pitch in when a massive
storm surge threatens the city. Robinson’s take
on the human capacity to meet challenges
echoes Rebecca Solnit’s argument in A Paradise Built in Hell (2).
Instructors interested in using science fic-
tion in their classrooms might pair this book
with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (3).
In a near-future American Southwest, perma-
nent drought has rendered the Colorado River
nearly nonexistent, just as climate change
models currently suggest. As in New York,
corporate capitalism is portrayed as the most
powerful actor, controlling water supplies
on behalf of the elite, while climate refugees
struggle to survive in feral Phoenix.
Bacigalupi’s solution, however, is individual
escape, not the painstaking maintenance of
community that marks Robinson’s future New
York. This contrast highlights Robinson’s com-
mitment to the public sphere of debate and
the messy but necessary work of politics.
In the end, the oddly assorted residents of
the Met tower initiate local action that leads
to real political change. They don’t make the
world perfect, but they do make it better. As
Robinson sums up, “History … does not stop
happening,” and individuals have the respon-
sibility to participate as best they can.
Robinson is a guarded optimist who wants
readers to imagine both the possibilities of
utopian change and the difficulties of achieving it. The final part of New York 2140, “The
Comedy of the Commons,” refers to “comedy”
in the literary sense. There are no last-act
marriages—the traditional symbol of equilibrium restored—but New York has weathered both a hurricane and a financial storm
to emerge stronger than before, giving readers a model for thinking about our own 21st-
century future. j
2. R. Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary
Communities That Arise in Disaster (Viking, New York,
3. P. Bacigalupi, The Water Knife (Knopf, New York, 2015).
The next New York
A science fiction writer examines the peril
and politics of urban climate change
The reviewer is the author of Imagining Urban Futures:
Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from
Them ( Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2016).
New York 2140
Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, 2017. 620 pp.
BOOKS et al.
A woman walks down a
flooded street in Brooklyn
after Hurricane Irene in 2011.