Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the grandmasters of modern science fiction, has a new book out this month: New York 2140, releasing today, March 14. It’s a sprawling adventure story/political drama set in New York City after climate change sends sea levels surging more than 50 feet—drowning Lower Manhattan and transforming a city of gridlike streets into a city of gridlike canals. A few months ago, I spoke to Robinson via email (note: before the 2016 election, with a follow-up this month), chatting about climate change, income inequality, capitalism and more—some of the big ideas he looks at in his new novel. (We also talked to him about his last book, Aurora, and the future of space travel—check it out here.)
New York 2140 is a deeply political book, and in many ways feels extremely contemporary. But more than that, it’s an amazingly compelling portrait of New York City in a future that’s really not that far away—and not that far-fetched. A city that’s simultaneously very different from today’s New York, and one that’s very much like it. This interview has been lightly edited and is spoiler-free, except for a few details on the setting.
iDigitalTimes (IDT): What big ideas are you looking at in New York 2140?
Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR): The story is set in lower Manhattan after an immense sea level rise. Naturally the sea level rise would wreak havoc on coasts all around the world, but what I write about is the period of time after that, when people are adjusting to the new situation. They won’t be abandoning New York harbor, so the adjustments to the new reality’s challenges for a variety of New Yorkers forms the heart of the tale. Lower Manhattan as “Super Venice”— it’s interesting.
IDT: You’ve written in 2312 about post-capitalist economics. Any hints as to how this will come into play in New York 2140? How does capitalism evolve in the world of extreme climate change?
KSR: Extreme climate change is being caused in part by capitalist economics, so we have to change the latter to be able to deal with the former. New York 2140 will tell the story of the first steps we might take in that direction.
IDT: John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour work week and lives of leisure back in the ’30s, which of course hasn’t happened despite huge productivity gains. You’ve generally had a positive view of the future in your work. How can social advancement and societal structure keep up, or catch up, with technological advancement? Or does society always lag behind?
KSR: Our social structures create the technological advances, so it’s a very tight interaction there. One way of unpacking this is to say that capitalism and the profit motive are in some kind of competition with science and utopian thinking, in determining what happens to us both technologically and socially. So there again it’s an interaction, maybe a struggle for control. Ultimately we decide what we want in a big amorphous process we call history.
Keynes was a great economist, but he’s like everyone else when it comes to predicting the future; at that point he becomes a science fiction writer, and therefore is bound to get the future wrong. Because no one is good at prediction. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying, but always in the utopian mode—i.e., not “this is what will happen” but rather “this is what should happen” or the reverse, “this is what we should try to avoid.”
IDT: What effects do you foresee from the rise of Silicon Valley and a new generation of wealthy industrialists—some with strong utopian or even science fiction-esque leanings, some strongly libertarian/pro-capitalist/anti-government, some both?
KSR: They don’t matter. Was Rockefeller important? Carnegie? Very rich people are greedy or generous, or both—they do selfish things and good works—but so what? They’re interchangeable. They’re just Horatio Alger stories, or the story of the boy who builds a rocket to the moon in his back yard. As a class they want to perpetuate their power, and as a class they’re therefore dangerous and need to be legislated into harmlessness.
I’d like to see individual income taxed as progressively as in the Eisenhower administration, and then also see corporate assets taxed in a similar fashion, as suggested by Thomas Piketty. Then the wealthy would have enough to be comfortable, but not enough to try to buy the political system.
IDT: Why are some institutional forces so powerfully opposed to acknowledging climate change? How does this era, which you’ve called “The Dithering,” come to an end?
KSR: Most of the denialist institutions have already slunk away and pretended they never held that position. Some of them, like the Republican Party and its think tanks, are still pretending not to believe in climate change, but as the world heats up they will continue to slink away.
The market system itself is the crux of the issue, and its mispricing of the true cost of things is one reason it too is in crisis. Maybe its ongoing failures will force us to properly value our biosphere, and then properly price what we do.
I have hope that “The Dithering” is coming to an end, and that we’ve started to invent a post-capitalism that puts us in a sustainable balance with the biosphere. There’s a long way to go, the carbon burning is still excessive, but we need to acknowledge also the progress we’ve made, such as the Paris agreement, and the widespread common awareness of the problem we all face. That’s the necessary first step, and it’s happened, and more will follow.
IDT: Can humanity confront worsening climate change and income inequality effectively without a decisive break from current entrenched systems? Can we slowly evolve or does there have to be a revolution?
KSR: That’s a good question, very hard to answer. Clearly we have to change as fast as possible, so then the question becomes how do we do that, and what do we call it? My feeling is that evolution is more likely than revolution, so what we need to conceptualize is very rapid evolution. If we can evolve quickly enough, we can avoid a mass extinction event and the resulting human catastrophe. Some analyses support the idea that we can do this. And we’ve seen a rapid shift in the cost of clean energy versus dirty energy, for instance, even in the distorted economics we live in now. If we legislate a better economic system that incorporates ecological accounting, our technological powers seem up to the task of providing for all humans adequately, while all the other big mammals and the rest of Earth’s creatures and plants are also prospering. It looks like it could work, although the window of opportunity to get to that balance is small, and always shrinking one day at a time.
I think it’s better to go immediately to work on all possible reforms and evolutionary changes, than it would be to declare the situation so bad that we need a revolution if we’re going to succeed. Revolution by whom? Doing what? The mind reels as the means don’t seem there—the supposed revolution won’t clarify even in the imagination, and then we do nothing. So maybe rapid evolution is our best possible revolution. Or you see phrases like the long revolution, or the emergency century—however you conceptualize it, it has to include viable first steps we can all perform right now.
[The following questions were asked after receiving a review copy of the book, and may contain light spoilers for the setting and themes.]
IDT: New York 2140 is reasonably specific about the mechanisms for (and timing of) sea level rise—specifically the positive feedback loop leading to very quick rises, followed by long intervals of relative quiet. What's the current state of research on this? How much (if anything) is creative license?
KSR: It’s almost entirely creative license. I will say it’s based on some glaciology which has noted that when glaciers detach from their substrates, and stop being essentially frozen to the rock and begin sliding on a layer of water or slurry, they will jolt downhill for a while, moving much faster than normal, until they reach a better equilibrium with the slope. This results in a common “surge and stop” pattern, which I extrapolated from. The Hansen paper speaks of “the buttress of the buttress,” which is ice resting on sea bottom by dint of the ice’s weight being more than the depth of water under it; this is unstable and if it gives way, huge valleys of ice are perched ready to slide into the sea.
IDT: The book is more overtly political than Aurora or 2312, as befits the subject matter. Was that the plan from the beginning? Did world events in 2016 have any influence on the writing process?
KSR: Yes, that was the plan from the beginning. I wanted to try some utopian financial science fiction; that was the start of it. The book was mostly written in 2015 and the first three months of 2016, so for the most part its thinking predates the current situation.
IDT: Before the election, you told me that you had hope that "the Dithering" was coming to an end as more institutions back away from climate change denialism. Does the ascent of a new administration opposed to environmentalism change this? Is it a bump in the road, a change in direction, a wake-up call?
KSR: It’s more dithering. Scott Pruitt [the new administrator of the EPA] has just announced he doesn’t believe the scientific consensus on CO2 as global warming agent; this is worse than dithering, being a flat denial of science itself by the head of a science agency. But he will quickly pass, and it could be that the worldwide movement is toward dealing with climate change. We’ll see; it’s quite a fight now.
IDT: As far as climate change goes, can we still metaphorically close the barn doors before the horses get out, or are the logistical and scientific challenges too great?
I know my “citizen” used that image of the barn doors, but really it’s not a good image for our situation. We are in climate change already, but it’s never too late to do something about it, and try to minimize the amount of it that the future generations are going to get. It’s a process that will last centuries, so it’s never too late. The logistical, scientific, and economic challenges are great, but by far the worst of them in terms of recalcitrance are the economic/political problems of people trying to focus on profit while the biophysical support system we rely on is being damaged. This is stupid and needs to change. The main problem is there.
IDT: How will New York pizza evolve over the course of the next century?
KSR: New York pizza is like the shark or the cockroach, and having achieved perfection in its ecological niche it will persist in its current form for the next 350 million years.