New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Synopsis: A tour of New York in the year 2140.
Book Review: Kim Stanley Robinson is famous for his Mars trilogy, a Hard SF trilogy that explores how to realistically terraform Mars. He continues the ultra-realistic very-sciencey tradition with New York 2140. If you are into Hard SF, KSR is absolutely your man.
Robinson isn’t shy about his infodumps. He knows that the realistic portrayal of a physical world is why his readers are here. There is an entire chapter that is literally about the geological history of the New York bay area. I like learning stuff, and Robinson is a good writer with decades of experience, so I found this interesting. But it’s really slow.
In fact, being set in an existing city, and being so dedicated to realism, there were several times I forgot this was science fiction. It felt like Earth Fic – normal, contemporary narrative fiction without a speculative element. On the one hand, that is extremely impressive for a novel set over 100 years in the future in a flooded New York. On the other hand, I don’t really like Earth Fic, I read Speculative Fiction for a reason!
The characters are as rich and deep as the setting is. Everyone feels like a real person, with a real personality, and real motivation. Their problems all feel like real-world problems too. All of this makes for a gorgeous tapestry, that feels like a mix between biography, narrative non-fiction, and well-written textbook.
But it takes its time. It really, really takes its time. Last I heard, KSR is a Buddhist. And this novel feels very much like what a (western stereotype of a) Buddhist would write. It is sedate, taking every step deliberately and with consideration, and absolutely will not accept your sense of urgency in anything. It’s over 600 pages, and by the time I hit page 200 I still didn’t know what it was about, which is why my synopsis doesn’t mention any sort of plot. The last book-club book I read was Collapsing Empire, which covered a rollicking adventure and several life-shattering (and world-changing) events in the course of 240 pages. In the time that Scalzi managed to tell an entire story, KSR still hasn’t finished his exposition, and I’m not sure we’re actually going anywhere.
I was assured by those in my book club who did finish NY2140 that it does actually have a plot. It’s peaceful to read, interesting, and well-written. If I had all the time in the world, I would read this this novel. But sadly, I do not. I have to prioritize my reading, and I can’t wait this long for something to get started. I can see why Hard SF buff love this novel. But in my case – Not Recommended.
Book Club Review: Woooooah momma! I was pleasantly surprised by just how much conversation this sparked! Just how realistic is the portrayal of future New York? Why would people still live there, and is New Orleans/Detroit or Venice a better reference class for comparison? Are the infodumps an embrace of SF tradition, or self-indulgent showing-off of research at the reader’s expense? Are the dialog-chapters between Jeff and Mutt cool and experimental, or obnoxious? Was this a morally-accusatory work scolding the present for making the future so awful, or was this a demonstration that things will be mostly fine, life goes on, and people adapt and live full lives even after water levels rise? Is this a relaxed, accepting view of the future, or a rant that’s 10 years too late? And where the heck did KSR’s vaulted dedication to realism go when he had a human lifted from the ground by trash bags full of helium?
We went on about all sorts of things, back and forth, for a long time. The debate was lively, and you didn’t even have to read the whole book to join in! In fact, half our group had also finished less than half the novel by the time of our meeting (seriously, so long and slow!), and yet participated fully. Given that one doesn’t need to read the whole thing, and the discussion was so good – Recommended!