by Cory Doctorow
In 2012, Kim Stanley Robinson published 2312, imagining how the world and its neighbors might look in 300 years, loosely coupled with the seminal Red Mars books, a futuristically pastoral novel about the way that technology can celebrate the glories of nature; in 2015, Robinson followed it up with Aurora, the best book I read that year, which used 2312’s futures to demolish the idea that we can treat space colonization (and other muscular technological projects) as Plan B for climate change — a belief that is very comforting to those who don’t or can’t imagine transforming capitalism into a political system that doesn’t demolish the planet. Now, with New York 2140, Robinson starts to connect the dots between these different futures with a bold, exhilarating story of life in a permanent climate crisis, where most people come together in adversity, but where a small rump of greedy, powerful people get in their way.
It’s 2140 and trillions of dollars’ worth of the world’s most valuable real estate is now submerged under fifty feet of water, resulting from two great “surges” where runaway polar melting created sudden, punctuated disasters that displaced billions of people, wiped trillions off the world’s balance sheets, and turned the great cities of the world into drowned squatter camps.
But it’s 2140, and the cities are coming back. The combination of financial speculation, desperate refugees willing to do anything to find shelter, and new technological innovations are spawning “SuperVenice”s where boats replace cars and high-rises connect to each other with fairytale skybridges, and pumped-out subway stations become underwater leisure clubs. No SuperVenice is more super than New York City, where the boats ply midtown Manhattan’s skyscrapers and everything from Chelsea down is an intertidal artificial reef where, every now and again, hundreds of squatters die as the buildings topple.
The forces of finance are deeply interested in the intertidal zones. These great cities were once the world’s ultimate luxury products and now they’re marine salvage, waiting to be dredged up from the tidal basins, dusted off and monetized. Yeah, there’s millions of inconvenient poors hanging out in them, but they’re a market failure, producing suboptimal rents on some seriously distressed assets that need a little TLC, capital infusion, and ruthless securitization to bring them back.
Robinson is a master of turning stories about zoning disputes and local politics into gripping, un-put-down-able adventure tales (his novel Pacific Edge remains the most uplifting book in my library). New York 2140 is a spectacular exemplar of the tactic: the financial shenanigans form a backdrop for submarine drone-wars, black-ops kidnappings, private security assassinations, non-state actor cyberwar and economic terrorism, buried treasure hunting, and big, muscular technologies from giant dredging barges to aerosolized diamond sprays.
But more than an adventure tale, New York 2140 is a vivid narrative about how our best natures can best natural catastrophes: how the goodwill, cooperation, and kindness of humans can overcome the wickedness, self-deception, and greed of humans.
I am increasingly certain that these stories are an urgent political project. We are all prone to the availability heuristic, in which things that are easily imagined are considered more likely than things that are hard to imagine. Since the Reagan years, our overwhelming stories about humans is our greed and selfishness (indeed, these are virtues in the Randian conception of free market utopianism), and so whenever someone says, “We will need to cooperate with each other to solve climate change,” it’s hard to imagine — but it’s easy to imagine how, after the change, we can set up brutal, Mad Max-ian strong-man societies (see, e.g., The Walking Dead) where you’re either a cannibal warlord, or your dinner.
The space of stories we can imagine constrains the space of political solutions we’re willing to include in the Overton window. Vivid, engrossing tales about the best natures of humans overcoming the worst are a weapon against despair and cynicism — and may be the necessary precondition for the survival of our species.