Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining important trends in climate change fiction, or “cli-fi.”
No one can fully predict the future, but great writers can imagine a terrifyingly convincing one. Case in point: Science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson publishes next week the much anticipated novel New York 2140. It takes place approximately 120 years in the future on a partially submerged Manhattan. Climate change has caused ocean levels to rise 50 feet and everything below 34th Street is under water.
But incredibly, New York City carries on as one of the most vibrant financial and cultural centers of the world. Wall Street trading still exists (though the financial district has moved north to the Cloisters), social media remains a powerful self-branding tool, and human ingenuity has enabled New Yorkers to not only survive, but thrive (drowned streets are still passable via boat, and large air ships function as the futuristic equivalent of city buses). The future isn’t necessary bright in New York 2140, but it does promise an impressive display of human adaptability.
In this interview, I spoke with Robinson about his belief in science fiction’s ability to predict the future, the research he conducted to write his new novel, and the importance of keeping a sense of humor in the face of potentially catastrophic climate change.
Amy Brady: Like other novels set in the future, New York 2140 has been called “speculative fiction.” But climate change is affecting us in the here and now, and scientists predict that rising ocean levels are almost a certainty. When it comes to fiction, what are your thoughts on the differences between speculation and prediction?
Kim Stanley Robinson: I prefer always to call my work science fiction, and then the question becomes, what does science fiction do? And of course it’s a little different in every work of science fiction, but very often they are stories set in the future, and that’s an odd thing to try. It smacks of prophecy, so there’s an ancient tradition there, of someone saying, “if we keep doing x, we’ll get y”—often a warning of arriving at a bad place, but sometimes a call to try for a good place. So it’s not so much prediction as it is talking about consequences of our actions, in scenario-like terms. I think it’s definitely more speculative than predictive, but I don’t like the name “speculative fiction,” which I think always smacks of people trying to talk about science fiction without admitting that science fiction can be good and even important.
These days I’ve been saying that science fiction does two things at once, working like the 3-D glasses one wears to see 3-D movies. Through one lens you see a legitimate attempt to imagine a possible future (a prediction); through the other lens you’re looking at a surrealist or symbolic version of our present moment (a metaphor). When the two images fuse, the 3-D that pops in your mind is temporal rather than spatial—it’s history. So maybe science fiction is our 4-D glasses, allowing us to see in the fourth dimension. Or an artificially created fourth dimension.
Amy Brady: Your novel imagines a future where capitalism and trade markets remain intact. But they also remain unfettered (despite their contribution to climate change). Would you say, then, that New York 2140 is ultimately a hopeful novel? Or not?
Kim Stanley Robinson: I think it is a hopeful novel. The future we’re headed into will include climate change to one degree or another (ha ha), and it’s also going to include finance, which in a complex society is just one aspect of everyone getting along. Finance is never truly unfettered, in that it’s always regulated, but the regulations can and do privilege certain stakeholders over others. The other stakeholders include other living creatures on the planet. They keep us alive, but can’t exactly speak for themselves in our legal decisions and law-making. We have to figure out how to create justice and sustainability for them as well as us, as they’re part of us. We all together need sustainable justice.
So, when I portray our economic system as extending a long time into the future, it’s partly that aspect of science fiction I discussed above—I’m portraying what we are doing now in a symbolic way. I actually think some kind of post-capitalism will come faster than I often portray it coming, because we need it so bad. But in order to show its coming into being, I must distort the temporalities of my stories so that the things that are going to happen soon and those that are going to happen later are jammed together into the same story’s timeframe—which is okay, because that’s how our current moment feels anyway. So, it’s science fiction as thought experiment, and also as social novel, in the style maybe of 19th-century novels that portrayed all these social elements as well as the lives of characters.
Amy Brady: To write your wonderful novel Antarctica you traveled to the continent to see the landscape firsthand. What kind of research did you do to write New York 2140?
Kim Stanley Robinson: I went to New York on the hunt for this book. It was tremendous fun. I walked Manhattan a lot. I visited the outer boroughs and took one of the boat tours that goes all the way around Manhattan. My best friend in New York drove me places that would have been hard to get to on public transport or by walking. She would say You need to see this, or once or twice You don’t need to see that. Thus, the Cloisters and Coney Island make appearances, but not the Queens Museum with its model of the whole region (which I still want to see).
I’ve been visiting New York for years, and those visits mattered too. I fell in love with the city while writing this book, but always as a visitor. I was aware of my continuous underlying ignorance of the city—I felt like an outsider, but over time I realized that New York is partly made up of outsiders, and few New Yorkers are possessive about the place. I could write about it without being intrusive as a Californian, and it was a given that I would have only a partial view of the place, because almost everyone does. It’s that kind of place.
Amy Brady: Which books or studies on the topic of climate change would you recommend to others?
Kim Stanley Robinson: The collection Capital: New York, Capital of the 20th Century by Kenneth Goldsmith has a thousand pages of quotes about the city, really well-chosen. About half of my epigraphs come from that book. As for reports or studies on climate change, the recent paper on sea level rise by Hansen et al is very interesting, both for its content (quite mind-boggling) and its form: Nineteen scientists combine their various areas of expertise into one coherent view of the past with some suggestions about our future that follow from this analysis. It’s a very artful work of science, if I can put it like that, in that all kinds of lines of evidence had to be combined to make a larger case with a larger vision.
Amy Brady: I was struck by the novel’s keen understanding of how New Yorkers think. Despite the city’s partially submerged state, it’s “still New York,” you write. “People can’t give up on it.” To what extent do you think real-life New York will survive the next 120 years of climate change?
Kim Stanley Robinson: New York will cope. There will be changes and challenges. Even if New York in the year 2140 isn’t dealing with 50 feet of sea level rise, which is at the extreme end of what’s possible, it will have some sea level rise to deal with, and climate change generally, and stronger and stronger storms. More extreme weather. And bad financial laws. So it’s going to take coping. But it is a beautiful bay with a massive infrastructure and an intense cultural life, and people love it for good reasons. The coping will happen and life will go on and New York will go on.
Amy Brady: When writing a novel set in the future, what interests you more, the science that ensures (hopefully) our survival, or the development of your individual characters?
Kim Stanley Robinson: The development of the characters, for sure. I am interested in science, because it’s a very powerful culture in itself, and it’s creating all kinds of new stories for writers to tell. But I’m a novelist, and novels are about characters. I often start with ideas that are global or historical or scientific that don’t have any characters in them at first, and then as I write, the characters appear and become more distinct, and do things—it’s a strange process, and I don’t feel in control of it. So that’s very interesting. It keeps me writing.
Amy Brady: New York 2140 is quite funny. Why is it important to keep a sense of humor in the face of such enormous calamity?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, it’s funny. And New York is funny.
Of course, there are aspects of enormous calamity that are not funny, and in fact are horrible. People will get killed, they will lose their homes and jobs. Worst of all, we are causing a lot of species to go extinct, and this is the really bad part, the part we can’t fix later with landscape restoration and the creation of a just and sustainable civilization. We can do all that, and I hope we will, but we can’t bring extinct species back to life, despite the interesting efforts of the de-extinction crowd with their good work on a few species. By and large it can’t be done, because we don’t know enough about the species we’re driving to extinction. And they’re all part of the web of life that we’re a part of, so we’re hurting ourselves, too; but worse is the loss to these species themselves. We’re driving them out of the world.
All that is terrible, and the only humor there is gallows humor, a black humor which does not make up for much. So what I mean when I say it’s funny is, I guess, the comedy of coping. Young people will come into the world, new generations will follow ours, and they will generally take the world as a given and deal with it, and their new situations will have some humor in them. Hopefully. This is admittedly a hope, but I think it’s important to act on the presumption that the better we deal with our situation now, the more pleasures of life future generations will be able to enjoy. Between black humor and the comedy of life, there should be some funny things to keep us going.
FICTION – SCIENCE FICTION
New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Published March 14, 2017
Kim Stanley Robinson is a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. He is the author of more than twenty books, including the bestselling Mars trilogy and the critically acclaimed Forty Signs of Rain, The Years of Rice and Salt and 2312. In 2008, he was named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine, and he works with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute. He lives in Davis, California.
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Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.