Culture Magazine

New York 2140, Back to the Future: A Working Paper

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
New York 2140, Back to the Future: A working paper
Title above. Links, abstract, contents, and introduction below.
Research Gate:
DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.24693.01768
Abstract: An extended consideration of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017). The story is a heist plot engineered by residents of the Met Life Building in the year 2140, when the seas had risen 50 feet. Topics: Fiction and reality, patterns, transportation infrastructure, formal order encompassing narrative chaos, politics, from the micro politics the Met Life Tower, to New York City politics, and beyond that to the nation and the world financial system. Includes photographs of the current New York skyline in which you can see the Met Life Building as it currently exists.
Patterns: Truth and fiction, cause, agency, and free will 2
A post-apocalyptic heist: Commentary on a passage from New York 2140 5
The New York skyline, two views 10
New York 2140, Some notes about form and structure 12
Is the 3D transportation geometry of New York 2140 feasible? 16
Toward a narrative counterpoint for New York 2140 18
The Persistence of political forms and the Emperor’s New Clothes 20
Through a 3D Glass Starkly, New York 2140 Redux 22
Postscript: I think I’ve figured out how [to|I] think about space travel 28
The Met Life Tower, a last view 30
Patterns: Truth and fiction
When I saw the cover of New York 2140 I was intrigued: Lower Manhattan, but flooded! But then it’s 2140 and the seas have risen. I get it. So I got it. The world hadn’t ended, and those tall buildings in the background, what about them? Someone’s prospering, who?
What if anything could this work of fiction tell me about the future? I know, fiction, made up. But I’d read Robinson’s Mars trilogy, so I knew he made things up with care. What I really wanted to know what’s going to happen, but I knew that that’s not knowable. Oh, astronomers can predict the future movements of the bodies in our solar system with great accuracy. But that’s a strictly mechanical system, a bit complex, perhaps, but only a bit. As these things go, still pretty simple.
The earth’s climate is a mechanical system, too, but much more complex. Predicting the weather a week ahead of time is iffy. Predicting the climate a century hence, very very iffy. But we have to try. Because its heading toward us at a ferocious pace. We can’t avoid it. We’re going to have to live with it. But how?
Truth be told, the climate’s not completely mechanical. For the earth is covered with living creatures, all of whom are acted on by and who act on the climate system. We, of course, are among them. We create climate models so we can plan for the future. And we tell stories, such as the one Robinson tells in New York 2140.
Why tell stories? Entertainment, for sure. Escape, maybe, some of the time. But for truth as well. How can there be truth if it’s made up? Well there are truths and there are truths, and that’s a much larger discussion than I want to entertain here. Let’s be content with the observations that even stories that are made up have patterns within them. And those patterns may well prove true provided, of course, we are able properly to abstract them from the manifold details the author has assembled for us.
So I read the book, looking for patterns. I wrote some of them up in my blog, New Savanna, and at 3 Quarks Daily. That’s what’s in this document, most of those notes.
An online group discussion
I also participated in an online group reading of New York 2140 during July and August of 2018. It was lead by Bryan Alexander who, by his own account, is a “futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant, and teacher, working in the field of how technology transforms education” and is currently a senior scholar at Georgetown University.
Here’s the initial post announcing the reading, giving some background, and laying out the reading schedule:
All of the posts are collected at this link:
What’s in the rest of this document
A post-apocalyptic heist: Commentary on a passage from New York 2140: A bit of explication de texte, where I take a single passage from the book (two thirds of the way through) and use it as a lens through which to view the book as a whole. One of the characters, Mutt, observes that they’re plotting “a fucking heist movie!” There’s also talk of the Met Life tower as “a kind of actor network that can do thing”, where “actor network” is a term from Bruno Latour.
New York skyline, two views: Two different photographs of the New York skyline, from different points of view. The Met Life Tower is visible in each, though just barely visible in the second photo. I point out other landmark buildings.
New York 2140, Some notes about form and structure: The book is divited into eight parts, each of which is divided into eight (six cases) or nine (two cases) parts. The main parts have thematic names while their component parts are named after the central characters in the book, all of whom live in the Met Life Tower. I outline this structure, which isn’t laid out in the book itself. This rigorous modular structure plays agains the opportunistic chaos that pervades the plot. The book a full of quotations located between the various sections.
Is the 3D transportation geometry of New York 2140 feasible?: The city below 50th street is under 50 feet of water. People move about by small boats and by walkable skybridges. I argue that this isn’t a feasible transportation system.
Toward a narrative counterpoint for New York 2140: But just how DID the residents of the Met Life Tower create such a strong sense of community? Robinson doesn’t really show us, but he does provide a hint in the very last chapter.
The Persistence of political forms and the Emperor’s New Clothes: The politics of New York 2140 mirror those in America after the financial crisis of 2008, but with a different ending in the works. But how do you get all those many scattered pockets of protest to rise up together? Robinson provides a very specific answer to that question.
Through a 3D Glass Starkly, New York 2140 Redux: About Hurricane Sandy, the future, the nature of science fiction (about the present) and just how long is the present? A couple of seconds, a year, a decade, a century? Events unfold in nested waves on various time scales. Can the patterns in fiction nonetheless be true, with their truth in some sense depending on the skillful interweaving of fact and imagination? More metaphysics.
Postscript: I think I’ve figured out how [to/I] think about space travel: No, mostly not about New York 2140, though I mention it. But it’s about the future, one very different from the present. We’ll be in a post-Singularity world, not the fantasy nonsense of superintelligent machines, but a world in which our understanding has gone up a level as, say, Newton’s understanding surpassed.
The Met Life Tower, a last view: Just what it says, a last photograph of the building.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog