Hardy perennials

Kim Stanley Robinson is known for not writing stories about soldiers, or other stereotypically heroic figures—which in our deeply fucked-up cultures are almost always the purveyors of violence. Instead he writes about scientists, administrators, politicians, activists, engineers, labourers, artists, writers, craftspeople, and so on. The kind of characters that seem to interest him the most are those who are heavily invested in their work, who think deeply about it, and who like to talk about it in equal depth. For want of a better word, he likes to write about the nerds of our world, and it is often the subjects of their nerdy obsessions that give his books their plots. There is a kind of rigorous impartiality to the way that he chooses the voices to which he gives a platform, and he is scrupulous in the compassion with which he represents their experience—irrespective of whether their part in the drama seems likely to meet with his readers’ approval. Robinson’s politics are radical, often straying toward the libertarian socialist (anarchist, for the less mealy-mouthed among us), but he works hard to present other viewpoints from the inside. Sometimes it can be a big ask for his core audience to extend their sympathy, given that a certain alignment between the reader’s politics and Robinson’s own can probably be assumed. This is probably why, of all the point-of-view characters in the large cast of New York 2140, it is a financial trader whose perspective he offers up in the first person. The rest of the dramatis personae are well-served by over-the-shoulder cameras, observing them from a moderate distance, but the bubble-riding hedge-fund employee needs us to look out at the world through his own eyes if we’re to stand a chance of buying his perspective. Robinson, as non-judgemental as ever, does a very good job of selling it.

New York 2140 is, like most of Robinson’s novels, built around a big theme, of the sort that only a courageous and ambitious writer would be willing to tackle. Ostensibly, this theme is the global metropolis of New York, the so-called ‘capital of capital’, at a specific historical moment, around a hundred and twenty years in the future. As anyone with experience of reading Robinson would expect, he has done his research, and the various events and conversations he includes in the book elucidate a vision of the city that encompasses its whole history and global cultural significance. It occurred to me while reading it, that the experience of reading a Kim Stanley Robinson story is usually much more like reading a historical novel than science-fiction—his world-building is always founded in that much more difficult set of practices, and it’s always out on a limb, inasmuch as someone who knows the subject could challenge him on it. Science-fiction writers usually avoid such risks by ‘making it up’, and their work is often much the poorer for it. The New York that Robinson shows us is one that has to wade through the consequences of global warming, including a fifty-foot sea level rise, so the other side of his research is concerned with what the material and social consequences of such a disaster might be for a place like New York—who am I kidding? There are no places like New York, as New Yorkers are always quick to point out. The paperback that I read has cover blurb describing Robinson as ‘a writer uniquely qualified to tell the story of its future’, which is quite an odd thing to say about a man whose life and work has been little concerned with the urban, who was born in the Midwest, and who has lived in the small agricultural/academic town of Davis, California for over forty years. But he is the writer who researches the hell out of everything he writes about, who gets inside his themes, his topics, and his places like nobody else. I have to agree: if anyone not from New York would be able to sell me on their version of New Yorkness, it would be Kim Stanley Robinson.

But let’s be clear: the big theme around which this book is constructed, is not New York, but the end of capitalism. Of course it had to be set in New York. Where else could such a story be told but in the capital of capital? And if we’re to get inside that story, we need to see it through the eyes of a practitioner of capitalism, hence the lone first-person narrator among all of this book’s overlapping narratives. Robinson has noted, as have many people, that unrestrained financial speculation has led the real economy to disaster, not just once, but repeatedly, and that with the exception of some restraints applied in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash, politicians have never really done anything to prevent it happening again. Instead they’ve bailed out the banks, on the advice of regulators and other experts who acquired their ‘expertise’ while working in the world of international finance, and let them get back to business (gambling) as usual. So the real speculative heart of this work of speculative fiction is roughly this question: what would it take to finally tip the balance, and persuade political authority to challenge the power of this remarkably resilient gravy train? His answer will strike some as pessimistic. Runaway climate change, leading to the inundation of the world’s coasts, widespread population displacements, and huge numbers of deaths won’t do it. Instead, Robinson’s world is still hanging onto business as usual some decades after the disastrous sea level rise that makes his New York such an interesting place to set a story. But that global disaster will start the wobbles that enable us to pull down the whole edifice, should we have the gumption to do so, he suggests. This book is about a small group of people who pretty arbitrarily find themselves in a position to help that process along.

That’s the big picture, but Robinson is a writer who always sweats the details, and it’s in the details that this wonderfully humane book comes alive. None of this is simple, and there are never any happy endings—because, as one of the narrators points out, there are never any endings, and who can really say what happiness is, either? So instead of laying this thing out as a big political drama, Robinson simply unfolds a number of basically quite ordinary lives, ranging from the aforementioned hedge fund trader, via a successful left-wing administrator, to some denizens of the precariat and the underclass. What else is there to say, without dropping spoilers? As always, these characters are as individual as the people you know in real life, as unexpected and unpredictable as experience has taught us humans are. Robinson resists the temptation to contrive vividness for his characters (which is admittedly a fun strategy, employed by many writers I love), and instead manages to combine in each of them a deeply idiosyncratic individuality with a profound ordinariness, just like all the people I’ve ever met. They all carry pain, which is never resolved by the end of the story, none of them experiences closure, none of them achieves all their goals, and yet each of them has hope—each of them offers a model for the ‘carrying on’ which Robinson consistently advocates. And this is where he gives the lie to the pessimism that might be ascribed to some of his suppositions. He realistically assumes that we may well fuck things up very badly indeed, but he has an unshakeable faith in the capacity of human communities to endure, and to progress. Progress to him is never directed at an end-point, but like a counterpoint to the insane capitalist notion of infinite economic growth, it is based on the perennial possibility of making things a bit better than they are. In this book, as in many others, Robinson does just that.

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