A post-apocalyptic heist: Commentary on a passage from New York 2140

by Bill Benzon

Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently.
–Samuel Delany

New York 2140, as many of you know, is Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, a hefty doorstop of a book at a few pages over 600. The title tells the tale, well not all of it by any means, heck, not much of it at all, but it tips you to the central premise: this is a story set in New York City in the year 2140. After the flood. Actually, it’s after two floods, called pulses in the book, a term suggesting that they’re but inflections in the global climate system, though Robinson clearly believes that human activity ramped them up. Consequently, the sea in 2140 is much higher than it is now, fifty feet higher. Manhattan below 50th Street is under water, but most of the buildings remain. People live and work in them and get around by boat and by skybridges. And it’s like that all over the world. Coastal cities have flooded, but people remain.

It’s called the intertidal, this vast worldwide coastal boondocks. It’s not fully wild, but it’s no longer fully civilized, whatever that means. It’s legally ambiguous, lots of off-grid activity, lots of informal mutual-aid living.

The two pulses have weakened nation-states in favor of private institutions and the world remains split into a large sprawling 99+% and a much smaller (fraction of) 1%, who rule over everything by speculating in real estate and financial instruments. New York 2140 is about how a small handful of 99 percenters living in one building in lower Manhattan manage to put a monkey wrench into the whole shebang and bring it to its knees. It is thus a comedy, in the literary sense of the word (e.g. Dante’s Divine Comedy), with an optimistic outlook.

I’m going to take a longish passage from about two-thirds of the way through and use it as a prism – or a Leibnizian monad – to examine the whole. At this point three of our central characters are spinning out a scheme to save the building where they live and do a few other things as well.

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