Kim Stanley Robinson on how to spark hope in a future ravaged by climate change

Maria Popova says that critical thinking without hope is cynicism and hope without critical thinking is naïveté. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 finds the golden mean between the two. He challenges us to reevaluate our own assumptions and priorities with a vision of the future that is at once hopeful and pragmatic.

The novel follows a pair of frustrated hackers, a veteran NYPD detective, an obsessive hedge fund manager, a bumbling minor celebrity, two rebellious street urchins, a stoic superintendent, and a dedicated social activist, all of whom happen to live in the same downtown Manhattan building in an area flooded by rising sea levels. Over the course of the book, they uncover a corporate conspiracy, survive ecological disaster, and engineer a new way forward for themselves, and their city.

New York 2140 takes on sweeping themes that are painfully relevant right now. It illustrates the impacts of accelerating anthropogenic climate change, outlines systemic corruption in global political economics, and demarcates the limits and absurdities of high finance. The scale, breadth, and depth at which Robinson wrestles with these issues is staggering and certain to provide fodder for many late-night philosophical debates.

But what makes New York 2140 so affecting is how intimate it feels. Robinson summons characters in all their glory and their flaws, showing us their foibles, mistakes, and nobility. These aren’t cardboard cutouts, they’re real people struggling with real problems that are too messy to fit the utopia/dystopia cookie cutter. Robinson’s deep affection for them is palpable even at their worst moments, and it’s that kernel of humanity that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.

The same goes for the setting. In a genre known for creative world-building, New York 2140 stands out as a love letter written to a very particular place. Robinson takes the long-view on Manhattan, looking back into its history as well as into its future. This adds rich depth and texture, bringing the story alive in a fully realized city that is as conflicted, bold, and vibrant as ever.

New York 2140 is a tour through the future of America’s most storied metropolis, and Robinson is an expert guide. He is the New York Times bestselling author of eighteen novels, including the acclaimed Mars trilogy, 2312, and Aurora. A winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, Robinson is known for his humanist, hopeful science fiction. That social conscience goes beyond his books. He works with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute and was named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time.

In the following conversation, we discuss climate change, the relationship between capitalism and democracy, and the book he wants to read that hasn't yet been written.

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Are capitalism and democracy incompatible? What are the core tensions at the heart of their intersection? What does that mean for our personal and public lives?

Compatibility is not the right rubric. Prisoners and jails are compatible. Some say finance and the state are one system, or that they were in conflict both trying for ultimate control, and now finance has won (see Lazzaretto’s Governing By Debt), in which case they are just one contradiction locked into the world system. Democracy is seen by some as real and important, by others as a false front on a world system entirely ruled by oligarchic capitalism.

Whenever speaking at this level it’s an ideological discussion, ideology meaning an imaginary relationship to a real situation, which we all have and need. So with that understood, and speaking in the broadest way, the core tension I see is that democracy intends to create a horizontalization of power, in which power is spread among all the people in a population, while capitalism’s laws of capital accumulation tend to create a verticalized power structure in which the one percent have lots of power while the rest of the population has much less. So the two are in competition over government and its ability to make and enforce the laws.

What it means for us in our personal and public lives (if that is a distinction) is that we’re almost all in the “precariat,” in that our lives are precarious, financially and politically; and we should all be fighting for democracy and against capitalism.

What do smart people get wrong when they think about climate change? What stands in the way of meaningful progress? How do we reframe the conversation?

Smart people? Meaning us, I suppose? What we get wrong, if we do, is to imagine future generations can fix anything we happen to wreck in the planet’s biosphere. The idea is of a thermostat we can push up and down. I think that may not be true, especially for extinctions and ocean acidification. But these are well-known facts.

Meaningful progress? We’ve made a lot of it, the Paris Accord was an important big step, and there’s been lots of other meaningful progress in the last ten years. Now, I write on the day after Scott Pruitt declared his disbelief that our CO2 pollution is the main driver of climate change. Maybe the ability to hold this kind of fantasy without getting fired is one symbol of what is standing in the way of meaningful progress: Trump. But also everyone supporting Trump, and the capitalism Trump represents.

To deal with climate change we need government regulation of the markets, which is anathema to the capitalist “free market” ideology of profit as the only value, so capitalists are forced to deny the facts of the situation, as these create the necessity to put limits on their power and profit.

I don’t think we need to reframe the conversation: These people will not be convinced by a different set of metaphors or debating methods. The framing remains immutable: We are wrecking our own biophysical support system, and need to stop doing that as soon as possible. Stopping that will require the invention and implementation of a post-capitalist, sustainable and just political/economic system.

Are there crossovers between writing science fiction and financial investing? How are imagining the future and betting on it similar or different?

Maybe there are, in that both attempt to create plausible scenarios of futures that may come to pass, and even try to call certain futures into being, while also weighing the likelihood of which ones may happen. Mark Anderson’s Strategic News Service is a particularly fine-grained and well-done kind of near-future science fiction that focuses partly on the financial implications of various reads on the future. But just imagining futures can be relatively unconstrained, and you can propose unlikely or even stupid futures with no repercussions, whereas when you bet that one future is going to happen rather than another, you’ve “got skin in the game” and can lose money when proved wrong.

What role does science fiction play in our culture? In a world obsessed with growth (personal and economic), what does literature offer?

I’ve been saying for some time, we live in a science fiction novel that we are all writing together. Because of that, science fiction is the realism of our time. It’s become the most relevant and dominant art form in our culture. Which is nice.

As for growth, remember to look at de-growth economics, and consider how personal growth and economic growth may be very different and even opposites. It’s not a word to use casually; cancer is growth.

As for literature, it offers meaning. It’s a different form of value. To put it in science fictional terms, it offers telepathy, in that you get to experience what it’s like to be inside other people’s thinking (this movies can’t do, they have other strengths) and it takes you to other times and places and shows you, with thick texture, as if lived, what they might have been like. In both cases these experiences are fictional, but real.

What was your creative process for New York 2140? The world it portrays is so rich with ecological, economic, historical, literary, and local detail, how did you go about researching it?

I went to New York and walked around, and also recalled all my previous visits, and had a friend drive me to places I had never been to before, like Coney Island, the Cloisters, Queens and Hells Gate. Then I read a lot. It was tremendous fun, I fell in love with the place, and while there I was on the hunt in a very exciting way. That may not last now that I’m done writing the book, but I really enjoyed it while it lasted, and I’m sure I’ll always remain in awe of the city and happy to visit it. It’s a stunning, beautiful place.

What book have you recently read that changed your life? What books or authors have most inspired you? What story do you want to read that hasn’t been written yet?

I’ve been reading Thoreau’s journals over the last ten years, and he is very inspirational. The journals are much bigger than Walden, as well as longer (about 7,000 pages). I also really enjoyed Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet.

I would like to read a plausible and detailed near-future postcapitalist eco-utopian novel that describes everything going well for everyone and the whole biosphere, all over the world. I think I may have to write that one myself, which is either good or bad, depending on when I think about it.

When you find yourself in a dark place, where do you seek hope?

Outdoors! Sometimes in my garden, or in the Sierras when I can get there, or the beach. Anyway, somewhere outdoors, and hopefully in the sun. That always helps. We evolved to be there.

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Pick up a copy of New York 2140.

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Eliot Peper is the author of Bandwidth, Borderless, Breach, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. He's helped build technology businesses, survived dengue fever, translated Virgil's Aeneid from the original Latin, worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm, and explored the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang. His books have been praised by the New York Times Book Review, the Verge, Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, SXSW, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Comic Con, and Future in Review.
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