From Professor Bolton:
Kim Stanley Robinson is perhaps best known for his Mars trilogy, but this near-future vision of our major port city engages many of the same themes. Somewhat unusually for a best-selling writer of science fiction, Robinson completed a PhD under cultural critic Fredric Jameson, whom he cites as an important influence on his work. Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions describes Jameson’s side of their shared interest in utopian and speculative thinking. Robinson reads very widely and engages with both scientists and social theorists in his fiction. The detail can be daunting, but the novels’ energy remains high. I hope you found at least some sources of (utopian) pleasure.
1. The lifeboat challenge
The cast of New York 2140 sometimes strikes me as Robinson’s response to the old lifeboat query. “You’re on a sinking ship with room for only x number of people, and you are the person responsible for deciding who gets to come on board. Whom would you chose?” Robinson is very conscious of having written an apartment-house novel, in which the location of the Met-Life building brings disparate characters together. At the same time, those disparate characters seem responsible for bringing their world into better alignment with the fulfilment of human and ecological needs: a version of the novel as lifeboat. (For a deeply unsavory version of this lifeboat metaphor, see Garett Harding’s “Lifeboat Ethics;” he is also the promulgator of the “tragedy of the commons.”) Robinson’s happier approach to this challenge involves a couple of water rats; a building maintenance man; an immigration lawyer; a financier; a police officer with ties to the underworld; a couple of coders; a sexualized, ditsy, but trauma-ridden celebrity; and a “citizen” who operates a little like multi-temporal Greek chorus. What does each character bring to the resolution of our planetary crisis? Are these the same choices you would have made? Why or why not? Who might be missing here? What other resolutions might other kinds of characters have suggested?
2. Literary history, especially Melville (but also Mark Twain, Huck Finn)
What is the role of Melville’s ghost in the novel? Critic Helena Feder sees the citizen chapters of the novel as a kind of Ishmael-like voice bearing witness. There are also various references to Moby Dick—but the water rats are more explicitly an evocation of Huck Finn. Is Franklin a reference to Ben Franklin? How do literary references structure this submerged world of New York City? What other references struck you in particular?
3. 3-D speculation: now and then, facts and values, his and hers
a) Kim Stanley Robinson in an interview remarked, “I like to say the kind of science fiction I write works like the 3-D glasses in a movie theater. The two lenses show you two different images at the same time to reveal a composite image with more depth. In my books, one lens is a real attempt to imagine a future and the other lens is making a metaphorical statement about how life feels right now in the present. You know how people say that science fiction is actually all about the present? I think it’s very important to recognize that that’s only half of the story. If we focus only on the present-day lens, it actually defangs science fiction. It takes away its power to genuinely think about the future. So if you follow my analogy, the 3- D effect is what happens in the reader’s mind between thinking about deep time and the distant future and a present you can think about. This is what science fiction does as an aesthetic activity.” Does this match your experience of reading the novel? Is an aesthetic of depth adequate to the ambitions of the novel? I keep looking for the connective tissue that might help us all begin moving from an unacceptable present toward a survivable future, so I want more than a composite image.
b) In a different interview, Robinson associated facts with science and values with fiction, suggesting that science fiction thus becomes a space for bringing our values together with the facts that we face. Do you find that account of this novel more apt? Where are we or the novel’s characters asked to articulate or grapple with our values? How are those values and the facts of the novel integrated with one another? How would you compare New York 2140 with The Overstory in this regard?
c) How does Robinson’s speculative fiction compare with Margaret Atwood’s? How, in the work of each writer, are we asked to grapple with present and future, with facts and values?
4. Sex: could it get wetter?
Referencing the hashtag produced by queer climate activists #itgetswetter, Critic Daniel Cohen complains about Robinson’s constriction of erotic liquidity:
There are allusions to an intense nightlife in subterranean Chelsea bars in the intertidal zone. Robinson tells us that it’s a space of strange pleasures, perversities, gender fluidity. Then he moves us right along, practically saying, “Nothing to see here.”
Come on. The conventionally straight, cis future of romance, friendship, even just everyday life dramatized in the book is one of its least charming vintage qualities. The novel’s central metaphor is liquidity! Is it so hard to project that sex and selfhood in a semi-apocalyptic, watery New York might get a little freakier?
Others too have wished that Robinson spent more time in the underwater worlds of New York 2140. What details would you fill in, if it were left to you to write these unwritten portions of the novel?
5. Mutt and Jeff: retro cartoon characters
Mutt and Jeff was the first successful daily comic strip featuring recurring characters in multiple panels on a six-day-a-week schedule. It ran from 1907 until 1983 featuring the work of several cartoonists, most notably Al Smith who drew the strip for almost 50 years. Mutt is tall, always full of outlandish get-rich-quick schemes, and Jeff is short, bald, and an often unwilling or unwitting partner. How does this retro reference resonate in Robinson’s future speculations?
6. Utopia and finance.
In an interview, Robinson described the origin of New York 2140 this way:
I wanted to write a novel about defeating the finance capitalist order that we live in now. I wanted to add a utopian turn where neoliberal late capitalism gets transformed into something saner and better in terms of how it treats the planet and how it treats people. So one day over lunch I told my editor I want to write about finance. He thought it was a terrible idea at first, but then he told me that the only way it might work would be to set the story in the version of New York I had described in a previous novel called 2312. It is a solar system novel, and the characters visit underwater New York only briefly before jetting to other planets.
Critic Spencer Adams sees in New York 2140 a “contingent, ephemeral impulse to carve out minor utopias available in confrontations with and refusals of the sanctioned terms of the present.” Let’s try to pull this claim apart. What do you think the novel presents as “the sanctioned terms of the present”? What counts as a “minor utopia” in this novel? Are there different kinds of minor utopia? Are they in conflict with one another? How does a given minor utopia confront or refuse the sanctioned terms of the present? (I might, for instance, see NY’s financial trading center as one “sanctioned term of the present,” with Denver’s political center as a minor revision to Washington DC as a sanctioned term of the present. Minor utopias might include the housing coop overall, the underwater world Inspector Gen comes from, the beautiful-people realm Franklin inhabits at the beginning of the novel, even the roof of the MetLife tower with its hodge-podge community. How do these diverse minor utopias confront or refuse NY’s financial power center or the political powers of the novel?)