Utopia in the Time of Trump

By Gerry CanavanMarch 11, 2017

Utopia in the Time of Trump

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

“THE FLOODS OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY revealed a salient fact that wasn’t very important before: lower Manhattan is indeed much lower than upper Manhattan, like by about fifty vertical feet on average.” In Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, out this month, this now extremely important fact has combined with rising sea levels to transform the city into what its inhabitants have come to call a SuperVenice: a hacked-together improvisation they navigate via water taxis, skybridges, airships, and private boats they store in the ruined lower floors of skyscrapers. The world has recovered from two massive economic depressions following the two “Pulses” — two decades-long periods of rapid sea level rise following major ice-sheet collapses in Antarctica — and is now mostly soldiering on again as normal. In fact, New York becomes something of a frontier city again, in its own way a boom town. Flooded with squatters, climate refugees, and other persons rendered undocumented by the midcentury loss of huge swaths of paper and digital records, the city may have lost its crown as the capital of global finance to Denver, but it’s still one hell of a town. It’s doing so well by 2140, in fact, that some of those fantastically rich Denverites, 124 years from now, are even starting to see New York real estate as a buying opportunity, the next great target for re-gentrification.

Where most contemporary histories of the future imagine climate change as either an annoying irritation or else the end of history — the disaster that will end civilization — in New York 2140 Robinson cuts more of a middle path. Climate change does indeed prove utterly catastrophic in this novel, laying waste to the coastal cities where a startling percentage of the world’s population currently lives, and devastating a huge amount of infrastructure and fixed capital, costing trillions of dollars — but humans are incredibly versatile problem-solvers, and we adapt. Technical solutions like sea walls and skybridges are really only the start of what would be necessary in a flooded Manhattan. Think of the immense social changes, the legal, economic, and architectural structures that would need to be innovated when huge areas of major cities are permanently underwater, or indeed become part of the intertidal zone. Even by 2140, nearly 100 years after the start of the crisis, the long work of retrofitting civilization to rising sea levels goes on, and not all of it is even that unhappy; it’s no secret that the capitalists use the same phrase to denote both crisis and opportunity, creative destruction. There’s even an investment fund keyed to up-to-the-minute oceanographic data, which you can buy, sell, or short based on your predictions of sea level change from tsunamis, storm surge, and other ecocatastrophic fluctuations.

Befitting its setting, the “eco” in New York 2140 is as much economy as ecology; climate disaster becomes just another black-swan market event “no one could have predicted,” with winners (mostly rich people) and losers (mostly the rest of us). And true to Robinson’s famous political orientation toward utopian speculations, it falls to his 2140 characters to disrupt the cycle of bubble, crash, and bailout that has run nearly uninterrupted across multiple economic depressions since we all got it wrong the first time, way back in 2008. His protagonists are an unlikely group: a couple of homeless hackers, a YouTube-style celebrity, a hedge fund manager, an NYPD detective, a city organizer, a super, some kids — all living in the abandoned Met Life building, to which they have somewhat dubious squatters’ rights. But ingenuity and accident give them an unexpected opening to make a real difference in the larger world, and they decide to grab it.

Unlike seemingly everyone I knew in high school, college, and graduate school, I’ve never actually lived in New York City, though I did grow up in New Jersey, and have spent enough time there that I still feel the usual sort of warm glow about the place. To the extent that the East Coast/West Coast divide replicates in science fiction as it does across most contemporary pop cultural genres, Robinson is a Californian sojourning in New York, but to this Jersey kid he got the details impressively right, even down to a sidelong glance at my beloved Meadowlands. At times, the book actually felt a bit over-researched to me, with too many characters talking about what used to be at this site or that, before the flood, but I came to understand that this was not simply as-you-know-Bob overexposition; it was also a token of the immense trauma they and everyone in Future New York is still living through. What else would you think about, as you flew through a strange web of skybridges and ziplines crisscrossing the ruins of what used to be the greatest city in the world? Of course they talk and think often about how things used to be, back when the world was normal. They live with that temporal confusion every day. (I will concede, however, even as an unrepentant Robinson booster, that the people of 2140 seem awfully well informed about nuts-and-bolts details of the 2008 financial crisis.)

It is undeniably clear that Robinson’s project has become the construction of a huge metatextual history of the future, not unlike those sagas imagined by Asimov or Heinlein in the Golden Age of Science Fiction, distributed across overlapping but distinct and mutually irreconcilable texts. Each new Robinson book comments on and complicates the vision of the future espoused by earlier ones, typically by refocusing our attention on some heretofore overlooked component of the problem. Here, for instance, an event that featured in the background of his other future histories including the Mars books — ice sheet collapse — moves to the foreground, while the question of outer space exploration and colonization is now bracketed entirely. Likewise, the question of animals in an era of mass extinction (what one character in New York 2140 calls not the Anthropocene but the Anthropocide) — which was a major theme in Robinson’s novel 2312 — returns here in unexpected ways, some more optimistic but most rather less so. There are decent people trying to make a positive difference by working for government, like in Science in the Capital, and even some hope somehow squeezed out of the United States’s necrotic political process, if you can imagine such a thing. If the narrative situations in these books sometimes coincide, if sometimes the starting points for these stories seem a bit similar, this shouldn’t be altogether shocking or offensive to us; to whatever extent the future flows out of physical, biological, and historical law it will be largely path-dependent, and with only so much variation among possibilities.

This formal similarity of possible futures, all branching out from a single history, has often been an explicit concern of Robinson’s. He once published a companion to the Mars trilogy in The Martians, which contains stories in which some aspects of the Mars narrative go different ways; he also published an essay, “Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions,” which spells out several possible futures that might have come out of his alternate history story “The Lucky Strike” (many of them strongly undercutting the optimism of the original story). This fascination with theme and variation turns out to be unexpectedly manifest in New York 2140 as well, whose opening chapter appeared in modified, alternate-universe form in Fredric Jameson’s An American Utopia last summer as “Mutt and Jeff Push the Button.” Whereas it was oriented toward Jameson’s discussion of universal conscription as a vision of a classless anticapitalist utopia in that book, here Mutt and Jeff set the table instead for the revolutionary financial hacks of New York 2140.

Like Galileo’s Dream, 2312, and Aurora before it, New York 2140 remixes many of Robinson’s key futurological themes, once again with a significantly more pessimistic orientation. One of the many competing narrative voices in New York 2140, a historian (or at least history-minded amateur) who is only referred to as “a citizen,” seems to exist in metafictional relationship with the rest of the text, living in 2140 New York along with the others but simultaneously understanding himself to be part of a constructed and perhaps somewhat tunnel-visioned narrative. The “a citizen” narrator seems to understand himself to be in a sort of ongoing argument with interlocutors who don’t want him to be too pessimistic, who don’t want to hear a bunch of “boo-hooing” and “giving-upness,” but who also need to be made to understand that there aren’t actually happy endings in history, just people coming together to make choices that can make things better or make them worse (and so we should strive to make them better). Like most of the recent Robinson novels in what I would call his post–Science in the Capital “Middle Period” — and remixing, in different ways, the ends of both 2312 and Aurora New York 2140 ends on a note of strong ambiguity. The heroes have achieved many of their goals but “there was no guarantee of permanence to anything they did, and the pushback was ferocious as always, because people are crazy and history never ends, and good is accomplished against the immense black-hole gravity of greed and fear.” And out there of course, forever hovering over everything like the sword of Damocles, is the rest of the ice sheet, the climatological monster we’ve summoned and can neither control nor banish, which could slide into the ocean at any time, and throw everything they’ve built into utter chaos once again.

I’ve taken the highly unusual and possibly ill-advised step of quoting from very late in the book here because of something that I feel must be said: written before Trump’s election and released just after his inauguration, New York 2140 stands as the first major science fictional artifact of the Trump era, anticipating even in its articulation of the conditions of victory the fragility of progress and the likelihood of reversal. The story ends at a moment of upswing (like the pie-in-the-sky optimism of November 2008, which felt at the time like an exhilarating moment of liberation) — but how can we not hear in those words not only the disappointing and broken struggle of the actual Obama years but also the screeching, lunatic backlash of the Trump era to which we have now all been condemned? “Don’t be naïve!” the “a citizen” narrator implores us. “There are no happy endings! Because there are no endings! And possibly there is no happiness either!” I felt for a bit reading New York 2140 that perhaps it was no longer right to call Robinson our last great utopian visionary, as he is so often described; maybe even Stan has finally wised up and realized we’re all doomed. When the misanthropic voice of H. G. Wells pops up in one of the epigram pages that periodically punctuate the novel, to announce, upon first seeing the Manhattan skyline, “What a beautiful ruin it will make!” it really felt to me, when reading the novel in the bleak, miserable December of 2016, like the piercing stab of the truth, the real truth. We are going to take this beautiful place and make it a ruin, make everything a ruin until everything is dead. In fact, speaking realistically rather than utopically, we probably already have. Climate change is an intensifying feedback loop we can’t interrupt and can’t reverse; even if we stopped burning carbon tomorrow, it’d probably already be too late to stop most of it, and we won’t stop burning carbon, especially not post-11/8. Some version of New York 2140 — maybe better, likely much worse — seems to be the actual future of our civilization, the one our political leaders and titans of industry and artificially intelligent high-speed-trading algorithms driving the invisible hand of the market have, in their infinite wisdom, chosen for us.

So maybe New York 2140 is a genuinely utopian text after all, insofar as it puts the start of the worst of the disaster in the 2050s, when the crooks who did this to us will all be dead, and I’ll be in my 70s, even more bitter and dyspeptic about the state of the world than I am now, if that’s possible. In 2052, when Robinson imagines the first Pulse starting, assuming of course Trump doesn’t kill us all first, my kids will be 40 and 38, both of them just a little older than I am today. Too bad for them, I guess! Too bad for any kids they might want to have, or any kids those kids will have, or any kids they’ll have, or …


But of course this isn’t the full story either, not all of it. New York 2140 has actually clarified for me my previous misunderstanding of Robinson’s intellectual project in his Middle Period, where (it has always seemed to me) we keep getting utopia-but-worse, -and-worse, -and-worse-yet. What is actually happening, I realize now, is more complicated than that. In Benjamin’s “Theses on the Concept of History,” he writes of the work of historical materialism as a bid “to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Robinson’s project since the Mars books has been to attempt to seize hold of the future as it flashes up at a moment of danger and say “a better world is possible — yes, even here, and even here.” After all, every second of time, Benjamin says in that same essay, is a gate through which the Messiah might enter.

The passage that solidified this new understanding for me was ironically one in which two characters (the aforementioned Mutt and Jeff) find themselves trapped in a Waiting for Godot–esque situation with nothing but time, discussing the past. “Once upon a time,” the Vladimir says to the Estragon, “there was a country across the sea, where everyone tried their best to make a community that worked for everyone.”


“New York.” We then see the Vladimir describe the founding of this New York as a place where everyone could be whoever they wanted to be, where who you were before you got there didn’t matter — a free place, a beautiful place, a gift. Of course it’s a place that never fully existed in our bad history, but from time to time we saw its glimmers, and in any event it’s a place we might have had.

“Why didn’t anyone live there before?” the Estragon asks.

“Well, that’s another story. Actually there were people there already, I have to say, but alas they didn’t have immunity to the diseases that the new people brought with them, so most of them died. But the survivors joined this community and taught the newcomers how to take care of the land so that it would stay healthy forever.” Oh — oh well. So this is all just another utopian dream, “a lullaby, a tale for children,” an alternate history not all that unlike the one Robinson himself crafted in his own The Years of Rice and Salt. But despite its what-if nature, it’s really not so far out of the realm of the possible. The lullaby simply imagines people who are just like us, except they chose to seize hold of utopia, together, in their shared moment of danger. It could have happened! It didn’t, alas — the colonists chose to accelerate the wretched work of genocide instead — but it might have. Even in the world-historical disaster that was first contact between the New World and the Old, even in a time of horrific, unthinkable mass death, we can still find seeds for the utopia that might have been founded then instead. Every moment has those seeds, Benjamin said; ours does too. In this way, New York 2140 truly is a document of hope as much as dread and despair. And it’s a hope we’ll dearly need in the Anthropocene, the Anthropocide, the Capitalocene, the Chthulucene, postnormality, whatever you want to call the coming bad years that, with each flood and drought and wildfire and “superstorm,” we have to realize have already begun — our own shared moment of danger, as it now begins to wash up over our beaches, breach our levees, flash up at us in an ever-rising tide.


Gerry Canavan is an assistant professor of 20th- and 21st-century literature at Marquette University and the author of Octavia E. Butler (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

LARB Contributor

Gerry Canavan is an associate professor in the English department at Marquette University, teaching 20th- and 21st-century literature. His research projects include Science Fiction and Totality, as well as co-editing The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction and the journal Science Fiction Film and Television. His edited collection of critical essays, Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, is available from Wesleyan University Press. He is also the author of Octavia E. Butler from the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series.


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