New York 2140: A Climate Change Thriller

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A global warming apocalypse has been brewing for centuries since the Industrial Revolution converted Western countries and then the world into great carbon emission machines. Some historians divide history up into periods by looking at energy source: from very early fire to wood, wind, water, then on to coal, gas petroleum. Environmental history generates interpretations that resonate with this energy-based view of the past, because industrialization has such dramatic impacts on ecology.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s wonderful new novel in the climate change thriller genre looks at a post-apocalypse New York that has become an aquatic city of canals, linking skyscrapers on high ground. Global warming is melting the polar ice caps and huge rises in sea level have deluged coastal cities, leaving devastation and strange new societies in the afterwash. Water rats of New York — that is displaced people with no papers, thousands of orphans and undocumented migrants — roam the boat houses and melted buildings of New York in this grim fantasy. Nevertheless, the remaining, waterproofed and buttressed skyscrapers house the well-to-do. But definitions of comfort and ease have been tossed in the tidal wave of climate change. Gen Octaviasdottir lives in a closet-sized “apartment” with barely any cooking available, although she is top brass in the NYPD. The residents of her fancy Metropolitan Life tower — which survived the two pulses of water, totaling a 70-foot rise in sea levels — eat in a communal dining room that serves a thousand at a time. Many live on dormitory floors that sleep dozens in the same room. Rooftop farms and aquaculture in cages floating in the buildings’ underwater basements supply much of the food.

New York 2140  is delightful, scary, satirical and true, neatly tethered to the discourse of high finance, climate change denial, de-democratization and one-percenter autocracy that permeates our current social conversation. Hedge fund managers of this future New York make Gordon Gekko look like Little Miss Sunshine, as they speculate on risk tranches of the intertidal zone — real estate whose status and ownership is indeterminate because technically underwater. Despite  or because? of the legal ambiguity, the real estate industry bubbles on, enriching a few, de-housing the millions and making a mockery of self-governance in the hot downtown neighborhood of “Supervenice” where vaporettos zip between buildings and the wealthy zoom by on private hydrofoils. No problem collateralizing and selling ecological disaster. New Yorkers will recognize this zone as the low-lying areas of New York inundated by Superstorm Sandy. Of course, since this is science fiction, there are fabulous new “carbon-eating” hyperlight materials that insulate and prop up the surviving drowned skyscrapers.

Meanwhile, thousands of species are going extinct, a trend anxiously followed as a long-running reality show about Assisted Migration. The host, Amelia Black, rides an airship that documents habitats and charismatic megafauna from above, live broadcasting her adventures and commentary. She even airlifts some beleaguered polar bears from the North Pole to Antartica in an effort to save the tiny remainder herd of 200 who can no longer forage in the melted ice cap’s new ecology.

The plot gallops through the fertile territory of FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) industry mischief, pitting Fifth Columnist subversive quants against dark pool traders investing in very deep, very murky schemes beyond the hugely elaborate surveillance systems that characterize daily life in New York 2140. The plot twists are napped in a sauce of Fredric Jameson, and salted with Karl Marx and Dashiel Hammet. This all too familiar, yet invented, society displays the hubris, technological savvy and gargantuan folly we know so well from explorations of four previous centuries of New York history.


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About Kathleen Hulser

Kathleen Hulser is an independent historian who manages cultural projects. She is curator at the New York Transit Museum. Hulser has recently worked on rewriting tours of Gracie Mansion and City Hall. She has taught history, urban studies and American Studies at Pace, New York University and the New School. She is currently working on a film/exhibition project about an early 20th century caricaturist, "Rediscovering Kate Carew."

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