Only Sci-Fi Can Drown Manhattan and Make You Want to Live There
Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, 64, a self-described suburban guy and househusband, lives with his scientist wife and two adult sons in a decidedly unfuturistic split-level home in Davis, Calif. He writes his novels at a round metal table in the front yard, shaded by tarps and accompanied by the soft sounds of wind chimes and, occasionally, jazz or classic rock playing on a weathered-looking boombox. From there it’s a short walk to the garden, where Robinson tends to beans, cabbage, and broccoli. “It teaches you that we don’t have crops fully whipped,” he says, adding that everyone should try growing plants as a lesson in mortality: “It’s spooky. They die.”
Robinson’s neighbors are largely professors, lawyers, and environmental activists. His subdivision, a post-hippie-era place called Village Homes, has a community-run day-care center, collectively owned orchards, and a tradition of potlucks. Most residences have solar panels on the roofs. These details, rather than zombies (“I hate that stuff, it’s so easy,” he says) or aliens (“I don’t quite believe in those”), creep into his books. In fact, in three decades, Robinson has stuck to penning stories about scientists, not swashbuckling space pirates—though he did set a recent book on an interstellar spaceship. He wanted to argue that we should see ourselves not as a universe-colonizing master race but as an isolated civilization permanently marooned in our little solar system.
His 18th novel, due out on March 14, bases its plot on something more typically down-to-earth: New York real estate. In New York 2140, unstoppable glacial melt has caused a 50-foot rise in global sea levels, flooding the city. Everything below Midtown has become a tidal zone where menacing green waters flow around the ground floors of skyscrapers. Wall Streeters commute to work by boat; the super rich live on high ground, above 125th Street; and speculators have started moving in on downtown, an underwater Bohemia where artists and middle-class strivers struggle to get by. A winter freeze locks the city in ice. And, spoiler alert, billions of gallons of standing water don’t help with the smell in summer.
But life goes on much as it does today. New Yorkers adapt. “Most people are treating climate change as the disaster that is going to end civilization,” says Gerry Canavan, an English professor at Marquette University who co-edited a book of essays on ecology and sci-fi with Robinson. By contrast, he says, Robinson shows a “process of improvisation and innovation that will allow us to continue living.” People living their lives, only wetter, may not produce the same vicarious thrills as more dystopian visions—John Carpenter’s 1981 film Escape From New York imagined the city in 1997 as a walled maximum-security prison—but books such as 2140 feel more relevant and essential as startling reports of climate change mount. The year 2140 isn’t exactly around the corner, but we did just have the hottest year on record. How far off will rowing to work seem even in 2040?
Climate change has long been Robinson’s preoccupation. His Science in the Capital trilogy, whose first installment was published in 2004, stars National Science Foundation employees who, having failed to stem the consequences of global warming, launch “terraforming” projects, pumping melted glacial ice into the Sahara and trying to restart a stalled Gulf Stream. His 2312, published 300 years before the title date, predicted that we’d figure out how to live on Mercury and the moons of Jupiter but not how to prevent our planet from becoming too hot. Stephanie LeMenager, a professor at the University of Oregon who studies climate change fiction, recommends 1992’s Red Mars, the first book in a trilogy by the same name, which explores that planet’s colonization. Robinson “tends to be a utopianist,” she says, explaining that he’s “a person who finds solutions in the most wicked problems—problems that would seem unsolvable.”
The utopian streak running through 2140 has its roots in what would seem a particularly intractable problem. Robinson believes that the free-market financial system, the cause of a great deal of ruin in recent years, could yet become something better. The novel is part detective yarn, part treasure hunt, part real estate speculation scheme. To tell its backstory, he casts a nameless character known only as “the citizen”—a cynical, profane (aka classic) New Yorker who can’t understand how previous generations (aka us) could have been such morons. (Imagine the way most modern-day Americans feel about antebellum slave owners.) The other principals are a cop, two Dickensian street urchins, a social worker, a reality television star, a building superintendent, a pair of low-level hedge fund quants, and a star hedge fund trader.
The citizen tells us that most of the flooding occurred in two “pulses.” “The First Pulse was a first-order catastrophe, and it got people’s attentions and changes were made, sure,” he says. “People stopped burning carbon much faster than they thought they could before the First Pulse. They closed that barn door the very second the horses had gotten out. The four horses, to be exact.” The Second Pulse resulted from icebergs “the size of major nations” that broke loose and melted. Then the obvious thing happened. “Lawsuits proliferated,” the citizen says. “Many concerned the status of this drowned land, which it had to be admitted was now actually, even perhaps technically, meaning legally, the shallows of the ocean, such that possibly the laws defining and regulating it were not the same as they had been when the areas in question were actual land.”
Robinson’s baseline scenario might be too aggressive. Benjamin Strauss, vice president for sea level and climate impacts at Climate Central, a nonpartisan, nonprofit environmental group, says a 15-foot rise, not a 50-foot one, is more likely by 2140. That would still mean standing water in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Chelsea, and the Financial District. John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports would be submerged. At 50 feet, Strauss says, “you certainly would have enough water for Venice,” but he’s more optimistic that the city will prevent flooding than is Robinson. “The geography of the area allows the building of a barrier,” Strauss says. “My guess is that we will build a wall and sit tight” before the water reaches Times Square.
2140 arose from Robinson’s conviction that the free market sets prices incorrectly. “The system set up now is a system of laws, and it’s an artificial system,” he says. “The laws could be rewritten to prioritize the survival of the species.” That’s what the book’s hero, the star trader, Franklin, winds up doing. Franklin was originally going to be a “thoughtless jerk,” Robinson says, but he was written instead as a sympathetic geek who tries to save the world “just out of his own self-interest.”
From the Met Life Tower in the Flatiron District, which Robinson picked after learning it was a clone of the Campanile di San Marco in Venice, Franklin rewrites the economic rules. He invents the Intertidal Property Pricing Index (IPPI), a post-flood version of the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indexes; where the latter measure the value of residential real estate in major U.S. cities, Robinson’s invention prices the global market for all that new underwater property. (“It was obvious that we would have a lot of aquatic metaphors,” he says.) Since the majority of the planet’s most valuable real estate today is located in coastal areas, its ownership status would become highly uncertain were sea levels to rise. Robinson cites widespread common law dating to Roman times that establishes intertidal zones as beyond private ownership. “The unorganized public is a real legal concept,” he says. The IPPI, then, is a strange kind of optimism: Even after a climate apocalypse, capitalism can still find a way to put a price on things.
Currently, Robinson has a contract for two more novels—one will be about China taking over the moon—and he’s working on a nonfiction book about hiking in the Sierra Nevada. With the actual future and his imagined one slowly converging, he isn’t sure how much more sci-fi he has left in him. “I’m almost done,” he says. “I don’t want to repeat myself.”