A brilliant sci-fi thriller imagines how the massive floods of climate change could transform Earth

Rafi Letzter
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Hachette

There are times when an author releases a book, and it seems like they've finally pinned down an idea they've been wrestling with for their entire writing career. The science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson has done that with his latest novel, "New York 2140."

Robinson's past books mostly been set in space — on interstellar starships or amid the long terraforming project of the planet Mars — but they've centered on questions of how we treat planet Earth. Is this fragile environment portable? Can we fix it if we break it? What is there left to do if we can't?

His stories are adventures first, but they keep coming back to the anxiety that, as a species, we're wrecking the planet, and we don't really have a good imagination of what the planet is going to look like afterward.

"New York 2140" is Robinson's most straightforward attempt to imagine the consequences of our environmental inaction today.

His future Earth flooded in two pulses. The first, a massive calamity caused by rising temperatures melting Antarctic ice, cause sea levels to rise ten feet in ten years. (You won't need a spoiler alert for that one if you've been following climate news.) In his story, the flood spurs a massive refugee crisis, as well as a global effort to radically slash carbon emissions and even pump sunlight-reflecting gas into the atmosphere to cool it back down.

But, at that point, it was too late. Too much heat had made it deep into the oceans, triggering faster ice flows and more melting. A second pulse followed the first, raising sea level another 40 feet, changing coastlines all over the word and smashing the emergency sea wall around New York City. All of this takes place decades before the start of the novel, but sets up the world in which the novel takes place.

In Robinson's version of 2140, Manhattan remains a thriving city. The economic centers have moved uptown, to Washington Heights and the Cloisters. But the central characters still make their lives downtown, where the streets function like wide, polluted, Venetian canals.

The thriller Robinson unspools in that flooded city is gripping on its own merits. But it's the radical imagination of the book that makes it so hard to put down.

If you've spent any time in New York City, you'll have a thousand tiny moments of recognition as Robinson tours his drenched city's neighborhood politics, frustrated public works projects, and street-by-street physical transformation. But even if you haven't, the plausibility of his transformed world is transfixing.

There are moments when the book becomes self-aware in a way that borders on grating, like when Robinson winkingly writes himself in to a bit of 22nd Century environmental history: 

People sometimes say no one saw it coming, but no, wrong: they did. Paleoclimatologists looked at the modern situation and saw CO2 levels screaming up from 280 to 450 parts per million in less than three hundred years, faster than had ever happened in the Earth's entire previous five billion years... and they said, Whoa. They said, Holy shit. People! they said. Sea level rise!... They put in in bumper sticker terms: massive sea level rise sure to follow our unprecedented release of CO2! They published their papers, and shouted and waved their arms, and few canny and deeply thoughtful sci-fi writers wrote up lurid accounts of such an eventuality, and the rest of civilization went on torching the planet like a Burning Man pyromasterpiece. Really.

But by imagining what the world might look like after the harshest impacts of climate change manifest, Robinson creates a richly detailed story out of the increasingly urgent climate science reports that have come out over the last few decades.

For all of that weight it's carrying, "New York 2140" is a surprisingly fun book. It's available now.

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