5,000 Years of Climate Fiction

In the second of our two review essays on “New York 2140,” distinguished scholar Wai Chee Dimock lays out the literary genealogy of a novel betting on the continuity of life. Read our first essay, by Philomena Polefrone, here.
Kim Stanley Robinson is not the first to write about Manhattan under water. Others, notably Nathaniel Rich in Odds Against Tomorrow (2013), have also ...

Kim Stanley Robinson is not the first to write about Manhattan under water. Others, notably Nathaniel Rich in Odds Against Tomorrow (2013), have also done so, staging financial meltdowns amid climate-change-induced storm surges. But Robinson is probably the first to celebrate the resilient ordinariness running through these traumatic events, forging an everyday poetics on just that basis.

New York 2140¸ his latest novel, is a song of postdiluvian life, a song of myself not unlike Whitman’s, less a fateful end than the beginning of a new normal. Water is everywhere, but humans, a newly amphibious species, can handle that, backed by soaring real estate prices and soaring flights of the imagination, the latter epic in its allusive range and in the possible future that it serves up.

With the sea level 50 feet higher in 2140 than what it was a century earlier, New York streets have become canals. There are still constant traffic jams, but the stalled vehicles are more interesting: barges, tugs, gondolas, public-transit vaporetti, catamarans, rubber dinghies, and, not least of all, “zoomers,” or hydrofoils, gliding along in the autobahn lane. Lower Manhattan below 23rd Street is “intertidal,” bobbing in and out of water with every fluctuation of the sea level. The buildings are still occupied, to no one’s surprise. Investors and real estate developers, experts in a high-frequency geo-trading beyond Marx’s wildest dreams, bet on these apparitional properties.

Robinson takes us through the morning rush hour on a hydrofoil, the “Jesus bug,” an aptly named specimen and the very spirit of Wall Street. Phenomenal in its hydraulics and always poised for liftoff, this vehicle speeds through “backwash interference, the curve of a wave around a right angle, the spread of a wave through a gap,” before powering up to its leveraged height, “ripping through the sun-battered wakes of the slow-pokes,” cushioned by its own “magic carpet of air some six feet off the river.”

The Jesus bug is owned by one of the novel’s seven protagonists, Franklin Garr: poet, engineer, and hedge fund manager rolled into one, a child of capitalism but not without other genealogies. His Intertidal Property Pricing Index, the market’s new bible, generates portfolios totaled in the trillions. When he looks at his computer screen, though, what he sees is a “veritable anthology” of narratives and genres: “haiku and epics, personal essays and mathematical equations, Bildungsroman and Götterdämmerung,” all eloquent on the “tragedies and comedies of creative destruction and destructive creation.”

Like his namesake Ben Franklin, who dabbled in some of these genres but is better known for other things, Franklin Garr is a compulsive inventor. His biggest idea yet might be a redevelopment plan featuring floating neighborhoods, built with graphene, a super-durable compound that sucks carbon out of the air, and anchored to the bedrock using cables with enough tensile strength to “tie the earth to the moon.”

Robinson’s latest novel is a song of postdiluvian life, less a fateful end than the beginning of a new normal.

Housing in New York remains key in postdiluvian times, and not just as a fantasy for investors. It is also a lab for civil and chemical engineers, and for social dreamers flourishing in semi-autonomous buildings and activist householders’ unions, honing the art of aqua-farming, aqua-protest, and aqua-love. At the heart of all of this is the old Met Life tower, now a co-op with two thousand residents and seven hundred units, from single-person closets to group dorm rooms. It has a boat house, chickens and pigs and goats occupying a floor of their own, and a communal farm on its top four floors, giving the association some semblance of food self-sufficiency.

Franklin lives here and pays the high rents exacted from nonowners. The pillars of the building are Charlotte, longtime chair of the co-op board, and the super, Vlade, who checks every pinprick, every sign of dampness in its walls and foundations with the vigilance of a jealous husband guarding his “stone wife.” Through these two, the novel’s episodic subplots unfold, adding to the cast Mutt and Jeff, a Beckett-inspired duo; Stefan and Roberto, two kids familiar with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and, like them, embarked on a treasure hunt; and Amelia Black, “klutz goddess” and “cloud star,” who live-streams all her adventures from an airship, fondly dubbed Amelia Errhard and Amelia Airhead by her 32 million followers.

Unique among Robinson’s work, New York 2140 is painstakingly literary, citing scores of authors and texts beginning with Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian epic making a cameo appearance by way of Enkidu, a “full-blooded Assyrian” bartender and friend of Franklin’s. It makes sense. Gilgamesh, after all, is the oldest literature on record, an epic first written in Sumerian and widely read, sung, translated, and parodied some five thousand years ago.

It recounts the story of two friends, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, talking each other into an ill-advised trip to cut down the cedar forest. Along the way, it tells a story about a devastating Great Flood that predates the biblical account by two thousand years. Gilgamesh could be called “climate fiction” avant la lettre. But “climate fiction” could perhaps also be redefined in light of this precedent. Not just a 21st-century phenomenon, this is an ancient genre about beginnings and endings, with lineages longer, more diverse, and more tenacious than we might think.

New York 2140 cites many other works alongside Gilgamesh. Classic American authors, seasoned practitioners of aqua-love, make an especially strong showing. Melville gives us the most succinct epigraph, “I love all men who dive,” luring Stefan and Roberto into yet another treasure hunt, this time for a lost masterpiece, Isle of the Cross, supposedly written by the author when he was living on East 26th Street.

Tragedy, however, is not on Robinson’s agenda, so Melville, though invoked, is eventually sidelined. Whitman is the guiding spirit here, with many long quotes attesting to his importance, including this confident (perhaps overly confident) one from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high, / A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them, / Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.”

A bet on the future of the human species, these lines are especially exhilarating—and frightening—to read just now, against the massive uncertainties inundating the world. These are the lines Robinson would like to recall, the frame through which the speculative daring of climate fiction can be gauged. Here is the genre of our time, giving tangible expression, in accents alternately hopeful and bleak, to the cataclysm poised to strike but not irrevocably scripted to do so.


My Neighbor Octavia

By Sheila Liming

Amid these large gestures and expansive claims, there are smaller tributes as well, more granular, more lyrical. For me, the most moving comes in an odd episode centered on Inspector Gen Octaviasdottir, another resident in the Met Life tower. Gen is black, a top cop in the NYPD, and a key player in intertidal New York. On this occasion she pays a visit to Mezzrow’s, an underwater speakeasy and bathhouse “far under the city streets, maybe seventy feet below low tide.”

Thirty years ago, when she was part of a submarine gang in Hoboken, this place would have been second nature to her. Now she has some official business to conduct, but the emotional crux of the chapter comes after that, when she stays on to referee a water sumo game. “She had spent a lot of hours in rings like this one, but it had been so long ago that she had outlived nostalgia itself.”

Reffing is all she will do now, allowing herself to feel only “a little ghost of the buzz” as two young wrestlers step up, into that “red circle on the floor of the pool.” And that’s what Mezzrow’s will be to her from now on: “Everyone there loved having a policewoman, the famous submarine inspector, there in a private bathhouse reffing the action. Just like up in the air! If things were going well.”

Mezzrow was a real-life jazz musician and drug dealer in New York City, and the inspiration for a downtown basement jazz club. But Robinson’s Mezzrow’s is mostly a tribute to Octavia Butler: longtime champion in the ring, now departed and above the fray, but not above reffing from time to time, still interested in what the kids are doing. In a novel betting on the continuity of life, there’s no fonder tribute to a precursor, possible rival, and coworker in a genre extending from the deep past into all of conjectural future, a lifeline longer than the lifespan of either party, and with no end in sight. icon

Featured image: In this illustration of the epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim prepares his boat for the flood.