Kim Stanley Robinson is among the best there is at hard science fiction; he can write characters who feel like real people and give you ideas that keep you thinking well after you’ve set the book down. Unfortunately, New York 2140 (2017) is not up to the mark of his best work; fortunately, that still leaves plenty of room for it to be enjoyable and thought-provoking.
New York 2140 is, among many other things, a love letter to New York, or, as it is known in 2140, SuperVenice; the chapter titles and a number of references throughout (Archy and Mehitabel, anyone?) reference the city’s past (and, from our point of view, future)
In fact, much of the fun of New York 2140 is in Robinson’s re-imagining the city under fifty-ish feet of water; it hasn’t really changed all that much, considering, with water taxis replacing taxicabs and each skyscraper (waterproofed with a handwaved graphene polymer) functioning as its own little island.
In particular, we meet a number of members of the MetLife co-op — a financebro, a policewoman, an attorney, the building super, two street (I suppose it should be “canal”?) urchins — and Robinson weaves the pattern of their interactions into a number of plots. There’s a search for buried treasure, attempted transplantation of polar bears to the South Pole, politics, diving, financial shenanigans, more politics, and a love story, or maybe one and a half love stories. The overall effect is of a distributed plot and character web with no individual character or plot predominating. This works well to keep the main focus on New York itself, but it makes the book feel slightly unfocused at times.
In fact, I felt New York 2140 seems to be a bit at cross purposes with itself on a number of points; for example, Robinson makes a watery New York sound like so much fun (jetting around town in a hyperfoil!) that it somewhat undercuts the essentially tragic nature of New York’s transformation. For another example, it’s kinda hard to take two characters named Mutt and Jeff seriously, even when they’re trying to take down the global banking octopus. I wasn’t very taken with the love story, but the buried treasure part was fun; similarly, I found the financial shenanigans more plausible than the political outcomes that supposedly resulted from them.
Overall, I wouldn’t put New York 2140 up with Robinson’s MARS trilogy, but it’s a fun read with some good moments and some good ideas, and if you like Robinson’s work you’ll like New York 2140.