Tag Archives: science fiction

Social change in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

[Spoilers the size of the First Pulse ahead]

Earlier this year, over spring break, I traveled to San Francisco for a work conference. (What a lovely place!)  I needed a book for the return flight across the country and remembered that I had been looking forward to the new Kim Stanley Robinson novel about future New York. (In a previous post, I discussed why I loved reading his last book, Aurora, as well as Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.) I hiked all over the city to local bookstores, trying to find a copy, which I eventually found at Alexander Book Company.  I had high hopes for New York 2140.

This book was precisely what I needed after the political events of 2016.  One of my concerns about much of popular culture (in movies, tv shows, books, etc.) in recent years has been the focus on dystopia, cruelty, anti-heroes, self-loathing, etc. I’ve been slowly cooling out on many parts of popular culture that I used to enjoy.  As an example. I stopped watching Game of Thrones seasons ago (and am torn as to whether I want to finish the novels.)

In my own writing, and in the stories that I want to read right now, I want stories that focus on real people who are working to make their communities better. We need stories that tell us that we can be good, that we can be better. We need stories about communication and collaboration. We need stories that show that outcomes change through daily actions and diligence. New York 2140 delivers this through its magnificent cast of characters—characters who have ordinary but essential jobs. Characters who actually grow as people over time due to their situations and interactions with other people in their communities.

However, it’d be too easy for a novel to swing too far in the other direction away from dystopia and total despair. It could focus too much on utopia, on “perfect” heroes without flaws, on rosy ideas that could never actually happen because we humans are complex and messy. Apparently, at least in this novel, Kim Stanley Robinson feels similarly.

The future New Yorkers are dealing with uncertainly and adversity relating to the environment and capitalism and have been for more than a century.  Yet, despite the destruction, people are still living their lives. There are people who are swooping in to take advantage of disaster and those who are the “helpers” that Mr. Rogers referenced.

This book made me wish that I had read more American literature. There were many classic American stories embedded in the larger story which is why such a large cast was needed: it included a treasure hunt, a police/detective story, a rags to riches orphan tale, Moby Dick references, “Mutt and Jeff,” a gritty lawyer, the immigrant experience, an internet star, love affairs, and so much more.  I’m sure that I missed some references. There’s also “a citizen” that waxes poetical about the city of New York, that gives historical and educational information about New York through the centuries. In fact, New York City felt like a character in this book.

Many stories play out simultaneously in a city, and Kim Stanley Robinson points this out.  In fact, we often focus on the “few” people, but in reality, there are many people responsible for the events around us, including social change. It reminds me of the differences between micro-level and macro-level approaches in sociology.  Reality construction requires the day-to-day interactions and meaning construction between individuals.  You don’t get large institutions like banking or politics without individuals. Yet the institutions and large scale-conflicts around us shape those individual actions. The characters actions in New York 2140 impacted the society that they live in; however, other people in the city/nation/world who were not a part of the narrative played a role, too. Kim Stanley Robinson puts it like this in a chapter by “a citizen”:

Note that this flurry of social and legal change did not happen because of Representative Charlotte Armstrong of the Twelfth District of the State of New York. . . Nor was it due to any other single individual. Remember: ease of representation.  It’s always more than what you see, bigger than what you know.

That said, people in this era did do it.  Individuals make history, but it’s also a collective thing, a wave that people ride in their time, a wave made of individual actions.  So ultimately history is another particle/wave duality that no one can parse or understand (603).

I loved this idea.  We’re riding a wave that we’re creating together. In some ways, it indicates a lack of control while also recognizing that we are in control of our individual actions. We can work to improve our communities and enact social change.  But there is a limit in scope of what one person can do alone.

A remaining questions that I have: is “a citizen” actually Franklin Garr, the only first person narrative in the novel? He’s smart and knows a ton about New York due to his work in the beginning of the novel as the creator of the Intertidal Property Pricing Index, and extremely complicated formula “used by millions to orient investments that totaled in the trillions“ (19).  It’d be easy to mistake him for “just a stock broker”, but he has to understand finance, as well as the physics of what’s happening.  He obviously had a great education; however, he is young, wealthy, privileged, selfish and immature. Over time, through his exposure to diversity within his building, though his interactions with the other characters, he grows and becomes more empathetic and thoughtful.  This is a great message because people can change. I’d have to go back and do a longer analysis, but small things make me wonder if he’s also “a citizen” like their love of boating, enthusiastic narrative style and way of “speaking.” ( Of course, this could be a coincidence  since the whole book is about New York being submerged.)

I highly recommend this book, and I hope that it gets nominated for awards next year. Although I haven’t mentioned it, New York 2140 would be educational for readers who might not have taken a sociology class.

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Filed under Book Reviews, capitalism, Science Fiction, Sociology, Writing

Reading Progress: 2014 Nebula Nominees

[Spoilers–Enter at your own risk]

This is one of my favorite times of the year because the semester is winding down, allowing me more free time to read the Nebula nominees, too. If I have time, I usually pick up some of the Hugo nominees.  This year, however, I suspect I’ll be focusing mainly on the Nebulas due to the Sad Puppies takeover of the Hugo ballot.

The list of nominees for 2014 is here. Due to several friends’ recommendations, I started with Annihilation. It’s the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. Here is a review at i09 covers more of the details. I tore through it faster than any novel I’d read in years and felt a need to hide under my bed with a blankie when I finished.  It left me with a sense of delicious disquiet. Although I usually write more about sociology, this book explored concepts of psychology in fascinating ways.

The protagonist and narrator, a biologist, is sent with three other women to explore Area X: an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist, the leader of the team. All the previous expeditions had failed, ending in the deaths of all of the team members.  Fascinating group dynamics were presented like trust and distrust, in-groups and out-groups, as well as leadership style. The plot is gripping and the unreliable narrator fascinating. It seems that she may have been psychologically unusual before going to area X, which may be an advantage for her. The mystery, as well as the disconcerting, slow building horror, have me ready to read the second and third book.  The book left me with many questions.

However, I’m currently reading The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, a Chinese author. The book was translated into English by Ken Liu. I’m about a quarter into it and can’t wait to read more.  Yesterday, I spent about thirty minutes reading about black-body radiation online to better understand the book. I love how science fiction forces me to stretch my knowledge. My focus in school was on the social sciences so I love a good opportunity to learn more about science. For example, I’ve been listening to an introductory, astronomy podcast from the Ohio State by Professor Richard Pogge since last fall. I’m on the 28th lecture, and I’ve found the podcasts both informative and entertaining at points. The only challenge I’ve faced is that while I’m driving, I wish that I could see the examples that he’s showing his class.  I search for examples online later. Listening to these podcasts this year has led me to a deeper appreciation of The Three-Body Problem and will hopefully help me with writing my own fiction.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Science Fiction, Sociology