Monday, May 15, 2017

New Scientist Column: Kim Stanley Robinson and Gwyneth Jones

My latest column at The New Scientist looks at two novels that try to imagine how society will order itself in the wake of environmental and economic collapse.  Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140 imagines the titular city as a high-tech Venice, where a quasi-socialist community has arisen in the vacuum left behind when finance retreated, and must now defend itself as the forces of gentrification once again sniff out a profit to be made in the newly hip and livable canalized city.  It's been interesting to watch the reviews for this book pour in: Gerry Canavan at LARB, for example, wonders if it represents the shattering of Robinson's famed optimism, while Joshua Rothman at the New Yorker, and John Clute in Strange Horizons, see the book's vision of a city that survives and even flourishes in the wake of climate change as an inherently hopeful one.  I think that tension is entirely intentional--New York 2140 is a book that isn't entirely certain whether the future it imagines is a good one, and whether the survival it posits is something to celebrate or mourn.

Proof of Concept is a great deal less ambivalent about its future, in which most of humanity lives in cramped, heavily-policed enclaves while the rest of the planet is a polluted wasteland.  A group of scientists enter enforced isolation, supposedly to study a potential form of faster-than-light travel, but also as a form of reality TV that is a primary form of entertainment in a world that loves dreaming about an "escape ticket".  As you'd expect with Jones, everything is a lot weirder than even that premise might suggest, with the novella juggling so many balls that one could easily imagine it being fleshed out into a full-length novel.  It's amazing to think that we haven't had a new work from Jones in nearly a decade, and I hope that Proof of Concept is a sign of things to come, though as a work in its own right it feels incomplete (Paul Kincaid comes to similar conclusions at Strange Horizons).

3 comments:

Brett said...

Combined with the near-invisibility of non-white communities – historically the most vulnerable to environmental and financial upheavals – it’s a reminder that there are blind spots to Robinson’s, and the book’s, leftism.

Does it come across as deliberate in any way? As in, the heavily-white leftist societies survived in the new socialist version of flooded New York City because of their more privileged position before the sea rise happened, whereas the communities-of-color had far fewer resources and help to adapt and ended up just displaced completely?

It seems like something he might include, especially since "earlier wave of white gentrifiers rallying against later white gentrifiers" is very much a thing IRL.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Not really, I'm afraid - and this is a book where one of the protagonists is a nameless "citizen" who delivers potted histories of the world and the intervening century, so there's really no justification for not referencing this, if we're to assume that something like that happened.

It's not that there are no POC characters at all - one of the main ones is a black policewoman. But POC communities don't really seem to exist, and this is exacerbated, as N.K. Jemisin pointed out when she wrote about the book in the NYT, by the fact that Brooklyn and the Bronx are completely downplayed in favor of Manhattan. It's a good book and worth reading, but this is a pretty serious blind spot.

Brett said...

I just finished it. Now I see what you mean about the rather "wish fulfillment" ending, particularly in that one chapter where it feels like KSR is having his fantasy response to the 2008 financial crisis take place.

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