It with great pleasure (and a small bit of relief) that I am finally able to get this review posted! Originally published back in March 2017, I had been eagerly anticipating this read not only because it looked to cover some really interesting subject matter, but also on account of Kim Stanley Robinson having emerged as one of my favorite authors.
The book is set in New York City and spans the years 2140 through 2143. In this future, sea levels have risen upwards of fifty feet world wide on account of climate change and the accelerated melting of the Earth’s polar ice caps. Coastal cities across the globe have been ravaged and we find that in New York, all of lower Manhattan, the Meadowlands, Brooklyn, Queens, and the south Bronx are now shallow seas. The local population, however, has, with much struggle, successfully adapted the partially submerged buildings into livable spaces, creating a “SuperVenice” that is once again becoming fashionable and drawing the eye of capital investment. The story revolves around various residents of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower and opens with the introduction of two rogue coders named Jeff and Mutt who are abducted by unknown forces moments after releasing a hack that exposes evidence of widespread illicit trading practices to the SEC. As the investigation of their disappearance unfolds, a diverse grouping of their former neighbors find their lives increasingly caught up in the incident. Among the key players are Vlade Marovich, the building’s friendly yet grim superintendent; Gen Octaviasdottir, a tough NYPD inspector from the poor side of town; Charlotte Armstrong, a passionate legal advocate of displaced people and leading figure in the influential Householders Union; Frank Garr, a high powered hedge fund manager; Amelia Black, reality star and environmental activist; and, finally, Stefan and Roberto, a pair of adventurous orphans. As their lives entwine, they find themselves caught up in a corporate conspiracy that threatens the very essence of their community and way of life. Fortunately for them, a chance discovery may just provide them the means to fight back.
Let me open the review by saying that this was an absolute monster of a book. It was dense, it was detailed, and it was a hefty 860+ pages. And for the most part I absolutely loved it! To get them out of the way upfront, the book did have some flaws regarding certain aspects of the overall pacing and storytelling. The author had a tendency to spend a lot of time on things that ultimately didn’t add much to the story as a whole and this had a pretty significant impact on the length and pacing of the main plot. As much as I liked Amelia, her early chapters felt a bit extraneous and likewise Frank’s extended courtship of JoJo took up a lot of early page time for things that by the end weren’t central to the plot. While these items certainly added color to the story, they did add considerably to an already verbose tale.
That said, I nonetheless found the experience of this novel extremely satisfying. The world created was absolutely fascinating, well developed, and full of brilliant and innovative ideas and technologies a near-future society may have at its disposal. The author certainly did his homework about New York’s history and geography and brought the city to life as a vibrant, living part of a complicated world. The characters were all wonderfully engaging as well, with my particular favorites being Charlotte for her fiery activism, Gen for her realism and dedication to both police work and social justice, and the wonderful duo of Jeff and Mutt. These last two felt like the result of fusing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Waiting for Godot in to the worlds of coding and finance with all the requisite knowledge and banter. They themselves even comment upon on this shortly after I started thinking it!
It was the novel’s political message, though, that really made me love this book so much. The joint environmental and economic oppressions of this world were a constant source of tangible tension throughout the story and really grabbed me as a reader It was also through this that the author delivered an explicit (and rather on point) critique of capitalism in general and large financial institutions in particular as not only enemies of a free and open society, but also major factors in the willful ignorance that led previous generations to ignore the realities of climate change. Charlotte’s eventual notion of unleashing a mass campaign of financial disobedience in the form of a debtor’s strike (in which the participants stop paying all mortgage, rent, and credit debts) to cripple the banks and open them up to seizure by a progressive government was brilliant and something that just felt right to me. There were a number of passages along these lines scattered throughout the story that felt like a rallying cry for the near future. A couple of my favorites were:
But that lack on my part is now an advantage, because that career track is what made the Democratic Party so weak. But I’m a Democrat for lack of anything better, and I intend to speak out of the people’s side of our party’s two-sided mouth and shut the other… I’m not taking money from anyone and I don’t have any of my own…Vote for me if you want, and if not, you get what you deserve.
- Excerpt from one of Charlotte’s campaign speeches
At this point, justice and revenge are the same thing! Justice for the people would be revenge on the oligarchs. So yeah, I want both. Justice is the feather in the arrow, revenge is the tip…look once you’re cutting [the rentier class] apart, you tell them they each get to keep five million. Not more, but not less…Most of them will do a cost-benefit analysis and realize that dying for a bigger number is not worth it.
- Jeff on how to make a better world
Well, there you have it. As alluded to above, I loved the righteous political message of this story and really enjoyed the characters and world building that went along with it. The one thing that stops me just short of declaring this an absolute must read for everyone is the length and density of the novel, especially given some of its pacing issues. I got enough of political rush out the story’s message to overlook these things, whether another reader does as well may (or not) be decisive factor in how much they enjoy this.