The Hugo Voter Pack for this section was fairly annoying this year, offering only two books in full and the rest as excerpts. I was in two minds about trying to get hold of the novels, to be honest, but when Andrew was able to find them all at the library, I accepted my fate.
I decided to start with New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson, on the grounds that it was a gigantic tome which will never fit in my handbag, and I wanted to get it over with. We had heard Robinson interviewed about it on the Coode Street Podcast, and he had described it as being set in a post-climate change, drowned New York with a Venice-like feel. He said he had spent a lot of time walking around New York with a map showing altitudes, to work out where the intertidal areas would be and where the drowned areas would be, which sounded appealing. He also said that he had spent a long time figuring out the economic set up, and that the villain in this story was Capitalism which sounded both depressing and dull. It sounded, frankly, like a climate change dystopia with economics, in 600+ pages – not my cup of tea.
So I was surprised to find I quite enjoyed it. It was a strange sort of enjoyment – up until about halfway through, it was the sort of enjoyment where I quite liked it while I was reading it, but could also walk away and forget about it at any time. After that, it got a bit more compelling.
I’m not sure how best to describe the plot. It centres around the denizens of the MetLife building – Inspector Gen, a Black woman and a fourth generation cop; Charlotte, a lawyer who works for the Housing Cooperative and tries to sort out housing for refugees ; Franklin, a financier who is not quite as much of a good guy as he thinks he is, but does have more ethics than are immediately apparent; Mutt and Jeff, two ‘quants’ who work on the mathematical side of financial speculation and are somewhat lacking in sense; Vlade, the building manager and former diver; Amelia, a ‘cloud star’ celebrity, who uses her zeppelin to assist the migration of endangered species, and films this for the public; and Roberto and Stefan, two very bright ‘water rats’ – children without visible means of support, who support themselves by diving and scavenging in the drowned city.
And… they try to keep the building together. They try to find buried treasure. They try to save the polar bears. They try to rescue refugees when a hurricane creates a gigantic storm surge. They fight off hostile takeovers and predatory financial systems, and run co-operatives, and eventually realise that this piecemeal approach is not enough, and they will need to find a way to fix the system entire.
I liked the characters, some more than others. Amelia is delightful; Vlade is someone I’d like to know; Franklin deserves all the eye-rolling in the world, but is actually quite likeable once he starts looking outside his own bubble; Gen and Charlotte are both great, but perhaps not that well characterised because I was constantly mixing them up.
It’s a surprisingly optimistic book, given its subject matter. It’s so optimistic, in the end, that I found it almost unbelievable – but that’s probably the effect of the current political climate.
I don’t think I’d seek out more of Robinson’s work – it is SO long and his characterisation wasn’t strong enough to keep me really interested – but I liked it much more than I expected to. And a little political optimism is a balm in the current climate. It’s a good start to the best novel category.