- Staging the SpeculativeOn Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140
In a chapter titled "Capital Sinks," Ashley Dawson, in his 2017 book Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change, lays out a sobering vision of the present and future of urban planning and its responses to the effects of climate change. Surveying a range of recent proposals and projects in New York, Miami, and Jakarta, most of which lie somewhere between rhetorically well-couched half measures against city carbon consumption and startling instances of willful blindness to future sea level rise, Dawson's account makes painfully clear that the relative inaction or even disregard for the oncoming effects of present city plans is continuing to set the seeds for a catastrophic future. The titular "capital sinks" are the ongoing investments that financiers and city officials regularly sink into new seaside buildings, artificial islands, and other planned spaces likely to exacerbate the damage, death, and contamination that coastal flooding will almost certainly bring about. To [End Page 521] draw out a particularly maddening instance of this sort of shortsightedness, Dawson considers Turkey Point, a nuclear power plant situated on a barrier island just south of Miami. Citing the 2011 Fukushima meltdown, Dawson considers likely scenarios for the site, on which there are currently plans to add further reactors. Pulling from the insights of local scientists, Dawson elucidates the near certainty that the site will "[spew] radioactive water into the surroundings" and, despite demanding constant cooling and maintenance, will eventually become "accessible only by boat," making responsible upkeep and management effectively impossible.1 If Fukushima came as a surprise, the endgame of catastrophic meltdown is being built into Turkey Point by local officials from the get-go.
Given the comparable shortsightedness that plagues city planning initiatives across the world, it would be easy to fall into the sort of end times fatalism that often accompanies discussions of likely climate futures (and it is a credit to Dawson's book that he stops short of this, keeping in mind the vulnerable populations that will inevitably have to live through catastrophe). Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, New York 2140, dwells instead in the future that Dawson's discussion portends, with all its wreckage, toxicity, and coastal flooding. Intriguingly, moreover, without shying away from the likely outcomes of a growingly unhinged climate, Robinson maintains the sort of quiet utopianism that has characterized so much of his work. New York 2140 is a novel intimately aware of the projected dynamics of sea level rise, as well as the geopolitical and financial implications of the dramatic changes that sea level rise will bring on; yet it maintains an investment in the way people attempt to carve out contingent enclaves, imbued with radical possibility for social reorganization, in often harsh and unfamiliar terrain.
As with the often short-lived communities of Robinson's Mars trilogy, the enclaves we see in New York 2140, ones that are built into the very instability of the areas of New York City most wracked by flooding, are necessarily threatened from their inception by the movements of natural, political, and economic processes. Contingently, though, they act as pockets for reimagining life, the social, and the pressure points through which large-scale political transformation can arise. What Robinson's novel offers, then, in relation to [End Page 522] the futures that Dawson foresees, is a speculative fiction of utopian world building that not only does not shy away from the looming threats of climate change but incorporates them into the very worlding of micro-utopias themselves. In a sense Robinson positions speculative fiction as a present arena for preemptively intervening in a future that, as Dawson's portrait of current city planning suggests, it is increasingly unlikely we will escape. Yet this formulation marks an ambivalence that equally runs through the novel, betrayed in its narrative's movement toward crisis and in the novel's frequent efforts to sew threads of continuity back to the present of the postrecession 2010s. Is...