In London in 2017, I was able to enjoy a discussion of New York as it was in 1746 and as it might be in 2140. In early April the Waterstone’s bookstore in Piccadilly—a temple of books, Europe’s largest bookstore—hosted a delightful conversation featuring Francis Spufford, author of the much-acclaimed historical novel Golden Hill (published last year in the UK; coming in June in the US) and Kim Stanley Robinson, whose just-released New York 2140 is the latest installment in a long career of brilliant fiction.
The conversation was moderated by Adam Roberts, also one of the best science fiction writers on the scene today, which made for a cordial evening: all three participants are friends. Roberts’ most recent novel, the truly extraordinary The Thing Itself—which in even a moderately rational world would have garnered a bucketful of awards—has scenes set in both the past and the future, in periods not too far removed from those described by Spufford and Robinson, and this, I think, made it natural him to pose some very interesting questions about the relation between the historical novel and science fiction.
One’s first reaction might be that the two genres are very different, since the historical novel is bound by what actually happened while science fiction is free to speculate about what could someday be. But reflection suggests that this is too simple a distinction. For one thing, historical fiction is intrinsically speculative in that it tries to conjure for its readers a sense of what it might have felt like to be alive in a particular time and place, entangled in a historical moment the external outlines of which we know but the inner life of which is largely hidden to us. Thus one of the great achievements of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is to take events that had already by Tolstoy’s day entered the realm of over-and-done-with world-historical significance and imagine what it would have been like to be in the midst of them, not knowing the larger picture, not knowing the outcome.
Likewise, science fiction, if it is going to lay some claim upon its readers’ attention and emotions, will need to offer a recognizable extrapolation from the world we do know, the world we live in now. Each genre, then, requires an imaginative investment from its readers, a willingness to participate in its authors’ speculations; which means that each genre requires, as a prerequisite to readerly engagement, its authors to be disciplined and consistent in their world-making.
So if we consider all these factors, it will perhaps become clear to us that historical fiction and science fiction have pretty deep affinities—and we may also begin to understand why both get classed, by those who advocate “literary” fiction, as “genre” fiction. The illusion—and make no mistake, it is indeed an illusion—that the literary gives us the world simply “as is” has a powerful hold on many readers, and many arbiters of culture. Which is one reason why Kim Stanley Robinson so rarely turns up on lists of “best living American novelists,” even though his body of work surely ought to give him a place in any such conversation.
- New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
- Orbit, 2017
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What primarily disciplines and constrains both Golden Hill and New York 2140 is geography, the geography of what we now call New York City. From time to time in New York 2140 we hear from someone called “the citizen,” or “that citizen,” or “that city smartass,” and at one point early in the book he gives us a tour:
The Bight of New York forms an almost ninety-degree angle where the north-southish Jersey Shore meets the east-westish Long Island, and right there at the bend there’s a gap. It’s only a mile wide, and yet once through it, hopefully coming in on a rising tide, as it’s much easier that way, like Hudson you will come into a humongous harbor, unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. People call it a river but it’s more than a river, it’s a fjord or a fyard if you want to be geologically prissy about it.
For a moment here science fiction becomes historical fiction, deep historical fiction, an attempt to get us to forget the megalopolis humans have built and think for a moment about the truly spectacular coastal landscape/seascape that made the city both desirable and possible.
The citizen with his imaginary historical camera zooms in:
In this great estuary there are some remnant ridges of hard old rock, skinny low long lines of hills, now peninsulas in the general flood. One runs south down the western side of the bay, dividing the Hudson from the Meadowlands: that’s the Palisades and Hoboken, pointing to the big lump that is Staten Island. One anchors the moraine of Long Island, angling in from the east: Brooklyn Heights. And the third runs south down the middle of the bay, and because of a swamp cutting across its northern end, it’s technically an island; rocky, hilly, forested, meadowed, ponded: that’s Manhattan.
Even though the forests are now comprised of skyscrapers rather than trees, the geological framework remains and extends through time. As a consequence of some massive landfill projects, the island extends considerably further into the bay than it once did, but the bones of the land remain the same, and, as Spufford commented on his book’s blog,
Of the city that Mr Smith [the protagonist of Golden Hill] saw, nothing remains except the graveyard of Trinity Church—and the street plan. Lower Manhattan may be skyscrapers from the kerb up, but the feet of the temples of global finance are planted in the same wavering net of early-modern lanes as ever. You can find your way around perfectly well, if you have a photocopy of the Maerschalck Plan in your hand.
But what a difference in Golden Hill three centuries make! A post on the Ephemeral New York blog—describing the pre-Revolutionary War skirmish called the Battle of Golden Hill—links to an 1898 article from the New York Times which tells us that “‘Golden’ was applied to it because of its abundant crop of grain, which it is said waved gracefully in response to the gentle breeze, and looked, in truth, like a hill of gold.” If there is metaphorical gold there now, in the midst of the Financial District, it is the gold of commerce, not agriculture.
Golden, then, but differently so, as Spufford’s 18th-century is a city of playgoing, but to amateur rather than professional theatricals—Joseph Addison’s Cato is popular, as it would be through the Revolutionary years during which George Washington was commonly seen as the modern Cato. Violence could be found then in duels of honor, as now, though now not in public. (The duel in Golden Hill foreshadows that of Hamilton and Burr, which happened some decades later just across the Hudson on the New Jersey shore.) And if we now have “wage-slaves,” the New York of 1746 had actual slaves: chattel slaves. Spufford does not let you forget how much of the energy and culture of that city depended on all those dark faces, dark bodies.
It would be a stretch, but not too much of a stretch, to say that the abiding theme of Kim Stanley Robinson’s fiction is the intersection of materials science and human desire. In order to fulfill certain desires, whether for power or knowledge or delight or mere safety, we learn to transform the materials that surround us into designed objects. Often, having so done, we discover that we are not as powerful or knowledgeable or delighted or safe as we had hoped to be, which leads to further explorations in extraction, design, and construction. Sometimes those explorations create more problems than they solve, and that can be the most powerful impetus of all for yet more extraction, yet more design, yet more construction. This cycle—whether virtuous or vicious, we must reflect before deciding—continues unless it is arrested by crisis. But such arrest is never more than temporary.
The endless possible permutations of this cycle have fascinated Robinson throughout his long career as a novelist, but a vital factor is missing from the description I have just given—and, arguably, missing from Robinson’s fictional worlds, until now. That something is the medium through which the energy of innovation courses. And that medium, liquid and multifarious, is capital. In his new novel, New York 2140, Robinson has written a story that might be subtitled “Capital in the Twenty-Second Century.”
Capital is one of the two liquidities of the novel: the other is water. For with the rise of sea levels in the century-plus between our time and that of the novel, lower Manhattan is underwater, and a chunk of the city from the southernmost part of what we now call Midtown to Central Park is an intertidal zone, sometimes above water, sometimes under. Much of the monetary liquidity of the city is devoted to a complex set of strategies to manage the watery kind, most of them involving waterproofing and structural reinforcement. For here materials science must come to the aid of a very powerful human desire: the desire to keep New York City habitable no matter what.
It is an understandable desire. There are, for one thing, massive sunk costs: so much has been spent, over so many years, in building up this astonishing monument to human ingenuity that few of the people who control the financial resources can bear to let it collapse and drown. Moreover—Robinson makes a point of this—despite instantaneous global communication, it still matters, for work and for play, that people inhabit the same space. Big things and small ones alike get done here over dinner and drinks, and sometimes even in the midst of catastrophic storms. And finally, who can bear to abandon one of the most beautiful settings in the world for a city? The citizen is right: the Bight of New York is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It was in 1746 and will be in 2140—even when much of what is now land will then, very likely, lie beneath the great blue sea.
We humans love this world we belong to, though we don’t love well enough or wisely enough. And Robinson’s fiction has changed over the years in a very interesting way: though he became famous for writing about Mars, and had written other novels of interplanetary travel, he has become increasingly convinced that the Earth is for good or ill our home, and we had best get used to that fact. Even his most recent interstellar-starship novel, the powerful Aurora (2015), emphasizes the impossibility of successfully transplanting ourselves to other solar systems. In a recent interview, Robinson made this shrewd and provocative comment:
Recent discoveries concerning the microbiome have made me think that because we coevolved with this planet we can never really be healthy without it. We are expressions of it and depend on it. Then Antarctica as a model becomes even more powerful. You go to these alien places to study them and then come home. You don’t want to spend your whole life on Mars, because it significantly compromises your health. Spending too much time in a low-g environment might wreck your health. Fetuses might not properly develop in low gravity—that could be a real showstopper. And as for interstellar travel, all we have learned in the last century suggests that getting human beings to other stars is a fantasy. The cosmos as a story space is like Middle Earth, a great way to tell epic stories that can be interesting but are never going to happen. Or, let’s say we need hundreds or thousands of years of experience before we could even try it, and even then it might not be possible.
All that I said about the reasons to stay in New York—sunk costs, the value of face-to-face contact, the desire for what is beautiful—applies to Earth as well. Much of Robinson’s fiction makes a convincing case that we have the resourcefulness, the ingenuity, the determination necessary to make most places on this planet not just inhabitable for us but also delightful. That fiction also makes a convincing case that we’ll need every last milligram of those virtues.
Let me hasten now to say that I have not forgotten that Golden Hill and New York 2140 are both novels, which is to say stories populated by people recognizably like ourselves. And both Spufford and Robinson have created vivid and memorable characters—in the case of the former especially, one character, Tabitha Lovell, I am unlikely to forget—and have told vivid and memorable tales. But I have emphasized the books’ settings, or (depending on how you think about it) the setting they share, because both novels offer compelling evidence of the way that place shapes both people and events.
In the Waterstone’s conversation, Robinson went off on a bit of a rant—a good-natured one, but a rant all the same—about the use of the word “infodump” as a term of critical abuse. Robinson leaped to the defense of infodumps, pointing out that the writing of “dramatized scenes” is not the only thing that one may validly do as a writer of fiction, and that some stories cannot be told without a certain amount, perhaps even a large amount, of information being provided to the reader. And Robinson is a master—I am tempted to say, the master—of providing sheer information in a compelling way. (Consider the citizen’s geological primer quoted above as an example: it goes on for pages, but for me it was if anything too short.)
There is little if any straightforward infodumping in Golden Hill, though there is some, very well done too, in Spufford’s earlier fact-and-fiction book, Red Plenty. Mostly Spufford gives us dramatized scenes—but in such a way that we are gradually educated in the shape of New York City in the middle of the 18th century, in the textures of everyday life then, in a hundred small variances from the world we take for granted: for instance, the fact that, as we learn early in a book, there was no single currency in that place and time, but rather a crazy variety of coins and scrip that might or might not be taken as legal tender, depending on the mood of the person you were doing business with. The furniture of the world, some of it given to us by the Creator—or, if you prefer, Shakespeare’s “great creating Nature”—and some of it made by us and our fellow humans, is worthy of any novelist’s attention, and any reader’s. As Robinson said in Waterstone’s that night, with a firm but quiet passion, “The world is as interesting as we are.”