By day, the waterways between the towers are thick with city traffic. By night, glittering under the lights, they are given over to the river otters, weasels, racoons and harbour seals. Whale pods pass through. At low tide, the waters withdraw, leaving the streets slick with flotsam and every block ringed with green.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel New York 2140 foresees a world some 120 years from now in which the great coastal cities have been taken by the sea. Great chunks of Antarctica and Greenland have broken away, causing ocean levels to rise by more than 50 feet. Shanghai, London, The Hague, Miami, Rio, Alexandria, Venice and Mumbai, among many others, have been partially or wholly lost. All of lower Manhattan is under the Atlantic, and much of what remains of the oldest part of the city has become the nebulous ‘intertidal’, a region reaching north from 34th Street to Central Park, dry only at low tide.
The great metropolis has been brutally disfigured. Thousands of lives have been lost, many more disrupted, and cultural treasures washed away forever. As scientists issue ever more urgent warnings about the extent of ice shelf erosion Robinson’s novel reads less like a work of apocalyptic fiction than a straightforward description of the world to come, perhaps the most forensic we have.
And yet, in the end, it is a story of hope. Robinson’s New York has been devastated, but it is still New York. A complex civilisation survives here, and even thrives, after the flood. The submerged city – the ‘SuperVenice’ – has acquired a sublime strangeness, a mesh of crowded, waterways, skywalks, floating villages, platforms and moorings in which vibrant new communities have worked out eclectic new modes of life.
Twenty-second century Lower Manhattan has become ‘a veritable hotbed of theory and practice, like it always used to say it was, but this time for real.’ The challenge of adapting to life in the intertidal has inspired ‘a proliferation of cooperatives, neighbourhood associations, communes, squats, barter, alternative currencies, gift economies, solar usufruct, fishing village cultures, mondragons, unions, Davy’s locker freemasonries, anarchist blather, and submarine technoculture’.
An opportunity for disaster capitalism looms as the predatory financial sector uptown tries to forcibly acquire the area to make way for gentrification. But it is too late: the freewheeling new communities have caught the city’s imagination, and they, rather than the ways of the old elites, set the template for New York’s future.
Robinson’s insistence, through a career spanning more than 30 years, that human ingenuity can open up compelling new forms of life in and against the harshest circumstances and environments, makes him one of the most consistently interesting radical writers working today in any genre. He shares a certain robust, weatherbeaten utopianism with his former teacher and colleague, the late Ursula Le Guin, another major science fiction writer who never lost faith in our capacity to use our collective intelligence and technological prowess to transcend limiting orthodoxies and open up new horizons.
In one of the best of the many fine tributes written after her death earlier this year, Jasper Bernes nominated Le Guin’s classic story of a realised utopia, The Dispossessed (1974), as ‘the most convincing portrait of communism in all of literature, a communism that is not only plausible but plausibly improvable’. Life on the desert moon of Anarres is tough: a day-to-day struggle with a pinched, parched planet, functional but flawed democratic and administrative structures, and the everyday arguments, jealousies, frustrations and heartbreaks that go with any human community.
And yet, here, there is universal access to food, shelter and community. There is no wage labour: beyond the few hours of communal service everyone must do to maintain the society’s basic functions, the Anarresti are free to pursue their particular passions, vocations and pastimes. Education, art, sport and other activities undertaken for their own sake flourish. There is gender and racial equality. Childcare is a shared duty and pleasure. In brief: Anarres is an achieved postcapitalist society, a robust federation of egalitarian communes in the tradition of Peter Kropotkin or Murray Bookchin. Le Guin’s humdrum, everyday anarchist confederation is believable precisely because it is imperfect.
In his own reflection on Le Guin, Robinson remembers ‘staying up all night to finish her novel The Dispossessed, and feeling afterward electrified by all the possibilities it opened up concerning how the utopian novel could work. I’ve been mining that vein ever since.’ And the work for which he is best known, the Red Mars trilogy (1992 to 1996), follows Le Guin in following the struggles of settlers on a barren world to establish fresh and more fulfilling ways of life than those they had left behind on their mother planet.
The series remains one of the most exhaustive exercises in worldbuilding in science fiction, drawing – in the course of more than two thousand pages – on geology, engineering, architecture, design, physics, biology, chemistry, philosophy, theology, sociology, economics and political theory to tell the story of the settlement of Mars, from the touchdown of the ‘First Hundred’ settlers, to the development of a dense network of cities and the commencement of the terraforming of the planet.
It is also, as the title intimates, an unashamedly socialist work. Fredric Jameson, another of Robinson’ teachers, gave Red Mars a prominent place in his influential study of Marxist utopian literature, Archaeologies of the Future (2005). But McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red (2015) offers perhaps the most precise reading of Robinson’s influences, revealing the extent to which the author intended the trilogy to be read as a successor to one of the founding works of Soviet science fiction, Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star (1908).
Bogdanov, who at the time of the book’s writing vied with Lenin for the intellectual leadership of the Bolsheviks, was less concerned with developing strategies for seizing the state than considering how a post-revolutionary society should organise itself. Bogdanov’s thought significantly influenced Proletkult, the movement to develop a post-revolutionary culture that briefly flourished in the early Soviet Union.
Bogdanov turned to science fiction to give himself the intellectual freedom and imaginative space to think through the challenges a workers’ state would face in consolidating its gains and sustaining itself beyond revolution. Red Star imagines a technologically advanced Martian civilisation where capitalism has long been transcended by a kind of proto cyber-communism, an automated economy in which production is planned by powerful calculating machines. The Martians live in a state of communal luxury, devoting their time to science, education, and the arts.
But it is a utopia shadowed by looming ecological crisis. Their planet, smaller and less fecund than the Earth, was depleted of most of its resources during its capitalist era, forcing the Martians to look to other worlds for survival (their socialist sensibilities preclude a Wellsian invasion of the Earth). For Bogdanov, the transition from capitalism to socialism can only ever be the first step in the endless process of building and sustaining a new society: the struggle against nature continues as it always had and always will.
That elemental struggle between labour and recalcitrant nature also runs through Red Mars. Indeed, one of the first volume’s central characters – a charismatic Russian engineer named after Robinson’s predecessor – is a figure straight out of Proletkult.
Arkady Bogdanov, one of the First Hundred, takes the lead in emboldening his fellow pioneers to organise their new world according to democratic and economic principles that move beyond those entrenched on Earth. Arkady wants forms of organising work that will allow it to transcend its alienation in wage labour. The most advanced forms of collaborative labour humanity has devised, such as a scientific community pursuing research for its own sake, should be the template for the whole of society. For Arkady, the research institute is ‘a little model of prehistoric utopia, carved out of the international money economy by clever primates who want to live well’ allowing focus ‘on the real work, which means everything that is done to stay alive, or make things, or satisfy our curiosity, or play.’
And as the first Martians come to realise and relish the extent of their agency, new settlements are established that break with capitalist logics. Many, following Arkady’s influence, are based on the ideals that energised pioneering socialist systems back on Earth: Mondragon co-operatives, Yugoslav self-management, Israeli kibbutzim. It soon becomes possible, as Wark puts it, to travel ‘between the underground enclaves – Gramsci, Fourier, Mauss-Hyde, Bogdanov-Visniak, Cole, Bellamy, Proudhon – as if on a caravan across the folds of the critical utopian archive.’ Others take a more mystical turn. There are Sufi and Buddhist communities, and some that worship the ‘holy greening power’ that brings life to the planet when the terraforming process begins.
Robinson’s vibrant, riotous new world settles into a federation of city-states regulated by a convention enshrining principles not unlike those of Le Guin’s anarcho-communism: ‘[E]veryone’s work is their own, and the worth of it cannot be taken away … the various modes of production belong to those who created them, and to the common good of the future generations … the world is something we all steward together.’
The pull of the moon
The shock of the new – an encounter with an alien world that extends our sense of possibility – also drives Robinson’s latest novel Red Moon (2018), set 30 years into a future in which China has taken the lead in a resurgent space race. After the late President Xi Jinping prioritised lunar colonisation as an objective of the ‘China Dream’ programme at the 2022 People’s Congress, China has established a thick complex of bases with access to the precious reserves of lunar ice around the moon’s southern pole. Meanwhile, the US and a handful of other nations have established a tentative foothold in the northern hemisphere.
By 2048, the Chinese and US governments still maintain control over most of the moon’s emerging infrastructure, but here and there new settlements have been planted – tucked into crater rims, under mountain ranges or in ancient lava tunnels deep below the surface – allowing for open-ended technological, economic, political and cultural experimentation.
At this early stage in the colonisation process, these settlements are little more than playthings of the rich, funded by maverick billionaires and accessible only to wealthy futurists. But like so much tech utopianism, the new communities fascinate as well as infuriate. The most intriguing is ‘the free crater’, a domed town that exploits lunar gravity to indulge in cyber-utopianism’s wildest excesses, becoming a kind of celestial Google complex run wild. The crater is aerated and heated, lit by mirrors and floodlights set around the rim. Hundreds of platforms are suspended from the top of the dome, and plinths support houses, pod dwellings, and open floors, all connected by rope ladders, trapezes and catwalks. Inhabitants navigate the space by swinging or leaping from one platform to the next, their passage eased by near zero-gravity and the security of netting below.
The community is organised as ‘a documented anarchy’, its activities and decisions recorded to a blockchain distributed ledger. One member enthuses that ‘their daily work in the crater was to build its infrastructure and its social system, and to make it beautiful. Life as art, the world as a poem – a poem about flying’.
And everyone is welcome – provided they have the money. But new things are happening here. One of Red Moon’s most colourful scenes imagines a zero-gravity performance of Philip Glass’s propulsive opera Satyagraha, at which the concert-goers grasp ‘handholds like subway straps at the ends of long lines extending from a central spinner’, and are ‘cast like dandelion seeds’ as they let go at key points in the score, creating a complex of flying dancers. The lunar environment facilitates an odd, compelling new collaborative art.
As in Red Mars, a humanity’s encounter with a new world fascinates and unsettles the billions watching below. As China, the US, and their maverick elites play with fresh possibilities elsewhere, the political and economic constructs they insist upon back on Earth are destabilised, revealed as the contingent arrangements they always were. China’s vast migrant populations march on Beijing to protest the registration system that gives them no legal status when they travel from their place of birth to look for work. In the US, millions pull their money from an over-leveraged financial sector, which is finally taken into public control as the condition for yet another government bailout.
Red Moon engages with another of Robinson’s fundamental concerns: the use of technology to re-engineer nature for human ends. Though well-known for his love of the natural world – Robinson famously writes outside whatever the weather – and recognised for his environmental activism, he has consistently advocated limited use of geoengineering as one means of mitigating the effects of irreversible climate change. In one interview, Robinson argued that ‘there is a bad tendency among some leftists to conflate science with capitalism. They are not the same. I am against capitalism, I am for science … We need to choose to put science, technology, engineering and medicine to good human and biosphere work, rather than let it be bought to serve profit for the few most wealthy.’
In other words, he favours doing what works. Red Moon makes repeated approving references to China’s pragmatic, eclectic energy policy, with its massive land restoration programmes and selective use of nuclear power. Flying over the hills west of Beijing, one character observes how ‘a town of nuclear plants lofted thick plumes of steam at the sky, marking a cold but humid day. The solar power arrays surrounding the nuclear plants were mostly mirror fields that reflected sunlight to central heating elements, so as the jet flew over them, broad curves of diamond light sparked in his vision at the same speed as their flight … The hills farther on were cloaked with thick dark green forests. Ta Shu could remember when dropping into Beijing had looked like a descent into hell, the hillsides all cut to shreds and eroded to bedrock, the streams brown, the air black … That forest was a living result of human knowledge.’
And in New York 2140, the leader of a desperate project to save a colony of polar bears by moving them from the disintegrating Arctic to the Antarctic explodes with rage when the effort is sabotaged by fundamentalist conservationists: ‘So now there’s a group claiming to be defending the purity of Antarctica. The last pure place, they call it. The world’s national park, they call it. Well, no. It’s none of those things. It’s the land at the South Pole, a little round continent in an odd position. It’s nice but it’s no more pure or sacred than anywhere else …There were beech forests there once, there were dinosaurs and ferns, there were fucking jungles there. There will be again someday. Meanwhile, if that island can serve as a home to keep the polar bears from going extinct, then that’s what it should be.’
For Robinson, there is no pristine wilderness. Life survives through relentless adaptation. But the cautious planetary engineering he advocates is closer in spirit to Fabian technocracy than Soviet prometheanism. Indeed, the Red Mars series offers perhaps the most exhaustive account in literature of the process of transforming another world, and the ethical questions it raises.
The fundamental ideological divide running through all three novels pitches the quietist ‘Reds’, for whom the ancient character of another world is sacrosanct, against the radical ‘Greens’, for whom the imperative to open new spaces for life commands its transformation. After intense intellectual – and often physical – conflict, the Greens prevail. But the long, hard business of terraforming a dry, dead planet proves an unfathomable process, beyond what even their most extreme ecological projections had projected.
As Mars stirs from its immemorial slumber, the planet threatens to overcome its awakeners: superstorms rage, mountain ranges collapse, seas overflow their ancient channels and wash gleaming new domed cities away. The chief architect of the terraforming process is humbled: ‘There’s all kinds of invasions going on. Population surges, sudden die-offs. All over. Things in disequilibrium. Upsetting balances we didn’t even know existed. Things we don’t understand.’
Building new – and lasting – worlds
Like Bogdanov’s Red Star, Robinson’s Red Mars proves the harshest of laboratories. The new world offers a space where bold new ways of life have the space to develop, but they must be carved painstakingly out of the ancient planet’s cold, stubborn rock.
His work is suffused with images of civilisation’s fragility in the face of an irresistible, indifferent nature. New York 2140 depicts a great city positioned precariously at the edge of a monstrous, careless ocean. Sometimes winter ‘comes barreling down from the Arctic and slams into New York and suddenly it looks like Warsaw or Moscow or Novosibirsk, the skyscrapers a portrait in socialist realism, grim and heroic, holding blackly upright against the storm, like pillars between the ground and the scudding low clouds.’ In summer, there are days ‘when thunderheads solid as marble rise up until even the superscrapers look small, and the black anvil bottoms of these seventy-thousand-foot marvels dump raindrops fat as dinner plates’.
For Bogdanov and Robinson, transcending capitalist relations is a necessary but wholly insufficient condition for prising open a space in the universe where the human ’species-being’ can find its fulfilment. Nature will always be waiting on the other side of capitalism. The construction of utopia is an engineering project without a completion date.
And yet, for Robinson it is a necessary project. He wrote recently that one way ‘of being anti-anti-utopian is to be utopian. It’s crucial to keep imagining that things could get better, and furthermore to imagine how they might get better … we have to do this work no matter how we feel about it. So by force of will or the sheer default of emergency we make ourselves have utopian thoughts and ideas.’
Robinson’s work stands against science fiction’s tendency to wallow in dystopia, or indulge in the fantasy of escape to other, kinder worlds. One of his most provocative novels, Aurora (2015), challenges a cherished assumption of the sci-fi tradition: that humanity will one day find a home among the stars. Robinson’s interstellar travellers find that perhaps the stars are not our destination – they are simply too far away. Our Earth, and perhaps in not too many years, the wider solar system, is where we must make our home, the expansive but, ultimately, limited environment within which we must fashion better ways of life, or not at all. If we continue to trash our own planet, we face extinction or an attenuated life elsewhere, finding a foothold on one of the solar system’s inhospitable worlds, or some space colony floating endlessly through the void.
Robinson captures the thought in one of Red Moon’s eeriest scenes, as two old men stand on a dead world looking back on Earth’s rise above a curve of lunar hills: ‘So far from home. Vivid blue, the colour of water, the colour of breath. The cosmic yin-yang symbol enveloping that blue line was by contrast so obviously dead. They were looking from death toward life, like ghosts trying to figure out what they should have done when they were in the world.’
It is hard to figure that out as 2019 begins, a year that is likely to join its four predecessors as one of the hottest on record. We enter it with the starkest warnings we have yet received from the international scientific community about the consequences of failing to take meaningful action against climate change.
And yet it is a year that has also begun with two extraordinary scientific achievements: an encounter with a small icy alien world some 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth, and the first landing of a robotic spacecraft on the far side of the moon.
Indeed, we find ourselves at a very Robinsonian conjuncture, as human ingenuity is demonstrated against a background of grave ecological crisis. For Robinson, the pragmatic utopian, there is always a way forward, always a way to use our knowledge for the collective good. Perhaps, unlike his waterlogged New Yorkers, or interplanetary travellers, we won’t wait until our cities are flooded, or the prospect of conquering new worlds seems easier than trying to fix this one, before we make the effort to employ our hard-won knowledge wisely.