Making It in a Futuristic, Flooded New York
Author Kim Stanley Robinson imagines a version of New York City that’s swamped by sea level rise.
The following is an excerpt from New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson.
New York, New York, it’s a hell of a bay. Henry Hudson sailed by and saw a break in the coast between two hills, right at the deepest part of the bight they were exploring. A bight is an indentation in a coastline too broad and open to be called a bay, such that you could sail out of it on a single tack. If you don’t care about such an antiquitarian sailor’s fact, bight me. Sail ahead a page or two to resume voyeuring the sordiditties of the puny primates crawling or paddling around this great bay. If you’re okay pondering the big picture, the ground truth, read on.
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. It was one dripline coming off the world-topping ice cap of the Ice Age, which was such a monster that the entirety of Long Island is just one of its moraines. When the great ice monster melted ten thousand years ago, sea level rose about three hundred feet. The Atlantic came up and filled all the valleys of the eastern seaboard, as can be easily discerned on any map, and in that process the ocean sloshed into the Hudson, as well as into the valley between New England and the Long Island moraine, creating Long Island Sound, then the East River and all the rest of the vast complicated mess of marshes, creeks, and tidal races that is our bay in question.
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.
Forest? Okay, now it’s a forest of skyscrapers. A city, and such a city that it used to take some looking to see it as an estuary. Since the floods that’s become easier, because although it was a drowned coastline before, it is now more drowneder than ever. Fifty-feet-higher sea level means a much bigger bay, more tidally confused, Hell Gate more hellish, the Harlem River a wild tidal race and not a shipping canal, the Meadowlands a shallow sea, Brooklyn and Queens and the south Bronx all shallow seas, their prismatically oily waters sloshing poisonously back and forth on the tides. Yes, a total mess of a bay, still junked up by bridges and pipelines and rusting sclerotic infrastructural junk of all kinds. And so the animals have come back, the fish, the fowl, the oysters, quite a few of them two-headed and fatal to ingest, but back. People too are back, of course, having never left, still everywhere, they’re like cockroaches you can’t get rid of them. And yet all the other animals don’t care; they swim around living their lives, they scavenge and predate and browse and get by and avoid people, just like any other New Yorker.
So it’s still New York. People can’t give up on it. It’s what economists used to call the tyranny of sunk costs: once you’ve put so much time and money into a project, it gets hard to just eat your losses and walk. You are forced by the structure of the situation to throw good money after bad, grow obsessed, double down, escalate your commitment, and become a mad gibbering apartment dweller, unable to imagine leaving. You persevere unto death, a monomaniacal New Yorker to the end.
Under all the human crap, the island too perseveres. Initially it was known for its hills and ponds, but they chopped down the hills and filled in the ponds with the dirt from the chopped hills to make the flattest real estate they could, hoping also to improve traffic, not that that did any good, but whatever, all gone now, pretty much flat, although the floods of the twenty-first century revealed a salient fact that wasn’t very important before: lower Manhattan is indeed much lower than upper Manhattan, like by about fifty vertical feet on average. And that hsongas made all the difference. The floods inundated New York harbor and every other coastal city around the world, mainly in two big surges that shoved the ocean up fifty feet, and in that flooding lower Manhattan went under, and upper Manhattan did not. Incredible that this could happen! So much ice off Antarctica and Greenland! Could there be that much ice, to make that much water? Yes, there could.
And so the First Pulse and Second Pulse, each a complete psychodrama decade, a meltdown in history, a breakdown in society, a refugee nightmare, an eco-catastrophe, the planet gone collectively nuts. The Anthropocide, the Hydrocatastrophe, the Georevolution. Also great new options for investment and, oh dear, the necessity of police state crowd control as expressed in draconian new laws and ad hoc practices, what some called the Egyptification of the world, but we won’t go there now, that’s pessimistic boo-hooing and giving-upness, more suitable for the melodramas describing individual fates in the watery decades than this grandly sweeping overview.
Back to the island itself, locus omphalos of our mutual mania: the southern half, from about Fortieth Street right down to the Battery, was all drowned all the time, up to the second or third floor of every building that did not quickly collapse or melt into the drink. North of Forty-second much of the west side stood well higher than the fifty-foot rise in ocean. On the east side, water covered the big flats of Harlem and the Bronx, and it also flooded the big dip at 125th Street, which people actually took the trouble of filling in with land fill, as it was too inconvenient to have the northern end of the island cut off, especially as the Cloisters and Inwood Hill Park were revealed to be the highest ground around, as high as anywhere in the greater harbor region. You had to look to the Palisades or Staten Island or Brooklyn Heights to see anything as high as the very northern tip of Manhattan. And since this long strip forming the northern half of the island remained well above the flood, naturally people from the submerged neighborhoods took refuge on it, went crazy for it. It became like downtown in the nineteenth century, or midtown in the twentieth. The Cloister cluster, capital of the twenty-second century! Or so they liked to imagine up there. The constant northward drift suggests that in another century or two all the action will remove to Yonkers or Westchester County, so buy land up there now, although sue this commentator for slander if he says no fucking way. But people have said that before. For now, the north end of Manhattan is the capital of capital, the proving ground for the new composite building materials for skyscrapers, materials invented for not-yet-happening space elevator cables but in the meantime great for three-hundred-story superscrapers, needling far up into the clouds, such that when you are in their uppermost floors, on one of the nosebleed terraces trying to conquer your altitude sickness and looking south, downtown looks like a kid’s train set left behind in a flooded basement. You could bat the moon out of the sky from those terraces.
And so New York keeps on happening. The skyscrapers, the people, the what-have-yous. The new Jerusalem, in both its English and Jewish manifestations, the two ethnic dreams weirdly collapsing together and in the vibration of their interference pattern creating the city on the hill, the city on the island, the new Rome, the capital of the twentieth century, the capital of the world, the capital of capital, the unchallenged center of the planet, the diamond iceberg between rivers, the busiest, noisiest, fastest-growing, most advanced, most cosmopolitan, coolest, most desirable, most photogenic of cities, the sun at the center of all the wealth in the universe, the center of the universe, the spot where the Big Bang occurred.
The capital of hype too, ya think? Madison Avenue will sell you anything, including that totally bogus list above! And so, yes, the capital of bullshit, and the capital of horseshit, also the capital of chickenshit, weaseling along pretending to be something special without changing anything in the world and ultimately grinding along just like any other ridiculous money-crazed megalopolis on the planet, especially those located on coasts, formerly great trading centers and now completely fucked. But toujours gai, archy, toujours gai, and like most of the other coastal cities it’s limped along as best it could. People keep living here, bad as it is, and more than that, people keep coming here, despite the suicidal stupidity of that, the way it is in effect volunteering for hell. People are like lemmings, they are mammals with herd instincts very much like the instincts of cows. In short, morons.
So it isn’t all that special, this NOO YAWK of ours. And yet. And yet and yet and yet. Maybe there’s something to it. Hard to believe, hard to admit, pain-in-the-ass place that it is, bunch of arrogant fuckheads, no reason for it to be anything special, a coincidence, just the luck of the landscape, the bay and the bight, the luck of the draw, space and time congealing to a history, to have come into being in its moment, accidentally growing the head, guts, and tumescent genitals of the American dream, the magnet for desperate dreamers, the place made of people from everywhere else, the city of immigrants, the people made of other people, very rude people, loudmouthed obnoxious assholes, often, but more often just oblivious and doing their own thing with no regard for you or yours, many strangers banging into each other, dodging each other, yelling at each other sometimes but really mostly just ignoring each other, almost polite you might say, using the city-sharpened skill of looking past or through people, of not seeing the other, the crowds just background tapestries for you to play your life against, lurid backdrops providing a fake sense of drama to help you imagine you’re doing more than you would be if you were in some sleepy village or Denver or really anywhere else. New York, the great stage set—well, there may be something to it.
Anyway there it lies filling the great bay, no matter what you think or believe about it, spiking out of the water like a long bed of poisonous sea urchins onto which dreamers cling, as to an inconveniently prickly life raft, their only refuge on the vast and windy deep, gasping like Aquaman in a seemingly-impossible-to-survive superhero’s fake low point, still dreaming their fever dreams of glorious success. If you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere—maybe even Denver!
This is an excerpt from New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Copyright © 2017 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Reprinted by permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Kim Stanley Robinson is a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. He is the author of more than 20 books, including New York 2140 and The Ministry for the Future. He lives in Davis, California.