Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Book Review | New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

As the sea levels rose, every street became a canal. Every skyscraper an island. For the residents of one apartment building in Madison Square, however, New York in the year 2140 is far from a drowned city.

There is the market trader, who finds opportunities where others find trouble. There is the detective, whose work will never disappear—along with the lawyers, of course.

There is the internet star, beloved by millions for her airship adventures, and the building's manager, quietly respected for his attention to detail. Then there are two boys who don't live there, but have no other home-- and who are more important to its future than anyone might imagine.

Lastly there are the coders, temporary residents on the roof, whose disappearance triggers a sequence of events that threatens the existence of all—and even the long-hidden foundations on which the city rests.


Not for the first time, and not, I can only hope, for the last, Kim Stanley Robinson takes aim at climate change in New York 2140, an immensely necessary novel as absorbing as it is sprawling about how that city among cities, so close to so many hearts, moves forward following floods that raise the seas fifty feet.

The Big Apple has been blighted. Uptown, being uptown both figuratively and literally, came through the crises brought on by humanity's hard-to-kick carbon habit relatively well, but downtown, everything is different. Submerged, the streets between buildings are cast now as canals. Nobody has a car anymore, but boats are mainstays on the waterways. Pedestrians must make do with jetties, or walk the dizzying bridges between those skyscrapers that haven't already collapsed after losing the ongoing fight to stay watertight.

Needless to say, New York as we know it is no more. But New Yorkers? Why, for good or for ill, they're New Yorkers still!
There is a certain stubbornness in a New Yorker, cliche though it is to say so, and actually many of them had been living in such shitholes before the floods that being immersed in the drink mattered little. Not a few experienced an upgrade in both material circumstances and quality of life. For sure rents went down, often to zero. So a lot of people stayed. 
Squatters. The dispossessed. The water rats. Denizens of the deep, citizens of the shallows. And a lot of them were interested in trying something different, including which authorities they gave their consent to be governed by. Hegemony had drowned, so in the years after the flooding there was a proliferation of cooperatives, neighbourhood associations, communes, squats [and such]. (p.209) 
Robinson's novel is arranged around a fitting for instance of this. The old Met Life tower on the drowned remains of Madison Square is home, now, to several thousand souls: a collective of individuals who all contribute to their cooperative's pot—be it financially or by bartering man-hours or goods for common use.

Among the many are Ralph Muttchopf and Jeff Rosen, a couple of old coders, or quants, who live in "a hotello on the open-walled farm floor [...] from which vantage point lower Manhattan lies flooded below them like a super-Venice, majestic, watery, superb. Their town." (p.6) But there are elements of their town that they deeply dislike, particularly the financial sector that has started gambling on what's become known as "the intertidal zone," (p.118) and down-on-their-luck as they are, with as little left to lose as you like, Mutt and Jeff do something they shouldn't: they hack the stock market.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Book Review | The Erstwhile by Brian Catling

In London and Germany, strange beings are reanimating themselves. They are the Erstwhile, the angels that failed to protect the Tree of Knowledge, and their reawakening will have major consequences.

In Africa, the colonial town of Essenwald has fallen into disarray because the timber workforce has disappeared into the Vorrh. Now a team of specialists are dispatched to find them. Led by Ishmael, the former cyclops, they enter the forest, but the Vorrh will not give them back so easily. To make matters worse, an ancient guardian of the forest has plans for Ishmael and his crew. 

Meanwhile a child of mixed race has been found abandoned in a remote cottage. Her origins are unknown, but she has powers beyond her own understanding. Conflict is coming, as the old and new, human and inhuman are set on a collision course. 

Once again blending the real and the imagined, The Erstwhile brings historical figures such as William Blake and places such as the Bedlam Asylum, as well as ingenious creations such as The Kin (a family of robots) together to create unforgettable novel of births and burials, excavations and disappearances.


More than four years on from The Vorrh, professor and performance artist Brian Catling is back with a book that explodes the exceptional premise of its predecessor at the same time as falling short of fulfilling its awesome promise.

The Erstwhile shifts the focus of the darkly fantastic fiction from the forest around which the first volume revolved to one of its many denizens. "No one quite knew what they were. But they had been given a name, which translated into 'of Before' or 'the Previous' and finally settled as "the Erstwhile.' Some said they were 'undead, angels, spirits embodied in flesh.' All that was known was they were as ancient as the forest itself." And the vast Vorrh, held close to the heart of Africa like an unspeakable secret, is at least as old as us. Indeed, "there is a deep belief that this land is sacred and may be the physical geographic location of the biblical Eden."

What business, then, does man have messing with it?

None, n'est-ce pas? But where there's wood, there's timber, and where there's timber, there's industry—a truism even in this alternate history. That industry animates the settlement of Essenwald, where the majority of the events of The Erstwhile occur. Truth be told, though, the Timber Guild has been having a tough time of it since the Vorrh started screwing with its various visitors:
The forest had a malign influence at its very core. Some said it was an unknown toxicology of plant and oxygen. Others said it was a disturbance in its magnetic resonance. A few said it was haunted and that its evil nature was responsible. In fact, nobody knew why prolonged exposure to the trees caused distressing symptoms of amnesia and mental disintegration. No matter what or who they tried, all was in vain. Nobody could work for more than two days in the Vorrh without contamination.
Nobody, that is, other than the Limboia. "They were hollow humans" whose lack of humanity left little for the forces of the forest to fuck with. And yet even the Limboia have been lost. As of the outset of The Erstwhile, they've been missing for some months, and without them, Essenwald's singular industry has stuttered to a costly stop. Alas and alack that the Powers That Be in that precarious place are prepared to do whatever it takes to get these beings back.