Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest, New York 2140, presents life in the city after the deluge, icebergs have melted, oceans have risen, the city is under fifty feet of water, and New Yorkers have survived as New Yorkers always survive, with cheerful irritation and down-to-sea ingenuity. This novel is not dystopian; it rather belongs to the genre of climate fiction and is surprisingly optimistic, as much of Robinson’s fiction has been.
“I thought of the book eventually as a comedy of coping, and to do that I picked a time, perhaps 40 years after the disaster itself. If it was set in the midst of the catastrophic flood in 2100, the disaster would have dominated that work. It would not have been the comedy of coping — it would have been the disaster of refugee creation. But I think, at some point, science fiction has to imagine the people who come after, when the situation will be natural, whatever it is. If that natural situation that they’re coping with is that new part of Manhattan that resembles Venice, there will be good parts to that as well as bad parts. There will be beautiful parts as well as moldy, horrible parts.”
I heard Robinson interviewed and was struck by his contention that we live in what is essentially science fiction, a reality changed and changing with such rapidity that we are in a constant state of reaction. His grace note, however, is that we are writing this science fiction together.
I’ve decided to take up that challenge, live in a comedy of coping, writing the present on a day-by-day basis, not taking myself too seriously, but taking other people seriously and treating them with the decency that co-authors deserve. Some, I know, are going to write perfectly awful chapters, and I hope to God that someone at some point does some editing, but apparently my notion of how the world should spin is just one of millions of possible spins.
Two other books spring to mind as I consider this reality we are writing. Both have a great deal to do with family and, although both are truly bizarre, each has left me with insights that may prove useful as I attempt this comedy.
The Swiss Family Robinson (Der Schweizerische Robinson) is a familiar tale of shipwreck, adventure, and ingenuity. The Disney version offered pirates and a race in which the contestants ride animals that are found we are told on islands near New Guinea, elephants, zebras, ostriches, and monkeys. The original novel, by Johann David Wyss, a Swiss take on the genre Robinsonade after Defoe’s popular Robinson Crusoe, is survival fiction mixed with a series of object lessons (It is Swiss, after all). The narrator, William, is a father who truly does know it all which turns out to be particularly important as the island upon which they wash up is rife with wildlife (wombats, capybaras, platypuses, wolves, walruses, and porcupines, to name but a few) and plant life, allowing the family to feed, clothe, and protect themselves.
So, imagine the worst day possible. The seas roar, rise, and tear a ship to bits, everything you own is washed into the ocean; gasping, choking, you claw your way to an unknown island, your carefully planned life now nothing but a memory. And yet.
Day by day the family makes a world. In the end, when a British ships finds them on the island, some decide to return to the Europe and some stay. It’s probably more fun to read about than to experience, and not every castaway mom knows how to make a hearty porcupine stew, but the novel presents a model of resilience and invention in the face of disaster, and it is that assurance that is necessary to our current comedic coping.
The second novel, The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, is a dark philippic, somewhere between Apocalypse Now and The Great Santini. Theirs is a family ripped from comfort by a brilliant, charismatic, egomaniacal father who is fed up with an America rotted from within by greed and rapacious consumerism. So far, ok, we’ve seen that before, but this father pulls his family to the Mosquito Coast of Honduras where his grandiosity and paranoia lead to murderous conflict.
Doesn’t sound like much there for us who attempt this comedy of coping, but the lesson I took away back in 1982 when I read the book as a relatively young father, was not that there is no safe place but that wherever we go, as the saying instructs, there we are, and since we are inescapable, the real terrain to work on, I guess, is ourselves, another one of those “We have met the enemy and he is us” reminders.
I turn back to Kim Stanley Robinson at this point because he has imagined a world in which much of what I fear has taken place, and yet, the human spirit prevails. I admire the power of Robinson’s speculative imagination but find even greater comfort in his portrait of a world teeming with character and humor, despite change that to us would seem unendurable. In the interview, Robinson spoke of the work that he does in terms of comfort, quoting Roger Scruton, “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.” There is much about Roger Scrutton that was far from consoling, but he identified something important about what novelists such as Robinson and Emily St. John Mandel can do and something equally significant about what we can do in this curious business of writing the present together.
Consolation, empathy, decency – these are not imaginary comforts.