''I definitely screwed that up, and I’m sorry. I’ll apologize later. I hope you know I only did it because I couldn’t stand it anymore. Here we are in this beautiful world, if we’re not dead and in limbo, and they were ripping our heads off. Pretending there were shortages and terrorists and pitting us against each other while they took ninety-nine percent of everything. Immiserate the same people who keep you alive. Which god or idiot did that in Homer? None of them. They’re worse than the worst gods in Homer. That’s what they’re doing, Mutt. I can’t stand it.''
[Robinson combines his trademark optimism with a righteous anger for something that feels new and immediate, even if it's set 123 years from now. A space opera set in America's greatest city.]
[Polar bear attacks! Diving bell urchins! "What the hell? They nuked my polar bears?" Canadians in skyvillages. Iceskating boats, Melville's ghost. Buried treasure. Building beaches. Insane hurricanes. Street of Fundy wakeboarding. Political intrigue.]
[So much going on here, and all of it fitting together perfectly. And those are just the set pieces. The real joy is when he takes the time to delve into New York history, or the mechanics of a hurricane or sea level rise or circa-2008 bubble economics.]
Amelia's ship: (view spoiler)
The blimp, actually a dirigible—if you acknowledged that an internal framework could be only semirigid or demirigid, made of aerogels and not much heavier than the gas in the ballonets—was forty meters long and had a capacious gondola, running along the underside of the airship like a fat keel. It had been built in Friedrichshafen right before the turn of the century and since then had flown many miles, in a career somewhat like those of the tramp steamers of the latter part of the nineteenth century. The keys to its durability were its flexibility and its lightness, and also the photovoltaic outer skin of the bag, which made the craft effectively autonomous in energy terms. Of course there was sun damage eventually, and supplies were needed on a regular basis, but often it was possible to restock without landing by meeting with skyvillages they passed. So, like the millions of other similar airships wandering the skies, they didn’t really ever have to come down. And like millions of other aircraft occupants, for many years Amelia had therefore not gone down. It had been a refuge she had needed. During those years there had seldom been a time when she couldn’t see other airships in the distance, but that was fine by her, even comforting, as it gave her the idea of other people without their actual presence, and made the atmosphere into a human space, an ever-shifting calvinocity. It looked as if after the coastlines had drowned, people had taken to the skies like dandelion seeds and recongregated in the clouds.
Re-thinking geoengineering: (view spoiler)[People stopped burning carbon much faster than they thought they could before the First Pulse. They closed that barn door the very second the horses had gotten out. The four horses, to be exact.
Too late, of course. The global warming initiated before the First Pulse was baked in by then and could not be stopped by anything the postpulse people could do. So despite “changing everything” and decarbonizing as fast as they should have fifty years earlier, they were still cooked like bugs on a griddle. Even tossing a few billion tons of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere to mimic a volcanic eruption and thus deflect a fair bit of sunlight, depressing temperatures for a decade or two, which they did in the 2060s to great fanfare and/or gnashing of teeth, was not enough to halt the warming, because the relevant heat was already deep in the oceans, and it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, no matter how people played with the global thermostat imagining they had godlike powers. They didn’t.
It was that ocean heat that caused the First Pulse to pulse, and later brought on the second one. People sometimes say no one saw it coming, but no, wrong: they did. Paleoclimatologists looked at the modern situation and saw CO2 levels screaming up from 280 to 450 parts per million in less than three hundred years, faster than had ever happened in the Earth’s entire previous five billion years (can we say “Anthropocene,” class?), and they searched the geological record for the best analogs to this unprecedented event, and they said, Whoa. They said, Holy shit. People! they said. Sea level rise! During the Eemian period, they said, which we’ve been looking at, the world saw a temperature rise only half as big as the one we’ve just created, and rapid dramatic sea level rise followed immediately. They put it in bumper sticker terms: massive sea level rise sure to follow our unprecedented release of CO2! They published their papers, and shouted and waved their arms, and a few canny and deeply thoughtful sci-fi writers wrote up lurid accounts of such an eventuality, and the rest of civilization went on torching the planet like a Burning Man pyromasterpiece. Really. That’s how much those knuckleheads cared about their grandchildren, and that’s how much they believed their scientists, even though every time they felt a slight cold coming on they ran to the nearest scientist (i.e. doctor) to seek aid.
The problem with longterm preparation: (view spoiler)[But okay, you can’t really imagine a catastrophe will hit you until it does. People just don’t have that kind of mental capacity. If you did you would be stricken paralytic with fear at all times, because there are some guaranteed catastrophes bearing down on you that you aren’t going to be able to avoid (i.e. death), so evolution has kindly given you a strategically located mental blind spot, an inability to imagine future disasters in any way you can really believe, so that you can continue to function, as pointless as that may be. It is an aporia, as the Greeks and intellectuals among us would say, a “not-seeing.” So, nice. Useful. Except when disastrously bad.
Hacking the system for socialism: (view spoiler)
“There were other tweaks I did that might have been, you know, even more of a freak-out.”
“More than stealing a few billion dollars an hour?”
“It wasn’t stealing, it was redirecting. To the SEC no less. I’m not sure that kind of thing isn’t happening all the time. If it was, who would know? Would the SEC know? These are fictional trillions, they’re derivatives and securities and the nth tranche of a jumble bond. If someone had a tap in, if there were taps all over, no one would be able to know. Some bank accounts in a tax haven would grow and no one would be the wiser.”
“Why did you do it, then?”
“To alert the SEC as to what can happen. Maybe also give them the funding to be able to deal with some of this shit. Hire some people away from the hedge funds, put some muscle into the laws. Create a fucking sheriff, for God’s sake!”
“So you did want them to notice.”
“I guess so. Yeah, I did. The SEC I did. I did all sorts of stuff. That might not even be what got noticed.”
“No? What else did you do?”
“I killed all those tax havens.”
Mutt stares at him. “Killed them?”
“I tweaked the list of countries it’s illegal to send funds to. You know how there’s about ten terror sponsor countries that you can’t wire money to? I added all the tax havens to that list.”
“You mean like England?”
“All of them.”
“So how’s the world economy supposed to work? Money can’t move if it can’t move to tax havens.”
“It shouldn’t be that way. There shouldn’t be tax havens.”
Mutt throws up his hands. “What else did you do? If I may ask.”
“I pikettied the U.S. tax code.”
“Sharp progressive tax on capital assets. All capital assets in the United States, taxed at a progressive rate that goes to ninety percent of any holdings over one hundred million.”
Mutt goes and sits down on his bed. “So this would be, like …” He makes a cutting motion with his hand.
“It would be like what Keynes called the euthanasia of the rentier. Yes. He fully expected it to happen, and that was two centuries ago.”
“Didn’t he also say that most supposedly smart economists are idiots working from ideas that are centuries old?”
“He did say something like that, yes. And he was right.”
“So now you’re doing it too?”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time. Keynes is timeless.”
Mutt shakes his head. “Decapitation of the oligarchy, isn’t that another term for it? Meaning the guillotine, right?”
“But just their money,” Jeff says. “We cut off their money. Their excess money. Everyone is left their last five million. Five million dollars, I mean that’s enough, right?”
“There’s never enough money.”
“That’s what people say, but it’s not true! After a while you’re buying marble toilet seats and flying your private plane to the moon trying to use your excess money, but really all it gets you is bodyguards and accountants and crazy children and sleepless nights and acid reflux! It’s too much, and too much is a curse! It’s a fucking Midas touch.”
World history from 2008-2140:
Amelia's wtf lines: (view spoiler)[1. Naked starlets wrestling wolf pups: no.
2. “What?” Amelia cried. Without planning to she sat down hard on the floor of the bridge. “What the hell? They nuked my polar bears?”
A plan: (view spoiler)coming. Or whatever the number, because bubbles go all the way back to Dutch tulips, or Babylon.”
Charlotte looked at the two prodigal quants. “Is this right?”
They nodded. “It’s what happened,” the taller one said lugubriously.
Charlotte palmed her forehead. “But what does it mean? I mean, what could we do different?”
I raised a finger, enjoying my moment of one-eyedness among the blind. “You could pop the bubble on purpose, I raised a finger, enjoying my moment of one-eyedness among the blind. “You could pop the bubble on purpose, having arranged a different response to the crash that would follow.” I pointed the raised finger over my shoulder, at uptown. “If liquidity relies on a steady payment stream from ordinary people, which it does, then you could crash the system any time you wanted, by people stopping their payments. Mortgages, rents, utilities, student debt, health insurance. Stop paying, everyone at once. Call it Odious Debt Default Day, or a financial general strike, or get the pope to declare it the Jubilee, he can do that anytime he wants.”
On automation and clean energy: (view spoiler)[So energy systems were quickly installed: solar, of course, that ultimate source of earthly power, the efficiencies of translation of sunlight into electricity gaining every year; and wind power, sure, for the wind blows over the surface of this planet in fairly predictable ways. More predictable still are the tides and the ocean’s major currents, and with improvements in materials giving humanity at last machines that could withstand the perpetual bashing and corrosion of the salty sea, electricity-generating turbines and tide floats could be set offshore or even out in the vast deep to translate the movement of water into electricity. All these methods weren’t as explosively easy as burning fossil carbon, but they sufficed; and they provided a lot of employment, needed to install and maintain such big and various infrastructures. The idea that human labor was going to be rendered redundant began to be questioned: whose idea had that been anyway? No one was willing to step forward and own that one, it seemed. Just one of those lame old ideas of the silly old past, like phlogiston or ether. It hadn’t been respectable economists who had suggested it, of course not. More like phrenologists or theosophists, of course.
Transport was similar, as it relied on energy to move things around. The great diesel-burning container ships were broken up and reconfigured as containerclippers, smaller, slower, and there again, more labor-intensive. Oh my there was a real need for human labor again, how amazing! Although it was true that quite a few parts of operating a sailing ship could be automated. Same with freight airships, which had solar panels on their upper surfaces and were often entirely robotic. But the ships sailing the oceans of the world, made of graphenated composites very strong and light and also made of captured carbon dioxide, neatly enough, were usually occupied by people who seemed to enjoy the cruises, and the ships often served as floating schools, academies, factories, parties, or prison sentences. Sails were augmented by kite sails sent up far up into the atmosphere to catch stronger winds. This led to navigational hazards, accidents, adventures, indeed a whole new oceanic culture to replace the lost beach cultures, lost at least until the beaches were reestablished at the new higher coastlines; that too was a labor-intensive project.
New but old sea transport grew into the idea of the townships, again replacing the lost coastlines to a small extent; in the air, the carbon-neutral airships turned in some cases into skyvillages, and a large population slung their hooks and lived on clippers of the clouds. Civilization itself began to exhibit a kind of eastward preponderance of movement, following the jet streams; where the trade winds blew there was some countervailing action westward, but the drift of things was generally easterly. Many a cultural analyst wondered what this might mean, postulating some reversal in historical destiny given the earlier supposed western trend, et cetera, et cetera, and they were not deterred by those who observed it meant nothing except that the Earth rotated in the direction it did.
Deacidifying the oceans:
Modern commentary: (view spoiler)She recalled hearing how after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, they had built prison camps faster than medical facilities. They had expected riots and so had put people of color in jail preemptively. But that was back in the twentieth century, in the dark ages, the age of fascisms both home and abroad. Since the floods they had learned better, hadn’t they?
He runs with Taibbi's metaphor: (view spoiler)Every moment is a wicked struggle of political forces, so even as the intertidal emerges from the surf like Venus, capitalism will be flattening itself like the octopus it biomimics, sliding between the glass walls of law that try to keep it contained, and no one should be surprised to find it can squeeze itself to the width of its beak, the only part of it that it can’t squish flatter, the hard part that tears at our flesh when it is free to do so. No, the glass walls of justice will have to be placed together closer than the width of an octopus’s beak—now there’s a fortune cookie for you! And even then the octopus may think of some new ways to bite the world. A hinged beak, some super suckers, who knows what these people will try.
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