New York 2140: A Novel

by Kim Stanley Robinson

Clock Icon 16 minute read

PART ONE
THE TYRANNY OF SUNK COSTS


a) Mutt and Jeff

"Whoever writes the code creates the value."

"That isn't even close to true."

"Yes it is. Value resides in life, and life is coded, like with DNA."

"So bacteria have values?"

"Sure. All life wants things and goes after them. Viruses, bacteria, all the way up to us."

"Which by the way it's your turn to clean the toilet."

"I know. Life means death."

"So, today?"

"Some today. Back to my point. We write code. And without our code, there's no computers, no finance, no banks, no money, no exchange value, no value."

"All but that last, I see what you mean. But so what?"

"Did you read the news today?"

"Of course not."

"You should. It's bad. We're getting eaten."

"That's always true. It's like what you said, life means death."

"But more than ever. It's getting too much. They're down to the bone."

"This I know. It's why we live in a tent on a roof."

"Right, and now people are even worried about food."

"As they should. That's the real value, food in your belly. Because you can't eat money."

"That's what I'm saying!"

"I thought you said the real value was code. Something a coder would say, may I point out."

"Mutt, hang with me. Follow what I'm saying. We live in a world where people pretend money can buy you anything, so money becomes the point, so we all work for money. Money is thought of as value."

"Okay, I get that. We're broke and I get that."

"So good, keep hanging with me. We live by buying things with money, in a market that sets all the prices."

"The invisible hand."

"Right. Sellers offer stuff, buyers buy it, and in the flux of supply and demand the price gets determined. It's crowdsourced, it's democratic, it's capitalism, it's the market."

"It's the way of the world."

"Right. And it's always, always wrong."

"What do you mean wrong?"

"The prices are always too low, and so the world is fucked. We're in a mass extinction event, sea level rise, climate change, food panics, everything you're not reading in the news."

"All because of the market."

"Exactly! It's not just that there are market failures. It's that the market is a failure."

"How so?"

"Things are sold for less than it costs to make them."

"That sounds like the road to bankruptcy."

"Yes, and lots of businesses do go bankrupt. But the ones that don't haven't actually sold their thing for more than it cost to make. They've just ignored some of their costs. They're under huge pressure to sell as low as they can, because every buyer buys the cheapest version of whatever it is. So they shove some of their production costs off their books."

"Can't they just pay their labor less?"

"They already did that! That was easy. That's why we're all broke except the plutocrats."

"I always see the Disney dog when you say that."

"They've squeezed us till we're bleeding from the eyes. I can't stand it anymore."

"Blood from a stone. Sir Plutocrat, chewing on a bone."

"Chewing on my head! But now we're chewed up. We're squoze dry. We've been paying a fraction of what things really cost to make, but meanwhile the planet, and the workers who made the stuff, take the unpaid costs right in the teeth."

"But they got a cheap TV out of it."

"Right, so they can watch something interesting as they sit there broke."

"Except there's nothing interesting on."

"Well, but this is the least of their problems! I mean actually you can usually find something interesting."

"Please, I beg to differ. We've seen everything a million times."

"Everyone has. I'm just saying the boredom of bad TV is not the biggest of our worries. Mass extinction, hunger, wrecking kids' lives, these are bigger worries. And it just keeps getting worse. People are suffering more and more. My head is going to explode the way things are going, I swear to God."

"You're just upset because we got evicted and are living in a tent on a roof."

"That's just part of it! A little part of a big thing."

"Okay, granted. So what?"

"So look, the problem is capitalism. We've got good tech, we've got a nice planet, we're fucking it up by way of stupid laws. That's what capitalism is, a set of stupid laws."

"Say I grant that too, which maybe I do. So what can we do?"

"It's a set of laws! And it's global! It extends all over the Earth, there's no escaping it, we're all in it, and no matter what you do, the system rules!"

"I'm not seeing the what-we-can-do part."

"Think about it! The laws are codes! And they exist in computers and in the cloud. There are sixteen laws running the whole world!"

"To me that seems too few. Too few or too many."

"No. They're articulated, of course, but it comes down to sixteen basic laws. I've done the analysis."

"As always. But it's still too many. You never hear about sixteen of anything. There are the eight noble truths, the two evil stepsisters. Maybe twelve at most, like recovery steps, or apostles, but usually it's single digits."

"Quit that. It's sixteen laws, distributed between the World Trade Organization and the G20. Financial transactions, currency exchange, trade law, corporate law, tax law. Everywhere the same."

"I'm still thinking that sixteen is either too few or too many."

"Sixteen I'm telling you, and they're encoded, and each can be changed by changing the codes. Look what I'm saying: you change those sixteen, you're like turning a key in a big lock. The key turns, and the system goes from bad to good. It helps people, it requires the cleanest techs, it restores landscapes, the extinctions stop. It's global, so defectors can't get outside it. Bad money gets turned to dust, bad actions likewise. No one could cheat. It would make people be good."

"Please Jeff? You're sounding scary."

"I'm just saying! Besides, what's scarier than right now?"

"Change? I don't know."

"Why should change be scary? You can't even read the news, right? Because it's too fucking scary?"

"Well, and I don't have the time."

Jeff laughs till he puts his forehead on the table. Mutt laughs too, to see his friend so amused. But the mirth is very localized. They are partners, they amuse each other, they work long hours writing code for high-frequency trading computers uptown. Now some reversals have them on this night living in a hotello on the open-walled farm floor of the old Met Life tower, from which vantage point lower Manhattan lies flooded below them like a super-Venice, majestic, watery, superb. Their town.

Jeff says, "So look, we know how to get into these systems, we know how to write code, we are the best coders in the world."

"Or at least in this building."

"No come on, the world! And I've already gotten us in to where we need to go."

"Say what?"

"Check it out. I built us some covert channels during that gig we did for my cousin. We're in there, and I've got the replacement codes ready. Sixteen revisions to those financial laws, plus a kicker for my cousin's ass. Let the SEC know what he's up to, and also fund the SEC to investigate that shit. I've got a subliminal shunt set up that will tap some alpha and move it right to the SEC's account."

"Now you really are scaring me."

"Well sure, but look, check it out. See what you think."

Mutt moves his lips when he reads. He's not saying the words silently to himself, he's doing a kind of Nero Wolfe stimulation of his brain. It's his favorite neurobics exercise, of which he has many. Now he begins to massage his lips with his fingers as he reads, indicating deep worry.

"Well, yeah," he says after about ten minutes of reading. "I see what you've got here. I like it, I guess. Most of it. That old Ken Thompson Trojan horse always works, doesn't it. Like a law of logic. So, could be fun. Almost sure to be amusing."

Jeff nods. He taps the return key. His new set of codes goes out into the world.

They leave their hotello and stand at the railing of their building's farm, looking south over the drowned city, taking in the whitmanwonder of it. O Mannahatta! Lights squiggle off the black water everywhere below them. Downtown a few lit skyscrapers illuminate darker towers, giving them a geological sheen. It's weird, beautiful, spooky.

There's a ping from inside their hotello, and they push through the flap into the big square tent. Jeff reads his computer screen.

"Ah shit," he says. "They spotted us."

They regard the screen.

"Shit indeed," Mutt says. "How could they have?"

"I don't know, but it means I was right!"

"Is that good?"

"It might even have worked!"

"You think?"

"No." Jeff frowns. "I don't know."

"They can always recode what you did, that's the thing. Once they see it."

"So do you think we should run for it?"

"To where?"

"I don't know."

"It's like you said before," Mutt points out. "It's a global system."

"Yeah but this is a big city! Lots of nooks and crannies, lots of dark pools, the underwater economy and all. We could dive in and disappear."

"Really?"

"I don't know. We could try."

Then the farm floor's big service elevator door opens. Mutt and Jeff regard each other. Jeff thumbs toward the staircases. Mutt nods. They slip out under the tent wall.

To be brief about it—

proposed Henry James

b) Inspector Gen

Inspector Gen Octaviasdottir sat in her office, late again, slumped in her chair, trying to muster the energy to get up and go home. Light fingernail drumming on her door announced her assistant, Sergeant Olmstead. "Sean, quit it and come in."

Her mild-mannered young bulldog ushered in a woman of about fifty. Vaguely familiar-looking. Five seven, a bit heavy, thick black hair with some white strands. City business suit, big shoulder bag. Wide-set intelligent eyes, now observing Gen sharply; expressive mouth. No makeup. A serious person. Attractive. But she looked as tired as Gen felt. And a little uncertain about something, maybe this meeting.

"Hi, I'm Charlotte Armstrong," the woman said. "We live in the same building, I think. The old Met Life tower, on Madison Square?"

"I thought you looked familiar," Gen said. "What brings you here?"

"It has to do with our building, so I asked to see you. Two residents have gone missing. You know those two guys who were living on the farm floor?"

"No."

"They might have been nervous to talk to you. Although they had permission to stay."

The Met tower was a co-op, owned by its residents. Inspector Gen had recently inherited her apartment from her mother, and she paid little attention to how the building was run. Often it felt like she was only there to sleep. "So what happened?"

"No one knows. They were there one day, gone the next."

"Someone's checked the security cameras?"

"Yes. That's why I came to see you. The cameras went out for two hours on the last night they were seen."

"Went out?"

"We checked the data files, and they all have a two-hour gap."

"Like a power outage?"

"But there wasn't a power outage. And they have battery backup."

"That's weird."

"That's what we thought. That's why I came to see you. Vlade, the building super, would have reported it, but I was coming here anyway to represent a client, so I filed the report and then asked to speak to you."

"Are you going back to the Met now?" Gen asked.

"Yes, I was."

"Why don't we go together, then. I was just leaving." Gen turned to Olmstead. "Sean, can you find the report on this and see what you can learn about these two men?"

The sergeant nodded, gazing at the floor, trying not to look like he'd just been given a bone. He would tear into it when they were gone.

Armstrong headed toward the elevators and looked surprised when Inspector Gen suggested they walk instead.

"I didn't think there were skybridges between here and there."

"Nothing direct," Gen explained, "but you can take the one from here to Bellevue, and then go downstairs and cross diagonally and then head west on the Twenty-third Skyline. It takes about thirty-four minutes. The vapo would take twenty if we got lucky, thirty if we didn't. So I walk it a lot. I can use the stretch, and it will give us a chance to talk."

Armstrong nodded without actually agreeing, then hauled her shoulder bag closer to her neck. She favored her right hip. Gen tried to remember anything from the Met's frequent bulletins. No luck. But she was pretty sure this woman had been the chairperson of the co-op's executive board since Gen had moved in to take care of her mom, which suggested three or four terms in office, not something most people would volunteer for. She thanked Armstrong for this service, then asked her about it. "Why so long?"

"It's because I'm crazy, as you seem to be suggesting."

"Not me."

"Well, you'd be right if you did. It's just that I'm better working on things than not. I experience less stress."

"Stress about how our building runs?"

"Yes. It's very complicated. Lots can go wrong."

"You mean like flooding?"

"No, that's mostly under control, or else we'd be screwed. It takes attention, but Vlade and his people do that."

"He seems good."

"He's great. The building is the easy part."

"So, the people."

"As always, right?"

"Sure is in my line of work."

"Mine too. In fact the building itself is kind of a relief. Something you can actually fix."

"You do what kind of law?"

"Immigration and intertidal."

"You work for the city?"

"Yes. Well, I did. The immigrant and refugee office got semiprivatized last year, and I went with it. Now we're called the Householders' Union. Supposedly a public-private agency, but that just means both sides ignore us."

"Have you always done that kind of thing?"

"I worked at ACLU a long time ago, but yeah. Mostly for the city."

"So you defend immigrants?"

"We advocate for immigrants and displaced persons, and really anyone who asks for help."

"That must keep you busy."

Armstrong shrugged. Gen led her to the elevator in Bellevue's northwest annex that would take them down to the skybridge that ran west from building to building on the north side of Twenty-third. Most skybridges still ran either north-south or east-west, forcing what Gen called knight moves. Recently some new higher skybridges made bishop moves, which pleased Gen, as she played the find-the-shortest-route game when getting around the city, played it with a gamer's passion. Shortcutting, some players called it. What she wanted was to move through the city like a queen in chess, straight to her destination every time. That would never be possible in Manhattan, just as it wasn't on a chessboard; grid logic ruled both. Even so, she would visualize the destination in her head and walk the straightest line she could think of toward it—design improvements—measure success on her wrist. All simple compared to the rest of her work, where she had to navigate much vaguer and nastier problems.

Armstrong stumped along beside her. Gen began to regret suggesting the walk. At this pace it was going to take close to an hour. She asked questions about their building to keep the lawyer distracted from her discomfort. There were about two thousand people living in it now, Armstrong answered. About seven hundred units, from single-person closets to big group apartments. Conversion to residential had occurred after the Second Pulse, in the wet equity years.

Gen nodded as Charlotte sketched this history. Her father and grandmother had both served on the force through the flood years, she told Armstrong. Keeping order had not been easy.

Finally they came to the Met's east side. The skybridge from the roof of the old post office entered the Met at its fifteenth floor. As they pushed through the triple doors Gen nodded to the guard on duty, Manuel, who was chatting to his wrist and looked startled to see them. Gen looked back out the glass doors; down at canal level the bathtub ring exposed by low tide was blackish green. Above it the nearby buildings' walls were greenish limestone, or granite, or brownstone. Seaweed stuck to the stone below the high tide line, mold and lichen above. Windows just above the water were barred with black grilles; higher they were unbarred, and many open to the air. A balmy night in September, neither stifling nor steamy. A moment in the city's scandalous weather to bask in, to enjoy.

"So these missing guys lived on the farm floor?" Gen asked.

"Yes. Come on up and take a look, if you don't mind."

They took an elevator to the farm, which filled the open-walled loggia of the Met tower from the thirty-first to the thirty-fifth floors. The tall open floor was jammed with planter boxes, and the air in the space was filled with hydroponic balls of leafy green. The summer's crop looked ready for harvest: tomatoes and squash, beans, cucumbers and peppers, corn, herbs, and so on. Gen spent very little time in the farm, but she did like to cook once in a while, so she put in an hour a month to be able to make a claim. The cilantro was bolting. Plants grew at different speeds, just like people.

"They lived here?"

"That's right, over in the southeast corner near the toolshed."

"For how long?"

"About three months."

"I never saw them."

"People say they kept to themselves. They lost their previous housing somehow, so Vlade set up a hotello they brought with them."

"I see." Hotellos were rooms that could be packed into a suitcase. They were often deployed inside other buildings, being not very sturdy. Usually they provided private space inside crowded larger spaces.

Gen wandered the farm, looking for anomalies. The loggia's arched open walls had a railing embrasure that was chest high on her, and she was a tall woman. Looking over the rail she saw a safety net about six feet below. They circled inside arches and came to the hotello in the southeast corner. She knelt to inspect the rough concrete floor: no sign of anything unusual. "Forensics should take a closer look at this."

"Yes," Armstrong said.

"Who gave them permission to live here?"

"The residency board."

"They aren't running out on rent or anything."

"No."

"Okay, we'll do the full missing persons routine."

The situation had some oddities that were making Gen curious. Why had the two men come here? Why had they been accepted when the building was already packed?

As always, the list of suspects began in the ring of immediate acquaintance.

"Do you think the super might be in his office?"

"He usually is."

"Let's go talk to him."

They took the elevator down and found the super sitting at a worktable that filled one wall of an office. The wall beside it was glass and gave a view of the Met's big boathouse, the old third story, now water-floored.

The super stood and said hi. Gen had seen him around in the usual way. Vlade Marovich. Tall, broad-chested, long-limbed. A bunch of slabs thrown together. Six two, black hair. Head like a block of wood hewn by an ax. Slavic unease, skepticism, bit of an accent. Discontented around police, maybe. In any case, not happy.

Gen asked questions, watched him describe what had happened from his perspective. He was in a position to make the security cameras malfunction. And he did seem wary. But also weary. Depressed people did not usually engage in criminal conspiracies, Gen had long ago concluded. But you never knew.

"Shall we get dinner?" she asked them. "I'm suddenly starving, and you know the dining hall. First come only served."

The other two were well aware of this.

"Maybe we can eat together and you can tell me more. And I'll push the investigation at the station tomorrow. I'll want a list of all the people who work for you on the building," she said to Vlade. "Names and files."

He nodded unhappily.

The choice of the discount rate becomes decisive for the whole analysis. A low discount rate makes the future more important, a high discount rate is dismissive of the future.

—Frank Ackerman, Can We Afford the Future?

The moral is obvious. You can't trust code that you did not totally create yourself.

Misguided use of a computer is no more amazing than drunk driving of an automobile.

—Ken Thompson, "Reflections on Trusting Trust"

A bird in the hand is worth what it will bring.

noted Ambrose Bierce

c) Franklin

Numbers often fill my head. While waiting for my building's morose super to free my Jesus bug from the boathouse rafters where it had spent the night, I was looking at the little waves lapping in the big doors and wondering if the Black-Scholes formula could frame their volatility. The canals were like a perpetual physics class's wave-tank demonstration—backwash interference, the curve of a wave around a right angle, the spread of a wave through a gap, and so on—it was very suggestive as to how liquidity worked in finance as well.

Too much time to give to this question, the super being so sullen and slow. New York parking! One can do nothing but practice patience. Eventually the zoomer was mine to step into, off the boathouse dock and then out the doorway onto the shadowed surface of the Madison Square bacino. Nice day, crisp and clear, sunlight pouring down the building canyons from the east.

As on most weekdays, I hummed the bug east on Twenty-third into the East River. It would have been shorter to burble south through the city canals, but even just past dawn the southward traffic on Park was terrible, and would only get worse at the Union Square bacino. Besides I wanted to fly a little before settling in to work, I wanted to see the river shine.

The East River too was busy with its usual morning traffic, but there was still room in the fast southbound lane to plane up onto the Jesus bug's curving hydrofoils and fly. As always the lift off the water was exhilarating, a rise like a seaplane taking off, some kind of nautical hard-on, after which the boat flew over its magic carpet of air some six feet off the river, with only the two streamlined composite foils shearing through the water below, flexing constantly to maximize lift and stability. A genius of a boat, zooming downriver in the autobahn lane, ripping through the sun-battered wakes of the slowpokes, rip rip rip, man on a mission here, out of my way little bargie, got to get to work and make my daily bread.

If the gods allow. I could take losses, could get shaved, get hosed, take a hammering, blow up—so many ways to say it!—although all were unlikely in my case, being well hedged and risk averse as I am, at least compared to many traders out there. But the risks are real, the volatility volatile; in fact it's the volatility that can't be factored into the partial differential equations in the Black-Scholes family, even when you shift them around to account for that quality in particular. It's what people bet on, in the end. Not whether an asset price will go up or down—traders win either way—but just how volatile the price will be.

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