Read a sample from NEW YORK 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

A new vision of the future from Kim Stanley Robinson, the New York Times bestselling author of science fiction masterworks such as the Mars trilogy, 2312 and Aurora

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.”


“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.