Long Distance, by Bill McKibben (2000)
Cross-country skiing sometimes seems like it has little more than a niche following, albeit an enthusiastic one. People tend to picture a sedate trudge along a snowy trail instead of the rapid pace athletes set on “skinny skis.” It’s admittedly not the most entertaining sport to watch, but it can be either an andrenaline-fueled thrill or a tranquil and ruminative outing when you try it on your own.
Bill McKibben’s Long Distance does a tremendous job of capturing the emotional and physical aspects of cross-country skiing. People who are unfamiliar with the sport will get a good introduction to its pleasures, health benefits, and traditions. Those who already enjoy it will relate to McKibben’s descriptions of everything from the pursuit of other racers to the frustration of poor skiing conditions. They’ll also be happy to see a book on cross-country skiing that isn’t an outdated manual instructing you how to herringbone up a slope.
Long Distance tells the story of McKibben’s somewhat impulsive decision to put himself through one year of Olympic training for cross-country skiing. He is coached through the same training, dietary restrictions, and other steps to improve his strength and endurance, and is amazed at the progress he is able to make.
This training happened to come at the same time that McKibben’s father came down with a terminal illness. As a result, the author is able to expertly weave in the juxtaposition between the challenge he has set for himself and his father’s struggle to simply stay alive. This results in some touching reflections on losing a parent as well as the limitations one inevitably faces in their life.
The only area where Long Distance falters is in its occasional digressions on environmental topics. McKibben is a prominent environmentalist, especially in the area of climate change, and brings up this subject during sections where he and his fellow skiers bemoan balmy weather conditions and snowless trails. While the themes related to his training and ailing father are particularly strong, McKibben’s environmental commentary comes off as a largely unnecessary addition to the book.
Just 224 pages in length, Long Distance is a perfect breezy read for a winter’s day. It’s sure to appeal to any cross-country skier, but will also enthrall any armchair adventurists.
New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson (2017)
Kim Stanley Robinson might be considered a world-building author of the first order. Indeed, his most well-known books, the Mars Trilogy released between 1993 and 1996, are about the gradual transformation of the Red Planet to Earth-like conditions.
Robinson stays closer to home in New York 2140, setting the novel almost entirely within the bounds of Manhattan. It might seem a little claustrophobic for a writer who previously had an entire planet to work with, but the setting is no less imaginative.
The Big Apple of this future, like many other coastal cities, has been partially swamped after two “pulses”—rapid sea level changes caused by the sudden melt-off of polar ice—left about half of Manhattan underwater. Commuters in the new “SuperVenice” get around via skybridges, water taxis, sporty speedboats, and the occasional airship. The finance industry and the city’s wealthiest residents have relocated to towering superscrapers in midtown, while buildings in lower Manhattan tilt drunkenly and occasionally come crashing down.
Most of the characters in New York 2140 hail from the Met Life Tower, a residential building in the intertidal zone which has been shored up and adapted to its new partially submerged existence. They include a police inspector, a hedge fund employee, the building’s super, and a woman who works with the refugees and immigrants who arrive in New York.
Each chapter focuses on a different character or two, which can sometimes lead to jarringly disparate storylines. One moment you’re following two homeless boys in their efforts to recover gold from the long lost HMS Hussar, the next you’re riding along with an airborne “cloud star” working to relocate polar bears from the Arctic to the Antarctic.
Readers may inevitably find some of these stories fascinating and others tedious. A few, such as a hostile bid to buy the Met Life Tower, simply peter out.
A more central plot revolves around the disappearance of a pair of coders and how it relates to some malfeasance in the midtown Wall Street. Robinson’s has skillfully addressed major issues before; in his Science in the Capital trilogy, he envisions humanity’s efforts to address climate change after its effects become more pronounced. Unfortunately, the critiques of capitalism and greed in New York 2140 can be considerably more heavy-handed.
Although the characters and themes sometimes seem to be drawn a bit sketchily, New York 2140 truly shines in its vision of a future which is both bleak and hopeful. Fans of Robinson will likely enjoy it, but those who haven’t read him may want to start with one of his earlier works.