JULY 30, 2020
IN 2018, N. K. Jemisin made genre history as the first author to win three consecutive Hugo Awards for Best Novel, with the entire Broken Earth trilogy (2015–’17) sweeping the awards: in 2016, The Fifth Season; in 2017, The Obelisk Gate; and in 2018, The Stone Sky. Jemisin’s well-earned triumph was particularly notable given the fact that 2013 had seen the emergence of right-wing groups of predominantly white men, known as the “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies,” who until 2017 attempted to flood the Hugo nomination system with blocs of authors and texts they deemed appropriate. In light of the failure of this extended reactionary tantrum, Jemisin didn’t just win — her victories announced that science fiction and fantasy were, as she put it in her acceptance speech, “the aspirational drive of the zeitgeist” and that the genre was “finally, however grudgingly, acknowledg[ing] that the dreams of the marginalized matter and that all of us have a future.” The Hugos were, in short, a battle over who belongs in, and who ought to lead, the stories we tell about the worlds we inhabit now and the possible worlds we might build. Jemisin’s latest novel, The City We Became, explicitly recognizes this battle as the stuff of both social movements and epic fantasy.
Part of Jemisin’s genius is rooted in her ability to come up with fantastically inventive premises that, while unthinkable before her writing, feel intuitive once read, to the point that one is baffled that nobody came up with them before. In the opening pages of The City We Became, Jemisin starts with what is almost banal: “Great cities are like any other living things,” she writes, “being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn. Duh, right?” Here, though, this is literal: in the novel’s universe, all cities reach a certain point of evolution at which they take embodied shape in a human avatar who represents their city’s essence. “This process? It happens all the time,” one character helpfully explains to the rest.
All over the world, wherever there’s a city. Enough human beings occupy one space, tell enough stories about it, develop a unique enough culture, and all those layers of reality start to compact and metamorphose. Eventually, when’s close to that, uh, moment […] the city picks someone to be its … midwife. Champion. A person who represents the city and protects it.
This avatar’s role is critical, because (as a fair amount of exposition clarifies) there’s an interdimensional multiverse war going on, and whenever a city is about to emerge in our slice of reality, “the Enemy” shows up to kill it before it can be birthed. This Enemy is the epitome of whiteness: individually, it appears as a white woman, named Dr. White, dressed all in white, and oozing insincere pleasantry; it also manifests as a tentacular Lovecraftian horror, eerie white limbs ripping out of the ground, grafting small versions of themselves to the necks of mostly unwilling pawns, and assembling into massive, undulating towers that dwarf the skyline. If a city’s avatar doesn’t fend it off, the city dies, and “dies hard”: such was the fate that befell Sodom and Gomorrah, Pompeii, Tenochtitlán, and Atlantis, not to mention New Orleans (which, one narrator assures us, survived the fight despite its loss, and may well fight for its full life again) and Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
In the opening chapter (also published as a stand-alone short story in Jemisin’s 2018 collection How Long ’Til Black Future Month?), as the city starts to come to consciousness, New York’s first avatar fights off the Enemy but is gravely wounded in the process. He falls into a coma; meanwhile, the rest of the soul of New York City awakens in five parts, each representing his or her borough. “New York is too much for one person to embody,” a character surmises: the city needs a superhero squad. After introducing us to each character in engrossing and vivid set pieces, the bulk of the novel is dedicated to the team tackling parallel crises: first, coming together to find and awaken the primary avatar; second, fighting off the Enemy and allowing New York to be born in full.
Representing the hearts of their respective boroughs, each member of the team bolsters Jemisin’s crucial claim regarding those to whom New York truly belongs, and those who truly belong to it. The first borough avatar we meet is Manny, the soul of Manhattan: a newly arrived graduate student, he’s a “[g]eneric all-American boy (nonwhite version)” with a mysterious case of amnesia that set in the instant he became the island’s avatar, helpfully deep pockets, and a looming sense that violence comes uncomfortably easily to him. “Dudes like you — smart, charming, well dressed, and cold enough to strangle you in an alley if we had alleys?” Brooklyn comments: “Dime a dozen on Wall Street and at City Hall.” Brooklyn, meanwhile — last name “Thomason, one of those city council people[, t]all and Black,” a woman with a law degree and impeccable style — still has a cult following from her youthful days as the groundbreaking MC Free, and when she needs to fight for her city, she does so using music. The avatar of Queens, Padmini Prakash, a 25-year-old Indian woman who is studying financial engineering and interning on Wall Street on an H-1B visa, whips mathematical equations at the Enemy with relish: “and don’t fucking bring your squamous eldritch bullshit here,” she calls out after an especially satisfying battle, somewhat surprising herself. Finally, dance is the chosen weapon of the Bronx, Bronca Siwanoy, a Lenape artist and academic who heads up the Bronx Art Center, reminisces with glee of her participation in the Stonewall riots (“‘Stonewall, I stomped on a cop,’ yeah, I know,” her favorite protégé ribs her), and calls on her memories of powwows and queer clubs to focus her kinetic powers. She’s skeptical of the other boroughs: “The Bronx has always been on its own,” she thinks; “let them learn what that felt like.” Even so, one of the mysterious powers granted to her when she became the Bronx is the ancestral memory of the city: “Bronx has the most history,” she explains, and she knows the boroughs need each other and the city needs all of them. To wake the sleeping sixth avatar of the entire city and expel the Enemy once and for all, the five boroughs need to unite. Only together can they save their city — within the narrative world, by defeating their shared enemy; and in the cultural zeitgeist, by situating New York’s essence beyond wealth and beyond whiteness.
This is a lesson that Staten Island’s avatar — Aislyn Houlihan, an emotionally terrorized and sexually numb white woman in her 30s who lives at home with her emotionally shut-down mother and her viciously racist, sexist father — catastrophically refuses to learn. Despite their differences, Bronca, Brooklyn, Manny, and Padmini feel an instinctive and furious dislike for the Enemy and have no hesitation about coming together to beat back and vanquish her. Aislyn, by contrast, is charmed despite herself. Brooklyn calls it before ever encountering Aislyn: if each borough represents their city, Staten Island “will be a small-town thinker, […] [a]n asshole with a chip on their shoulder, basically. And probably a Republican.” “The Woman in White,” as Aislyn thinks of the Enemy, “is the visual opposite of everything Aislyn has been taught to fear,” like “[d]ark skin” and “[u]gly people with scars or eye patches or wheelchairs” and “[m]en”; equally crucially, the Woman knows enough to appeal to Aislyn’s sense of rejection and resentment. Staten Island may not be perfect, Aislyn knows, but “at least here people try to be decent.” I won’t spoil the ending; I’ll simply say that Aislyn’s refusal to join the others not only ends in a satisfying lack of resolution for her arc (no white revelations leading to story-stealing salvation here!), but also catalyzes a last-act twist that makes excellent use of one of the novel’s best-drawn secondary characters.
As the description above indicates, The City We Became is filled to the brim of fantastically clever details that infuse focused political points with wild imagination. (One especially vivid example: a car chase through an Enemy-infected city that tips into high gear when our heroes realize that, while the ever-rarer independent establishments remain safe, all chains and franchises are Enemy-prone, and storefronts of the ubiquitous Starbucks are lurching forth from their buildings to try to swallow the city’s champions whole.) At times, though, it’s exactly the neatness and wit of the premise that trip up the book. This is the same problem posed by superhero stories: how to make an iconic symbol into a character, with depth and complexity, not just a projection of a social metaphor. The novel is at its best when the conflicts facing each borough’s avatar feel as human as they do symbolic. When Bronca faces down the various aggressions mounted by a group of white men’s rights activists, backed by the Enemy, who is hell-bent on getting scenes of racist and misogynist violence (“It’s irony, if you haven’t figured it out”) into the Bronx Art Center, the plot is personal, not just allegorical. We chafe with Bronca as she stifles her rage — first during their asinine presentation, and then during the pushy calls she gets from the organization’s board, pressuring her to host the exhibition so they can accept the Enemy’s generous funds. We feel a shock of recognition at the horror-movie reveal that the alleged art collective is actually a professionalized group of resentment-fueled trolls whose method is to dox and sic violent followers on women artists of color. We are spellbound by terror when the group returns to raze the center, ripping an interdimensional doorway through which the Enemy manifests, and by fierce joy when Bronca leads her staff in resisting them. While the larger metaphors (and the connections to the Hugo controversy and the Puppies) are clear, the narrative is gripping, not just because of the systemic catastrophes the “Alt Artistes” of Jemisin’s fantasy (because of course they call themselves the Alt Artistes) represent, but also because of the specificity with which Jemisin literalizes that system. It’s hard to maintain that kind of character-driven precision when the enemy reverts to its form as an interdimensional tentacle monster.
In the end, though, Jemisin’s brilliant allegorical premise lands with an uncanny prescience. Though The City We Became was released in late March of this year, it’s difficult, now, to avoid the temptation to retroactively read into the novel the historic events that are transforming New York, along with so many other United States and global cities. The language of infestation, infection, and contagion seeps into Jemisin’s description of the Enemy’s invasion of New York, illuminating with terrifying insight the physical ecosystems by which a pathogen spreads through the city: watching with horror as a tentacular tower on the FDR Drive attaches tendrils to the cars streaming uptown, and immediately recognizing how those tendrils will disperse, our avatars take on a new aura as coronavirus contact tracers, seeing that the dense interconnectedness that makes New York City so extraordinary also renders it extraordinarily vulnerable to a pandemic. An Enemy-infected white woman first takes cell phone video of and then calls the cops on Manny and his trans Asian roommate for the crime of being nonwhite in public: “There are these two guys in Inwood Hill Park who are, I don’t know, menacing people,” she says, echoing Amy Cooper’s widely publicized confrontation with Black bird watcher Christian Cooper in Central Park. Obviously, it’s not that Jemisin predicted the events of 2020. Rather, The City We Became is yet another example of Jemisin’s unmatched genius at weaving racial capitalism into epic fantasy. Like her Broken Earth trilogy, The City We Became estranges us from the everyday operations of power so that we can, with new clarity, see how it works and how it can be unraveled and remade; like her Hugo acceptance speech, the novel declares that the stakes of social power, the significance of asserting that the world belongs to the marginalized, is nothing less than epic.
Rebecca Evans is an assistant professor of English at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where she researches and teaches American literature, speculative fiction, and environmental studies.