I first encountered N.K. Jemisin’s “Great City” series in her bracing, breakneck-speed short story, “The City Born Great,” which (in an edited form) is the prologue to The City We Became. Jemisin is one of this generation’s great speculative fiction authors, breaking award records and consistently producing remarkable and engaging character-driven short stories, complex and beautiful science fiction novels, and thoughtfully prophetic nonfiction essays. A MacArthur Genius Grant fellow, Jemisin is one of a number of Black women North American speculative fiction writers, including folks like Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, and Nnedi Okorafor–who are helping to reframe readers’ expectations with genre-redefining literary fiction and speculative world-building.
Jemisin’s new novel, The City We Became, is not just set in New York or about New York—or even a story where New York is a character in the drama. The story is New York, at least in the way that Jemisin intends to render it.
Though it has hundreds of years of history and pre-history as a city, all of its building and streets and bridges, all of its drummers in the park and theatres and traders and card sharks and street food sellers and subways and parks, all of its shouted greetings and shared food, its locked doors and broken beads—all of the things that make up the essence of New York—these are simply parts of what New York is. There will come a point where the city is born, as any city must be, and New York will either come to maturity or begin to fail.
In the grand diversity of the city, with its competing visions for what’s possible and its combative boroughs, with its staggering breadth of richness and poverty on all measurable realms, what will New York City become? Will it rise and fall like Pompeii and Atlantis? Or will it go on to be one of the great cities of our world? What is New York, really, at its heart and all its bones and tissues?
In the prologue of The City We Became, New York is born into the shape of a single avatar, a man child who is the city. “I live the city,” New York cries in the moment of birth. “It thrives and it is mine. I am its worthy avatar” (“The City Born Great” from Tor.com).
Unfortunately, New York’s birth occurs within a multiverse where there is a great Foe—a challenger at the moment of birth, someone or something from another dimension who somehow gains from a stillborn city of millions. Perhaps every birth is apocalyptic, but in the case of Earth’s cities in Jemisin’s fictional universe, John the Revelator saw the vision clearly:
1 And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: 2 And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. 3 And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. 4 And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born (Rev 12:1-4).
In the case of contemporary New York, the Foe, the dragon waiting for the child to emerge from its mother’s womb is at least partly successful in its hunt. While New York wins its first great battle, coming into life with all the unusual resources that New York has to offer—the rhythm, the heartbeat of the city, the bold and beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking things that make New York what it is—something goes wrong. New York’s birth into full cityhood is breached. Like the threatened birth-mother in that stunning apocalyptic vision of the manger scene in the book of Revelation, the sole avatar disappears to a deserted place of protection prepared for him. As the avatar descends into sleep, exhausted and alone, the war in heaven continues in the streets of New York far above him.
The embattled people of the city-in-the-desert are not, however, left without resources. As New York (ironically) sleeps, the five boroughs awake, joined by other Earth cities who offer to provide support.
And support is needed, for the city is falling to pieces in a cosmic battle unseen by most but felt by everyone–a hidden apocalypse that will either result in a waterless flood of devastation or the walkway to a new future. All are warriors, as the life of the city flourishes or falters in every act of kindness, every line of music, every move of a paintbrush or taxicab or striking hand, every intimation of racism or true love, every suit-tie knotted and soccer ball sent sailing through the park. As the avatars are the embodiment of the city, so the war is fought with and in its muscles and tendons.
The mechanism for the new avatars’ birth is unknown–though something like it happened in London, once upon a time–but the five newborn boroughs are also embodied in the great battle of the new age.
Of the five boroughs, we first meet Manny, the well-dressed avatar of Manhattan. The various avatars across the five boroughs come into consciousness in the midst of their everyday lives, but Manny’s awakening comes with the loss of any memory of his former life. A queer Black man in his late 20s, “Manny” is a name he invents on the spot and immediately knows it to be his true name. What is left in his memory are the remnants of some dark past life, which includes a ruthless hardness in him that provides him with critical gifts in this cosmic battle.
At the moment of her city-birth, Brooklyn Thomason is a Black professional, a lawyer and businesswoman who serves as a Brooklyn civic leader. Before turning to public service, she was once “MC Free,” a rapper with roots in the rhythm of the city. As Manny, a newcomer to the city, works in instinct and a rare knowledge of people, Brooklyn imbibes the musical heart of the city. Deeper than New York’s heritage of musical genius, Brooklyn is able to incarnate and weaponize the entire pulse of her people.
Dr. Bronca Siwanoy is the Bronx. Bronca is a powerful leader in the world of local artists and artisans, weary and wary following a long life in a battle much larger than she knew was possible. Brittle and tender both, Bronca is old-school liberal, a lesbian artist who has given her entire life to the belief that good art can be transformational and liberational. Bronca’s deepest resonance in the novel is not art as a battle, though, but in working as the knowledge-holder of the group (including a sort of maternal protectiveness). Her heritage is Lenape, a people displaced from the area in waves of European settlement. Bronca’s heart and mind link the city through hundreds of years of history, which she is then able to connect in the interdimensional battle for the survival of New York.
Padmini Prakash, is a 20-something Tamil grad student from Queens, a “math goddess” who is the only one able to understand even in a dim way the physics of their urban apocalypse. Liturgically, prayer-like, rap-like, Padmini is the math-maker of the newborn supergroup, and sings new patterns in the world as she computes imaginatively and reflectively. I wonder, though, if Padmini’s greatest ability—she is the “lotus sitter” according to her name—is kinship building, a skill she engenders in her immigrant community that could be an effective apocalyptic weapon if her character develops in future books.
And finally, there is Staten Island, isn’t there? Aislyn Houlihan—pronounced “Aislyn” like “Island” with an “s”, I presume—is Staten Island, the forgotten borough of New York City. I had to look up what that fifth borough was, presuming it to be Queens or Long Island. But, no, it is indeed the sociopolitical outlier, Staten Island.
Significantly, before being birth as a city with cosmic superpowers, Aislyn is a forgotten one, a thirty-something white woman, sad and alone, under-educated, under-employed, and under her parent’s roof and her father’s control. Her father is a blatantly racist cop who is not merely manipulative but downright abusive. Aislyn feels safest in her white, middle-class borough, far away from the colourful dangers of the city, though she yearns for something more.
Trapped by her world and worldview, ignored by the other boroughs as they fight alien street monsters in the form of traffic jams, street violence, social media campaigns, and legal maneuvers, the slim opportunity to raise New York from slumber into greatness is threatened even further by the fifth borough’s isolation.
Even with the help of a chain-smoking (São) Paulo and a sarcastic Hong (Kong), the Foe is more prepared than any of them could have imagined, having spent years preparing for this day. The Foe is able to generate bridge-eating monsters as easily as corrupt legal maneuvers and social media campaigns. It is indeed the waiting multi-headed dragon of the apocalypse, and one of the dragon’s heads is that of Screwtapian tempter. Playing to Aislyn’s inherited racism and personal commitment to fear, the Foe has recruited Aislyn, befriending her, and training her to reject the other boroughs.
Will the city survive? Will New York thrive, with all the beautiful and terrible things that make it one of the most enchanting cities in the modern world? Or will it disappear into its own myth, sinking like Atlantis into story, or being sealed like Pompei into a stillborn memory? How will the world’s most apocalyptic street rap battle go?
The City We Became is an intriguing book with an extremely strange and complex speculative framework. Intriguingly, it is also a multi-layered allegory. In Part 2 of this article, I explore how the allegorical strata of Jemisin’s sophisticated storytelling and consider how it works as a moralistic tale and as a novel.
Blogging the Hugos 2021 (Tentative Schedule)
- Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon and the Lady Astronaut Universe (11/10/21)
- Sarcastabots, The Wall-E Effect, and Finding the Human in Martha Wells’ Network Effect (11/17/21)
- A Time to Listen: Rebecca Roanhorse’s Astonishing Novel Black Sun (11/24/21)
- N.K. Jemisin’s Super Strange Urban Apocalypse in The City We Became: Part 1: The Allegory That is Born (12/07/21)
- N.K. Jemisin’s Super Strange Urban Apocalypse in The City We Became: Part 2: The Allegory We Became (12/09/21)
- The Heroic Gideon and Harrowing Features of Living in the Ninth: Tamsyn Muir’s Decaying Necromantic World (12/08/21)
- The Worlds of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi and Owen Barfield‘s Philosophy (12/15/21)
- The Signum University Hugo Award Best Novel Roundtable (12/18/21)