An Urban Fantasy, Literally: a Review of N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became

The City We Became (2020) by N. K. Jemisin

Come, then, City That Never Sleeps. Let me show you what lurks in the empty spaces where nightmares dare not tread.

I fell hard for Dan Harmon’s sitcom Community about 10 years ago, long before Mr Harmon found mainstream recognition for his writing in Rick and Morty. I was so much of a fan that I took to listening to his now defunct weekly live podcast, Harmontown, in which he rambled about his life and career, played improv Dungeons & Dragons with his comedian friends, and attempted comically to perform very white freestyle rap. Anyway, in one of the episodes, Mr Harmon referenced a rapper who rapped about the five boroughs of New York as five fingers on his hand—possibly making a fist—and I followed that rabbit hole till I found what he was referring to: the remixed version of Busta Rhyme’s Touch It. The five boroughs verse was sung by Papoose,

Five boroughs of death, you don’t understand
I got New York City in the palm of my hand
Now I could make a tight fist and let it crumble ridiculous
Or I could smack the world with a New York Nemesis
I got Staten Island on my pinky, Queens on my thumb, dude
The Bronx on my middle finger screamin’ fuck you
Rock ice in Manhattan so there’s the ring finger
You know I had to keep Brooklyn on the trigger finger

Verse 6: Papoose of Touch It (Remix) (2006) by Busta Rhymes

It’s a pretty bad ass verse, and that’s where my mind went when I was reading Ms Jemisin’s The City We Became, which supposes that great cities develop sentience over time through human avatars. In New York City, a group of five avatars, each representing their respective boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island) emerged to defend their composite city from an inter-dimensional threat. I don’t know if that song had an influence on Ms Jemisin’s novel, but it’s not unheard of for fantasy works to take inspiration from rap music (like Rivers Solomon’s novella The Deep, which was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards).

Now, I have read Ms Jemisin’s historical triple Hugo-winning trilogy, The Broken Earth. I love The Fifth Season and I love its world which had underwent multiple apocalypses, its geology-based magic system, its raw commentary on racism, and its sleight-of-hand narrative structure. It was a heavy and challenging book (and trilogy) in more ways than one. The City We Became feels very lean and effortless in comparison. It is crisp, snappy, and witty—and it all adds up to something that makes sense on an emotional level, even while staying airy and ungrounded. It flows like a butterfly and swims like a bee. It’s like someone freestyle rapped a novel.

Ms Jemisin proposed that cities like São Paulo, Hong Kong, and New York, as they gain complexity and magnitude over time, would eventually reach a critical mass of sophistication leading to the “birth” of their consciousness. It’s akin to the scientific idea of emergent properties like intelligence growing out of simple mindless building blocks, much like how slime mould can help us plan efficient rail systems in a petri dish. New York in this book was in the middle of being birthed when the process mysteriously went wrong. The main avatar of New York City then went missing, requiring the five borough avatars to band together to… fix things somehow. Threatening them is an ancient eldritch Lovecraftian enemy from another universe who weaponises the power of racism, xenophobia, and gentrification, and that makes a lot of sense since these are all things that actually endanger cities in real life, either in tearing them apart or turning them into bland, flavourless municipal entities. It is ridiculous for Starbucks outlets to literally unmoor themselves from their foundations to oppose the protagonists of this book (while gormless patrons sip their overpriced frappes inside), but yet it works. And The City We Became works best when it goes into a sort of free association mode and draws from New Yorkian pop culture references, history, and art with abandon, caring about nothing so long as the resultant slurry is a flavour of awesome. The limit to any reader’s willing suspension of disbelief for any story element is proportional to how cool it is, and Ms Jemisin deftly surfed ahead of that curve.

In recent years, the sci-fi and fantasy community had been doing some soul searching in regards to the legacy of some of the figures the genre reveres, from Ms Jeanette Ng calling the namesake of the John W. Campbell Award she won “a fucking fascist” to Ms Nnedi Okorafor’s conflicted reaction to finding out the depth of H. P. Lovecraft’s bigotry (the same Lovecraft whose likeness adorns the World Fantasy Award she won in 2011). A distressed Ms Okorafor said,

… a statuette of this racist man’s head is in my home. A statuette of this racist man’s head is one of my greatest honors as a writer.

Lovecraft’s racism & The World Fantasy Award statuette, with comments from China Miéville (2011) by Nnedi Okorafor

Ms Jemisin herself had a few close calls in winning Lovecraft’s lumpy bust. In a way, I feel like The City We Became is her way of acknowledging Lovecraft’s influence on the genre—both the good and the ugly—and I think that is what Lovecraft deserves. We cannot forget him, so it falls upon us to remember all of him. There is simply no The City We Became without H. P. Lovecraft and Ms Jemisin went well beyond the incidental employment of cosmic horror tropes in her association with that man when she wrote this novel.

The villain of The City We Became is probably its most interesting aspect. Perhaps the pejorative “Karen” had not reached a level of popularity to guarantee its inclusion into the book when Ms Jemisin submitted the final draft, but I have no doubt that that’s what the Enemy or the Woman in White would be called if she was written in the mid-2020. There is a scene near the beginning of the book in which a white woman (while under the influence of the Enemy) called the cops on a two non-white characters and lied about what they were doing when they were just minding their own business in Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Park,

He resists the urge to turn away or reach for her phone, however, since that seems likely to only incite further rudeness on her part.

He does step forward. “What exactly do you think—”

She reacts as if his single step forward was a full-on bull charge, gasping and mincing back several steps. “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me! If you lay a finger on me, I’ll scream and the cops will shoot you! You druggies! Druggie perverts!”

While this may appear to be incredibly prescient in predicting the real life Central Park incident in May 2020 (two months after its publication) in which a white woman made a false and threatening call to the cops on a black birdwatcher, the depressing truth is that the power Ms Jemisin tapped into to write this scene was not prophecy—it’s just lived experience. And while Ms Jemisin’s book suggested that such racist acts were influenced by the Woman in White, she was careful to note that the Enemy was only amplifying existing bigotry. After all, it does no one any good to give any mileage to the fiction that racism is a product of alien mind control.

It had been argued that Lovecraft’s racism and his horror at the cosmic unknown are two inseparable sides of the same coin—it is what Monsieur Houellebecq described as the inspiration which raised in him the “poetic trance” that percolated his writing. So it is all the more fitting that The City We Became, which descended from him, is a book that is antithetical to everything H. P. Lovecraft stood for. It is unapologetically diverse in its representation of ethnicity and queerness, so much so that there were almost no white or straight main characters. Ms Jemisin may have raised the ghost of Lovecraft in writing this book, but she also exorcised it.

Still, there are some elements of this book which did not work for me. There is a sense that The City We Became is driven by plot rather than its characters since they are essentially guided by intuition they spontaneously developed when they became avatars of the city. They just magically know what they are suppose to do, where they are suppose to be, and how they are suppose to use their powers. One character even instantly falls in love with another character they just met for what seems like a symbolic reason rather than one which develops organically within the story. And since they are representatives of New York, the city would sometimes send them exactly what they need through serendipitous contrivances. While all of this appears to be congruent with the world-building Ms Jemisin introduced, they do not make for a compelling narrative.

The City We Became is part of a new series called Great Cities but unlike The Fifth Season, which cannot be read apart from the rest of The Broken Earth trilogy, I think it is quite possible to enjoy it as a stand-alone work. It is a book that shines through the strength and novelty of its ideas, and it shines with sufficient brightness to excuse some minor weaknesses in the story. For someone who only knew New York from the media I consume, Ms Jemisin did a bang-up job in giving me just enough information about the city and its boroughs for me to plod along (though I have no doubt a New Yorker would be able to enjoy it on a much deeper level than I did). While the book tells a self-contained story, there remained enough loose threads to snare me into reading its sequels. There is nothing quite like it in fantasy right now. It’s amazing, really, what beautiful and exciting things we can grow from the bones of dead white supremacists.

Rating: 4/5 Naga Pearls

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Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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