2021 Hugo Award Review: The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

Detail from the cover of The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin. Cover shows a New York skyline from beneath Manhattan Bridge.

In her 2016 short story “The City Born Great” N. K. Jemisin introduced us to a homeless youth who was actually the avatar of New York City. The City We Became is a novel that takes the original short story as its prologue and proceeds to expand on the premise: the city’s avatar has gone missing, and the narrative turns to a set of new characters who embody New York’s individual boroughs.

Cover of The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin. Cover shows a New York skyline from beneath Manhattan Bridge.

The first of the five we meet is Manny, avatar of Manhattan, introduced in a state of confusion having just achieved avatar status and lost memories pertaining to his individual self. As he pieces together his identity Manny turns out to be the closest thing to an everyman amongst the story’s cast: just about everybody sees a bit of themselves in diverse Manhattan; indeed, he is so thoroughly mixed-race that every ethnic group can count him as one of their own. He finds a mentor in the avatar of Brooklyn: an African-American woman who once performed as a rapper under the name MC Free but is now Brooklyn Thomason, city councillor and proprietor of vacation property.

The Bronx, meanwhile, is personified by Dr. Bronca Siwanoy, a sixtysomething Native American lesbian who works as an artist and gallery director, striving to obtain grants for her work but struggling to attract galleries outside her borough (“Manhattan galleries don’t want real art”, she says. “They want inoffensive stuff from some upstate kid who went to NYU and majored in art just to reel against her parents”). She is in many ways suspicious of outsiders, but at the same time welcoming, allowing her gallery to be used as lodging by artists “kicked out by their families for being queer or neuroatypical or saying no”.

Padmini “the Queen” Prakash, the avatar of Queens, is a financial engineering student who spends her spare time in Tumblr discussions about scientific theories and fantasy fiction; even in the tensest moments, her head is filled with fluid formulae. Then we have Staten Island, the odd one out: “the sore thumb of this city”, as Brooklyn remarks. Its avatar is Aislyn, an Irish girl whose father (a bigoted police officer) is trying to hook her up with a white supremacist boyfriend.

The City We Became is brimming with affection for New York, although this affection often fades into melancholy or anger. In one scene Manny contemplates the fact that, as Manhattan, he embodies not only the positive aspects but also “Every murderer. Every slave broker. Every slumlord. Every stockbroker who got rich off war and suffering.” This picture is broadened by the fact that the central characters represent vastly different social strata, ranging from the street-savvy to the net-savvy (this is, after all, a novel that uses that most net-savvy of adverbs, “unironically”).

The story establishes that New York – in all of its ugliness and beauty, its complexities and contradictions – is under threat. The avatars soon learn that their city is at a tipping point: New York is part of a cosmic battle and risks succumbing to the same fate as Pompeii, Tenochtitlan, Sodom, Gomorrah and Atlantis. Some manifestations of this existential danger are purely fantastical, as when a vast white tentacle destroys Williamsburg Bridge, but others are more mundane and down-to-earth. A beloved mom-and-pop burger restaurant is closed down to make way for condos, while Manny is forced to watch as the heart of his borough is gentrified by chain stores:

Traffic’s flying past on Seventh, hurrying to get through the light before a million pedestrians start trying to get to Macy’s or K-Town karaoke and barbecue. All these things belong; they are rightness. But his eyes stutter over a TGI Fridays and he twitches a little, lip curling in involuntary distaste. Something about its façade feels foreign, intrusive, jarring. A tiny, cluttered shoe-repair shop next to it does not elicit the same feeling, nor does a vape shop next door. Just the chain stores that Manny sees—a Foot Locker, a Sharro, all the sorts of stores one normally finds at a low-end suburban mall. Except these mall stores are here, in the heart of Manhattan, and their presence is … not truly harmful, but irritating. Like paper cuts, or little quick slaps to the face.

Alongside supernatural violation (represented by the white tendrils) and the physical encroachment of gentrification, the protagonists witness an unsavoury cultural intrusion into their beloved city. This is embodied by the Alt Artistes, a collective specialising in such work ascollages of lynching photographs and paintings of black women being raped by various racially-stereotyped men. The Alt Artistes take some of their work to Bronca’s gallery, and she is unimpressed: “So, did 4chan put you up to this, or did you come up with it on your own?” She responds to these “rich-kid ‘artists’ thinking that a taste for stereotypes and fetish porn makes them avant-garde” with a firm refusal.

The Alt Artistes are a clear analogue to Gamergate, Comicsgate and the Rabid Puppies (notably, the novel refers to them as “racist sexist homophobic dipshits”, a term coined by John Scalzi to describe alt-right author Vox Day; Scalzi is credited in the book’s acknowledgments for this) and Jemisin uses these unsightly outgrowths of online culture to provide much of the novel’s ground-level drama. After being rejected, the art-trolls take to YouTube and post videos – garnering tens of thousands of hits – in which they decry Bronca’s gallery for its “disrespect for a superior culture that brought them Picasso, and Gauguin”. This leads to Bronca and her colleagues facing a wave of harassment:

“The Alt Artistes’ video has gone up,” Yijing says. “My mentions have been flooded with ‘kill urself’ crap all morning, and I couldn’t figure out why at first. Different accounts, but all variations on the same thing: Why does @BronxArts hate white men, how can we say we don’t discriminate when we clearly do, isn’t it Affirmative Action if we only showcase artists who aren’t white, blah blah blah. With a lot of ‘chink bitch’ and rape threats on the side.”

Another colleague, Veneza, finds a forum thread by the Alt Artiste’s supporters:

“All that stuff I told you guys yesterday about how to hide your business online? It was already too late, sorry.” She taps the screen over one of the forum comments, and abruptly Bronca recognizes the words there. It’s her home address and phone number. Beneath it, someone has posted “got her yaaaah” without punctuation.

“Oh, these sons of bitches,” Bronca growls. But inside, she’s shaking. What happens if some of these people show up to burn down her house in the middle of the night? Or if they break in while she’s sleeping? She has a gun—illegally, can’t get a permit because of her arrest record for AIM protests and “vandalism,” which is what they call it when artists put murals on derelict building walls.

This saga of racist Internet trolls occurs on a different plane of reality to the fantastical business of bridge-smashing tentacles, but N. K. Jemisin finds a mediator between the two dimensions: H. P. Lovecraft. Another author to have written about supernatural phenomena in New York, but from a perspective polar opposite to that of Jemisin, Lovecraft’s legacy is invoked throughout the novel and is a recurring topic of conversation among the characters.

The Alt Artistes naturally admire Lovecraft, their centrepiece being a distorted depiction of New York’s Chinatown entitled Dangerous Mental Machines – a phrase used by Lovecraft to describe Chinese-Americans. To Brooklyn, Lovecraft was a “chickenshit little fuck” consumed by fear of everyone he met. Padmini, with her interest in mathematics, is particularly amused by Lovecraft’s usage of “non-Euclidean geometry” as a signifier for the sinister and otherworldly, indicating that he was even scared of maths.

While the novel draws upon Lovecraft, it makes little claim towards being a “Cthulhu Mythos” tale. There are no Shoggoths mentioned in frightened asides, nor are there any reports about goings-on at Arkham. Instead, Jemisin borrows a few choice Lovecraftian constructs and incorporates them into her own vision, retaining traces of their origin but applying them to drastically new purposes. Lovecraft’s usage of the inhuman/subhuman racial “other” is, in Jemisin’s hands, inverted to create the story’s central villain: The Woman in White.

This character first appears as a passer-by, a portly woman in office dress, who accuses Manny and his transgender friend Bel of being “perverts and druggies”. She is the representative of the Better New York Foundation, which bankrolls the Alt Artistes’ encroachment into Bronca’s gallery and attempts to evict Brooklyn from her home.

The Woman in White takes on different forms as she is seen by different characters. Bronca sees her with a face that she “has only ever seen before on high-fashion models, and other women deemed beautiful for their ability to act as living props”, in this case pushed “past beautiful and into uncanny valley territory”. To Aislyn she appears as a fashionably-dressed, attractive woman, whose unsettling aspect fades away as she tempts the troubled white girl with promises of a clean world without “feminists and Jews and trannies and nnnnnNegroes and liberals”.

There is a lot of anger running through The City We Became, but — as with all successful satire — that anger is translated into acts of creative glee. The novel often reads like a fantasy built from the material of a political cartoon, as when the process of gentrification is embodied by terrible monsters formed from the masonry of chain stores: great dragons of brick, mortar and brand-names. This is worldbuilding from the desolation of the real world, and the energy is infectious.

That said, The City We Became does have one questionable step in its cosmology. The story establishes that parallel universes exist, but are destroyed by the process of a city surviving to develop a living avatar:

“Okay, so.” Brooklyn visibly braces herself. “So what happens to those universes that our city punches through?”

Manhattan’s got a terrible look on his face. Queens goes on an entire face journey–shock to calculation to dawning horror to anguish. She puts her hands to her mouth.

“They die,” Bronca says. She’s decided to be compassionate about it, but relentless. None of them can afford sentimentality. “The punching-through? It’s a mortal wound, and that universe folds out of existence. Every time a city is born–no, really, before that. The process of our creation, what makes us alive, is the deaths of hundreds of thousands of other closely related universes, and every living thing in them.”

Padmini is horrified by this revelation: “Oh my God. We’re all mass murderers… trillions of people? I can’t even begin to calculate it! All dead? And we killed them?” Bronca replies by comparing this process to killing an animal for food; just as her indigenous culture emphasises giving thanks to a slaughtered animal, she gives thanks to the universes she has unknowingly eliminated. Manhattan argues that the only alternative to this multiversal destruction is “to offer up all of your family and friends to die instead”. Padmini comes to understand this cold logic (“Padmini is Queens, land of refugees who’ve fled horrors, blue-collar people working themselves to death, and spare daughters mortgaged for an entire family’s future”).

When the Woman in White tries to persuade Aislyn that the city-avatars are evil, she brings up the destruction of alternate universes: “Countless people, dying on countless worlds, and you don’t even notice. Galaxies crushed beneath the dread, cold foundations of your reality”. Truth be told, she has a point, and so the novel is forced to set up a straw man. It ties this argument to the Woman’s bigotry – she also talks about cities being evil because they enable the mixing of cultures – and has Aislyn compare the Woman to a misguided vegan co-worker who thinks keeping bees is a form of slavery.

All of this clashes with the sensitivity towards colonialist atrocities found throughout The City We Became: for example, the scene where Padmini mentions the unmarked graves of slaves being discovered in Wall Street and concludes that Manhattan is “literally built on the bones of Black people. And Native Americans and Chinese and Latinos and whole waves of European immigrants”. For a story so stridently anti-colonial to depict its protagonists wiping out entire universes as a facet of their existence, and coming to justify this in what could be read as a sort of multiversal manifest destiny, strikes a discordant note.

This questionable creative choice aside, the novel is a resounding success. Jemisin has greatly expanded upon the universe of her original short story, given Lovecraft’s fiction an idiosyncratic re-imagining, penned a love-letter to New York and skewered some ugly trends in contemporary society. To accomplish all of this in a story that also works as a straight-ahead urban fantasy adventure is quite a feat.

Series Navigation<< 2021 Hugo Award Reviews: Ring Shout/FINNA2021 Hugo Award Review: Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse >>2021 Hugo Award Reviews: The Empress of Salt and Fortune/Riot Baby >>
Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.

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