NK Jemisin’s cosmic urban myths
A new fantasy novel set in New York by three-time Hugo Award winner N.K. Jemisin critiques racism while serving up a rip-roaring yarn
Speculative fiction star N.K. Jemisin’s layered new fantasy novel, The City We Became, is many things. It’s a barrelling, pummelling yarn; a love letter to New York City, a study of America’s institutional racism, and, above all, it’s Jemisin’s reckoning with the deeply problematic legacy of the doyen of “weird fiction", the American writer H.P. Lovecraft.
Jemisin is the leading light of a wave of writers of colour who have upended the world of science fiction and fantasy over the past decade or so. In a heavily male-dominated space, she’s also the inheritor of the legacy of a long line of influential women writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler and Margaret Atwood. Jemisin is also the only writer to have won three consecutive Hugo Awards, in 2016, 2017 and 2018, for the three books of her acclaimed Broken Earth series.
One of Jemisin’s gifts as a writer has always been her ability to conceptualize and build deeply-realized worlds, such as the supercontinent called Stillness in her Broken Earth books. In The City We Became, her world-building takes place in the very real New York City, where she adds layers upon layers of mythologies and alternate realities atop a city that’s both mundane and magical.
The central theme of the novel is an intriguing one: What would happen if a city were to become sentient? The primary myth that Jemisin constructs is that after centuries of existence, many cities throughout our history have gained enough of a critical mass to become living, self-aware entities. Such becoming depends on a combination of factors: an accumulation of art and culture, a blooming of diversity, the heft of an architectural aesthetic, and, most importantly, the jostling of the shared histories of the people who reside in it; who, in a way, dream up that city’s mythic character.
Now, New York seems like an ideal candidate to make this transition. No other modern city has such aggressive self-regard as the Big Apple. And Jemisin, who lives and works in the city, takes the aura of New York and turns it up to eleven. Each city that becomes sentient runs itself by inhabiting a resident of the city, who becomes the avatar of the city. New York, given the city’s wildly multiple characteristics, gets six avatars, with five of them representing New York’s five boroughs, and the prime avatar embodying all of New York.
New York “prime" is a homeless young black boy, a talented graffiti artist. Manhattan is a mixed-race graduation student who is unable to remember his violent past. Brooklyn is a former rap star turned politician, Bronx is an ageing queer Lenape artist who runs a public art foundation, while Queens is a young Tamil maths wizard who’s completing her education on a visa. The only white avatar, representing the mostly-white borough of Staten Island, is an insular, xenophobic young girl who’s suspicious of any person of colour.
Jemisin evidently wants to make a political point, and it’s admirable just how deftly she weaves the politics into the story without losing even an iota of forward momentum. Which brings us to the villain of the story. Cities have their adversaries, or technically, just one adversary, an extra-dimensional entity which always tries to destroy a city that is on the cusp of becoming. If New York, as well as some of the older cities we meet, like São Paulo and Hong Kong, have made it, many others, like Atlantis, Pompeii and even New Orleans, don’t, because of the enemy. We might get a hint of the failure to become sentient from the “natural’ catastrophes that befall these cities, like a volcanic eruption or Hurricane Katrina, but, in Jemisin’s hands, these are just the outward manifestations of a more insidious attack. Heck, Atlantis was so thoroughly destroyed by the enemy that we don’t even remember the city as a real entity, just as a myth.
The adversary takes the form of the malicious, insidious Woman in White, a human embodiment of the monsters that Jemisin borrows from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. But these monsters aren’t just gigantic, many-tentacled, existence-obliterating entities from outer space. In their attempt to bring down New York, they also play a more subtle game that taps the racial fault lines of the US: infiltrating police forces, setting up shadowy firms that evict people of colour from their homes, and promoting a bland, gentrified and corporate vision of what constitutes a neighbourhood. The enemy even uses a group of white supremacist and homophobic group of white artists, who are, in an allusion to the Alt-Right, called the Alt-Artistes.
As mentioned, Lovecraft’s singular visions of cosmic horror underpin Jemisin’s narrative, as it does the work of all modern horror writers, from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman. However, it’s also true that Lovecraft’s stories from the early 20th century sprung from the man’s deeply virulent and obnoxious racism. The abhorrence he felt for all people of colour, wilfully misinterpreting diversity for a form of cultural and physical “disease", is something that many modern speculative fiction writers have pushed back against. Jemisin does so masterfully, flipping the script to portray the hard-working, marginal people of colour who live in New York as embodying a true “New York-ness", and the colonialist enemy, which embodies all the hatred that Lovecraft felt for non-white people, is the ultimate outsider. The enemy is not of this planet, maybe not even of this universe and dimension, and just like colonizing nations, is a settler virus that threatens all indigenous cultures. When one of New York’s avatars says, “Don’t sleep on the city that never sleeps, son, and don’t fucking bring your squamous eldritch bullshit here," he’s addressing both the enemy as well as Lovecraft, by using the same words to imply the uncanny that he made famous.
All this might have made for some heavy reading, but Jemisin keeps things supple and light. The story just flies (I finished the book in a day) and its moments of magic, horror and sweetness are both unnerving and awe-inspiring in their power. Jemisin revels in the local-ness of her New York, using everything, from road rage to neighbourhood art boutiques, the grime of Bronx neighbourhoods or the sinister glamour of Manhattan, to heighten the impact of the magic. In this, there are certain similarities of tone between her book and Gaiman’s Neverwhere, China Miéville’s The City And The City and many of Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories: a sense of mystery and otherness that is both haunting and deeply affecting.
The City We Became, which is said to be the first book of a series centred around “Great Cities", also seems to me to be her most immediately accessible novel yet. Where the novels of the Broken Earth series played with narrative forms, The City is a straightforward and linear yarn. And like all good yarns, it’s absolutely riveting.
The City We Became will be available worldwide from March end.
FIRST PUBLISHED29.02.2020 | 11:20 AM IST