Great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing, and wearying and dying in their turn. ...cities really are different. Ordinary things..., traffic and construction... start to have a rhythm like a heartbeat.
Hip, fast moving, diverse and downright groovy, The City We Became, by N. K. Jemisin, explores real human themes like identity, regionalism, feminism and racism within the context of an alien invasion, and sentient cities. Wow!
In the city that never sleeps, the avatar of New York City is asleep: worn out by his first encounter with the enemy. He needs the aid of his five very different Boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island.
Each is channelled into a person who can keep the alien evil at bay until the entire city is strong enough to manifest. Gods who function as everyday people is not an alien idea - there are cultures that believe in avatars, like house gods, who bring fortune, protection and love.
"No small talk, just right to business. No wonder everyone thinks New Yorkers are rude..." (p.64)
Manny is new to the city. Yet to learn the ways of New York ("that money talks and bullshit walks"), he however feels immediately at home. The city's influence has made him forget all other distractions - including his former identity, when he realises he is the living embodiment of Manhattan. Manny finds he thrives on congestion, pollution; drawing "...a deep breath that reeks of hot garbage and acrid steam belching from a manhole cover nearby..." (p.34), absorbing the city's energies and daily routines to use as weapons.
"New York, New York, big city of big dreams...Too much...too many people, too much... Manny sees that (Brooklyn's) also holding up a cell phone. With every tinny beat of the synthesized drums, the field of tendrils begins to twitch en masse. When she directs the phone downward, the ones that haven't already withdrawn shudder as if each beat is a painful blow. Then they crumble away..." (p.74).
Brooklyn's avatar is an ex-rapper; now in local government, but still street. Brooklyn 'does its own thing' and is very much 'what you see is what you get.' She is the'"biggest and baddest Borough of the greatest city in the world." (p.223). Brooklyn hears the music of the city, excellently dispatching a manifestation of alien tendrils by playing Grandmaster Flash at them on her phone. Freaking awesome.
The Bronx is:
(The) "...part of the city that gets hit hardest by everything. Gangs, real estate scams...Hard people, too, if they came through any of that...so in a lot of ways, this is the heart of New York. The part of itself that held onto all the attitude and creativity and toughness that everybody else thinks is the whole city. (p.135) It's 'where Hip-Hop came from, and the best grafitti, and dances and fashion..." (p.138)
Da Bronca Siwanoy is the director of an art collective. She reminds me of Amma; the main character in Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo - a ballsy, no-nonsense fighter, with a strong sense of family. Bronca can harness New Yorkers' righteous anger at anything that interrupts the flow of the city, to use as a weapon against the invading aliens.
Padmini Prakash is a math Queen: "The Queen is in Queens, contemplating the stochastic processes of a trinomial tree model... "(p.172). She can move through time and space by thinking of complex math equations like non-Euclidean geometry. I so couldn't do that, lol.
"Queens is what's left of old New York: retirees, the working class, and a whole lot of immigrants, all working their asses off for a house with a backyard." (p.135) "It's a 'land of refugees who've fled horrors, blue-collar people working themselves to death, and spare daughters mortgaged for an entire family's future." (p.307)
Staten Aislyn is reticent about joining the fray, just as Staten Island doesn't really feel part of the city. "Staten Island tried to get away and lost.'"(p.134) According to Brooklyn;
"That one will be a small-town thinker, even though they're part of the biggest American city. They don't want to be part of New York there, remember...An asshole with a chip on their shoulder, basically. And probably a Republican." (p.135)
Sao Paulo, aided by his friend, Hong (Kong), is the last City to have been 'born'. He thrives on Brazilian cigarettes, and it's his duty to aid the birth of the next generation.
All of these can use their cities' unique features against the enemy - who not only wants to prevent New York gaining power, but seeks to infiltrate it; overlay it, with its own - a city of denizens from another dimension.
The sense of family loyalty and collective identity are two things the aliens have underestimated. These are the things that have enabled the cities to become entities - a sense of belonging, uniqueness - the things that are so very New York become weapons with which to eject the un-belonging aliens from another dimension.
Through her characters, N.K. Jemisin makes statements about colonisation, regionalism, racism, gentrification and diversity:
Things like chain-stores (Starbucks, TGI Fridays, Footlocker, Sbarro) can undermine a city's individuality: "foreign, intrusive, jarring...irritating, like paper cuts" (p.34).
Hong: "Big chain stores make a city less unique, more like every other place.'" (p.384)
Bronca has ethnic links to the indigenous Lenapé Nation: the original inhabitants of the New York area; who were "...driven away from the city and its immediate vicinity by the Dutch; how many of them died in the process? How much blood and fear has soaked into this old bedrock?" (p.81)
"...she had a gentle soul wrapped in razor wire, but the sharp edges are not her fault. The world trained her to violence, to ferocity, because it hates so much of what she is. This isn't the first time Bronca has been surrounded on all sides by those who would invade her, shrink her borders, infect her most quintessential self and leave only sanitized deadened debris in their wake..."(p.257)
Brooklyn's character has something to say about sexism in the music business: "It kept trying to push me to be someone I wasn't: be sexier, harder, whatever." (p. 133)
Together, she and Bronca have the ability to "blend... the power of their two boroughs into on massive, preemptive wave of Get The F$%* Out The Way...!' (p.385)
Brooklyn is almost right about (Staten) Aislyn; she is the controlled and isolated daughter of an asshole with a chip on his shoulder - a white NYPD officer - and yet "...belonging is as quintessential to Staten Islandness as toughness is to the Bronx and starting over is to Queens and weathering change is to Brooklyn..." (p409)
This story riffs on the Black Lives Matter movement, feminism and diversity. It's great to see that representation is becoming the norm in fantasy fiction.
Padmini to Manny:
"What Manhattan is now, white people run so much of it, but it's literally built on the bones of Black people. And Native Americans and Chinese and Latinos and whole waves of European immigrants and...everybody. That must be why you look so...everything." (p.191)
The fact that the invading evil aliens are represented by a woman in white is and isn't what you may think. The Woman in White exhibits racism:
"I think you filmed us because you didn't think we were dealers. Because we were just ordinary people going about our own business, and it bothered you to see us comfortable and unafraid..." (p.77)
She acts as a vehicle for the gentrification of New York. Her puppets are the Better New York Foundation, which is run by privileged white males (led by 'Strawberry Manbun', lol).
She targets Staten Island, the one borough who is afraid of entering the rest of the city, because her father has taught her its full of threats and danger.
Spoiler Alert: The Woman in White is in fact the city of R'lyeh, made famous in stories by HP Lovecraft. The many-tentacled creatures are a clue, as is the smell of trimethylamine oxide - the smell of the ocean.
Lovecraft is soundly dissed in Jemisin's text as racist:
'Dangerous mental machines', hah....Yeah. That was H.P. Lovecraft's fun little label for folks in Chinatown... He was willing to concede that they might be as intelligent as white people because they knew how to make a buck. But he didn't think they had souls...This painting shows you New York as he saw it... walking down the street and imagining that every other human being he met wasn't human. So, gentlemen, again, what part of 'we don't do bigotry' do you not understand?" (p.148-9)
The City We Became is full of action and better monsters than Men in Black.
Even the chapter titles are excellent: 'Our Lady of Staten Aislyn' and 'Boogie-Down Bronca and the Bathroom Stall of Doom' (lol) as are the very clever sci-fi constructions that go over my head, like 'the politics of spacetime fractionality and superpositioning.' (p.66)
I found myself navigating maps of New York City, checking out the bridges and the placement of the boroughs. I really got a feel for where all the action takes place. And where the great big feathery tentacle strikes.
The Williamsburg Bridge, the first to be attacked (by a feathery octopus monster not unlike the one in CJ Anders' The City in the Middle of the Night) connects Manhattan Island to Brooklyn, over the East River. If you look at a map, you can see that Staten Island really is left right out.
It got me thinking about Christchurch. Although adopted, it's very much home. I've shared its joys, terrors (and weather), and I'm staying.
Perhaps the final point Jemisin makes in this book is that if we work together our sense of love for the places we belong can make us invincible.
N.K. Jemisin is well known for her amazing fantasy stories and strong female protagonists. Her series The Inheritance Trilogy, has been optioned by Searchlight Television. The first book of the trilogy, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, won the Locus Award in 2011. The City We Became won the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel (4 April) and has been nominated for the Nebula Awards (5 June), the Locus Awards (26 June) and the Hugo Awards (28 August) this year.
Find out more
- Titles by N. K. Jemisin
- To the 5 Boroughs Classic Beastie Boys album
- How Long 'til Black Future Month? Short story collection by N. K. Jemisin
- Humans of New York
- Between the World and Me On race in America by Ta-nehisi Coates
- Behold the Dreamers Novel by Imbolo Mbue
- NYC Literary Action Coalition
- Video: The Denizens of R'lyeh (undersea creatures weirdly like those in the story!)