Book Review | The City We Became

While challenging and subverting the tropes of fantasy and science fiction, NK Jemisin’s timely new novel also reminds us of the possibility of change through collective action.

If Joburg was a person, who would they be? The great-grandchild of a mining man off the coal train from Mozambique, now making art in Melville? A Northcliff banker with a giant gas braai, a thatched boma and a brace of boerbulls primed to attack? Or a righteously angry street trader shaking her fist and cursing in Shona as the cops trash her table and steal her stock? Or someone else, still? It’s the people living there who give cities their souls. Wherever they started, what they bring when they arrive in the city feeds its becoming. This is the premise underlying three-time Hugo – and multiple other – award-winning fantasy and science fiction writer NK Jemisin’s latest novel, The City We Became, the start of a Great Cities trilogy.

Jemisin has described the book as a love letter to New York. The Iowa-born writer (and former educational psychologist) has lived there for much of her adult life. This month, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. But the book is, as Jemisin has subsequently discussed, lots of other things too. 

In genre terms, it combines some familiar tropes in startlingly fresh ways. As the story opens, New York has reached the stage in its life when it comes alive: the human avatars of its boroughs realise what they embody. But this is a world of alternate universes, and an alien city from another timeline is seeking to abort the birth and rub New York out with its own terrifying architecture. As the boroughs come together, they form a familiar plot motif: the band of unlikely allies uniting to fight an ancient evil.

But while, like all good fantasy heroes, this bunch each has their defining characteristic and power, they aren’t drawn from the Eurocentric Marvel cliché lexicon of ripped abs, shiny tights and thunderbolts. The Bronx is a boot-stomping two-spirit Lenape grandmother and visual artist; her people were New Yorkers long before the colonisers arrived and imposed that name. 

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Brooklyn is a former rapper turned politician. Her fighting lyrics have a South African link, because Jemisin turned to Jean Grae (Tsidi Ibrahim, child of Abdullah and the late Sathima Bea Benjamin) to polish them. 

Manhattan has a diverse heritage – in a mirror he sees a “generic all-American boy (nonwhite version)” – but his polished appearance conceals a violent past. Queens’ Padmini Prakash is wrenched into awareness while quietly “contemplating the stochastic processes of a trinomial tree model”; her superpower is fuelled by advanced mathematics. Jemisin is far too good a writer, however, to let these symbolic characteristics comprise the whole of each person: they are alive in our world as well as the superhero origin world.

Challenging fantasy’s roots

At the same time as the story line riffs on these familiar fantasy elements, it challenges and subverts others: the notions of alien evil shaped by writer HP Lovecraft. He inspired many of the tropes of modern horror fiction. But as his letters make explicit, he was a racist, an antisemite, anti-Asian, misogynistic and homophobic. For Lovecraft, a city like New York was a pit of horrors where human others and alien creatures blurred together, inspiring equal revulsion, and where the only thing an upstanding cisgender and heterosexual white male could do was blast them all to infinity. He had many genre disciples. 

As she grew older, the young Jemisin – a self-described “geeky black child” scouring her local library shelves for science fiction and fantasy – realised, “Oh yeah, a lot of these motherfuckers are racist, and some-other-ist too.” For her, the magic of contemporary cities manifests in the existential power of all the differences that so terrified Lovecraft as they come together in struggle. The monstrosity they are fighting, the invading alien city, seeds a white mycelium to infect human hosts and burrow into streets and buildings. It meshes into an obliterating overlay of its home beyond the portal. It manifests and communicates through those it infects, or through a temporarily woven-together creature, the Woman in White.

Its scurrying, tweeting minions are gentrifying property developers, “ironic” alt-right bros, and the anonymous transnational corporations that fund them. As Jemisin reflects ruefully, although The City We Became is certainly “a book of the Trump era”, written in 2018, “Twenty-twenty keeps stealing my ideas. […] For example, I was thinking about a collaboration between the NYPD and the Proud Boys to mess with the city […] Real life should not be looking like my books!” 

A delicate, fun and respectful writing mode

Although they are strongly felt, the writing wears its metaphors lightly. You could simply enjoy a surface of compelling characters, a gripping adventure and a fair amount of comedy. Jemisin is having fun here with her story, her city and her subversions. Anybody who’s ever been part of funding battles over art will particularly relish the scene in which a bunch of moneyed dabblers use irony to defend the crass stereotypes they paint. The narrative’s angers, battles and triumphs, though, are not too many nanoseconds into their alternative dimension. As with all the best fantasy and science fiction, recognising their proximity gives the book even more force. 

The novel’s grounding in our world is underlined when you read Jemisin’s thanks at the end. When her characters are of different heritages, she’s respected the guidance of informants from those communities, rather than solipsistically deciding what it might be like to grow up, say, as a Lenape in New York. In an age of appropriation, that matters. She’s discussed a massive range of other influences and research resources too, including that most prescient of works on the evils of gentrification, Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Among works of fantasy, she’s mentioned Kate Griffin’s The Midnight Mayor series, which asserted the right of modern cities to have their own kinds of magic. 

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In a wonderful New York Public Library conversation with comedian and writer Kamau Bell (who happens to be her cousin), Jemisin reflects on what it was like growing up bookish and “weird” in a world that seemed to have little space for black women writers, and even less for black writers of fantasy and science fiction. She was lucky to meet sympathetic librarians, to have parents who enjoyed speculative fiction and an aunt who wrote; all those helped support the liberation of her imagination. 

And the magic of fantasy and science fiction too is always to remind its readers – by routes other than ponderous, sleep-inducing polemic – that things can be different. Our cities can be different. How we relate to those around us can be different. It’s a message particularly needed right now, when, as Jemisin notes to Bell, even for dystopian fiction, “we’re living through a really badly written season”. 

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