R’Lyeh vs. New York City: NK Jemisin’s “The City We Became.”

THE CITY WE BECAME by NK Jemisin opens with a hot-tempered street artist, homeless, black and gay. The avatar of the city of Så0 Paolo contacts him to explain he’s the avatar of New York City, which is now becoming sentient, and that the Enemy will object, so the avatar has to prepare for battle.

After the opening scene, we cut to an amnesiac, newly arrived in Manhattan, who winds up fighting off an incursion by a Lovecraftian horror; the amnesiac, it turns out is the avatar of Manhattan. A short while later, he and his new roommate are attacked by the Women in White, an avatar of the same horror. Only not physically — she pulls the trick of reporting them as men of color (and gay men no less) threatening her! The Enemy has more than one method of waging war.

In subsequent chapters we meet the avatars of Brooklyn (woman rapper turned politician), the Bronx (sixtysomething lesbian and street artist), Queens (Indian-American math whiz) and Staten Island (racist white woman who hates living with her abusive dad but can’t bring herself to face the imagined horrors of the rest of New York). The amnesiac is Manhattan. It turns out that because NYC is NYC, one avatar wasn’t enough; the different boroughs have their own manifestations, but if they can’t learn to work together and revive the initial avatar, they’re doomed. The Woman in White is the avatar of R’lyeh, and because human cities achieving sentience wreaks havoc in other dimensions, she’s determined New York’s new avatars must die Which would be extremely bad. As in Atlantis bad.

I read this as part of my ongoing research in response to that Southern Discomfort feedback, but it’s an excellent book in its own right. My only complaints are a)the Woman in White’s dialogue is sometimes creepy as hell (the early scene I mentioned) but other times it’s generic power-mad supervillain (we humans are nothing but amoebas compared to her!). And while I don’t dispute that New York is more multiple cities than a single one, I wonder if it’s that unique — would people from Sao Paolo roll their eyes at being told they can be represented by one avatar? Heck, even the part of the Florida Panhandle where I used to live sees plenty of differences between communities (Destin’s for rich snobs and retirees, DeFuniak Springs is for the rednecks, etc.). But those are minor quibbles.

Like Southern Discomfort this is very much a setting story. As you’ve probably gathered, it’s all about the Big Apple and what makes the Bronx the Bronx and Staten Island Staten Island, and the tensions within the communities. Braca, the Bronx avatar, has to deal with a bunch of smirking white male artists who deliberately troll her gallery with racist-themed art, then go online to rant about how they’re oppressed because Braca wouldn’t accept their work (leading the woman’s sidekick to describe them as “Cthulhu’s tentacled fuckbois.”).

It’s also interesting to see how Jemisin makes the opening compelling even when not a lot is happening. She still makes the scene tense because the avatar is tense. He’s sitting in a fancyrestaurant, conscious that he’s the only black man there, that everyone’s checking him out, that his clothes are threadbare. There’s a lot of internal monologue but Jemisin can even make that interesting.

Like Southern Discomfort this also has multiple narrators, though nowhere near as many as I go through.

Overall I don’t know that I learned anything useful, but it was a terrific book I’d have read anyway.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder; jacket art by arcangel

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Filed under Is Our Writers Learning?, Reading

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