‘The City We Became’ turns New York’s boroughs into multiracial avatars

N.K. Jemisin’s science fiction novel wastes no time with preliminaries. It’s a ferocious parable of modern race relations. 

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group
“The City We Became” by N.K. Jemisin, Orbit, 437 pp.

Every city has a beating heart – New York has six, in three-time Hugo Award winner N.K. Jemisin’s stunning opening to her new trilogy, “The City We Became.”

Once a city reaches maturity, it gets a soul. “Its slums grow teeth; its art centers, claws. Ordinary things within it, traffic and construction and stuff like that, start to have a rhythm like a heartbeat, if you record their sounds and play them back fast. The city ... quickens.”

But something goes wrong during the birth of New York City, and its avatar, a homeless black teenager with an artistic flair for tagging, is injured. Being the Chosen One isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “I’m still hungry and tired all the time, scared all the time, never safe. What good does it do to be valuable, if nobody values you?” he thinks.

Representatives of the five boroughs have to find a way to reach him ... and form Voltron (as I joked to eye-rolling colleagues, who apparently were not child nerds during the 1980s). Actually, they need to get to him before the Woman in White, an alien intelligence who infects others via Lovecraftian tentacles, does.

Manhattan, call him Manny, is a college student with a violent past he can’t quite recall – “smart, charming, well dressed, and cold enough to strangle you in an alley if we had alleys,” as Brooklyn, a former rapper turned city councilwoman, puts it. Queens is a South Asian math genius. Staten Island, the lone white avatar, has a racist cop as a father. (Manny spends way less time panicking about his memory loss than I would have, but Jemisin has so many clever touches, such as the avatar of Manhattan being able to use money and credit cards as talismans. Libraries, of course, are sanctuaries.)

Before reading “The City We Became,” the novel’s setup reminded me of Ben Aaronovitch’s highly enjoyable fantasy-mystery series, “Rivers of London.”

But Jemisin is doing something entirely original here. Early on there’s a scene that could serve as a litmus test for readers: Manny, having commandeered an old Checker cab, heads to FDR Drive, the scene of an infestation – and a traffic jam. Using an umbrella borrowed from a reluctant commuter, he jumps on the roof of the cab, preparing to joust with evil.

Jemisin doesn’t waste time on explanations or pleasantries. Her story is an unapologetically ferocious parable of modern race relations. She expects readers to keep up. If you know that H.P. Lovecraft, a Hitler supporter, had some very ugly ideas about race, those wriggling tendrils take on an added creepiness. She also expects you to know that when white people call the cops on people of color trying to enjoy a park in real life, they don’t have the excuse of an alien intelligence having taken over their mind.

In interviews, Jemisin, who saw each book of her “Broken Earth” trilogy win a Hugo Award, is pretty forthright about the racism she experienced as a science fiction writer of color. Accepting that third award, she said, “This is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers: every single mediocre, insecure wannabe who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor, and that when they win it’s ‘meritocracy,’ but when we win it’s ‘identity politics.’”

The great Octavia Butler (“Kindred”) once asked rhetorically during a TV interview: “Do I want to say something central about race? Aside from, ‘Hey, we’re here’?” With her career, Jemisin has added an emphatic, “Deal with it.”

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