March 31, 2020

Review: The City We Became

The City We Became The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are reasons N.K. Jemisin won three Hugos for Best Novel for her trilogy, the Broken Earth. All those reasons are on full display in this book. I don't know if you could call it better than the Broken Earth trilogy--it's very different, and she is concentrating on different things in this series. I would say, however, that it's more accessible. To me, the quality is just as high; she is firing on all cylinders throughout this book.

The "accessible" part comes from the fact that she is not playing around with timelines and point of view in this book as she did in the Broken Earth trilogy. This is a straightforward, linear narrative, packed into three momentous days, and she uses a tight third person present tense throughout. (I know some people may not like such a tense, but give it a chance. You'll soon see the reason she uses it--as with many other things in this book, it's so New York.) This may make the story not quite as dense as the Broken Earth books, but I think she more than makes up for it in her worldbuilding and characterization.

Regarding the worldbuilding, even though the book is nominally a fantasy and labeled as such, there are a lot of SF elements to be found here. The multiverse is a core part of this world, as the threat from the Lovecraftian Old Ones (and Lovecraft as well as R'lyeh is namedropped, for some specific reasons) comes from beyond our universe. The core conceit of the series, the great cities building population, history and culture throughout the infinite alternate universes until the weight of these makes them come to life and adopt human avatars to direct their powers, is a very science fictional idea, to my mind. (It also provides a believable motivation for the antagonists, given the fact that each time a city comes to life, it collapses other universes inside its own individual branch of the "fractal tree," as one of the avatars names it, wiping out any intelligent life in those other universes. So New York's sentience comes at the cost of possibly trillions of those other lives. This ethical morass is acknowledged and discussed, one of the many fascinating nuances Jemisin weaves within the narrative.) This is revealed in chapter 11, "Yeah, So, About That Whole Teamwork Thing," where four of the six New York avatars (representing the five boroughs and a primary avatar encompassing the entire city) have finally met in the flesh and are trying to work out what the hell is going on here. The avatar of the Bronx, Bronca, who inherited the history of all this upon her awakening, takes them on a tour of the multiverse.

Before them floats the immensity of space and time as Bronca now understands it: not just here but everywhere, not one universe but an infinity of them. It is an endlessly growing, broccoliesque mass, here in the no-place of perception. Each branch consists of thousands of universes stacked atop each other like plates of mica, forming columns that snake around and branch off, dominoes set up by someone with no sense of order. There is an order to it (and she hears another part of herself, Queens, thinking loudly, A fractal tree!), but in its immensity and dynamism, in the ferociously energetic churn of creation, it's almost an overwhelming thing to grasp. Not limitless, as Bronca first thinks, but vast beyond her ability to easily imagine...

But abruptly there is a hollow thoom, and a ripple, and one of the bigger thickets of branches collapses before them. It happens so fast. There is a fleeting blue-shifted glow, and then that whole twisting cluster burns away, all the way back to the stem it branched off from. Bronca feels the others shudder in anguish and horror, and she shares it. As beautiful as that brightly burning chain is--like the most amazing fireworks ever--they all know what it means. Countless universes have just died, or become as never-were, like the branchings that must once have spawned Atlantis.

But Bronca draws their attention to what floats in this branch's place, tiny but bright, not connected to the other universes but blazing and stable all on its own. A singular point of light.

Bronca spins them, and again they behold themselves: they are such a light. They have witnessed the birth of another city like themselves, somewhere in the multiverse. Many such lights dot the tree, interspersed among its splits and folds--thousands of cities, glowing like jewels against the formless dark.

Jemisin isn't a hard SF author, but damned if this isn't as succinct and lovely an explanation for (her version of) the multiverse as you're likely to see. She's obviously thought a lot about this world. There is no infodumping in this book--all is revealed as the characters learn it, which also relentlessly ratchets up the suspense--but the reader soon gets the feeling there are many more layers here waiting to be discovered. This lends the book a weight that rivals, if not in places surpasses, the 40,000-year history in the Broken Earth trilogy.

As far as characterization goes, she's doing something of a high-wire juggling act here. There are six main characters: the five boroughs--Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island--and the primary avatar, the whole of New York. There are also the awakened cities of Hong Kong and Sao Paulo, and another resident of nearby Jersey City, the latter of which becomes vitally important at the climax. All these characters must be manifested not only as human beings, but living incarnations of New York and parts thereof. This means each character represents two things, the person and the borough/city from which he/she springs. Each of these psychic twins, as it were, are sharply drawn throughout. This could easily bog down the story, but it never does. We are given the characters as human beings first, and gradually learn their separate distinct city aspects in a way that is totally natural and completely absorbing.

In addition, there are several social justice aspects woven throughout the story, centering on what these people are fighting: one of Lovecraft's monsters come to life. Two of his stories, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and "The Horror at Red Hook," are namechecked. Jemisin emphasizes that all of her main characters save one are people of color, women, and/or LGBT. There is no "white savior" in this story. In fact, the lone white character, the avatar of Staten Island, is shown to be so damaged by her fear of the Other, of dark skin, that she is easy prey for the Woman in White, the avatar of the invading extradimensional city of R'lyeh (though Jemisin, all things considered, treats Staten Island gently, as she is as nuanced as the other characters). Still, you can sense the author's glee when she uses those same women and people of color to drive away R'lyeh at the climax, to burn New York clean of Lovecraft's monster and the monstrous attitude it represents. (Well, except for the fact that it gains a toehold in Staten Island, which will surely be dealt with in the trilogy's other books.)

This book showcases an author at the height of her considerable powers. There are still nine months left in the year, but right now, I would expect this book to pop up on all of next year's "best-of" and awards lists.

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