New York is assaulted by a mysterious “Enemy,” a shape-shifting horror that can appear as a Lovecraftian tentacled monster, a sentient humanoid villain, and a barely visible, fast-spreading parasite that infects people and places. The City We Became, the latest novel from decorated speculative fiction author N.K. Jemisin, was released days after New York City went “on pause” in the face of a very real nightmare. In those first lockdown weeks, I read the book with a creeping recognition: The disaster that besieged New York on paper prefigured the crisis unfolding outside my window. But the book was also a salve in those muted days, full of a possibility and joy that I would not feel in the city for months, until protests for police abolition seemed to reopen the streets, filling them with action and imagination. With a deep understanding of how racism entrenches itself in urban governance — expressed through police brutality, but also the segregated planning and overcrowded housing that COVID-19 has exploited — The City We Became pointedly invokes a world where direct action can uproot white supremacy.
Who will save the city? The city itself. In Jemisin’s world, cities awaken in the form of “avatars,” residents who gain immortality and supernatural power. New York’s is an unhoused Black painter, forced to shelter on roofs and in the subway system. He is joined by avatars representing each of the five boroughs: A newly arrived graduate student takes up the mantle of Manhattan; his northern neighbor is embodied by a Lenape art center director and Stonewall veteran named Bronca; an MC-turned-City Councilwoman stands for Brooklyn. The avatar of Queens is a South Asian woman struggling with the ennui of a Wall Street job, while Staten Island is a library worker and the daughter of a prejudiced cop; her sheltered and racist upbringing repeatedly frustrates the heroes’ attempts to unify.
At the arts center where Bronca works, the board of directors pressures her to accept work from alt-right provocateurs in exchange for a big grant. They bring a huge portrait that she recognizes as an anti-Asian allegory — and a portal for the Enemy to enter the city. The Enemy’s presence is also found at construction sites linked to a group known as the Better New York Foundation, a barely veiled reference to the Association for a Better New York: the real-world, real estate driven group created in the 1970s to start, in the words of an early executive director, “cleaning up the image of New York City.” Over the course of decades, this “clean-up” has included killing efforts to institute commercial rent control, winning tax exemptions that made it easier to tear down housing, and a commitment to a larger and better-resourced police force that continues to this day.
The parallels between The City We Became and what I saw New York become during the coronavirus lockdown were impossible to ignore. I came to fear moving in public as anti-Asian hate crimes surged. My colleagues in transit advocacy fought a losing battle against Andrew Cuomo’s order to turn people like the avatar of New York out into the street in the dead of night. The novel also recognizes the role of systemic racism in maintaining the comfort of the privileged, even as it threatens the most vulnerable, anticipating the rejection of police enacted through protest this spring. The book begins with a declaration by the avatar of New York: “I sing the city.” Yet within ten pages, he is on the run from the cops, having been misidentified as a thief. Two of these officers are taken over by the Enemy, corrupted into a multi-armed abomination. The creature is defeated in a raucous battle where New York’s avatar “hip-checks it with the BQE,” smashes it “with a one-two punch of Long Island radiation and Gowanus toxic waste . . . and salt[s] the wound with the memory of a bus ride to LaGuardia.”
The arc of this scene — the book’s first climactic battle — tracks that of the protests demanding reimagined public safety. At an Occupy City Hall protest in July, protesters “pushed the cops back with songs, chants, dancing,” in the words of organizer Nelini Stamp. In the novel, celebration is layered with fear and outrage, shifting to exultant confrontation and the realization that one victory is not enough: The Enemy will have to be fought and defeated many times. After this fight, New York’s avatar falls into a coma and it’s up to the representatives of the five boroughs to come together to save him and themselves. What Jemisin’s work suggests is that for New York to thrive, New Yorkers must do the deep work of finding and hearing each other, and nurture a solidarity so strong as to leave no toehold for racism.
This conviction is likely informed by Jemisin’s own experience of science-fiction fandom. Ten years ago, the genre underwent a racial reckoning that opened the door to more diverse authors, while also spawning a wave of reactionaries who have fought, largely without success, to stop writers of color (Jemisin included) from winning awards. Anyone working toward more just cities will also have to take on gatekeepers who, though they may embrace real estate speculation, reject more speculative futures that involve a reordering of power. Defunding the police is derided as a fantasy. Massive commitments to environmental justice were laughed off by Nancy Pelosi as a “green dream, or whatever.” But, as Jemisin said upon winning the 2018 Hugo Award, “the dreams of the marginalized matter.” Our world will pivot on the decisions we make, and so we need dreams of radically renewed worlds. Speculative fiction increasingly holds space for inclusive visions that can sway and swell movements, and inspire more of us to place our shoulders against the gates and bear down together.