The City We Became is an intensely political work of speculative fiction charting two distinct storylines, with both layers of the novel's narrative producing unexpected insights and parallels as they are superimposed atop one another. By blending concepts as diverse as the true nature of social constructs, what it takes for fictional stories to become “real,” and some of the more bewildering implications of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, Jemisin manages to explore hidden dimensions of social existence and racism. In so doing, she dramatizes the cues and subtexts that underlie even the most outwardly mundane of everyday interactions into an intensely compelling science fiction story.
And yet, a core component of Jemisin's premise in The City We Became demands that she do something that few authors have ever successfully attempted—tell a story that in some sense has no characters, but instead offers as its protagonists embodiments of the book's core themes. The major actors in The City We Became do not act as people exactly, but rather as ideas instantiated in human form. As a result, their actions in the narrative are often driven not by personal convictions or challenges, but instead by the influence of unfathomably vast forces that compel them to act in a way which better demonstrates the concepts they are meant to represent. Jemisin pulls this off (and moreover she pulls it off extremely well), but it means that for the first two hundred pages of The City We Became, the story advances in a way that could very easily seem much more simple and straightforward than the nuanced narrative that the author eventually comes to tell.
The first chapter of The City We Became is a slightly altered version of Jemisin's short story “The City Born Great.” It follows a young African-American homeless man living in New York who meets an enigmatic figure calling himself only “Sao Paulo.” After informing the unnamed protagonist that he has been selected to become the human “avatar” of New York, Sao Paulo begins preparing him for a forthcoming confrontation with extra-dimensional monsters whom he refers to only as “the enemy.”
As readers, we learn the basics of this novel's world via the wisdom that Sao Paulo imparts. New York has (like all “great cities” eventually do) recently “quickened,” and will soon gain a self-perpetuating awareness resembling that of a conscious entity. As a result, the human avatar of the last city to undergo such a process (the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo) has arrived in New York to locate and guide the person who is destined to act as the conduit through which every aspect of New York's culture, history, and identity will be expressed. After listening to the lessons Sao Paulo gives him, and following an instinctual need to paint gaping mouths on building walls with cans of spray paint, the nameless protagonist of this opening chapter finds that he can hear and feel the “heartbeat” of all of New York as if it were his own. Shepherding the entire city through an event that the text describes as its “birth,” the new avatar eventually faces off against the enemy that Sao Paulo warned him of—a being that ends up taking the form of every manifestation of systemic racism and bigotry that he has ever encountered.
This is the point at which the version of this story appearing in the novel changes from Jemisin's original work of short fiction: right at the final moment of this battle, something goes wrong. The newly instantiated avatar of New York spontaneously collapses into a coma, his body vanishing as the city he has only just come to embody instinctively acts to hide its wounded human counterpart. At almost precisely the same moment, Sao Paulo, disoriented by this unexpected turn of events, senses a fundamental change in the city of New York that even he had never expected: a change that may very well herald a catastrophe which will doom this city to the same fates suffered by (as he says) “Atlantis and Pompeii.”
From here the novel shifts focus to a new character, an African-American grad student moving to Manhattan to study political science, who (upon stepping off the train and getting his first good look at his new home) discovers with a disconcerting calm that every aspect of his memory has been wiped from his mind. Possessing not even a name, and instead feeling only a strong affinity for the word “Manhattan,” “Manny” (as he quickly chooses to call himself) is abruptly stricken with an almost painful desire to go to the location of “FDR Drive,” even though he doesn't actually know where “FDR Drive” is.
With the bewildered help of the driver of an antique taxi named Madison, Manny reaches the site of that prior confrontation between New York's human avatar and “the enemy,” and there he sees a mass of glistening white tendrils that have exploded from the pavement, clogging this “vital artery” of the city by (as Manny notes) “obstructing traffic.” Perhaps more unusual than any of the surrealist imagery that Jemisin employs here is the fact that only Madison and Manny seem capable of observing this entity. While the other drivers react to the creature that blocks the roadway, it's only these two characters who find themselves capable of directly acknowledging its existence, with the text making careful note of this fact:
This explosion of ick is what's causing the traffic jam, Manny sees, as the flow of cars slows to a crawl and the Checker [taxi] comes to a near halt. Although most people can't see the flare of tendrils, they're still somehow reacting to its presence. Drivers in the fast lane keep trying to pull into the middle lane to get around the thing, drivers in the middle are trying to get into the right-hand lane to get around them, and drivers in the right-hand lane aren't budging. It's as if there's an invisible accident up ahead that everyone's trying to avoid. (p. 41)
This conflict is resolved when Manny—acting again on a set of instincts he did not have a mere hour earlier—convinces Madison to help him clear away this entity by (essentially) allowing him to stand on the hood of her car while she drives through the mass of tendrils at high speed, all while he holds an umbrella out ahead of himself like a shield. The result of this act (which Manny again instinctively knows has a power that is more symbolic than physical) is to burn the mass of tendrils away until nothing remains of their substance but scattered ashes:
The sheath of energy surrounding the cab burns through it like a checkered missile. Of course, the cab is part of the power; that is why the city sent it to him. Manny feels the umbrella snag on something and he clings tighter to it, rudely not lifting it or moving it aside because I'm walking here, I have the right of way and he's playing metaphysical sidewalk chicken with this violent, invasive tourist. (p. 47)
In this way, Manny vanquishes the entity, allowing traffic on the road to resume and the so-called “lifeblood” of New York's daily commuters to flow freely once more. Unable to understand what they have just experienced, Manny and Madison wryly part ways, no one in the story seeming any more capable of comprehending these events than the reader is.
For its first two hundred pages or so, scenes like this are what much of The City We Became consists of—intriguingly brief vignettes introducing one key figure in the coming narrative after another, each of whom must confront an extra-dimensional threat that takes the form (usually) of a deep sea creature that can only be driven off via a supernatural manifestation of New York's unique cultural symbols or history. In addition to Manny, we are also quickly introduced to Brooklyn (a retired rapper and current city council member who discovers that the “rap battles” she engaged in during her youth now have a power that is far more literal than it once was); then to Aislyn (a disaffected white woman living on Staten Island whose sudden and instinctual need to visit Manhattan is rivaled only by the racism she has inherited from her abusive father); and on to Bronca (a Native-American LGBTQ activist of Lenape descent who runs an art studio in the Bronx, and who suddenly finds that she possesses eons worth of knowledge existing outside of even language itself); and finally Padmini (an Indian-American grad student unwillingly studying to become a financial engineer while living in a tiny apartment in Queens, and who one day learns that she can battle extra-dimensional tentacle monsters with what can only be described as the “power of math”).
Key details of the novel's overarching plot slowly establish themselves via each of these chapters and characters. While the city of New York has successfully "awakened" as Sao Paulo said it would, it has done so in a manner entirely different from what he (or any of the world's other “Great Cities”) had expected. Rather than simply instantiating itself as one “primary human avatar,” the city of New York has instantiated itself as five (one for each of the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, and Queens). Moreover, New York City's original avatar (the only being powerful enough to vanquish “the enemy” that is now continually attacking the boroughs), has mysteriously vanished, leaving the city on the whole vulnerable to continued assault.
On top of all that, while the five avatars of New York struggle to come to terms with their new-found powers and knowledge, Sao Paulo engages in his own desperate race against time to track down something far more frightening than anything he has ever seen. For the first time in all of recorded history, the unnamed “enemy” that always attacks cities at the moment of their birth has done something it never has before. It has instantiated itself in the form of a single human: a figure calling herself only the “Woman in White.” As a result, this entity now has all the power and knowledge of a city avatar, and she might very well be just as much a part of New York as any of its boroughs.
The most notable issue that The City We Became struggles with is that initially the concept which Jemisin at least seems to take as her story's core message (that New York City "contains multitudes" and cannot possibly be embodied in one single person or image) isn't one that is capable, in and of itself, of sustaining the narrative without an additional through-line to strengthen it. For the initial two hundred pages that comprise the first half of the book, each chapter focuses almost exclusively on introducing one of New York's five avatars, providing each of these characters with clearly defined personalities and identities which delineate them from one another in the reader's mind.
To be clear, Jemisin accomplishes this, and moreover she does so with a tremendous skill in both her characterization and prose: Manny, Brooklyn, Aislyn, Bronca, and Padmini are all quickly established as characters possessing strong personalities that exemplify the individual "aspects" of New York that each of these figures are meant to represent. The problem is that, by devoting the entire first half of the novel to creating what are essentially portraits of the characters who will appear in the plot to come, the main storyline established in the opening chapter has to be put largely on hold. In its place, Jemisin jumps perspective from one new character to the next, and presents the reader with a sequence of fast-paced action scenes that all too often play out in more or less the same manner. Soon, the entire first half of the novel falls into a cycle of repetitive introductions in which another avatar of New York enters the story, is confronted by the Woman in White (or, at least a being under her control), and then learns to use newly granted powers to drive off this threat and preserve the iconic aspects of New York that they represent. As each of these introductions blurs together, the novel ceases to be about the story set up in its opening scene, but instead becomes a simplified, sequential narrative about how powerful each of its individual protagonists are.
It's not that any of the characters Jemisin produces here aren't interesting in and of themselves, or even that they seem incapable of sustaining their own stories, were they required to do so. Rather, it's that the reader isn't given the space to become invested in the lives of these individuals before those lives are subsumed by the roles the larger narrative demands of them. Manny, Brooklyn, Padmini, and (to an extent) Bronca and Aislyn are all characters driven primarily by the instinctive compulsions of the collective "organism" of New York City, rather than by personal motivations. As a result, while the narrative progresses in rapid-fire sequence from one character introduction to the next, there's little time for Jemisin to allow these figures simply to slow down and contemplate the otherwise fascinating world that they inhabit.
Where these early portions of The City We Became do work are in the moments when the characters are given the opportunity to demonstrate more completely the themes explored by the overall narrative. While the chapter introducing Aislyn follows the same core formula that Jemisin uses to introduce her other characters, for example, it also provides an unexpectedly grim portrayal of the ways in which racist ideologies seduce vulnerable people—a depiction of these issues that is simultaneously sympathetic and scathing in its implications. By immediately introducing Aislyn as a character whose own racism is rooted in the emotional wounds inflicted on her by the passive-aggressive anger of an abusive parent, The City We Became is able to take on the theme of how the desire to inflict violence on others can at least occasionally be the result of a learned desire to inflict violence on one's self. Aislyn is ultimately shown to be a person who has been so completely taught to believe that her life means nothing that, even after becoming the human avatar of all of Staten Island, it's only in the false promises and predatory security offered by the Woman in White that she can find what she thinks is real agency. That Jemisin takes the time to examine this difficult material in such a way that leaves Aislyn no less culpable for her eventual actions only makes this portion of the story all the more striking.
In a similar way, the scenes introducing Bronca eventually become some of the most fascinating in the entire novel. Initially playing out like those chapters introducing New York's other city avatars, this segment of the story soon turns into a dramatization of the tactics used by racist organizations to co-opt the discourses surrounding art and creative expression for their own toxic ends. In one scene, Bronca finds the art studio she runs accosted by a team of so-called "artists." They are in fact a group of white supremacists seeking to gather information on her staff while displaying purported art that consists only of racist and sexist imagery. Bronca and her staff reject the group and then suddenly find themselves targeted by an online harassment campaign run by a racist YouTube channel—one that is managed by the very artists they just rejected—in a campaign that these individuals had clearly been planning for months. The “Alt Artistes” exist only to conceal their real motive of co-opting the image of Bronca's studio for their own ends. This is further demonstrated when they are also revealed to be parasitic sea anemones wearing human bodies as disguises, whose further aim is to secretly smuggle an extra-dimensional portal into Bronca's studio.
Allegories normally fail because of how easy it is to spot them, and yet in the case of the scenes of surrealism and (almost) magic realism that Jemisin provides, it's difficult to say that there is a meaningful boundary between the “real” and “metaphorical” realms of her narrative. This is simply the most natural expression of the book's themes regarding social subtexts, with Jemisin providing both figurative and literal portrayals of the false pretenses and rhetorical devices through which hate groups often operate.
The actions of the novel’s antagonists in one “dimension” of its story blur with the actions of their supernatural counterparts, in such a way that makes it difficult to say that either of these figures truly are different people. The antagonizing force in The City We Became is an entity that is eventually revealed always to be operating under false pretenses that are designed to distract and conceal its ultimate goals: likewise, the “Alt Artistes” had only pretended to be interested in displaying their work in Bronca's studio as a pretense for creating a narrative that set themselves up as the victims of censorship.
It's in the second half of The City We Became that these moments of inspiration catch hold, and the true function of the story becomes apparent. Once the many core characters are established and the plot is ready to progress, Jemisin is able to resume the plotline established in her opening chapter—and begin subverting the narrative expectations she has been careful up till now to set up. It's also at this point that Jemisin's unique and often off-key style of humor assumes a place of unexpected significance in this text. It’s in this latter portion of The City We Became, then, that the novel comes into its own as a half-satirical work of cosmic horror.
In one scene, for example, Brooklyn and Manny discover that all property in New York is slowly being bought up by a shadowy corporation pursuing the blatantly white-supremacist goal of “improving” New York's culture (a goal that disconcertingly few in New York's local government seem to find all that objectionable). The sinister nature of this plot-point then turns grimly comedic when, after only a moment's research, both Brooklyn and Manny learn that this so-called “Better New York Foundation” is in fact owned by a larger multinational corporation with branches all over the world, and which is founded on an aim of one day achieving the complete and utter destruction of the universe (a fact which, again, disconcertingly few in positions of power seem to find all that objectionable). In still another scene, Jemisin provides a wry commentary on the dangers of corporate homogenization when Bronca and Padmini find themselves thrust into a high-speed car chase in which they are pursued by supernaturally animated Starbucks coffee shops. It's in this moment that Bronca and Padmini both come to the bleak and horrifying realization that—because many of New York's local businesses have been driven to bankruptcy by the predatory practices of nationwide restaurant chains—there is now nowhere they can hide from the Woman in White or the entities she controls. Even in New York, Starbucks is everywhere.
In the end, these moments of comedy become essential to Jemisin's wider social commentary, with the inhuman enemy that the Woman in White represents eventually being shown to have assumed a facade of officiality and societal privilege so as to conceal even her most outrageous and cruel actions (supernatural or otherwise). That is, safe in the knowledge that even the most imperfect facade of acceptability is all that is needed in our society to justify blatant cruelty, the antagonizing force in The City We Became becomes a metaphor for the extent to which even the most imperfect mask provided by social privilege can conceal injustice. The result is that the Woman in White becomes disturbing not only for the cool-headed and smug intelligence she displays, or even the ego that allows her to remain calm even in those few moments when her plans turn against her, but also for the sheer absurdity of how easy she finds it to adopt a “business as usual”-style politics to keep an invasion of parasitic sea anemones from another universe hidden in plain sight.
By the end of the novel there's something unexpectedly compelling about the world that Jemisin constructs. Initially straining to maintain and introduce its large cast of characters, The City We Became eventually becomes an allegory for the ways in which all types of bigotry quite literally “infect” the societies and subcultures they target. The novel is in part an over-the-top adventure story whose characters engage in literal rap battles with two-dimensional spider-people, fight off a giant underground worm composed of discarded subway cars, and momentarily drive off parasitic alien sea anemones by throwing money at the problem until it goes away. However, behind all of that, this is also a novel about the horrifyingly absurd nature of bigotry, and the extent to which people are forced to accept as facts things that should not be true, but somehow are.