The World We Make, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit 978-0-31650-989-3, $30.00, 368pp, hc) November 2022.
The term “urban fantasy” has undergone so many permutations over the past few decades, from modest subgenre to blockbuster market segment, that it’s probably the name of an energy drink by now. (Don’t tell me if it is.) At the same time, it’s easy to overlook the tradition of fantasies that are actually and intensely urban in their focus, that deal with matters ranging from politics and infrastructure to cultural identity and diversity, and that take place in actual cities that you can visit or live in. Fortunately, N.K Jemisin is here to remind us of this in her Great Cities trilogy, which is now apparently a duology, according to a note at the end of The World We Make, the direct sequel to 2020’s The City We Became. As Jemisin also notes, real cities don’t quite bend to the will of the author the way imaginary cities do – the fantastical worldbuilding has to be tempered by credible world-recognizing – and the shifts in the political landscape since Jemisin began writing that earlier novel are nearly as bizarre as the oozing tentacles and ominous White Lady that threatened to absorb the emergent New York: Cthulhu got trumped by realpolitik, you might say.
This may be one reason that the Lovecraftian allusions are dialed back a bit in The World We Make, partly replaced by some not-too-convincing business about the multiverse, which Padmini, in an out-of-body vision, sees as a great tree ‘‘in an exponential cauliflower-cluster fractal spread of possibility.’’ The White Lady still hails from the archetypal nightmare city R’Lyeh, but R’lyeh itself is the creation of an even more ancient race, the Ur. It’s probably a sign of Jemisin’s real intentions that she seems far less interested in developing this faux-mythology than in the more immediate threat posed by a doltish candidate for mayor, whose campaign slogan is Make New York Great Again and whose supporters include a band of racist goons calling themselves the Proud Men. As one of Jemisin’s characters points out, ‘‘What the slogan really means is Make New York What It Never Has Been except in the fevered imaginations of people who would destroy what they can’t (or won’t) understand.’’ That’s a toxic urban fantasy of its own, I suppose, and it’s one that Jemisin’s likeable band of borough incarnations must battle on top of the White Lady and her tentacled minions.
Three months after the events of The City We Became, we again meet Jemisin’s band of reluctant heroes: the avatar of New York as a whole, now calling himself Neek; the well-to-do grad student Manny (Manhattan); the math prodigy Padmili (Queens); the aspiring politician and once-famous rapper Brooklyn; and the art gallery director Bronca (the Bronx). The avatar of Staten Island, Aislyn, now seems to have thoroughly come under the spell of the White Lady herself, but a new ally, Veneza, representing a newly emergent Jersey City (not quite a borough, but close enough), has joined the group. While each of them faces their own challenges (Padmini is laid off from her corporate job for transparently racist and sexist reasons, threatening her visa status), much of the plot revolves around Brooklyn’s decision to run for New York mayor, opposing that Trumpish candidate, Senator Ruben Panfilo. Manny, for his part, drops out of his doctoral program to manage her campaign, and the other avatars (with the odd exception of Neek himself) form themselves into a credible and politically astute insurgent campaign organization.
While each of the avatars has a superpower of sorts, they’re hardly Avengers, and New York is not without its own defenses. Brooklyn does get a nice moment when she disrupts a caravan of racist thugs invading her borough with paintguns by making their weapons and even their vehicles disappear, but they’ve already been humiliated by the laughter of bystanders. When Padmini, distraught from losing her job, finds herself harassed by a young man under the influence of one of those white tentacles, fellow Queens residents swiftly and bluntly come to her defense. Bronca subdues another tentacle attack by quoting a famous one-time resident of New York, Edgar Allan Poe, while – in the most delightfully surreal of all these hazard-and-rescue set pieces – a tentacle attack on the Staten Island ferry is finally dispatched by what amounts to a pissed-off oyster bed. While the wide-screen narratives involving the multiverse, or Manhattan’s repeated efforts to convince the other awakened cities to convene a summit to organize against R’Lyeh, are persuasive in their own way, it’s the scenes of diverse everyday New Yorkers – scrappy, outspoken, and sometime rude – that finally lend The World We Make the rich texture of a love letter to a complicated city and the resilient spirit of its residents.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the October 2022 issue of Locus.
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