N.K. Jemisin and Le Guin de L’Escalier

How an embarrasing interaction led me to some worthwhile literature.

After a year of isolation, I found the prospect of re-entering the social scene both exciting and terrifying. Extroversion has served me well all my life, but social skills are like a muscle, apt to atrophy if left unused. 2020 was the great atrophy.

When I was invited to a party in June- aptly named “June Party”- I arrived with a combination of anxiety and exhilaration. I knew only a handful of the twenty-odd guests, and struggled to remember how to make new friends.

So, it came as a great relief when an attractive stranger approached me, thrust a hand forward, and made an introduction. We had a few mutuals, and quickly found a conversational rapport. She told me that she loved to read, particularly fiction, and I experienced that thrill of discovering a common interest, one on which I can converse for hours.

She asked if I read any science fiction or fantasy; I replied that I love science fiction, it is among my favorite genres. She then asked me a question that utterly defeated me: who are some of your favorite women sci-fi authors?

With the benefit of l’espirit de l’escalier, I had several viable responses open to me: I am a fan of Ursula Le Guin, and have read a bunch of Marion Zimmer Bradley. I could have started a conversation about whether Mary Shelley should be considered science fiction or horror, ditto Anne Rice, one of my favorite authors. I had options.

Instead, I stood there stammering like an idiot for about ten seconds, unable to recall a single name, and with the rising awareness of just how dumb I was appearing to this new acquaintance.

She took mercy on me, and answered her own question, rattling off several names I had not heard of, but would later learn are more on the fantasy side of the genre divide. I recovered from this momentary mortification, and made a mental note to read at least one of the authors she mentioned.

The next day, I ordered several books by N.K. Jemisin, one of those authors. Now, I typically steer clear of authors who sign off by two initials, as they have a tendency to be pseudonyms, or transphobes. Jemisin, I was assured, was neither of these things; a woman of color enjoying great success in the male-dominated world of fantasy writing.

After waiting the obligatory two days for delivery, I received and immediately started on her book The City We Became, which was described as a tribute to New York City.

My reading has focused much more heavily on science fiction than fantasy, so I found the opening parts of the novel quite jarring. The premise into which the reader is thrust, in media res, is that the city is “being born,” a process that happens to any city of a certain size and character. It accomplishes this task by taking on an avatar, a human who embodies the city and is empowered by it. That avatar must then face off against an enemy of unclear motivations, who seeks to destroy the city for reasons that are not entirely made apparent.

About fifty pages into the book, I realized with disappointment that I was not enjoying it. The plot seemed farcical rather than fantastic, and I had the creeping sense that I was missing some key context. I checked the cover to see if perhaps this was a sequel, and discovered that it was in fact the first book in a series.

One bias sci-fi readers bring to fantasy novels is a need to know why things are as they are. While the borders are often hazy, this is the clearest distinction in my experience: while both contain the weird and the wonderful, science fiction authors will go to great pains to explain why those things exist, while fantasy authors ask the reader to accept the fantastic elements and move on.

I struggled with this, particularly with Jemisin’s avatar-as-city device. There were suggestions throughout the novel that some greater force was at work, and that there was some underlying conflict, possibly on the lines of order versus chaos, fueling the awakening of cities. The book talked around this without addressing it squarely; I hope and expect it will be further developed in the as-yet-unwritten sequels.

For the “awakening” of New York, avatars representing the five boroughs had to come together and find the unified city avatar, who was gravely injured in an attack by the enemy of dubious origin. That avatar was in repose at an abandoned subway station in Manhattan.

About midway through, my opinion on the book changed, primarily due to the excellent character development and dialogue. I felt that Jemisin was giving me a peek into communities within the city that are generally inaccessible to those on the outside. The avatars for Queens and the Bronx were particularly well-cast and provided commentary on the culture and pride of those boroughs.

As the story neared its climax, the avatar from Staten Island went rogue, teaming up with the enemy and refusing to join the unified effort to save the city. Like many in New York, I have never met a joke at Staten Island’s expense that I didn’t like, and the image of that borough putting its own selfish needs above those of the collective was pitch perfect.

In the end, the efforts to save New York succeeded, due to a new fifth avatar arising to replace Staten Island: Jersey City, represented by a friend and colleague of the Bronx’s avatar. Together, the avatars rescued the main city champion, and the conflict resolved, though a sinister pall still attained over Staten Island.

Overall, I found The City We Became to be a delightful read, if slow to get underway. It reaffirmed the merits of reading beyond my typical genres at the recommendation of others. I picked up a copy of the Broken Earth trilogy, also by Jemisin, and hope that the longer form leaves me with fewer unanswered questions.

Or, barring that, I hope that it is memorable enough that the next time a cute stranger asks me to name a woman author, I am caught less flat-footed.


Published in: on July 22, 2021 at 8:46 am  Leave a Comment  
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