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The City We Became by N K Jemisin

Orbit, 2020, 443 p. Published in Interzone 287, May-Jun 2020.

 The City We Became cover

The central conceit of the first book in Jemisin’s latest trilogy explains its otherwise odd-sounding title. Here cities can achieve some sort of critical mass by which they come alive and are personified by an individual. In the prologue we meet Paulo (Săo Paulo) come to aid the emergence of New York into sentience, but something goes wrong. This being New York, though, we have not one living embodiment but six; its five boroughs and the overall avatar, each the epitome of the area they personify. The book follows the five boroughs’ personas as they come to the realisation of their nature and seek each other out to help not only themselves but also the overall City, now underground and in a coma.

Manhattan’s instantiation is Manny, a new arrival whose awakening to his fresh nature involves him losing the memory of his previous identity. We then meet (Staten) Aislyn Houlihan, whose Irish parents did not pronounce her name in the Gaelic way and who physically cannot bring herself to visit the rest of New York. The former MC Free, Brooklyn Thomason, is now a mother and city councillor. Bronca, descendant of the original Lenape inhabitants of Long Island, runs the Bronx Art Centre, and maths whizz Padmini, of Asian extraction, is the avatar of Queens. On her confusion over her new status Padmini’s aunt invokes her background to tell her, “Real gods are people, who make love, have babies, fight, die. ‘It’s duty, it’s normal. Get over it.’”

If you were counting that’s four out of the six metropolitan areas are embodied by women. The narrative has sections focusing on all five boroughs, by intermittent turns, plus Interruptions describing Paulo’s endeavours before four of the avatars finally get together.

In Jemisin’s previous trilogy, the ground was literally not safe beneath her characters’ feet. Here it is not just the ground but also the air and especially the water in which weird things can happen. The first manifestation of this is when a tentacle rises out of the East River and smashes the Williamsburg Bridge. The ordinary folk of New York are aware only of the bridge’s destruction and some sort of obstruction preventing them from going about their business as usual.
Sentient cities traverse the layers of the parallel worlds. On emergence they punch through, killing other universes. If a city isn’t born, it dies, hard, (witness Pompeii, Tenochtitlán, Atlantis, Sodom and Gomorrah.) The enemy looming here is the city R’lyeh, an entity from the many parallel universes, out to kill new-born (newly-awoken really) Earth cities at birth. Manifesting as The Woman In White, she infests New York’s buildings and its ordinary citizens with white tendrils controlling their behaviour, putting obstacles into the boroughs’ way and sending large white columns shooting up into the sky.

Little vignettes of New York history are slipped into the narrative, from the original Dutch settlers (featuring an aside making this the only fantasy work I have read to give a name-check to Eddie Izzard) to Staten Island’s prickly relationship with its neighbouring boroughs, its almost orphan status, in contrast to Jersey City’s longings. It also manages to include three mathematical equations and remarks on the distinctiveness of Guastavino tiles.

Though incidental to the book as a whole, where in The Broken Earth Jemisin approached the subject of prejudice in a more-or less oblique way the use of an all-but contemporary setting here allows her to tackle it head-on, especially in the form of Aislyn’s everybody-but-him-is-wrong policeman father, attitudes which bleed over into Aislyn herself. At one point she ascribes a Canadian as “driven mad by the cold and socialised medicine,” at another, “terrorists are bearded Arab men who mutter in guttural languages and want to rape virgins.” An appearance by Alt-right ‘artists’ at Bronca’s work insisting on their right to have their art displayed and that any refusal to do so can only be evidence of reverse prejudice is a comment on our times.

Using five aspects of one whole might be seen as an attempt by Jemisin to repeat the bravura narrative of The Fifth Season, where three different viewpoints turned out to be the same person, but The City We Became feels more conventional, with its down-to-Earth, often demotic, dialogue and prose, but no less worth reading.

Roaming as it does over almost all of New York those unfamiliar with its geography might be grateful for the map which precedes the prologue here.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- “None of the people around him react” (none … reacts,) antennas (antennae,) “lay of the land,” (lie of the land.) “‘Are you actually insane.’” (ought to have a question mark after insane, not a full stop,) dredlocs (is this how USians spell dreadlocks?) “None of them are talking to each other.” (none of them is talking to..,) “None of them face each other” (None of them faces each other,) several more examples of ‘none’ with an unwarranted plural verb, ambiance (ambience,) no opening quotation mark when a chapter begins with dialogue.

Hugo Awards 2021

The short lists for this year’s Hugo Awards have been announced.

The fiction nominees are:-

Novel-

Black Sun Rebecca Roanhorse (Gallery/Saga Press/Solaris)
The City We Became N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Harrow The Ninth Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com)
Network Effect, Martha Wells (Tor.com)
Piranesi Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
The Relentless Moon Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books/Solaris)

I note here the crossover with the BSFA Award list as regards N K Jemisin (which I reviewed for Interzone 287 but have not yet published here) and Susanna Clarke.

Novella-

Come Tumbling Down Seanan McGuire (Tor.com)
The Empress of Salt and Fortune Nghi Vo (Tor.com)
Finna Nino Cipri (Tor.com)
Ring Shout P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com)
Riot Baby Tochi Onyebuchi (Tor.com)
Upright Women Wanted Sarah Gailey (Tor.com)

I have read none of these.

Novelette-

Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super A T Greenblatt (Uncanny Magazine, May/June 2020)
Helicopter Story Isabel Fall (Clarkesworld, January 2020)
The Inaccessibility of Heaven Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny Magazine, July/August 2020)
Monster Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld, January 2020)
The Pill Meg Elison (from Big Girl, (PM Press))
Two Truths and a Lie Sarah Pinsker (Tor.com)

Ditto.

Short story-

Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse Rae Carson (Uncanny Magazine, January/February 2020)
A Guide for Working Breeds Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Made to Order: Robots and Revolution, ed. Jonathan Strahan (Solaris))
Little Free Library Naomi Kritzer (Tor.com)
The Mermaid Astronaut Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2020)
Metal Like Blood in the Dark T Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine, September/October 2020)
Open House on Haunted Hill John Wiswell (Diabolical Plots – 2020, ed. David Steffen)

Ditto.

Series-

The Daevabad Trilogy S A Chakraborty (Harper Voyager)
The Interdependency John Scalzi (Tor Books)
The Lady Astronaut Universe Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books/Audible/Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction/Solaris)
The Murderbot Diaries Martha Wells (Tor.com)
October Daye Seanan McGuire (DAW)
The Poppy War R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager)

Ditto.

I’m obviously not keeping up with SF from the US. (Mind you the stuff from there I have read recently hasn’t been too inspiring.)

BSFA Award Time Again

The short lists for this year’s awards (for works published in 2020) have been announced.

In the fiction categories we have

Best short fiction:-

Eugen M. Bacon, Ivory’s Story, Newcon Press.

Anne Charnock, All I Asked For, Fictions, Healthcare and Care Re-Imagined. Edited by Keith Brookes, at Future Care Capital.

Dilman Dila, Red_Bati, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, Aurelia Leo. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.

Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, Aurelia Leo. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.

Ida Keogh, Infinite Tea in the Demara Caf, Londoncentric, Newcon Press. Edited by Ian Whates.

Tobi Ogundiran, Isn’t Your Daughter Such a Doll, Shoreline of Infinity.

I have read none of these but of course the annual BSFA Awards booklet ought to be able to remedy that.

The Best Novel list is longer than usual due to a tie for fifth place in the nominations:-

Tiffani Angus, Threading the Labyrinth, Unsung Stories.

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi, Bloomsbury.

M. John Harrison, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, Gollancz.

N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became, Orbit.

Gareth L. Powell, Light of Impossible Stars, Titan Books.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future, Orbit.

Nikhil Singh, Club Ded, Luna Press.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden, Tor.

Liz Williams, Comet Weather, Newcon Press.

Nick Wood, Water Must Fall, Newcon Press.

I reviewed The City We Became by N K Jemisin for Interzone 287 (May-Jun 2020) but that review has not appeared here yet.

That leaves nine others to get through before April 4th. No chance. (I see from the link, though, that BSFA members are to receive a PDF containing excerpts of the nominated works.)

Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey

Tor, 1997, 283 p.

 Black Wine cover

On starting to read this I was quickly reminded of N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (which of course was published 11 years later.) We have three different narrative strands each with a female protagonist, obviously connected (but in what way not immediately apparent,) a recognisable world yet different from our own, possibly far in the future, featuring places with portentous names, Trader Town, the Fjord of Tears, the Remarkable Mountains, the Land of the Dark Isles, an unfamiliar social system – or systems, there are different polities here – to navigate. However, as it unfolded the resemblances diminished somewhat. In particular, the relationship between Jemisin’s strands was a more bravura writing accomplishment. But Black Wine is good all the same.

We start with the story of a woman, amnesiac as a result of falling from the sky, with another, mad, woman living in a cage in the courtyard outside. They live in a society – the Zone of Control – where a favour bestowed consequently imbues obligation. The mad woman had not received any such favour and so managed to live without the burden of repayment. The amnesiac, however, had, and so is a sexual slave to her master and the nurse who looked/looks after her. Here also, minor acts of defiance can lead to tongues being removed. The amnesiac forms a friendship with a male slave who has suffered from this. The tongueless have devised a sign language for themselves of which their owners are unaware.

The resemblance of the amnesiac, whom we later find is named Essa, to the titular ruler – actual rule has been devolved to her son-in-law – of a different polity (as shown on its coins) is marked. When the mad woman finds Essa is going to voyage there she tells her to avoid the regent and certainly not to have sex with him. The female ruler is a cruel type, as is her son-in-law, and the connection between her, the madwoman and Essa is the motor of the plot.

The world Dorsey describes is a little strange. For the most part it appears to be without advanced technology – though it does have airships (from which you can fall from the clouds) – a lot of the travelling involved seems to be on foot, but at one point one of the characters decides she wishes to get somewhere faster and a quicker transit system is utilised.

A touch of fantasy arrives with the Carrier of Spirits, who imbibes the memories of everyone who dies. (She carries Essa’s pre-amnesia existence, but not of course those gained after the fall.) Essa’s relationship with the muted slave allows Dorsey to comment on the nuances of free will and the dependence of the exercise of it on social status.

Observations such as, “‘Look. I am this stone. I have been tumbled and moved, and it has all shaped me,’” are as much an expression of the universal as an outcrop of the story being told. Occasionally the text comments on itself or the writing process, (or perhaps reader expectations,) as in, “‘The mad king is a trope of literature and myth.’”

Black Wine is the first Dorsey novel I have read. It is less opaque than some of her short stories and encouraged me to look for more.

Pedant’s corner:- “the effect was shouting underwater” (was of shouting underwater,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “none of them were done” (none … was done,) “a deep courtesy” (curtsy,) “any of them even know it” (any of them even knows it,) connexion (Ugh! Several times; connection.)

Issue 287 of Interzone

The latest issue of Interzone arrived today. Number 287. It has a great wraparound cover:-

Interzone 287 cover

This is the one which contains my reviews of The City We Became by N K Jemisin and Echo Cycle by Patrick Edwards.

I note that one story inside is titled Make America Great Again. Hmmm.

Two More From Interzone

 Echo Cycle cover
 The City We Became   cover

Thursday’s post brought two more goodies from Interzone. (Well I hope they’re goodies.)

The first was The City We Became by N K Jemisin. Jemisin won the Hugo Award for best novel three times in a row with the components of her Broken Earth series of books.

The second is from a writer new to me, Patrick Edwards. His novel is titled Echo Cycle. The reviews ought to appear in issue 287.

The Stone Sky by N K Jemisin

Orbit, 2017, 423 p.

Like The Fifth Season, the first in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, this last instalment has a three-fold structure. Again, the sections focused on Essun are narrated in the second person, while those featuring her daughter Nassun are, as in The Obelisk Gate, in third person. The third strand here, set in Syl Anagist and counting down from Four to Zero, is a first person historical (in the overall trilogy’s terms) account of how the orogenes, who can manipulate matter and temperature to initiate or quell earth movements, came into existence. The first page of the prologue refers to fossilized insects – “a whole that can only be inferred from fragments” – and is suggestive that this is how we as readers may decode the text of the complete story. Once again though, as in The Fifth Season, this final book’s architecture is a bit of a trick played by the author as it eventually becomes clear exactly who it is who is narrating each strand.
As far as resolution is concerned, the Syl Anagist project to use a Plutonic Engine to exploit the Earth by improving on the talents of a group of people known as the Neiss backfired when the Earth – as a living organism itself – having lost the Moon by the engine’s operation got its own back on its troublesome inhabitants by initiating the seasons. The Moon, with a huge chasm reaching right through it – is now on its orbital return and Essun wants to use the obelisks to recapture it in order to placate the Earth and so end the seasons. Nassun, whose natural orogenic talents far outweigh her mother’s has other ideas. She simply wants to destroy everything.

There is “no need for guards when you can convince people to collaborate in their own internment” would seem to be a comment on slavery (or even patriarchy.) There are too, grace notes such as naming two incidental characters Oegin and Ynegen. I also liked the coinages magestry and biomagestry.

Jemisin pulled off an unlikely hat-trick in securing the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row for the successive books in The Broken Earth. While the second instalment dipped in quality – perhaps inevitably since it was in effect the middle third of a larger narrative – the narrative dexterity and skill deployed in the first and third books certainly betoken a story telling talent of a high order. Her invented world, while not really bearing scrutiny at the level of actual possibility (it is Science Fiction though, predicated on at least one at present impossible thing – but perhaps more akin to fantasy in the level of its various impossibilities,) has been thought through and as an imaginative response to the lived history of prejudice against slaves and their descendants, all while embedded in a tale which impels the reader on with – among the extravagances – rounded characters who struggle and bicker, love and lose in the most interesting of times, is an impressive achievement.

Pedant’s corner:- “none of us understand” (none of us understands,) “‘The potential for significant gains are why you will go’” (the potential for significant gains is why you will go,) “to not shake her head” (not to shake her head,) force-march (forced-march.) “None of them care.” (None of them cares.) “None of them are angry” (none is angry,) tableaus (tableaux,) “chewed up in its maw” (a maw is a stomach and hence can have no teeth,) “imagine that disaster times two hundred and fifty-six” (imagine that disaster multiplied by two hundred and fifty-six,) “like a child willing the monster under the bed to not exist” (like a child willing the monster under the bed not to exist,) “a low, bone-shaking blat” (context implies blast.)

Hugo Awards for 2018

These are for works published in 2017.

I forgot they were due to be published in August.

I’ve also been having internet connection problems recently so only looked them up tonight.

The winners were:-

Best Novel:- The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit.)

Best Novella:- All Systems Red by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing.)

Best Novelette:- The Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2017.)

Best Short Story:- Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™ by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, August 2017.)

I note N K Jemisin’s third win in a row for best novel – a record I think.

The other fiction winners were also all women. Again a first I believe.

The Obelisk Gate by N K Jemisin

Orbit, 2016, 416 p.

 The Obelisk Gate cover

Second books of trilogies can be difficult to negotiate – for reader and writer. Jemisin compounded this problem for herself by the triple narrative in the first book, The Fifth Season, which featured three story strands concentrating on the experiences of Damaya, Syenite and Essun whose link was only confirmed late on. The trick she pulled off there could not be repeated in the next instalment hence the narration here is slightly less involved. One – apparently second person – strand carries on the story of Essun from The Fifth Season, another focuses on her daughter, Nassun, for whom Essun was searching in the first book. Once again each chapter has an epigraph (derived from stonelore) but only at its end. There are also occasional “interludes” set in a different typeface. Nevertheless Jemisin is still doing unusual stuff with narrative viewpoint here as it becomes clear that the second person sections are not in fact being related from an outside point of view nor as if by Essun but by someone – or something – else in the overall story.

The thrust of the narrative here is of both Essun and Nassun trying to find or secure places of safety while the latest Season of uncertainty, seismic turmoil and climate calamity unfolds. Nassun’s main danger, though, comes from her father, who hates orogenes/rogga so much that he killed her younger brother Uche before stealing Nassun away and is unwilling to accept that Nassun is one – and an adept at that. Essun is still being guided by Alabaster to use her orogenic powers to nullify the prospect of Seasons ever recurring. This has something to do with Father Earth being annoyed that the Moon was removed from its orbit which in turn destabilised Earth’s geology. The Moon is due to return close to Earth and it might be possible to change its trajectory to ensure its recapture. The strange obelisks that allow orogenic power to be focused are a key to this. Throw in the mysterious stone-eaters and there is a lot of SF/fantasy meat to chew on.

According to Essun’s now failing tutor Alabaster the ancient word for the stuff of orogeny is … magic: but Essun locates it as a silvery stuff in people’s bloodstreams. Magic, she believes, derives from life – that which is alive, or was alive, or even which was “alive so many ages ago that it has turned into something else”. The orogene aspect of the whole tale is of course a commentary on prejudice. Yet in this scenario the ordinary people would be right to be wary of orogenes, who do, after all, have the power to kill – and as a reflex at that. And in The Obelisk Gate the skills Essun develops in using the obelisks means that she might as well be a God(dess.)

There was enough here to make me want to read the final book but as to whether The Obelisk Gate deserved to win the Hugo (as it did, Jemisin’s second such in consecutive years) that’s another matter.

Pedant’s corner:- No opening quote marks when a chapter begins with a piece of direct speech. “None of them pierce his body” (None pierces,) “for all intents and purposes” (it’s usually “to all intents and purposes”.) “Within the compound are a handful of” (is a handful,) naivete (choose; English naivety or French naiveté, not the mongrel naivete,) herbivarous (herbivorous.)

Hugo Award Nominations

As on the Locus website where the full list of nominees can be found. There’s a lot of “the usual suspects” here:-

Best Novel

The Stone Sky, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty (Orbit US)
Provenance, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Raven Stratagem, Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris US; Solaris UK)
New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi (Tor US; Tor UK)

Best Novella

River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing)
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com Publishing)
“And Then There Were (N-One)”, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 3-4/17)
All Systems Red, Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven, JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novelette

“Children of Thorns, Children of Water”, Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny 7-8/17)
“Extracurricular Activities”, Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com 2/15/17)
“The Secret Life of Bots”, Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld 9/17)
“Wind Will Rove”, Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 9-10/17)
“A Series of Steaks”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld 1/17)
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time”, K.M. Szpara (Uncanny 5-6/17)

Best Short Story

“The Martian Obelisk”, Linda Nagata (Tor.com 7/19/17)
“Fandom for Robots”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™”, Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17)
“Sun, Moon, Dust”, Ursula Vernon (Uncanny 5-6/17)
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”, Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“Carnival Nine”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/17)

I’ve read two of the novels and will read the Jemisin at some point. Not so much the shorter fiction.

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