The World We Make 
by N.K. Jemisin.
Orbit, 384 pp., £9.99, October 2023, 978 0 356 51272 3
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MC​ Shan really shouldn’t have done it. By common consent, hip-hop didn’t start in Queens, it started in the Bronx. So when Shan, on his 1986 track ‘The Bridge’, put Queensbridge Houses at the centre of his potted history of rap without so much as mentioning the Bronx, there was going to be pushback. It duly arrived with ‘The Bridge Is Over’, from Boogie Down Productions, on which the rapper KRS-1 laid down the law, borough to borough: ‘Manhattan keeps on making it, Brooklyn keeps on taking it/Bronx keeps creating it, and Queens keeps on faking it.’ BDP won the war of words for the South Bronx, hands down. MC Shan’s career never really recovered.

If you grew up listening to rap in the 1980s and 1990s – even in faraway London – battles like BDP v. MC Shan, the Bronx v. Queens, were part of the music’s history and folklore. Each of the New York boroughs had dozens of avatars: BDP and Ultramagnetic MCs were the Bronx; Kool G Rap and A Tribe Called Quest stood for Queens; Biggie and Jay-Z repped Brooklyn, and so on. Hip-hop’s message that an individual can stand before the world as the symbol of a borough, a city, even a whole coast, is embedded in global popular consciousness. The embodiment of New York’s boroughs in living people, as in N.K. Jemisin’s Great Cities duology of novels, The City We Became (2020) and The World We Make, isn’t an unfamiliar idea.

Great Cities was supposed to be a trilogy, but Jemisin cut the series short at two. Even that was a struggle: in the acknowledgments to The World We Make, she says the combination of Covid and America’s ‘swan dive into Deep Fascism’ meant that the New York she was writing about no longer existed. ‘My creative energy,’ she writes, ‘was fading under the onslaught of reality.’ Unlike the incarnate city of the books, New York’s boroughs didn’t come to the city’s rescue, or to hers. Each of the novels’ four leading characters is a New York borough made manifest. There’s Manny, a charming sociopath with a violent streak, who’s good with money and keeps on making it; bold and ambitious Brooklyn, who eventually becomes the city’s mayor; Bronca, the doughty creative director of a Bronx community art space; and Padmini, a mathematically gifted Tamil Dalit immigrant, faking it to make it in Queens. (The fate of the city’s fifth borough, Staten Island, is a different matter; I’ll come back to it later.)

We don’t meet the individual boroughs immediately, because the Great Cities story begins with New York: a skinny homeless kid who paints graffiti. He will become the city’s principal embodiment, the Primary, though when we first meet him he doesn’t fully understand his destiny and is being taught the ropes by a mentor city – a patient, suave, chain-smoking São Paulo. After enough human energy has been imprinted on a city, Paulo explains, it shudders into life and chooses a human avatar to defend it. New York is ready to be born: the vulnerable, streetwise kid who narrates the opening and closing chapters of both books is the chosen one, New York City in the flesh. São Paulo, sent by the grand council of elder cities, is there to act as midwife – and to warn New York about the ancient danger that he will face: the Enemy, who since time immemorial has sought to strangle living cities at birth.

New York and São Paulo share sandwiches, coffee, cigarettes and a bed, but before São Paulo’s lessons in cityhood are complete, NYC comes under attack: the shape-shifting Enemy boils forth from the East River to launch an assault on New York harbour, while Manhattan and Brooklyn reel from a giant tentacle swipe that destroys the Williamsburg Bridge. But New York has been empowered as a cosmic extension of decayed infrastructure and hyperkinetic vie quotidienne. He strikes back at the Enemy: ‘I hip-check it with the BQE, backhand it with Inwood Hill Park, drop the South Bronx on it like an elbow … I cut the bitch with LIRR traffic, long vicious honking lines; and to stretch out its pain, I salt the wounds with the memory of a bus ride to LaGuardia and back.’ (BQE is the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway; LIRR is Long Island Railroad.) Wounded and chastened, the Enemy sinks beneath the waves. The first attack is over, and for now New York is the victor: ‘Don’t sleep on the city that never sleeps, son, and don’t fucking bring your squamous eldritch bullshit here.’

Great Cities started out in 2016 as a short story, ‘The City Born Great’, which is included in Jemisin’s collection How Long ’Til Black Future Month? (2018). The story reappears as the first chapter of The City We Became, the text largely unaltered though shorn of its original ending, which jumped forwards fifty years to find the veteran New York, now rich and experienced, waiting in a car on Mulholland Drive as he prepares to guide Los Angeles into the world. It’s a perfectly styled short, the neat conclusion elegantly clipping the concept before it gets tangled up in itself. It doesn’t happen like that in the novel: although the Enemy is repelled, the first attack on New York seriously wounds the young man, and the city sequesters him away in the bowels of the subway system to recuperate. The birth of the city hasn’t gone according to plan, and as the Enemy regroups, New York respawns fivefold into new avatars, one for each borough. Their task is to unite, find the comatose Primary and hold the squamous eldritch bullshit at bay until he’s strong enough to vanquish it for good.

In ‘The City Born Great’ those two words – squamous, eldritch – are the only overt indication that Jemisin’s story might have a specific critical aim. Any reader familiar with the heritage of horror and fantasy will immediately recognise the reference to H.P. Lovecraft, in whose overwrought prose the archaic ‘eldritch’ – an old Scots word meaning ‘ghostly’ or ‘otherworldly’ – recurs frequently. It’s a deliberate invocation of Lovecraft’s literary world, and in picturing the Enemy as a vast, tentacled creature from the depths, Jemisin is summoning his most durable creation, the cacodemonic alien Cthulhu, octopus-headed high priest of the Great Old Ones. ‘Squamous’, though it sounds very Lovecraftian, seems to have appeared only once in his writings; but since that instance occurs during a horrible climax in ‘The Dunwich Horror’, one of his best-known stories (‘the back was piebald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes’), it punches above its weight when Jemisin uses it.

It’s smart and satisfying that Jemisin’s newborn New York hands the Cthulhu-like Enemy a beatdown. The critical and political motivations of the match-up are clear: in one corner, the virulently racist Lovecraft’s archfiend, one of fantasy’s most enduring creations, still spreading its conceptual tentacles through fiction, gaming, philosophy, magic, ecology, art, cinema and more; in the other, Jemisin’s New York, a homeless gay black kid, mouthy and keen, ready to stomp out the Great Old Ones in spirited defence of his – and Jemisin’s, and our – time and place, trash-talking them all the while. ‘Oh, now you’re crying! Now you wanna run? Nah, son. You came to the wrong town … Fuck you, this city is mine, you don’t belong here, get out!’

The backstory to this battle with Cthulhu was widely covered when The City We Became first appeared. It stretches back to 2011, when the Nigerian American writer Nnedi Okorafor won the World Fantasy Award for her novel Who Fears Death. The prize came with a trophy – an ugly sculpture of Lovecraft’s head – and Okorafor wrote a thoughtful, measured blog post about her conflicted feelings on getting the award, having discovered just how racist Lovecraft was. A petition was drawn up to have the Lovecraft trophy replaced, and there was something of a furore in the sci-fi and fantasy community about what to do with Lovecraft now that, belatedly, his influence and reputation had to be squared with his racism.

The debate that followed had the disheartening outlines familiar from other culture war clashes of the time. A reactionary bitterness at progressive political gains came to the surface, a sure sign of festering prejudice. A few years later, that lurking ressentiment assumed a more active form: a concerted effort by two organised groups of authors and fans (known as the ‘Sad Puppies’ and ‘Rabid Puppies’), to skew the public nomination process for the prestigious Hugo Awards in sci-fi publishing. In response to a perceived bias in favour of the liberal left in all its manifestations – Black and brown people, women, novels with progressive themes (‘boring message fic’), gay writers and so on – the Puppies flooded the nominations with their own picks. Some of the people involved were connected to the then ascendent alt-right, and racist abuse was aimed at Jemisin herself. But though the campaign succeeded in souring the atmosphere, it didn’t achieve its desired result: in 2016, on a slate dominated by the Puppies’ astroturfed nominees, Jemisin won the Hugo for best novel with The Fifth Season, the first book in her Broken Earth trilogy. She was the first Black writer to win the award. Both the book’s sequels, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky, won the Hugo in subsequent years; a fourth Hugo followed in 2019 for the novella Emergency Skin.

The alt-right of the 2000s and early 2010s was preparing the ground for the subsequent radicalisation of the mainstream. The neofascist ideologies that once lurked in the subcultural margins have since become the basis of the ‘war on woke’, as an endless succession of manufactured outrages have bound small-c conservatives ever more tightly to what were once outré far-right positions. The eldritch bullshit that turbo-charged the Trump era wasn’t put back in its box. Jemisin evidently felt there was unfinished business. ‘The City Born Great’ was a knowing literary confrontation with the noisy and reactionary elements in the sci-fi community for whom Lovecraft remains talismanic.

In the novels, New York’s initial scrap with the Enemy expands to take in wider, ongoing struggles. Lovecraft, however, remains elemental. It eventually emerges that the Enemy is the personification of R’lyeh, the lost city from Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthulhu’. Lovecraft’s stories often feature dead, inhuman cities from an unfathomably ancient past. Jemisin’s cities are the opposite, alive and defiantly human – real people, right now. And Jemisin makes sure to embody them in just the sort of people Lovecraft loathed. All the boroughs (bar Staten Island) are Black, Asian or Indigenous; and Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and New Jersey – later an honorary sixth borough – are gay or queer.

Lovecraft’s racism, though most overt in his letters, extends into his stories, including ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, a fever dream in which the secret and murderous cults of the monster have been kept alive by a parade of bogeymen drawn from the most perverse corners of the colonial imagination. The horrors animating his fiction – inhuman ancients, implacably hostile, physically disgusting – induce a stricken, wordless paralysis in his characters: nausea, confusion and the failure of language in the face of that which has no name and can have no name. (Like the other phrases and words in the language of the Great Old Ones, ‘Cthulhu’ is an attempt to generate an unpronounceable non-word, functioning as a mockery of languages that don’t conform to European phonemic conventions.) It isn’t too much to say that this fixation on the liminal, the impure and inhuman is grounded in the codes of race-thinking, in particular the twin spectres that terrorise the white supremacist imagination: disgust at the threat of racial miscegenation, and the fear that the subaltern will one day take violent revenge for past wrongs. The former was one of Lovecraft’s personal and fictional obsessions; the latter can be detected in the racist caricatures that populate his work, which are often the accomplices of dark powers threatening total annihilation. Lovecraft’s images speak in the guttural language of white America’s most unreconstructed fears.

All this is fairly old news. Lovecraft’s name rarely appears today without the requisite condemnation. Yet nobody is really suggesting that we stop reading him, cancel Cthulhu and de-platform the Great Old Ones. The vision of a limitless, ancient, anti-human universe is simply too fertile a notion for speculative fiction to resist, and despite Lovecraft’s clunking purple prose, elements of his style persist, in particular his habitual use of intertextual devices. The fragments of scholarship and references to books and other writer’s stories, real and imagined, is Borgesian avant la lettre. The stories retain their weird power and the cult transforms, but survives. Okorafor kept her award, but adorned it with cowries; China Miéville kept his too, but turned it to the wall. It seems the question isn’t whether we should strike Lovecraft from the record, but what exactly we should do with him.

Jemisin is clear-eyed about all this: she sees through Lovecraft and his creations. She sees through the adulation, too. Historically, the culture of sci-fi and horror has been overwhelmingly white and male, and the eminence of such Black writers as Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler notwithstanding, it hasn’t always been welcoming to minorities. ‘As a Black woman drawn to science fiction and fantasy,’ Jemisin has said about the early stages of her career, ‘I had almost no chance of getting my work published, noticed by reviewers, or accepted by a readership that seemed to want nothing more than endless variations on medieval Europe and American colonisation.’ A reckoning was overdue, and all Jemisin had to do was to let Lovecraft stand for what he stood for. In Great Cities, his creations take on roles in keeping with the ideological ugliness they always harboured. R’yleh was an anti-human city, so Jemisin lets it be one, representing the most destructive features of contemporary society.

The outlines, then, are clear: a composite contemporary New York is made messily and joyously incarnate in the form of marginalised and repudiated figures who represent the creative, resilient, variegated heartwood of the living city. The Enemy manifests as the Woman in White (‘portly, short and white’ when we first meet her, and dressed in white too), whose weapons include the oppressive forces of officialdom and orthodoxy. She attacks the newborn NYC with violent cops, busybodying Karens, skinhead boot boys and alt-right trolls; she undermines the city with brazen gentrification, political corruption and corporate greed. Racism, sexism and white cultural reaction are pitted against genderqueer Black and brown superheroes who fight to save themselves using art and music, film and food, book learning and street smarts.

It’s a tale for the times, told in broad strokes. Jemisin seems to have had no time for obliquity or patience for hand-holding: the books read as though the need for a cultural counterstrike against the ancient evil reanimated in the Trump era was too pressing for any of that. This urgency bleeds into the style of the books. The pithy first-person narration of ‘The City Born Great’ is transformed into a breathless third-person present. This generates pace, but at a cost. Because the authorial voice has little space to do anything but describe the action, the characters must learn about their trans-dimensional multiverse of living cities at the same time as the reader. As a result, there is a good deal of explanatory dialogue and almost everyone speaks with the same voice as the narrator. The major exception to this is when Brooklyn, a former MC, battles the Enemy’s monstrous spider-like agents by rapping. The rap is exceptionally well-turned; the acknowledgments reveal that Jemisin had the assistance of the celebrated Brooklyn-based rapper Jean Grae.

There’s a sense, too, that Jemisin is trolling the trolls, seeking to trigger the kind of blowhard reactionary who obsesses over the spectre of wokeism. The almost complete exclusion of any white characters (and the total exclusion of white men) except as antagonists; the concentration on queer sexualities (which can be a bit prurient); the tendency for characters or the narrator to deliver factual digressions on issues such as Rudy Giuliani’s ‘broken windows’ policy or the bureaucratic hurdles faced by immigrants to the US: all this seems calculated to rile exactly the same people who got into a rage over the Lovecraft affair, just as it seems intended to delight readers who felt under-represented in fantasy writing until Jemisin and others began their work of recalibration. And that is surely to the point: Great Cities isn’t a note of conciliation to the Puppies and their like; it’s a fuck-you. The books are fighting the same battle the story describes: they aren’t intended for right-wing shut-ins, but for people who want and need to see themselves and their struggles represented, victoriously.

The​ polemical aspect of Great Cities does cause narrative complications. Demographically, the New York of today is majority Black and brown, but people of European ancestry remain the largest single group in the city. It would be weird if the living embodiment of New York had no hint of, say, Irish or German, and so the fifth borough, Staten Island, is made incarnate as an Irish girl, Aislyn Houlihan. But Aislyn won’t join the battle with her counterpart boroughs. Sheltered, racist and improbably stupid, she is too frightened to leave Staten Island on the ferry and can’t even recall the name of her favourite cookies. She is easily co-opted by the Enemy and turned into a traitor. Historical anti-Black racism among the Irish in America is well documented, but Aislyn herself could be seen as a mish-mash of stereotypes: to a British or Irish reader, there are some obvious problems with the depiction of an Irish character as gullible, provincial and treacherous.

If this seems to sell Staten Island short, it’s entirely deliberate: the character of Aislyn exists to make a point. Staten Island is ‘the one part of New York that consistently votes red when the rest of the city consistently votes blue’, Jemisin has explained. ‘There’s something cultural happening there that makes it very different from the rest of the city. They’ve tried to secede from the city! They have failed! I needed to acknowledge all of this.’ But acknowledging it by making Staten Island an Irish racist brings its own difficulties. Since all the boroughs must combine to wake the Primary and defeat the Enemy, it seems at first that Staten Island must be brought into the fold: surely Aislyn will eventually see the light, the five will join together and the Enemy will be defeated? The other characters spend a lot of time trying to make this happen, a device that risks falling in with the ‘white saviour’ trope – brown and Black characters begging the white girl to come on board and save the day.

In the event, the other four boroughs are rebuffed by Staten, who has chosen her side, and eventually an unexpectedly incarnate Jersey City – ‘Port Authority makes it honorary New York’ – steps into the breach at the end of The City We Became. After that, there is no real use for Staten Island: she can neither win nor take a redemptive role, so in the second novel she is sidelined, becoming increasingly irrelevant to the plot. Staten Island’s story could be read as a subversion of convention – a knowing double bluff about the tiresomeness of the white saviour narrative – but it seems equally likely that Great Cities is so absorbed in the requirement for a direct response to real-world crises that it suffers as a fiction. For all the right reasons, Jemisin has instrumentalised the life out of her characters and their world.

Maybe this is why the Lovecraft theme quietly disappears from the second novel: in the effort to take him down a peg or two, the novel might have risked making it all about him. This is indeed what happens in The City We Became, where Lovecraft is regularly referred to by name. A group of alt-right artists name a painting after one of his racist remarks about the Chinese (‘dangerous mental machines’), prompting an exchange between Bronca and her gallery colleagues about Lovecraft’s letters, and later a reflection on his attitudes towards race; a character wonders if this is ‘how Lovecraftian horror works now’; R’yleh says ‘Lovecraft was right’ about cities being sinks of evil and depravity. The text often takes up Lovecraft’s language: Bronca faces off against an ‘eldritch abomination’; Brooklyn vanquishes a brood of ‘eldritch daddy-long-legs’; and just as in the Cthulhu stories, the characters are all reluctant to pronounce the name ‘R’yleh’, such is its inherent evil. All this has the paradoxical effect of making Lovecraft the writer, as well as his fictional inventions, a concrete part of the world that Jemisin is crafting. It’s not just that Great Cities borrows Lovecraft’s monsters in order to hand them a humiliating symbolic defeat: he and his fictions are actually in the story. The R’yleh that the characters fight is Lovecraft’s R’yleh as written, so that he is given the unwarranted honour of being made a prophet within Jemisin’s story-world.

It is notoriously risky to summon a demon: they are dangerous, they might not do what you want and you may not be able to get rid of them. Similarly, if inventions such as Cthulhu or R’yleh are brought into a story – powerful cults, saturated with negativity – they might not behave themselves. As Claude Lévi-Strauss understood, every version of a myth, however distant or apparently contradictory, belongs to the myth; every retelling is owned by the story, not by the teller. Freud’s Oedipus isn’t just Freud talking about Oedipus, but one more manifestation of the Oedipus myth itself. In the same way, Jemisin’s importing of Lovecraft’s stories means that instead of striking against Lovecraft’s ubiquitous presence in American sci-fi and fantasy, The Great Cities contributes further to the Cthulhu mythos and so to Lovecraft’s legacy. No matter the intention, novels about R’yleh can’t avoid being absorbed into this canon. Just as R’yleh infects New York in the story, Lovecraft has infiltrated Jemisin’s books. Even the subtle spot-gloss tentacles on the cover of The World We Make confirm his malign presence: he’s slimed it. Then again, perhaps this too is part of the point. You can drape Lovecraft in cowries, make him face the wall or beat him up with KRS-1’s beloved South Bronx, but it’s very difficult to get rid of him altogether.

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