By Carl Abbott
New Yorkers have gumption. They’ve got moxie. They don’t slow down and they don’t take crap from anyone. They’re also survivors who can sometimes figure out how to work together for the common good. That’s the shared message of two compelling and very different books by science fiction stars: N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became (2020) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017).
Jemisin’s novel is a fantasy thriller where the city simultaneously endangers itself and saves itself from destruction by being uploaded into five human avatars, one for each city borough. The avatars become their boroughs while retaining their edgy New York lives and feisty New York personalities. What they embody is New York’s “attitude and creativity and toughness” (135). The first half of the book follows the well-tested storyline in which a team of superheroes with different skills find each other and learn how to combine their powers to fight evil. They get advice from cool, hip Sao Paulo and pompous, rule-loving Hong Kong, who show up to assist the birth of embodied New York.
Each avatar is first startled by their augmented identity, then resigned, and finally determined to act on behalf of their communities by acting as their community. Together they embody New York’s ethnic energy and constant reinvention. Bronca, who has Lenape ancestors, is a multiethnic manager of a community art gallery in the Bronx. Brooklyn is a Black politician with a previous career as a rapper. Padmini is a young Tamil math whiz from Jackson Heights. Manny is a newcomer who has scarcely stepped out of Penn Station when his new identity takes charge. The city in its entirety is an unhoused Black street artist.
Jemisin burst on the Science Fiction scene in 2010 with stories and novels that immediately earned award nominations. Her “Broken Earth” trilogy, beginning with The Fifth Season (2015), won an unprecedented three consecutive Hugo awards. The New York Times gave her a book review column and The New Yorker profiled her. She has become a sort of public face for the many Black women who now write science fiction, such as Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Nisi Shawl, and Andrea Hairston.
The threat to New York’s existence is a Lovecraftian force from beyond the curtain of space-time. It imposes literal whiteness to the multiracial city. It seeds people and objects with squiggly white tendrils and manifests as a middle-aged, white woman whose first appearance anticipates the infamous Central Park dog walker meltdown. The evil from the beyond works through a Better New York Foundation driven by “gentrifier logic” and “settler logic” to rid the city of “the ‘gritty’ people who made it what it is” (240) and it takes over every Starbucks in Manhattan. The only white person who helps to save the city is a hip, young cab driver who was “born and raised right over in Chelsea, two moms and everything” (42).
The four bigger boroughs fight off efforts by the Enemy to pick them off piecemeal in scenes that are vividly appropriate, if a bit stereotyped, for each part of the city. They come together over action-packed hours as the sort of multi-racial coalition that progressive politics dreams about, only to realize—oh shit!—that they’ve forgotten about an equally stereotyped Staten Island, the “lost sister” (312) and “sore thumb” (321) that they must recruit to complete the city.
That plot engine works because we’re rooting for Staten Island’s avatar. Thirty-year-old librarian Aislyn Houlihan still lives under the thumb of her bigoted policeman father. She knows her life is narrow but can’t find the courage to break away, to actually get on the ferry to a Manhattan that she’s never visited. When she becomes the most reluctant avatar, we want her to embrace a larger world and join the others, but she’s too fearful and susceptible to the evil blandishments of suburbia. When she rejects her destiny, the living city is completed only when the gallery manager’s Black/Portuguese assistant realizes that she’s Jersey City. “Living cities aren’t defined by politics…They’re made of whatever the people who live in and around them believe” (425), shouts Sao Paulo, so of course Jersey City is a better member of the fab five than Staten Island.
The Enemy from beyond explicitly channels fantasy writer H. P. Lovecraft’s horror of New York’s immigrant vitality, but the city’s power to resist comes directly from that hybridity. The avatars embody New York’s ethnic variety and its creativity as musician, graffiti artist, painter, and mathematician. The energy sparked by difference makes the city resilient, an example of urban theorist Leonie Sandercock’s argument in Cosmopolis II: Mongrel Cities of the 21st Century. “Mongrel cities” are where “difference, otherness, fragmentation, splintering, multiplicity, heterogeneity, diversity, plurality prevail.” She admits that some people may find uncertainty and boundary crossing disturbing but asserts that “it is to be celebrated as a great possibility: the possibility of living alongside others who are different, learning from them, creating new worlds with them, instead of fearing them.”
The City We Became draws on the common idea that we can distinguish one city from another by its special character—nobody thinks that Prague has the same “soul” as Providence or Perth—and imagines that the metaphor might turn concrete. Jemisin is not the first writer of speculative fiction to posit a living city. In Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness (1978), the mass of San Francisco’s streets and buildings concentrate the cacophonous torrents of energy and information of the modern city to generate a foreboding presence. As in The City We Became, it’s an unlikely handful of struggling artists who represent the true essence of the city and fend off the threat of the “lady of darkness.” And San Francisco in John Shirley’s City Come a-Walkin’ (1980) has a visible avatar. City draws energy from the vast information flows of the metropolis and takes human form as a tough guy who is a literal cyber punk in order to battle the tide of suburbanization that would undermine the concentration of energy that keeps it alive. Just wait until it meets Staten Island.
Jemisin’s adventure is also an exploration of the semi-utopian possibilities of building new forms of community in the face of power, which puts it in dialogue with another recent novel about resilient New York. Kim Stanley Robinson sets New York 2140 in a future city damaged by rising seas but coping creatively with change. Robinson is a master of traditional science fiction who has been winning awards for nearly forty years with work that imagines futures we might plausibly reach without worrying about occult mephitic exhalations. Where Jemisin takes readers on a wild ride through frantic hours and days, Robinson’s sprawling portrait covers three years as it jumps among ten narrative voices.
New York in 2140 is still New York, a financial nexus whose vibe contrasts with “Denver,” the new shorthand for bland inland cities. Three-hundred-story skyscrapers crown the higher lands of Hoboken and Brooklyn Heights, all overtopped by the “Cloister cluster, capital of the twenty-second century” (34). In flooded lower Manhattan, towers built on bedrock have sealed their lower floors and continue to function. Streets in the aquatropolis are busy canals. Finance capital can’t leave New York alone, and money is pouring back into half-drowned real estate.
Robinson’s New Yorkers have the resourcefulness to craft new grassroots institutions such as building co-ops and self-help groups like Lower Manhattan Mutual Aid Society, an association of surviving skyscrapers. Residents improvise in the face of disasters. Bureaucrats, first responders, and ordinary citizens all pitch in when a massive storm surge threatens the city. His take on the human capacity to meet challenges and do the best with the resources available echoes Rebecca Solnit’s argument in A Paradise Built in Hell (2009) that elites panic during disasters while ordinary people work together and muddle through.
The story unfolds through the eyes and actions of residents of the Metropolitan Life Building, the landmark skyscraper from 1909 repurposed as a housing co-op. They include a high-ranking policewoman, an immigration rights lawyer, a hedge fund trader, a media star, a pair of computer nerds, the building superintendent, and two canal urchins. The technique is familiar from Robinson’s Mars trilogy and riffs on John Dos Passos’s panoramic U.S.A. (1938) whose characters, in Robinson’s own words, are “like pinballs in a pinball machine, bouncing around America in the 1920’s, trying to figure it out.” That’s what these Met Lifers do. They intersect, veer apart, and slowly come together to plot a citywide rent strike and trigger the nationalization of major banks, preventing the collapse of a global bubble in “intertidal” real estate similar to the crashes of 2008 and 2066.
The novels differ in their interest in the natural environment. Jemisin’s New Yorkers visit city parks, but they thrive in crowded neighborhoods rather than the scary spaces of Staten Island. In contrast, Robinson draws parallels between the resilience of New York’s human community and the restoration of the natural communities of rivers, bays, and hinterland. The dual focus echoes his earlier trilogy on the terraforming of Mars—Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars (1992-96)—in which the processes of environmental change and political change are juxtaposed and unavoidably intertwined.
Robinson is an ethically engaged writer who uses science fiction to address fundamental questions about governance, economics, and the future of the terrestrial environment. He writes critical utopias in which he asks readers to imagine both the possibilities and difficulties of utopian change. The painstaking construction and maintenance of community in his future New York highlights his commitment to the public sphere of debate and the messy but necessary work of politics. The oddly assorted residents of the Met tower don’t make the world perfect but do make it better. As Robinson sums up, “history … does not stop happening” (603), and individuals have the responsibility to participate as best they can. He went on to develop the same ideas on a global canvas in his most recent novel, The Ministry for the Future (2020), whose protagonist is a UN official who does the best she can to coax and finagle powerful institutions into acting to mitigate climate change.
These New York novels are different at first glance, developed by quite different authors working within different strands of speculative fiction. Robinson’s multiethnic New Yorkers focus on the damage done by the inequalities of economic class and build resilience through political organization and action. Jemisin’s New York is a city of newcomers that draws its strength from its diversity and faces its greatest danger from white fear. They emphasize different aspects of New York’s social vitality, but each sends an optimistic message about urban resilience.
Carl Abbott is Professor Emeritus of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. He writes about the history of cities, city planning, and science fiction. His recent books are Imagining Urban Futures: Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them (Wesleyan University Press, 2016) and City Planning; A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Featured image (at top): Thomas J. O’Halloran, “New York City skyline/TOH” (1975), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.