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Vox Book Club, The City We Became, Week 2: Fighting monsters with math and hip-hop

The avatars of New York City’s boroughs are assembling.

A book with the words Vox Book Club on the cover. Zac Freeland/Vox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to the Vox Book Club’s second week of discussion on N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became! This week, we’re tackling chapters six through 10, in which we meet Queens, spend some time with Brooklyn, and dive deep into the science fiction and fantasy community’s problem with racism.

As with last week’s discussion, there will be no spoilers for the end of the book in the main post. (Spoilers are allowed in the comments, but be sure to label them clearly to make it easier for folks who want to avoid them.) At the end we’ll provide a few discussion questions that you can use to guide your conversation, either here or in the setting of your choosing, but feel free to talk about whatever in particular piques your interest. And if you want to see me talk about The City We Became face to face (or, well … screen to screen), sign up to receive info about our live Zoom event at the end of the month. It’ll be a blast to see you — especially since we’ll be joined by N.K. Jemisin herself.

In the meantime, we’ve got avatars to analyze and Lovecraftian racism to dismantle. Let’s get to it.

Meet the avatars, continued

At last we meet Queens, avatar of my home borough! In The City We Became, she’s Padmini Prakash, the Math Queen, who loves pure theoretical math but is getting her master’s degree in financial engineering so she has a better shot of obtaining a visa after she graduates. And in the way that Bronca intuitively understands the history of what’s happening with the avatars, Padmini instinctively understands the mechanics of her powers, which work by pure math. Queens is, by some measures, the most diverse place on Earth, and Padmini is the avatar of the borough’s hardworking and ambitious immigrant class.

Like so much else in The City We Became, Padmini reads differently during a pandemic than she would if this book had come out in a different cultural moment. Queens has become the epicenter of New York City’s Covid-19 outbreak, with story after story of horror pouring out of the borough’s Elmhurst Hospital. And in some ways, that’s because of the very diversity and community that The City We Became celebrates.

Queens is a borough of immigrants who disproportionately have working-class jobs. And working-class immigrants are disproportionately less able to work from home, avoid the subway, and participate in other social distancing measures compared with their wealthier, white counterparts. They also have fewer resources to build the infrastructure a community needs to withstand a scourge like this pandemic, and are less likely to have health insurance. Meanwhile, some immigrants are avoiding getting tested for Covid-19 out of fear they’ll be deported under the Trump administration’s “public charge” policy. So right now, Queens is full of people who can’t stay inside, who can’t stay 6 feet away from each other, and who don’t have good access to health care. Queens is struggling.

But Jemisin makes a compelling case that it’s the same demographics making Queens so vulnerable to the pandemic that make it strong and vital in other times, and will enable it to recover once the virus has passed. When Queens works, it works like Padmini’s apartment building: as a place where people look out for each other, in a true and vibrant community.

This section of The City We Became also contains our first Brooklyn POV chapter, during which the avatars take shelter in her townhouse (and which comes after we’ve already spent a fair amount of time seeing Brooklyn through Manny’s eyes). Brooklyn is the only avatar whose borough name is the same as her human name, but she’s still a woman of many identities, all of which fit the shifting form of her home turf. She’s both Brooklyn Thompson, respected city councilwoman, and MC Free, one of the greatest of the early female MCs; both authentic Brooklyn kid (from before it was a borough for rich people) and comfortable new resident who owns not one but two historic brownstone townhouses. Her power comes from her music (you’d think Bronx, as the birthplace of hip-hop, would have had a claim to that superpower, but look, I’m not going to argue with the lady), and yet the Woman in White is still able to hit her where it hurts by going after her real estate.

Aislyn very much does not understand intersectionality

The Woman in White’s fight for Brooklyn is still in progress, but it looks like she’s doing much better in her attempt to talk her way into a foothold on Staten Island. That’s despite the fact that she sends a neo-Nazi into Aislyn’s house to sexually harass her: Aislyn’s disgusted by Conall, sure, but even more than she hates him, she’s afraid of and furious with the avatar for São Paulo.

Aislyn’s essentially being asked to choose between feminism and white supremacy here. As a woman, she knows about oppression: She knows about being harassed and humiliated and afraid and made to feel less than, and it’s within the realm of possibility that she’d decide to push back against her father and ally herself with other oppressed people. But as a white woman, she knows that she is offered a certain protection if she allies herself with white men instead — and she seems to be more and more prepared to do just that, to choose her father and his casual racism and misogyny over her fellow avatars.

The avatars of progressive cosmopolitanism vs. the Sad Puppies of the past

The Woman in White also continues her attempted infiltration of Bronca’s territory when she sends the “Alt Artistes” — a group of alt-right shock artists who want to protest galleries that don’t accept their work — over to the art gallery. What ensues is a critique of the history of science fiction and fantasy from Jemisin, and it’s grounded in very recent events.

The Alt Artistes show Bronca a painting titledDangerous Mental Machines,” after one of H.P. Lovecraft’s many disturbing racial epithets for Asian people. The painting itself appears to be dramatizing Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook,” in which the immigrant community of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood is a place of intrinsic squalor and evil that turns out to be a literal portal to hell. When Bronca looks at the painting, she finds herself pulled into Lovecraft’s perspective: She sees the figures looming before her as subhuman threats, horrible and monstrous and certain to destroy her. “This shows you New York as he saw it, the chickenshit little fuck,” she concludes.

Lovecraft is one of the most foundational and important writers in speculative fiction. He was also a vicious racist whose racism is inflected in almost everything he wrote, and the science fiction and fantasy community is still trying to figure out exactly how to grapple with his legacy. In some ways, The City We Became can be read as a dramatization of that struggle. The tentacled monster we saw Manny fight at the beginning of the book — the creature the Woman in White described as one of her “toeholds” — was purely Lovecraftian horror, a tentacle monster beyond human comprehension.

But as we discussed last week, the real monster in The City We Became isn’t the weird crawly thing with tentacles that heroes can pound into submission if they work hard enough. The real monster is reactionary politics, the ideas that Lovecraft brought to his work. That’s what’s hiding in the Alt Artiste painting, and that’s what really makes the Woman in White dangerous. In The City We Became, Lovecraft’s racism is what’s truly evil, while the things Lovecraft feared — the coming together of people of different races, mingling and living and working in one space — become vibrant and powerful and heroic.

The Lovecraft debate is also a microcosm of a fight that’s still alive and well in the science fiction and fantasy community, a fight that’s personal for Jemisin. Jemisin became the only person ever to win three Hugo awards in 2018, when she won her third Hugo for the third and final volume in her Broken Earth trilogy. But Jemisin’s win wasn’t guaranteed. A group of Hugo voters who referred to themselves as the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies formed a voting bloc specifically to prevent authors from diverse backgrounds, like Jemisin, from winning Hugos, and to instead give the awards to Puppy-endorsed authors who wrote more “traditional” science fiction.

The whole thing developed into a years-long feud that involved both Breitbart and erotica writer Chuck Tingle (for a close look at the controversy, I’ll refer you to Aja Romano’s excellent Vox explainer). But the main point I want to bring home to you here is this: There are people in the science fiction and fantasy community who hate Jemisin, what she writes, and what she represents, so much so that they joined forces specifically to keep her from winning Hugo awards. And then she went on to win more Hugo awards than anyone else in history.

That’s the fight she’s referencing by bringing Lovecraft into this story. What remains to be seen is whether Jemisin’s characters will be as successful as Jemisin herself in pushing back against reactionary art.

Let’s talk!

You can use the following questions as a guide for your conversation about The City We Became here in our comments section, or in your own community. Or start off with your own questions! Whatever brings you joy. Just mark your spoilers and be nice to each other.

  1. Pick your player, updated: Now that we’ve met all of the avatars, which is your favorite, and who has the most effective powers?
  2. Why do you think it takes so long to get into Brooklyn’s head? Does getting to know her thought process after first meeting her through Manny’s eyes change the way you think of her?
  3. I will freely admit that I do not understand theoretical math. Surely some of you smart people do. Does Padmini’s math make sense? What are her equations doing?
  4. What about Brooklyn’s rap? In your opinion, is it good enough to fight off a fleet of terrifying spider monsters?
  5. Which female MCs do you imagine MC Free being closest to, stylistically? Who’s her nearest analogue?
  6. H.P. Lovecraft: The man basically invented cosmological horror, but wow, was he also a racist. How do you square the two? Should you? (I’ve got more resources on ye olde separating-the-art-from-the-artist debate here if you want to go deeper on this one.)
  7. Manny gets a vision of the primary avatar and has a pretty romantically charged reaction. Granted, we’ve only had limited access to the primary so far, but I have to ask: Do you ship it?

Sound off in the comments below, or wherever you’d like to talk!