Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.
This week, we continue N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became with Chapter 7 and the 3rd Interruption. The novel was first published in March 2020. Spoilers ahead!
“When she turns, he hears the melodies of a thousand different instruments, sees the faceted sparkle of stained glass and industrial fiberglass and occasional specks of diamond, tastes salt and bitter earth and sharp fiery spices that bring tears to his eyes.”
Chapter 7: The Thing in Mrs. Yu’s Pool
Padmini Prakash lives with her cousin Aishwarya’s family in Jackson Heights, Queens. With the H-1B lottery tightening up, she’s in graduate school for financial engineering rather than the pure mathematics she’d prefer. So on this June day she’s staring out her window instead of working on her computational analysis project. Across the jumble of Queens neighborhoods, she can see Manhattan. She looks toward the Williamsburg Bridge just as a gigantic tentacle surges out of the East River to smash it. The tentacle’s translucent, flickering like a cheap special effect. Can’t be real, but what about the sounds of destruction and screaming that reach her across the miles? What about her sense that counter to that terrible wrongness, “sudden and intense rightness” permeates the apartment building from its foundation to Aishwarya’s fourth floor walk-up?
Like that, the world has changed. She’s changed, so that she senses more wrongness next door. Mrs. Wu’s are splashing about in their wading pool, oblivious to how the pool’s bottom has changed to an undulating organic gray; if they touch the gray, Padmini knows, the Enemy will take them away to a place worse than death. She can’t hope to reach them in time, unless – she “not magically but mathematically” teleports to the adjacent yard.
She pulls one boy to safety. His startled wrestling delays her and brings out Mrs. Wu. The second boy screams as tendrils drag him into bubbling, amorphous monstrosity. The two women and his brother struggle to wrest the boy free. The monster’s stronger. Then Padmini thinks of fluid mechanics, imagines something slipperier than water between the gray and the boy, formulates the equation. The boy shoots out of the monster’s grip. Padmini’s “done something not just because she’s expected to do it, but because she’s chosen to do it,” and she follows up by shouting energy that banishes the Enemy.
A while later, Manny and Brooklyn show up and fill Padmini and her friends in on the current crisis and the concept of borough avatars. Mrs. Wu and Aishwarya aren’t as incredulous as might be expected, since they both believe in “gods of the walls,” or “city gods,” avatars who protect towns. The homes of the borough avatars are safe spaces, as all of NYC would be if the boroughs could unite with the sixth, whole-city avatar. Such a unification, however, would render everyone’s avatar status permanent, personifications of their boroughs wherever they go.
The boroughs decide to hole up in Brooklyn’s safe place. In Padmini’s apartment house, where she’s gone to pack, Manny slips into Weird New York and again sees himself as Manhattan the city, Brooklyn as Brooklyn, Padmini as Queens. He’s inspired to unite the three of them at once but fails. A voice in his head tells him that’s not his job but whole-city New York’s, and Manny has a vision of a young Black man sleeping on stacked newspapers in some deserted subway space. The urge to belong to New York, to protect him, even to die or kill for him, overwhelms Manny. Only for New York will Manny “be again the monster that [he is].”
Brooklyn and Padmini have shared Manny’s visions – and his thoughts. Brooklyn picks up on Manny’s former life as some sort of enforcer, perhaps even a hit man. It was this identity he fled in coming to New York.
The three avatars take a ride-share to Bedford Stuyvesant, where Brooklyn’s father bought two adjacent brownstones during the 1970s real estate slump. One has been adapted for the father’s wheelchair, the other has undergone historical renovation and is a stylish short-term rental. Dad and Brooklyn’s fourteen-year-old daughter will stay in their home while Brooklyn and the other avatars shelter in the rental brownstone. They share a “humble, quiet supper,” while Manny comes to terms with his prior and present selves, taking comfort in how it may not be “so terrible to be terrible, if he puts all the awfulness of himself into the service of the city.”
Paulo tracks down traces of disruption to Mrs. Wu’s backyard pool. This breach has done less harm than the one in Inwood and seems unlikely to “attract… hangers-on.” He’s impressed by the “surgical efficiency” with which someone excised the threatened Enemy infection.
The apartment house next door is the “locus” of the Queens avatar’s power. Paulo lucks out by trying Aishwarya’s apartment first. She and her husband are suspicious; Aishwarya’s wariness lessens when he identifies himself: the others have mentioned him. Paulo is relieved when she admits that Manny and Brooklyn found Padmini on their own but disturbed to learn that a “Woman in White” is after the boroughs. The Enemy should not have “reactualized harbingers” already. Nothing is normal about this city’s birth!
Aishwarya says that the three united boroughs have an idea about the Bronx avatar’s location and will look for her in the morning. That leaves Staten Island for Paulo. He gives Aishwarya his “business” card and asks her to pass his phone number on to Padmini. Padmini should text him the Bronx’s address – after finding Staten Island, he’ll meet them there and finally take on his job as their advisor.
This Week’s Metrics
Mind the Gap: Padmini’s first experience of being Queens is a moment as a train: “fast, powerful, aching for a coat of graffiti.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Padmini’s work is shaped by the need to meet visa requirements and avoid ICE. Her borough is used as a backdrop for “all-white upper-class dramedies” that want a “multicultural” background but can’t deal with either the Blackness of East New York or the Bronx’s “reputation.”
Weirdbuilding: Non-euclidean geometry abounds, and in fact comes in extremely handy! Lovecraft was probably just scared of math (and definitely of scary brown people wielding that math).
In high school, I put out a monthly comic book featuring the adventures of Captain Calculus. This awesome hero was based on my own calculus teacher, who was cool enough to let me draw on my desk during class, so long as I didn’t mess up when it was my turn to section conics up at the blackboard. I mean, you DO section conics in calculus, right?
Maybe the Captain shouldn’t have let me draw on my desk so much.
Like Padmini’s, Captain Calculus’s superpowers were math-based rather than magical. He would basically scribble equations in his patented Notebook of Infinity until one of them clicked and opened a wormhole to a terrifying dimension in which mathematical concepts biomorphed into penguins, walrus-sized slugs and lissome women with feathery antennae and bare midriffs. Why wouldn’t you bare your midriff if you had multiple belly buttons arranged in cryptic patterns which if poked in the proper sequence would either precipitate or prevent the return of the Really Great Old Ones?
Captain Calculus also had a rock band called the Cosines, in which he played lead ukulele. The Really Great Old Ones were not huge fans, which is why the world as we know it still exists. You’re welcome. I guess.
My point of the moment is: Mathematics is an essential but dangerous study. Essential because I had to take calculus as an honors student and dangerous because it ended my career in comics before it could really begin. And look what happened to Walter Gilman of “Witch House” fame when he combined mathematics with folklore. I suspect that Padmini knows about Gilman from her interest in the Tumblr Lovecraft meta about non-Euclidean geometry. Also she knows to shout the epithets “squamous” and “eldritch” at the thing in the pool. Math Queen’s got some geek culture.
Each borough-avatar brings a different mode of power-expression to the party, a different weapon-of-choice. Brooklyn wields music, Bronca art, Padmini math and physics. What talent Aislyn might exploit remains uncertain. Manny’s shown a knack for manipulation and violent activity, the source of which his memory loss has obscured until this chapter. He’s recovering the gist of his former career if not the details, and he knows that it wasn’t pretty – that in fact he’s come to New York to escape it. He’s the avatar most obviously looking to start a new life. Be careful what you wish for: No sooner does he cross into Manhattan than he gets that new life with a vengeance, including the gift of at least temporary oblivion.
In essence, however, he doesn’t change. To be of use to the city, he has to retain the capacity for manipulation, control, and brutality that made him a “monster” pre-transformation. To impersonate Manhattan, one must be ruthless. One must also, it seems, be a sort of chameleon or mirror, striking some with whom he interacts as familiar. Douglas Acevedo sees Manny as a fellow Puerto Rican. A bike rental agent insists Manny’s a New Yorker, not a tourist – just look at him! Padmini thinks he’s “a little Punjabi,” until Mrs. Wu asks if he’s “hunxue’er,” of mixed blood. Then Padmini supposes he may be half-white, or Black Latino, or Black Jewish, or Creole. Manny insists he’s “plain old ordinary Black,” but he remembers he’s been considered “mixed” throughout his life. He contains legions, it seems, like Manhattan itself, but legions of individuals, distinct and intriguing, somehow making up a cohesive whole. Tellingly, when Manny drops into peaceful sleep in Brooklyn’s guestroom, he dreams “eight million beautifully ruthless dreams.”
Eight million being about the combined population of the five boroughs of New York City.
The “Interruption” that follows Chapter 7 takes place late on the night of the Change. Paulo’s finally found the Queens “disruption” and Padmini’s house. He demonstrates his diplomatic skill in getting her cousins to semi-trust him and is reassured to hear three boroughs have found each other and made their way to a safe place. Given their success thus far, he’s willing to let the trio find the Bronx, while he undertakes to search the less populated Staten Island for its avatar. The five together will find New York himself, which is when “all this” will be over, as he tells Aishwarya.
To himself, though, Paulo must acknowledge that he’s never seen or heard of a city’s birth like New York’s, and so he can’t be sure what’s coming. And that’s one hell of an uncomfortable place for an “all-knowing” advisor to be.
Lovecraft protagonists cling to doubt beyond all sense, preferring tattered, comforting illusion to change. Jemisin’s, in thematically appropriate fashion, are the polar opposite. They place practicality before doubt, fighting squamous bullshit wherever it rears its tentacles – regardless of how impossible those tentacles seem. Use your newfound math powers first, question later, or everyone is going to die.
Where doubt arises is in longer-term acceptance of this responsibility. Except for Manny, boroughing isn’t exactly any of our avatars’ dream job. It conflicts with other responsibilities to work and children and grandchildren. It conflicts with the demands of the everyday world, with bureaucracies and bosses who might not give you what you need to stay in the city you’re becoming. It conflicts with the simple desire for mental privacy. And while Manny may be falling head over heels in neither-considerate-nor-wise love, Padmini hates the city she needs and Aislyn just fears the other boroughs.
Against that, Mrs. Yu’s compelling argument: “It’s duty. It’s normal. Get over it.” Because we all run into such conflicts – even if at a less existentially interdimensional level.
Manny’s lack of that conflict is itself interesting. Even before the city claimed him, he’d chosen to shed his past. Now he takes amnesia as a gift. He avoids his ID card, flinches at his talent for violence and intimidation. He’d like to be something else even if it consumes him, and indeed a glimpse of the city-wide avatar sends him into immediate thoughts of self-sacrifice. At the same time, it gives him a route towards accepting his proclivities: maybe it’s not so bad to be terrible, if he can be terrible in the service of something larger.
Padmini’s building hints at the worth of that something. Magical protection reflects the reality of a tight, resilient, supportive community. The completed city, perhaps, will be “ever so much moreso” of the same. Not free of violence or conflict, because Sao Paulo certainly isn’t, but tied together and armored by connection. If everyone has a sliver of awareness from the living city, that has to change street-level relationships just a little, right?
A few chapters ago, the Woman in White described that as a commonality between her and the cities: all composite entities for whom the boundaries of space, time, and flesh have meaning. This week Manny comments on her shifting use of “we” and “I,” as if she sees no dichotomy between individual and collective. Like a fungus, a million fruiting bodies from one underground network, where the cities seem to generate the network from the breakthrough weight of the million bodies. Perhaps city is just enough like elder god to be a threat – or at least to be an almost-comprehensible terror.
And meanwhile, the “wise old mentor” is chasing after the newborn avatars, with limited success… and with the disturbing comment that the story so far is not how any of this works. So does that reflect a difference between New York and the older cities? Between the Woman in White and previous, less subtly strategic Enemies? Or both?
Next week, strange things hide beneath the surface in Gemma Files’s “Harrow.” You can find it in Cthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth.
Ruthanna Emrys’s A Half-Built Garden is now out! She is also the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, weird and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.