“The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin should win this year’s Hugo for short story. The conceit of the story is that great human cities have a life of their own. Maybe that life awakens quickly, maybe it takes centuries or millennia, but at some point the genius loci becomes a thing in itself. Birth is never easy, not every potential new life makes it into the world, and Jemisin’s story tells the tale of New York’s attempt from the point of view of its midwife. Who has no idea what he is doing. He mainly knows that some very strange things are happening, and maybe all is not as it seems and he is seeing a higher reality, “Or maybe my mama was right, and I ain’t never been right in the head.”
What makes this story great is the sheer exuberance with which it’s told. It’s fast, it’s furious, but it’s also tremendous fun. And sure, it’s a power fantasy, too, but if that gives readers sentences like “I backhand its ass with Hoboken, raining the drunk rage of ten thousand dudebros down on it like the hammer of God. Port Authority makes it honorary New York, motherfucker; you just got Jerseyed.” then let a thousand fantasies bloom. It’s a story about life, and living, and that’s what it’s most full of: the very stuff of life.
There’s more going on, too. Stories about cities as things in themselves have a long SF tradition, including James Blish’s Cities in Flight novels from the 1950s and 1960s or John Shirley’s punk approach in City Come A-Walkin’. Not for Jemisin the cool distance of Blish’s technocrats, or the dark decline of Shirley. Jemisin’s city overwhelms; it’s on all the time in Ultra HD saturated color 3-D overdrive.
But Paulo’s full of shit, too, like when he says I should consider meditation to better attune myself to the city’s needs. Like I’mma get through this on white-girl yoga.
“White-girl yoga,” Paulo says, nodding. “Indian man yoga. Stockbroker racquetball and schoolboy handball, ballet and merengue, union halls and SoHo galleries. You will embody a city of millions. You need not be them, but know that they are part of you.”
It’s also a story of the chosen one, because every city needs an avatar. And it could be a riff on Christian themes, because the one who is chosen is among the least of these: black, gay, homeless, teen, broke, thrown out of his churchgoing home, street artist, hustler, con man, uncertain, and scared. But also confident, brilliant, unabashed, and willing. He’s terrific.
“I sing the city,” writes Jemisin to start the story. Echoing Langston Hughes, without the qualifying “too.” Echoing Walt Whitman. Echoing Bradbury. Singing a new New York into the world.
The short stories were the fifth bit of Hugo-related reading I have done this year, and the second I have written about.