Young People Read Old SFF

The City Born Great

N. K. Jemisin

Welcome to the first post in the Old People Read New SF project, in which I will present my volunteers with a selection of recent (online) speculative fiction to see how they react.

Few authors are as representative of the modern face of SF as N. K. Jemisin. Similarly, few venues are as representative of modern SF in short form as tor.com. It seems only logical, therefore, to begin this project with Jemisin's The City Born Great. The City Born Great was nominated for a Hugo and won the 2017 Eugie Award.

The City Born Great is available here.

The illustration is by Richie Pope.

My first entry into “Old People Read New SF” with The City Born Great by N. K. Jemisin had a reaction straight from the story – “Fuck yeah.”

I love the mix of old concepts from stories I read as a child, the imagery of Other and Evil and Larger than all of us. The concept that a city becomes a City through a deliberate connection with an individual who becomes its avatar reminds me of things like McCaffrey’s Ship Who Sang while being its own very cool idea.

The idea that this homeless, black, dirt poor kid is selected by the city to become its midwife seems only right to me. Someone who is a survivor. Someone who gets the challenges of having to fight for existence. I can’t imagine NYC picking someone with a silver spoon. New York has long been associated with those who are considered “less” – immigrants, homeless, queer, etc. Because of that, it is this incredibly vibrant city that is lifted by those who are “less”, becoming more than their sum.

Really looking forward to July’s story.

—Anita

(What kind of SF is this? This is clearly fantasy.)

So New York is the first city in North America that has the potential to come alive, and New Orleans is stillborn and has to start all over again. According to Wikipedia, New Orleans is the 46th-largest city in the US, so that leaves a lot of cities in the middle. It seems kind of weird to exclude all those others. And what other cities in the world have passed this stage? Without other examples, this seems weirdly isolated. (I do see that São Paulo, Paris, and Lagos are mentioned later, plus “many, many more.”) And were there any “great cities” in North America pre-Columbus? I thought that was primarily in South America.

How did the narrator come to be the chosen one? I do find it interesting that in retrospect, it’s clear that his mentor was the chosen one for São Paulo. And what’s with his never eating? Does birthing a city cause you to be a non-eating immortal?

The imagery in this story is great. I’m not a terribly visual person, but I see the pictures the author is making as I read it.

This story felt like a weird amalgam of magical realism and superhero vs. archvillain. It was enjoyable to read on a paragraph by paragraph basis, but the logical parts of my brain kept picking nits with the entire concept.

—Beth

I love the voice and place and physicality of this. I love the culminating battle using the characteristic experiences of the city as weapons to contribute to its survival: “To drive this lesson home I cut the bitch with LIRR traffic, long vicious honking lines; and to stretch out its pain I salt these wounds with the memory of a bus ride to LaGuardia and back.” That is writing that takes you where the writer wants you to go, even if you have no idea what LIRR is or why you might take a bus to LaGuardia.

I would like to accept the narrator’s characterisation as worldbuilding, but, being aware of the real world experience this draws from, can’t entirely do that. I found it unsettling. This reader (a middle aged, middle class, educated, white woman who is not from the US) has no fear of cops, nor, until fairly recently, any consciousness of that lack of fear as a privilege. Jemisin is one of the writers educating me in this regard, but it is not a pleasant process. (Nor is it one that every reader is willing to undertake: a comment on the website is from someone who does not want to read anything by Jemisin because the story disrespects cops.)

There are odd educated references that don’t quite work for me. “In my head, there’s an orchestra playing “Ode to Joy” with a Busta Rhymes backbeat.” Not consistent with the overall characterisation of the boy becoming York.

Should I be offended that London is not named as a living city?

—Caroline

I read this when it was first published. I nominated it for the Hugo, and if memory serves me right I put it first on my ballot. It's as good as I remember it: a raucous ode to New York City life, with a side order of marginalized-black-kid-makes-good power fantasy. It starts out engaging, then it turns suspenseful, and then is finally just fun. I've read that this is the "proof of concept" story for an urban fantasy series, just as "Stone Hunger" was a "proof of concept" for *The Broken Earth*. I eagerly await the series.

I do wonder whether Jemisin has read Leiber's *Our Lady of Darkness*: her woke cities are not a million miles away from his megapolisomancy. Could easily be independent invention, of course. She does a monthly Q&A for her Patreon supporters: I'll ask her.

—David G

I liked this story. I liked the pace and I liked the idea and I liked the conceit of it, that a city would one day, after a lengthy gestation, be born into the world.

That the main character of the story would be the midwife I did not accept so much. I didn’t like him so much and didn’t really want him to succeed. I wanted the city to make it without him. To me it seemed like he was a little too jolly about the process. He was coming from a dark place but his personality was not much informed or even influenced by his background. It felt like he was reading someone else’s story; he just wasn’t too believable. I also found the fight against the Enemy not compelling; I didn’t ever feel the city was really threatened.

Despite my inability to entirely suspend my disbelief I liked the story well enough and would read more by the same author, unless there were something by Harlan Ellison to read instead.

—David M

First off, as an old people, coming as I do from a time before Star Wars and related BS, I make a clear distinction between SF and fantasy, and this is the latter. No problem, I like both.

This is visceral, powerful stuff, that makes me want to seek out more by its author. The imagery is just a touch surreal, which I like, in a Harlan Ellison sort of way but not too much like Harlan, if you see what I mean.

If there’s a weak point, it’s the character(ization). Our young hero never quite gels for me, perhaps because he is, due to the very nature of the story, more of an archetype than a person. Yeah, there are little biographical facts here and there, but – well, maybe I’m just too white to appreciate his personhood as it needs to be appreciated. I dunno.

I don’t see anything content- or style-wise that couldn’t have come through in the sf of the 70s (I’m thinking Delany, Ellison, maybe Spinrad), but the fact is it didn’t, and it’s about time.

—Dan'l

The City Born Great is a title that tells you nothing and, at the same time, everything. An interesting and odd story, its built around a graffiti artist in the rough streets of home and one of the artist’s off-kilter friends. The story is told through the thoughts and actions of the artist.

I have a broad concept of genres so if you like to categorize, The City Born Great can also be fantasy, horror, or random explore-an-idea, according to the mood and interests of the reader.

I grew up reading full length books. Everything from my mother’s forbidden-to-8-year-olds adult section of the library, to anything my father let me take from his shelves, age appropriate or not. Image an 8-year-old happily attempting Asimov’s Foundation, curling up with John D MacDonald, and gleefully scaring the bejeebers out of herself with Cthulhu. This preamble is meant to explain why I found The City Born Great a bit too existential for my taste.

Then again, it could simply be I’m not accustomed to the different pacing of short stories

No matter, I hadn’t run across this particular plot before and I liked the concept. I’d love to read a full-on horror treatment in longer form.

Minus the existentialism 😉

—Katharine

I found this story intriguing, if a bit confusing at first. The narrator is a young gay black man, an artist, homeless and doing whatever he can just to get by in New York City. Somehow, he becomes the conduit by which the city achieves sentience. It's difficult to figure out whether his art is the catalyst for this, or whether the emergent new life form is the catalyst for his art. Perhaps it doesn't matter.

He is mentored by Paulo, who may in fact be the avatar of another sentient city. I never did quite figure out what the "enemy" was meant to embody, and there were hints about other cities that had achieved sentience, as well as some that failed. The concept would lend itself well to a larger work, though this tantalizing glimpse does manage to stand on its own.

—Karen

I'm not sure I'd call this story SF - it seems more like magic realism. The development of the character of the city seems to support this view as it morphs from the concrete to the organic. I enjoyed the journey as the changes were finite and discrete at first, and built up until they almost overwhelmed the story.

I found myself trying to build a picture of the first person narrator in my head. I'm not sure why it wouldn't stick; it might be because the characters of the person and the city were not always completely independent, or it might be a lack in me. I don't have much experience being a young black man.

I am in awe of Jemisin's talent. Not only can she build a comprehensive, self-consistent and original world, as she did in The Fifth Season, but her command of language and timing is very satisfying. In this story she takes time out to admire an adorable smart car, even in the midst of a hair raising chase across FDR Drive. Even as I was being horrified by the nightmare aspect of the Enemy, and its gruesome demise, I was charmed by Jemisin showing me another side of the protagonist and his appreciation of everything that makes up his city - even smart cars.

An author doesn't have time to develop much of anything in a short story - plot, characterization, background world building are presented with no depth or explanation, if they are presented at all. Genius in a short story is making these incomplete elements feel whole. I'm not sure if this story achieves that level, but if I don't believe the story is whole, I still find it quite satisfying.

This sort of story isn't new to SF; I've been reading stories like this and challenging whether they are SF for most of my life. This may not be a completely new approach, but it is quite beautifully done. I'm not sure I'd call it SF, but I am certain I will seek our more stories from N.K. Jemisin.

—Tina

When I read this short story, I did not know anything about N.K. Jemisin. After I read this short story, I bought a couple of her books. I'm reading the books. This is not a review of those books. I think it's only fair to tell you, dear reader, that when I read the author's note in /The Killing Moon/ ("beloved of cheese!"), I was elated. I felt like I used to decades ago when, in bookstores full of dust and cats, I found a used paperback with a yellow spine.

The art accompanying the story didn't give the main character's gender away. I was free to imagine the character as any gender at all or no gender. I missed the small clues the first time I read it—the pronoun, Apollo's belt. Males midwives are thin on the ground in literature. Socrates comes to mind.

Here's something else I love about "The City Born Great." Some of the characters are cities. The cities have everything that real people have, including body language. The author is as deft with body language as she is with other language. Cities have facial expressions. Their eyes are talkative. Paulo has cigarette breath.

When the story whirls into action, the monster is real. So is the fear and the laughter at its absurdity. And there's a happy ending.

I've finished the Dreamblood Duology. I'm about to re-read it for all the parts I missed the first time around.

—Lauren

This story really should have been my jam. I love cities, including New York City. And I think of cities as organisms. I remember walking the streets of Pittsburgh as a teenager, and feeling like I could sense the life flow of the city, a strange preconception for the traffic and pedestrians, how it all moved and fit together, bus schedules and school schedules and people moving in a complex dance. So, this story should have been my jam. It wasn't.

I liked the main character well enough, and the idea of a black gay man as midwife is lovely. There's a nice tension there between male and female. But the absence of the actual person giving birth broke the central image, for me. The biggest risk in child birth, to both mother and child, is that the physical work of giving birth is too great for the body tasked with that work. Outside predators are very low on the list of risks. Midwives, traditionally, help with the former, not so much with the latter.

Jemisin does some beautiful word play, and some of the details of being poor and black in NYC are evocative and powerful. But the central image just doesn't quite work.

—Lydy

First: If you want to read this story, don’t read Tor’s introduction, which tramples through the story’s imagery like an oblivious pedestrian’s muddy boot.

I’ve read all the Young People Read Old SF but this is my first Old People Read New SF and I wondered what tack to take. Should I view them as things that would have made me an SF fan if I’d read them at age 14, like the original “young people” test? I thought two conditionals was a bit much. Maybe I should just read the new SF as an old person and calculate how much I want it to get off my lawn? That’s more like it, but hampered a bit by the fact that unlike the Old SF read by the Young People, my authors are mostly still alive and internet savvy, and I don’t want to piss them off with half-baked alter kaker criticism.

Luckily this dilemma didn’t come into play with The City Born Great, which I liked a lot. Its premise: A young graffiti artist breathes life into New York City – literally. It’s the kind of story Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine might have run back in my day, except for the modern motif that the man, who is Black, has as much to fear from the police when drinking in a coffee shop as he has from the Nameless Horrors That Pursue Him, and at one point they’re even the same thing.

On the evidence of this story, Jemisin is one of those wordsmiths who knows all the rules for writing and can selectively break them for effect without sacrificing readability. It’s a joy to read and it wasn’t until after I’d finished that I began to wonder if a down-and-out young man on the streets would have the richness of experience to look at the world with quite the range and openness he displays here.

The idea of arterial roads as conduits for infection was powerful. A couple of quibbles – the ‘my water breaks’ pun was funny, but made me wonder why Jemisin chose a male protagonist, if he was giving birth to a city. He does say he’s the ‘midwife’ but also he does literally say ‘my water breaks’ and there’s no indication he’s trans. Surely Young SF can envision a female Basquiat? Or is that now cliché and we’ve gone back to male protagonists? It’s not a big issue but it did take me out of the story while I thought about it. Secondly, I wasn’t sure why the fetal city began to breathe before his waters broke. That’s not how any of this works dot jpg goes here. I guess the city’s lifecycle is different from ours. More explanation of how this city doula business works might have helped. Or maybe not.

Now I want to read about New Orleans, mentioned in the text. What’s her story?

—Lyle

There’s a novel’s worth of exuberant imagination and world-building – or at least notes for it -- in this story of how a city comes to life or vice versa, and its only flaws are those of extreme compression.

Call the narrator York. At the beginning he’s marginal, disaffected, just getting by on the streets of New York City. Paulo, a coffee-shop acquaintance who “seems older than he looks – way, way older,” urges York to listen harder to a sound the latter has already half-heard. Soon after, York’s graffiti begin to come alive, breathing for the walls and roofs they adorn. “You’re doing a good job, even without training,” Paulo encourages. “You are the catalyst.”

The catalyst, we soon learn, for the quickening and then birth of the city as a meta-organism. York is its midwife, its defender against… Something… that would prey on the newborn, and ultimately an avatar – as Paulo is of a Brazilian metropolis, and Paulo’s friend Hong is of… you get the picture.

These all-too-compact 6000 words begin epically: “I sing the city.” As a New Yorker half my life I’m inevitably reminded of all the New Yorks encoded in Samuel Delany’s fiction and explored in his memoirs, as well as of the more-than-bricks-and-mortar vitality of China Mieville’s New Crobuzon, or of the god-haunted cities of Max Gladstone’s Craft novels. If you like those, you’ll not only find much to admire in “The City Born Great.” You’ll join me in hoping that the prolific Jemisin finds time to expand it into the epic it cries out to be.

—Monte

This is a good solid piece of work-- one of the things I read sf for is altered states of consciousness, and being New York isn’t something available in ordinary life. There’s also intensity, and this story is very intense.

It reminds me of Fritz Leiber’s work, especially Our Lady of Darkness, a very different take on a city as a repository of occult force. The two-cop monster seemed very Leiberian.

It’s pure Joseph Campbell-- the call, the refusal, taking the task on, success, and bringing what’s learned back to other people, but doesn’t feel cliched.

I was expecting the bit about hiding among parasites to turn out to be hiding among rich people, but no, it was specifically the police. Perhaps that’s to make it alright for the narrator to end up rich.

The narrator’s gender was unspecified for most of the story and I was vaguely assuming female, but definitely turns out to be male.

—Nancy


I write the review.

Fucking review. I tap at the keyboard of a borrowed computer in an apartment my landlord is trying, incompetently, to evict me from, typing nonsense words at the internet as though they made sense. I write a sentence, then another, but they don't connect, so I rearrange the words and carry on typing. The internet'll figure it out.

As an old fart, I've read a lot of new SF over the years. I've slowed down in my reading habits, partly due to age, partly down to poverty. I haven't read much Jemisin; maybe a story in a Hugo packet, back when I could afford membership. I didn't know what to expect from this story.

Don Quixote was driven mad by his extensive library, I understand: over a hundred books. Another consequence of reading so much is that everything reminds you of something else. "The City Born Great" reminded me a little of some of Harlan Ellison's stories, but that might have been no more than a coincidence of exotic locale (don't laugh; to me as a Brit, New York has always seemed a fantasy land). The protagonist put me in mind of some of Delany's characters. The transmogrification of the city into a living being felt like Neil Gaiman crossed with the role-playing game Unknown Armies. The nightmarish pursuit across the city by the conjoined thing brought Bill Sienkiewicz visuals to my mind's eye.

I enjoyed the strangeness of this urban fantasy story, but in the end I was a little disappointed that I didn't get much of a feel for what made the birthed city different from the unbirthed one; what made the city greater than it was before.

—Nel C

This is the kind of story in which the authorial voice just hooks you from the opening paragraphs, and keeps that hook embedded all the way to the end: "And just to add insult to injury? I backhand its ass with Hoboken, raining the drunk rage of ten thousand dudebros down on it like the hammer of God."

The central idea - that in some vaguely defined way (which is precisely as much as it needed to be defined) cities can become living, gestalt entities, a process that is opposed by some equally vague but unmistakably Lovecraftian entities - is terrific, as is the sketched-in portrayal of the story's narrator. But despite all that, I found the narrative strangely distancing: in spite of some moments that should have been horrifying, I never really felt there was any doubt as to the outcome, or that the narrator was in real danger. I'm not entirely sure why. I don't think it was the choice of first-person narration; perhaps the title was too much of a give-away.

—PhilRM

Well, my first reaction is that this isn’t sci-fi, it is fantasy, but that’s all right – I read more fantasy these days. And I suppose S. F. is speculative fiction, anyway. Sorry. But you wanted old folks’ reactions.

And I see she just won a nebula for The Stone Sky – which I haven’t read, nor any of her other works that I recall.

My next reaction is that this piece is very well written. The story doesn’t sing to me, but that is my problem – it is a magical story presenting one person as embodying the essence of the city on top of (next to?) the individual’s gritty life. In the story, our hero invokes fantastical powers to defeat an attack by a similarly magical foe. I don’t see the relationship between the consequences and NYC history, but I live in Vermont. Or maybe it is just a story. I think that fight is the weakest part of the story for that reason – but it is fantasy. The best part of the story is the glimpses of the protagonist’s actual life – I hope the city has a way of picking another champion, because this one’s existence seems perilous.

But it ends 50 years later with the protagonist about to recruit someone to care for another city. The new recruit is definitely (per the pronoun) female – I am having trouble with the protagonist, but am leaning toward female. I suppose the important part is that it doesn’t make a difference to the story.

In sum, it is a fine story that I read only because I agreed to. The trip isn’t one that I would take on my own, but it was superbly conducted.

—Richard

I enjoyed this one more towards the end than the beginning (which is probably a no-brainer prediction for anyone who knows me). At first the protagonist, while in an unenviable position, doesn’t seem to have much to recommend him to my attention, either. But the hints of something going on behind the mundanity are enough to draw you along, and the slow change of the protagonist to someone that CARES despite all the sh*t they’ve had thrown on them, to someone who has pride in a city that spent most of its time stomping on him? That’s pretty impressive. The unexpected (at least until I got pretty close) climactic battle was really well done, with sharp imagery drawn from all the senses and a strong connection to the main character’s will and actions that allowed me to feel the battle pretty well, and understand the stakes involved. It was interesting seeing how the events of the … conceptual? Supernatural? world were reflected in the mundane world; to an extent it reminds me of the conflicts of the Ayakashi (“Phantoms”) and the Gods in Noragami. Had I read this years ago, before I was published, I might have found the overt and frequent reminders of the character’s race and social position sledgehammery. Now that I’ve had multiple books out in which it’s become clear that 90% of the readers don’t grasp that a given character ISN’T WHITE despite multiple descriptions telling you they’re not? Yeah, swing that sledgehammer all you like. A good story, and one that shows why N.K. Jemisin is a big name these days.

—Ryk

It wants to be read out loud. It starts softly and builds, a breeze becoming a gale, the force of language becoming too strong to just sit idly on the page. Get half way through and you will, must, finish it. And yet, there are eddies and counter currents. I found my attention wandering at times when the words seemed to be too proud, too much in love with themselves, not fully bending to support the story they are meant to serve. Not to say it is loose, but it isn’t as tight at it could be.

The concept intrigues, but lacks integration into the world presented. Given our narrator’s own indifference to the hows and whys, this isn’t a big flaw as it might be. Still, I found myself wondering about this preternatural war, and the lifecycle

of cities. We’re given a powerful glimpse of a moment of major transition. We don’t get to know the ongoing effects of the transition. Clearly, our hero succeeds. But what was the payoff; how does the newly born city change, and what would the penalty have been had the hero failed? We are given a big bowl of pungent urgency, but not a lot of the meat that is needed to form the foundation of a truly excellent meal.

That said, even if it isn’t a meal, it’s still a pinch of powerful snuff. I would read more of Jemisin’s work, though I would probably tend towards longer form fiction. Something with some serious world and character building to go along with that propulsive prose.

Overall, I did like it, and would enjoy reading it aloud for a group of friends.

—Sean

"I sing the city" makes me think of Walt Whitman. He celebrated the biological mechanism of the body, as Jemisin celebrates the partly-mechanical, partly-magical organism of her city, with vivid, specific, joyous sensory details. I love the idea of the city growing bigger, older, more complex, until it coheres into a self, a being whose parts can work together to carry out its intentions. I don't understand why a city would need one particular human being to be born, so much so that the city could be killed by killing its human. But I do like the idea that not all the life-forms that are vaster and more complex than us are eldritch horrors. Some of them would like to torture or devour us, some would destroy us without noticing, but some like having us as symbiotes.

—Susan

Is it possible to genuinely misunderstand a story?

Post-modernism says, more or less, that what you get out of a story, is what was in you, to see in it -- which suggests that, no: the concept “misunderstanding” is simply a ‘category mistake’ when it comes to reading stories.

On the other hand, if you wish to look for it (and I will not provide a link), there is a YouTube video out there somewhere, of Ray Bradbury testily replying to a member of the audience at some SF CON or other, that he was the author and so, no, the story under discussion in that panel does not have any reading other than whatever Mr. Bradbury intended — he wrote the damn story, thanks very much, period.

Which, if true, suggests that, “yes”: stories can be misunderstood.

I’ve started there, because I truly felt I did not understand The City Born Great. Worse, I don’t really know why I don’t.

True, I am an old, straight, upper-middle-class white Canadian male; while the story’s protagonist (or at least, its narrator, if New York City itself is the protagonist) is a destitute, young, black, gay, American street-kid. But as Terence, the playwright of the Roman Republic (fl. 170–160 BC) put it, Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto: “I am human, and so I consider nothing human alien to me.”

Moreover, I have the odd habit of wandering around Toronto with a camera, taking photographs of the “illegal street art” (i.e., graffiti); and as a High School teacher of twenty-plus years, I have had plenty of frank conversations with at least some Canadian black kids, about at least some aspects of their personal lives, in at least this particular city. Hypothetically, I should “relate’.
But, I feel I just don’t get this story.
For example, who or what is the antagonist (i.e., the aborning city’s “enemy”)? I did not understand. And its minion, the omnicop monster that chased the protagonist: hunh? I did not understand.

Or, as in the Ultraman episode where the kid’s magical chalk-monsters come to life and ravage Tokyo, I expected the graffiti-gives-life strand of the story to lead somewhere, but it vanished. I didn’t understand.

Moreover, the very, very-well-educated author {Footnote: (or so it turned out: I was tempted to click on the name-link of the author at the start, before reading, but decided not to, so as to read the story “blind”)} provides us with a narrator who speaks with a scope of knowledge and a depth of experience of life (beyond his city streets, I mean) which seemed wildly over-generous: inconsistent with what I know of the ravages of general ignorance, from my work as a teacher. And so again I didn’t understand. Was this an intention of the author? Or was it a meta-ironic function of her ignorance about ignorance?

And yet, I liked this story. I was glad the narrator survived, which means I must have cared about his fate. So, the “eight deadly words” did not apply to me, while reading this. But, I still don’t understand.

—Tim

As an intro to the Nicoll Old People Read New SF program of reading, The City Born Great couldn’t have been a smoother, more inviting experience. It reminds me very much of work by my favorite author, Emma Bull, and I wondered, since the story ends 50 years in the future, if the main part of the story was meant to be set in a recent past of the 80’s or 90’s. For instance: there is no mention of cell phones or drones. Thus, I’m not buried in Technology Run Maaaaad, which can be just boring. This is not a boring place: the people are interesting, and the world-building conceit is fleshed out sufficiently that it could easily be expanded into a novel-supporting structure.

Similar to Bull, The City Born Great is written by someone who loves their city, warts and all. The warts may make the author/narrator want to improve the city – but they would never even consider leaving their city to live anywhere else. There is a difference between city as scenery and city as a character, and when the city is treated as an entity by the other characters – those other characters become more interesting people.

The story also pays on a re-read – I didn’t realize that Paulo was the dirty jewel defender in my first read. It also made me dissatisfied with the midwife metaphor. I think of these city-birther people as more like avatars or spirit animals of their city. Each one is not their city itself, but rather a distilled concentrate. They are more like Pullman’s Daemons from His Dark Materials trilogy. And this makes me want a bigger story set in this world – I’d like to know what happens when a city that has been born – then dies.

I will seek out more works by N.K. Jemisin.

—April

This is an interestingly written and engaging story that isn’t quite my sort of thing. I don’t tend to like most first-person, present-tense narratives, and I almost always get restive at personifications of something as large and complicated as a city, even in fantasy. Jemisin’s deft handling of details and distinctive narrator voice made me almost buy it. I enjoyed going back and checking geographic details after figuring out what was going on. (Hints such as “Iike [Paulo’s] accent; it’s sort of nasal and sibilant, nothing like a Spanish-speaker’s” jumped out at me even on the first time through.) But the Enemy is inchoate and the narrator’s source of power is unclear. The metaphor of the midwife is doing too much work here. Nonetheless I enjoyed the story as a mood piece and look forward to hearing what people who know more of New York think of it.

—Helen

Jemisin is a wonderful writer, and this story about New York City soars with the rhythm of a city. That’s appropriate because the city itself is a leading character, and it turns out that our homeless, hungry, African-American protagonist is himself the midwife of that city, tasked with connecting to its essence and pulling its energies together to defeat an enemy. There’s magic here but it’s more like music, sung on the page with skill and economy, so that the reader is swept up in the drama. (This would be a great spoken-word piece.) There’s even humor, asides like “I go to museums sometimes. They’re cool inside, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is hot.”)

In other words, I liked it, and based on this reading will seek out Jemisin’s longer works. In passing, I do wish that sometimes when authors want to write about a city, they pick somewhere other than New York. What if Indianapolis had a soul? Or Phoenix? Still, that is a minor quibble compared to the beauty of Jemisin’s work. New York’s realness – traffic, racism, poverty, graffiti, sex, coffee, art – becomes a song sung through a spray-painted throat.

—Patricia

Comments

  • Carl F

    James, honestly ... too many oldsters. The opinions just got repetitive, aside from the not-very-disguised Ryk Spoor's unique comments.

  • Kathy Routliffe

    I notice there are more oldsters here than youngsters in your other series; it doesn't bother me, since I'm old and self-centered myself. I was amused at the "this is fantasy, not SF" comments. I gave that war up long ago. It's all rock and roll to me. I didn't feel the need for further explanation of anything that went on in the story, which could mean that a) I'm a cheap date when it comes to something I love, b) she did Short Story right or c) both. If she were to write another city, though, I'd read it in a New York minute. Ahem. I read this story a while back, and loved it from the git-go. I think I remember reading bits of it to my Best Beloved, because they hit me so beautifully hard. I fell in love with Jemison's work late, but deep.

  • Carl F

    James, your comment system, at least for my version of Firefox, is broken. Clicking Reply on Kathy's message just scrolls to the top of the page.

    Kathy, I'm also older than the youngsters, I was just bugged by the repetitive nature of the comments. It felt redundant.

    The "Not SF" comments seemingly came from people too old to know what "SFF" stands for. Interestingly, that group should not exist, since Ray Feist or Dorothy Heydt can attest that they, indeed, know that initialism.

  • James Davis Nicoll

    I lack the technical expertise to fiddle with the comments software.

    I am comfortable with my current array of reviewers and the results it produces.