“For a society built on oppression, there is no greater threat than having no one left to oppress,” N.K. Jemisin writes in her epic fantasy novel The Stone Sky.
Mainstream fantasy often trips lightly over internal social oppression. J.R.R. Tolkien doesn’t examine how commoners in Middle Earth feel about the perks of hereditary kingship. J.K. Rowling mostly treats house elf enslavement as a joke. Game of Thrones is never quite sure whether it’s criticizing its violent misogyny or reveling in it.
N.K. Jemisin is different. Her Broken Earth trilogy, concluding with The Stone Sky, is about a world subject to violent geological upheavals, which periodically upend civilization. The quakes are partially caused by orogones, individuals with an innate ability to control the earth. Rather than being honored for their power, the orogones are hated, feared, attacked, and enslaved by the government. Alabaster, the most powerful orogone on the planet, and Essun, the book’s protagonist, finally manage to escape and form a polyamorous family with a sexy pirate. (Fantasy needs more sexy pirates.) When the rulers of the world murder their child, Alabaster unleashes a massive earthquake, threatening to destroy all life on the planet.
“Some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place,” Jemisin writes.
The Broken Earth, refers to earthquakes and geological disruption. But it also refers to injustice; the earth (in fantasy and seemingly reality) is “broken” because it is inequitable, cruel, and unjust. Fantasy, for Jemisin, is a way to think about the cost, and necessity, of fixing it. I talked to Jemisin by phone about how fantasy worlds open up when you include the perspectives of the marginalized.
How is mainstream fantasy limited when it focuses almost exclusively on white characters and white stories?
It limits it in that you’re trying to depict the full spectrum of human imagination. Which is kind of what fantasy is supposed to be about. But often you really only have the imagination of people who share a fairly similar set of experiences and things like that. And when that’s the case you’re going to end up with a fairly limited imaginative depiction.
The focus on Medieval Europe is the most common example of this. You see literally thousands of fantasy novels set in Medieval Europe, starring white guys. Most fantasy novels present the typical straight white male power fantasy of an unimportant person who is found to be special and then gets a phallic object, usually a big sword-like thing that they name. I don’t know why it needs to have a name, I don’t know the point of the naming thing. But it’s common, so it’s got to be some weird psycho-social stuff going on there. And you see that over and over again, the same story.
There’s nothing wrong with the story in itself. It’s just that you want to see power fantasies from some other people, where maybe the protagonists isn’t interested in getting a sword and naming it and polishing it.
I think fantasy like Tolkien is often about an invading evil, and then fighting to restore the status quo. You seem more attracted to stories about overthrowing the status quo. Is that right?
When the status quo is Nazi Germany, yeah. If the status quo is relative peace and stability without creepy gender essentialist, eugenicist, or a bunch of other disgusting messages—if you’re talking about a status quo that is actually safe and comfortable for all people, yeah it’s fine. It’s just that that’s not always what you get. Even in fantasy in a lot of cases, you’ll see stories about restoring the monarchy. That’s great for the monarchy, that’s fantastic for the nobility. Do the common people give two shits? Probably not.
So is revolution a good thing? Your novels sometimes seem ambivalent about it.
It depends. [laughs] You know, a revolution can go so many different ways. It depends on which status quo you’re trying to reestablish. If you’re talking about an oppressive regime, which in a lot of cases in my fiction you usually are, yeah I’m wrestling with the question of, “How do you overcome that?” Is there a peaceful way to do that? If you go to war to do it, people get hurt. I’m not ambivalent; as far as I’m concerned, that’s just realistic. People are going to get hurt. A whole lot of bad things are going to happen. But sometimes that’s necessary. Sometimes the only way to get rid of oppressive systems is to do whatever is necessary. It’s just that it’s going to be ugly. It’s never going to be like a fairy tale.
So is Alabaster heroic when he destroys the world in The Broken Earth?
Alabaster basically was the Sauron of the book. No one sees him as that, because he’s an empathetic Sauron and you understand why he did what he did. That said, at the end of the day, he killed a whole lot of people. He destroyed the world. Was that a good thing? Was that necessary?
That’s the point of the series is to ask that question and consider it from multiple perspectives. I’m not going to give a simple answer because there isn’t a simple answer. The world needed some changing. The world was horrible for a specific group of people.
I do make the point over and over in the series that not everybody had to suffer. They could have established a world where everyone was relatively safe and happy. Instead, they chose a world where some people got to be happy and other people suffered. So Alabaster argued we’re all going to have one thing or the other. We’re either going to all have peace or we’re all going to suffer. And since you’re not willing to all have peace, then pain it is.
And then through Essun’s perspective, she’s going to chew on the question, is that the right thing to do? Who knows? At the end of the day I want to give multiple answers. At the end of the third book there is a conclusion that it’s possible for there to be hope moving forward. The world could still go horribly, horribly wrong. I hope it doesn’t. But Essun believes there’s something in the world worth preserving. It’s not completely altruistic; the thing that was worth preserving was her daughter. But that’s something.
Did you write this before Trump was elected?
I wrote the rough draft before Trump got elected, and I did revisions after he got elected.
Did that affect the writing of the book?
No. I mean, Trump is the latest manifestation of a problem that’s existed in our country for 400 years. A resurgence of the same. It’s always been there.
What’s your next project? What are you working on now?
I’ve already broken ground on my next series, which I’m planning to be a trilogy, but we’ll see. It will be based on a short story I did through tor.com called “The City Born Great”. It’s going to be set in New York, so I need to do a lot more research on New York. To boil it down, it’s about a group of people who embody the spirit of the city of New York. And they raise the city up into a kind of metaphysical entity that will help to fight against basically Cthulhu.
So if you’re using Cthulhu, are you an H.P. Lovecraft fan?
Oh, hell no.
This is deliberately a chance for me to kind of mess with the Lovecraft legacy. He was a notorious racist and horrible human being. So this is a chance for me to have the “chattering” hordes—that’s what he called the horrifying brown people of New York that terrified him. This is a chance for me to basically have them kick the ass of his creation. So I’m looking forward to having some fun with that.