Changing the Lore

N.K. Jemisin is reimagining other worlds, and ours.

N.K. Jemisin.
N.K. Jemisin. Laura Hanifin

When N.K. Jemisin won the Hugo Award for Best Novel earlier this year, she became the only author to ever win science fiction’s most prestigious prize three years in a row. In 2016, with the first of those Hugos, Jemisin had already made history by becoming the first black author to win the award, but her three-peat—for all three volumes of her astonishing fantasy trilogy The Broken Earth—was a game-changer for a genre that has been overwhelmingly white and male for far too long. Her follow-up to The Broken Earth, a new collection of short fiction titled How Long ’til Black Future Month?, confirms that she’s one of science fiction and fantasy’s finest world-builders, but her work is also changing those genres in important ways: Jemisin’s writing is making space in science fiction and fantasy to better reflect—and to reimagine—the world in which we live.

The Broken Earth is set on an Earth-like planet that is constantly subjected to large-scale seismic and volcanic events. The people of this land, which is called the Stillness, live in constant fear that an Angry Father Earth will unleash an environmental disaster strong enough to trigger a Fifth Season, a prolonged winter of hardship that can last anywhere from a decade to thousands of years. The Broken Earth is a resonant and cautionary work of climate fiction at a time when hurricanes, floods, and wildfires are pummeling the globe. Disaster preparedness is the organizing principle for people of the Stillness; they build for survival among the technological remains (the “deadciv”) of a long-dead civilization, which includes large mysterious obelisks that hover above them in the sky.

Among the people of the Stillness are orogenes, people born with the ability to harness and control kinetic, thermal, and other forms of energy. They alone can quell the seismic and volcanic events that threaten the Stillness. But orogeny is illegal, and orogenes (referred to as the derogatory term “roggas” by most people in the Stillness) are regarded as less than human. Orogenes are hunted down throughout the Stillness; those that aren’t killed are enslaved by the secret order of Guardians. Even more powerful than orogenes or Guardians are stone-eaters, a humanoid species that resembles stone statues and that rarely interacts with other beings in the Stillness.

Jemisin’s series centers on the story of Essun, a 42-year-old village schoolteacher who has been hiding her identity as an orogene. The Fifth Season begins with the shattering of two worlds: Essun’s husband discovers that their children are orogenes, kills the youngest, and kidnaps their daughter Nassun; and the Stillness experiences an earthquake so powerful that it triggers the worst Fifth Season the planet has ever experienced. Jemisin immerses readers in the world of the Stillness: the journey that Essun sets off on to find her daughter propels the narrative, but Jemisin tells the story through multiple points of view and from multiple points in time. It’s an ambitious task to balance complicated world-building, a well-paced plot, and a range of fully distinctive characters, let alone to do so over the course of three novels. Jemisin deftly keeps all the plates spinning. After you finish The Broken Earth, it’s worth reading the trilogy a second time to see how she does it.

At the heart of this achievement is Jemisin’s portrayal of Essun, a character drastically different from most fantasy/sci-fi protagonists: a powerful, middle-aged woman of color; a mother struggling with grief; a survivor of trauma who is also a mass murderer. Though other characters’ stories are narrated through conventional first- or third-person points of view, Jemisin tells Essun’s story in second person, eventually revealing that she is being told her own history by someone else.

The voice reminds readers of our distance from Essun but also puts us in her place as we read all those yous. It turns the narrative into a powerful act of empathy for Essun, a compelling but very challenging character. That second-person move is just one of Jemisin’s many daring creative choices that pay off as the trilogy progresses.

High fantasy is still dominated by worlds reimagined from European history, worlds where birthright and nobility and hero quests dominate. When people of color appear in these worlds, they’re often exoticized or demonized, or worse yet, part of some dark-skinned savage horde that white protagonists have to defeat. With The Broken Earth, Jemisin is writing back to the genre, constructing a truly multiracial world and moving the marginalized to the center of it. Jemisin knows that most readers will “read” the races of the Stillness based on our own cultural contexts, and she has built complexity into the racial markings of her characters. Although pale-skinned people appear throughout the trilogy, the majority of the main characters are brown-skinned, including Essun. Orogeny occurs across the Stillness; it does not correlate with any specific racial markings. Yet orogenes are considered a different and inferior race of sorts, by non-orogenes of all racial groups.

The Broken Earth invites readers to identify with orogenes, Guardians, and stone-eaters, all of whom are bound up in a structure of oppression they inherited. In Book 2, The Obelisk Gate, Jemisin introduces us to Nassun, Essun’s 8-year-old daughter, who is on the road with her father as he searches for a way to “cure” his daughter of her orogeny. Nassun’s story is particularly affecting, as she struggles to understand the adults who are supposed to take care of her: a mother who trains her to survive but who can’t seem to express love, a father whose affection is contingent on her becoming something she can’t be, and a Guardian who gives her the comfort her parents are unable to. One of the most moving things about the trilogy is the way Jemisin explores the impact of structural oppression on parents and children—how the pressure to keep her children alive in a world hostile to their existence drives Essun, and how Nassun experiences that pressure as a child.

Both Essun and Nassun separately begin to understand how the obelisks, the Guardians, and the stone-eaters are part of a much older history, one that has resulted in both the Fifth Seasons and the orogenes. As events unfold in the trilogy’s final volume, The Stone Sky, both mother and daughter realize they can wield their orogeny to end the suffering, albeit via different means: Essun resolves to save the world, while Nassun only desires to end it. Their reunion is a battle, all the more devastating because the stakes are both intimate and existential. The storytelling of the novels themselves begins to feel almost geological: Jemisin slowly peels back the layers of structural oppression in the Stillness, revealing how deep it goes.

Jemisin is known for writing at epic scale—she had two other fantasy series under her belt before The Broken Earth—but she’s a forceful writer in short form, too. Her collection How Long ’til Black Future Month? makes a fitting companion to The Broken Earth, and not only because it contains “Stone Hunger,” the short story Jemisin wrote to test out the world of the Stillness. These stories, written over the past 10 years, illuminate the work Jemisin put into shaping a voice that can so confidently take on a whole genre.

The volume begins with a provocation: In “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” Jemisin reimagines Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” Le Guin’s original details a glimmering utopian city and then reveals that it is contingent on an act of cruelty: the imprisonment and suffering of a single child. When citizens of the city learn about the child, some of them choose to walk away to an unknown place. Le Guin’s story is designed to prompt a moral debate. By contrast, the utopia of Jemisin’s story is contingent on stopping the spread of the idea that people are unequal. Even the knowledge that some might believe that people are unequal is forbidden, and those who spread it must be eliminated. It’s a canny update, but Jemisin isn’t interested in the debate: She invites those who would walk away to stay and fight instead, with full knowledge of the cost.

Two stories take up that idea of who gets to embody and fight for the spirit of a place, for the well-being of a community. In “The City, Born Great,” a young black street artist is chosen to help give birth to New York City as an entity, a living, sentient, collective being. (It’s a very messy birth.) In “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters,” a terrible monster rides a flood of hate into New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and a young hurricane survivor joins forces with a group of dragons to defend the city. In Jemisin’s writing, moving the margins to the middle gives us new ways to imagine the whole, and the threats we face are often monsters we make ourselves.

Resilience, adaptation, and change: These are themes that Jemisin takes up in a wide range of stories. In the Hugo-nominated “Non-Zero Probabilities,” New Yorkers have to figure out how to live their lives when highly improbable events become commonplace. And in “On the Banks of the River Lex,” a melancholic Death wanders a post-apocalyptic New York until he figures out how to adapt himself to different species. “Red Dirt Witch,” about a mother in the segregated South who uses folk magic to protect her family from a child-stealing White Lady, is a fairy story as well as a contemplation on how black resistance changes the world.

In The Broken Earth, the folklore and legends of the Stillness are written in stone, ostensibly so they cannot be lost as the ground shakes, but also so they cannot be changed. But stonelore writes the fates of the orogenes into stone, too, by imagining them as monsters to be exploited or killed. Even most orogenes believe the lore, and reject the idea of trying to change it. “You can’t change stonelore,” one of them protests. “The lorists tell stories of what happens when people—political leaders or philosophers or well-meaning meddlers of whatever type—try to change the lore. Disaster inevitably results.”

It’s hard to read those words and not think about the way fantasy and science fiction have moved to the mainstream of pop culture in recent years, and the way we increasingly turn to it during these times of polarizing political strife and climate change. Fantasy and science fiction have always been more than escapist pleasures, but even more so right now, when we’re hungry for new and fantastical worlds that can explore and ameliorate the challenges we’re facing in our own.

It’s perhaps not a surprise then that a particularly insidious strain of cultural conservatism has taken root in fantasy and science fiction in the past few years, led by predominantly white men trying to push back women and writers of color. Guys who don’t want anyone but themselves imagining what’s possible. But these genres are rapidly leaving those guys behind. N.K. Jemisin has changed the lore.