Author N.K Jemisin Builds New Worlds. But She Wants Us to Save This One

sci-fi-novel-interview.jpg New York City - Credit: Adobe Stock
sci-fi-novel-interview.jpg New York City - Credit: Adobe Stock

N.K Jemisin knows how to build a new world. An award-winning fiction writer, Jemisin has made a name for herself for her world-building prowess in fantasy lands. Her Broken Earth trilogy, a science fantasy series surrounding an otherworldly apocalyptic event, became the first set of novels to be awarded three consecutive Hugo Awards, the premier award in science fiction writing. But the books (and Jemisin) also received critical acclaim for the skillful way they weave real-world problems into the lore of the book—something Jemisin tells Rolling Stone is a hallmark of her work.

“Every single book I’ve written, even if it’s in a secondary world, is engaging with the stuff that I am processing in the moment,” Jemisin tells Rolling Stone. “With The Broken Earth series, it was me, simultaneously processing the early stages of that descent into fascism that we’re kind of at right now, while also processing preemptive grief that I was feeling as I began to realize my mother was deteriorating.”

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In 2020, Jemisin released The City We Became, a tight-knit exploration into gentrification, xenophobia, racism, and more surrounding one central question: what if our cities were people? Veering widely from the unrecognizable landscape of her earlier fantasy novels, The City We Became sets itself in a New York that is forced to band together, borough by borough, to keep its very essence from being erased. The book’s central villain is a sprawling infection that can move from person to person. And in the height of Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, the plotline became ultra-specific to the moment in a way Jemisin hadn’t planned.

With the release of the second book, The World We Make, one could expect Jemisin to lean in further to the bits of reality that are pinning the work to the present moment. And while some aspects remain the same, the book speeds up where readers expect it to dig in, neutralizing the villain and allowing its characters to simply dwell in a bright but potentially tenuous future. Jemisin said that the reality of her work, all of the bigotry and racism, and gentrification that she was seeing in American politics prevented her from writing another book in the series. Now, she’s not sure if she’ll ever write a full novel set in our world ever again. But the author tells Rolling Stone that while her future is focused on fantasy lands, she’s hopeful that readers of The World We Make will still see a New York they recognize.

“When I wrote the first book of the series, it was pre-Covid. But as the book came out, I saw hints of that early New York again. The seven o’clock clap where people would come out on the rooftop and bang pots and pans to show support for healthcare workers,” Jemisin tells Rolling Stone. “I was just trying to show that New York, that helping, risk-taking, ‘We’ll fight you if you mess with us,’ New York. And I think that New York will continue to exist.”

The day before the book’s premiere, Jemisin spoke to Rolling Stone about how Donald Trump stole the plot to her second book, racism in the science fiction community, and why she doesn’t consider her book a true love letter to New York.

In the CODA of the book, you talk about the difficulties of writing it, specifically using the phrase “your creative energy failed under the onslaught of reality.” Could you talk a little bit more about how that impacted your writing process and why you ended up changing the series to a duology instead of a trilogy?

When I first pitched the trilogy to Orbit, I had a basic plot in mind for all three books. One of the plot elements that I had in mind for the second book was going to be New York versus a president, who was a demagogue who decided to attack New York and vilify it in order to advance himself politically. And then Donald Trump did that. So at that point, I was like, ‘I refuse to share a plot with that person.’ Trump stole my plot. And then, at that point, I also had to process the fact that this was supposed to be a light-hearted comedic series, you know, despite the fact that it’s getting into serious stuff like gentrification and so on, but it was initially intended to be a palate cleanser after The Broken Earth series. That was why I pitched it.

But it was hard to be light-hearted and comedic in my heart and in my head as I still am watching the country descend into proto-fascism or straight-up fascism. America has always been a little bit like that, but it’s getting worse, and watching that was eroding the mood that I needed to be in to work on all three books. So I decided to kind of cut my losses. There is a dangling plot element in case the urge to write the third book ever comes back. I wrote that on purpose because I can never predict what my creativity is gonna take me toward. So I like to leave a little lock that I can turn the key on at some point in the future.

In the first book, you made a large metaphor about Covid-19 before anyone knew Covid was going to even exist. And with the second book still having a narrative plan that ends up being so close to real life, do you think that speaks to a cyclical nature in society?

I think that science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction are never really that speculative. They are actually about whatever’s going on in the moment. So you know, when you read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where he’s stressing about drug use, and sexual liberalism progressing to the point that sex stops having meaning — that was what he was worried about as a person observing the sexual revolution unfolding. That’s how speculative fiction always works. It’s about whatever you’re engaging with.

The problem is that what I’m engaging with right now is the country’s return to fascism, the rise of racism, and the rise of bigotry altogether, and it’s still in process. So I’m trying to kind of keep up with something that is a moving target.  I’ve decided, as a result of this, I’m probably not going to write a whole lot of stuff set in the real world in the future anymore. Outside of short stories. It’s a lot easier to write a secondary world, non-Earth, nonpresent stuff where I can make up the world and control it.

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen pushback from racist subsections of science fiction groups (like fans of the new Lord of the Rings show). Do you think there’s a tension between science fiction works as they were created and a particular kind of fan that ends up latching on but can’t reconcile that their favorite fantasy world is also talking about reality?

There have always been people who were bad at critical thinking, and there are a lot of people who never learned how to think critically about their entertainment. They simply prefer not to. So what we’re seeing is people who are suddenly confronted with the fact that fantasy, science fiction, and horror have always been about the real world. HG Wells was doing it, Frankenstein was doing it, and none of this is new.

It’s even more amusing to kind of watch the freakouts about Star Trek, where you see people who are constantly like, ‘When the heck did Star Trek get all social justice?’  And I’m like, ‘Where have you been?’ But with the Lord of the Rings, that was Tolkien processing his own experiences in the 30s and 40s, dealing with World War One. He was processing classes, and he was processing anti-war sentiment, religion, and so on. People who are insisting that the Lord of the Rings was never about this kind of stuff never read it thoroughly, or they never understood what Tolkien was really doing. And now that they’re seeing some of it on screen, it is hitting them in the face.

When you read The World We Make, it’s clear that while the characters are waging physical battles, the underlying themes are a critique of the pervasiveness of racism and xenophobia. How do you balance the story needing a conclusion and a victor when many of the real-world battles aren’t something that can just easily be won?

Some of it is just what I want to see and what I hope for. It’s also what I have seen in smaller iterations of the same kinds of battles. People are mostly good. I am trying to remind myself of that as I write that the dissenting voices are still a minority, even though they seem like this insurmountable gigantic group of people. The bigots and the racists have always been the minority in our society. Now, they tend to get into positions of power and make their will felt anyway. So I’m trying to constantly remind myself that people mostly come together. It’s hard to say what will happen. But on some level, when I am processing these things that are happening in the real world, and I decide to go with a happy ending, some of it is wish fulfillment. And some of it is that I’ve got to make the world I want to see. I’ve got to speak it into existence if I want it to happen.

Would you consider the book a love letter to New York? Or just an observation, like ‘I opened my window, and this is what I saw?’

I would go with, ‘I open my window, and this is what I see.’ You know, I believe that you can love a thing by critiquing it and critiquing means you take into account both the good and the bad. The fact that one of the boroughs is effectively a quisling against the others for a while — that’s also something I see when I look out my window, but it’s still New York.

I built Panfilo, the mayoral opposition in the book, out of several different New York politicians that exist right now. This is not new. But I also wanted to show the sort of people who embody that positive, generous, will-fight spirit. I want to show them pushing back against that gentrifying reactionary, bigoted spirit because that’s also what I’ve seen all my life. I’m playing with reality, but at the end of the day, I want this to be a New York that people recognize, and for the most part, I think it is.

What do you hope readers get when they read the book?

I hope they get a good story. That’s all I ever want. At the end of the day, I tell stories. According to my father, when I was a child, I would tell stories to my young cousins and so forth to keep them quiet. I don’t know if that was self-defense or just the burgeoning writer in me, but it’s just a thing I’ve always done. And that’s what I continue to always try to do.

Do you think there’s ever a time you won’t consider yourself a storyteller anymore? 

I don’t think that’s possible. I think that’s what I was born to do. Maybe there are other things I was born to do in this world, but that is, that’s who I am and what I am. When I die, I’ll stop being a storyteller then. But who knows? Maybe people tell stories about me afterward. I suppose that’s sort of a secondary effect. We’ll see.

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