- An Apocalypse is a Relative Thing:An Interview with N. K. Jemisin
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N. K. JEMISIN is one of the most inventive speculative fiction writers working today. Writing against the flattened social worlds that are typical of much canonical science fiction and fantasy, she creates fictional worlds that are alive to and structured by questions of race, gender, sexuality, and class to produce profound meditations on the nature of power, violence, resistance, and solidarity. Her three series of novels—The Inheritance Trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms , The Broken Kingdoms , The Kingdom of Gods ); The Dreamblood (The Killing Moon , The Shadowed Sun ); and The Broken Earth (The Fifth Season , The Obelisk Gate , The Stone Sky )—have been nominated for Hugo, Nebula, Locus, World Fantasy, and James Tiptree Jr. awards, among others. In 2016, JEMISIN became the first [End Page 467] Black person to win the Best Novel Hugo for The Fifth Season, the first novel in The Broken Earth series; in 2017, she won again for the series' second novel, The Obelisk Gate; in 2018, The Stone Sky was also awarded the Best Novel Hugo, making JEMISIN the first person to win the Hugo three years in a row and the first person to win for all of the books in a series.
While set in radically different universes and narrated from many different perspectives, each of her series of novels describes a world structured by violently instituted hierarchies of power; each series in turn features characters who struggle to defeat not only violent situations but also the institutional and social structures that produce that violence as part of their everyday operations. As readers, we accompany Jemisin's characters as they discover that the social reality they have taken to be the natural order of things is built upon a historical seizure of power by the ruling class, and that the maintenance of that social reality is built upon the ongoing sacrifice of the lives and freedoms of the dispossessed. Revelatory without being allegorical and political without being didactic, Jemisin's novels offer a speculative critique of the present that entrains readers to see the deep structures of oppression that shape our own world and to imagine practices of resistance and alternative forms of social organization.
Jemisin's most recent series, The Broken Earth trilogy, imagines a world tens of thousands of years from now in which a society in the distant past has destroyed the geological stability of the Earth in an attempt to harness unlimited energy from its core. Humans now live in small societies, or "comms," structured according to the demands of surviving "Fifth Seasons," geological apocalypses that regularly threaten the survival of the species. Orogenes, born with the capacity to manipulate rock and geological energy, are held and bred by the ruling society as a feared and hated slave class. Complicating the temporal structure of apocalypse [End Page 468] as a singular event, apocalypse in The Broken Earth series is simultaneously a past cataclysm, a regular occurrence, and a looming future; apocalypse, here, becomes the "fifth season," a rupture in the natural order of time that is simultaneously a part of a new natural order defined by an endlessly repeating set of disasters. In this world, one whose every aspect is shaped by apocalypse, altruism and community have become the only ways for humanity to survive—even as humanity's fear and hatred of orogenes position them outside of the community that must be defended. As the orogenes seek their freedom in ways that may spell the end of humanity, Jemisin asks us to consider what is at stake in defending a world built on cruelty and oppression—and what is at stake in ending it.
Jessica Hurley and N. K. Jemisin spoke on the telephone in November 2017 to talk about sci-fi, history, oppression, resistance, the planetary scale, and the role of apocalypse in the work of liberation. What follows is an adapted transcript based on that conversation.1
Since the audience...