N.K. Jemisin and the Politics of Prose

A conversation with the recent Hugo Award-winner about science fiction, race, gender, power, and Trumpism

Laura Hanifin / Hachette / Zachary Bickel / The Atlantic

Last week, the World Science Fiction society named N.K. Jemisin the first black writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, perhaps the highest honor for science-fiction and fantasy novels. Her winning work, The Fifth Season, has also been nominated for the Nebula Award and World Fantasy Award, and it joins Jemisin’s collection of feted novels in the speculative fiction super-genre. Even among the titans of black science-fiction and fantasy writers, including the greats Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, Jemisin’s achievement is singular in the 60-plus years of the Hugos.

The Fifth Season is a stunning piece of speculative-fiction work, and it accomplishes the one thing that is so difficult in a field dominated by tropes: innovation, in spades. A rich tale of earth-moving superhumans set in a dystopian world of regular disasters, The Fifth Season manages to incorporate the deep internal cosmologies, mythologies, and complex magic systems that genre readers have come to expect, in a framework that also asks thoroughly modern questions about oppression, race, gender, class, and sexuality. Its characters are a slate of people of different colors and motivations who don’t often appear in a field still dominated by white men and their protagonist avatars. The Fifth Season’s sequel, 2016’s The Obelisk Gate, continues its dive into magic, science, and the depths of humanity.

Just a year ago, the idea of a novel as deliberately outside the science-fiction norm as The Fifth Season winning the Hugo Award seemed unlikely. In 2013, a small group of science-fiction writers and commentators launched the “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies” campaigns to exploit the Hugo nomination system and place dozens of books and stories of their own choosing up for awards. Those campaigns arose as a reaction to perceived “politicization” of the genre—often code for it becoming more diverse and exploring more themes of social justice, race, and gender—and became a space for some science-fiction and fantasy communities to rail against “heavy handed message fic.” Led by people like the “alt-right” commentator Vox Day, the movements reached fever pitch in the 2015 Hugo Award cycle, and Jemisin herself was often caught up in the intense arguments about the future of the genre.

I spoke to Jemisin about her works, politics, the sad puppies controversy, and about race and gender representation in science-fiction and fantasy the day before The Fifth Season won the Hugo Award. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Vann R. Newkirk II: Tell me more about the creative process that goes into this trilogy. This seems like a huge undertaking.

N.K. Jemisin: It is, and this is the first time that I’ve ever done one continuous story all the way through three books. Trilogies are relatively easy when each story is a self-contained piece, which I’ve done for all of my previous books. I have a lot of new respect for authors who do like giant unending trilogies just because this is hard. It’s a lot harder than I thought it was. But I’m enjoying it so far. It’s a solid challenge. I like solid challenges. I had some moments when I was writing the first book where I was just sort of, “I don’t know if I can do this.” Fortunately I have friends who are like, “What’s wrong with you? Snap out of it!” And I moved on and I got it done and I’m very glad with the reception. I’m shocked by the reception, but I’m glad for it.

Newkirk: You’re shocked by the reception? This seems like something that is tailor-made to be a hit right now.

Jemisin: Ehh. You may have seen some of the stuff that’s been happening in the genre in terms of pushback, reactionary movements and so forth. Basically, the science-fiction microcosmic version of what’s been happening on the large-scale political level and what’s been happening in other fields like with Gamergate in gaming. It’s the same sort of reactionary pushback that is generally by a relatively small number of very loud people. They’re loud enough that they’re able to convince you that the world really isn’t as progressive as you think it is, and that the world really does just want old-school 1950s golden-age-era stalwart white guys in space suits traveling in very phallic-looking spaceships to planets with green women and … they kind of convince you that that’s really all that will sell. Told in the most plain didactic language you can imagine and with no literary tricks whatever because the readership just doesn’t want that.

Newkirk: For you, are those people something that bothers you as you build a profile? Are people louder now that The Fifth Season is getting so much love?

Jemisin: They may be, but I’m not hearing them as much. I seem to have passed some kind of threshold, and maybe it’s something as simple as I now have so many positive messages coming at me that the negatives are sort of drowned out. As a side note, the so-called boogeyman of science-fiction, the white supremacist asshat who started the Rabid Puppies, Vox Day, apparently posted something about me a few days ago and I just didn’t care. There was a whole to-do between me and him a few years back where he ended up getting booted out of SWFA [Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America] because of some stuff he said about me, and I just didn’t care. It was a watershed moment at that point but now it’s just sort of, “Oh, it’s him again. He must be needing to get some new readers or trying to raise his profile again. Or something.” I didn’t look at it. No one bothered to read it and dissect it and send me anything about it. No one cared.

I think that’s sort of indicative of what’s happening. To some degree, as I move outside of the exclusive genre audience, the exclusive genre issues don’t bother me as much. Maybe that’s just speculation. I’m reaching a point where I’m still hearing some of it, but it’s just not as loud, or maybe it’s just focusing on different points. I don’t know. It’s still there. It’ll be there. I think that the Hugo ceremony at this upcoming WorldCon is going to be another not-as-seminal moment as last year when the Puppies tried a takeover that was somewhat more successful at the nominating stage and where they got smacked down roundly at the actual voting stage with no award after no award. I don’t think that’s going to happen this year, and I don’t think it matters as much. But who knows? I’ll guess we’ll see. If I win I’ll be happy. If I don’t win, I’ll be happy. I’ll continue to write.

Newkirk: I talked a lot with Ken Liu last year a lot when it happened [his translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel], and he said all that stuff sort of loses its power over time, because it’s reactionary. It’s something where the facts and your audience numbers don’t really lie.

Jemisin: Reactionary movements can’t sustain themselves unless they find something new to catch and burn on. And when they keep using the same tactics over and over again, I don’t know that that’s sustainable. Or they’ll burn themselves out when they reach the point of, I guess, Donald Trumpism, for lack of a better description. They reach some point where it’s no longer a reactionary movement, some demagogue tries to take the lead and make it all about them. And at that point it becomes clear that it’s just some kind of petty narcissistic thing, and I think that’s what kills it. But we’ll see, both at the Hugos level and in the polls in November.

Newkirk: There are some very strong allegories in both books and they also play alongside an actual effort to build in racial critiques in a fantasy world. It’s weird to me how uncommon that is in a lot of people’s perspectives about science-fiction and fantasy. How do you pull that off?

Jemisin: I write what feels real. I write things that are informed both by my own experience and by actual history. And I’m not drawing solely upon my own racial experiences. There’s some stuff that’s going to happen in the third book that’s sort of hinting at the Holocaust. You can see hints of stuff that happened with the Khmer Rouge at varying points in the story. You see the ways in which oppression perpetuates itself, one group of people teaches every other group of people how to do truly horrible things. I was drawing in that case on King Leopold of Belgium’s horrible treatment of people in the Congo—chopping off hands for example—and how in the Rwandan Civil War they chopped off lots of hands. Well, they learned it from the Europeans.

I read a lot of history for fun. I spent my high school years just like pretty other kid in America. Sort of half-asleep through history, memorizing facts so that I could spit them back and take the AP exam, and that was not fun. But then later on, as I got older and I actually started reading this stuff from different perspectives and started considering different research methods, and as I started to realize just how much I’d learned in school was just bullshit, then it became a lot more interesting to me. So as I read about the different sets of people who have been oppressed and the different systemic oppressions that have existed throughout history, you start to see the patterns in them. Obviously I’m drawing on my own African American experience, but I’m drawing on a lot of other stuff too.

Newkirk: The point you make about the cycle of oppression is really driven home in The Fifth Season.

Jemisin: Well, again I just tried to do what seemed realistic to me within the boundaries of science-fiction and fantasy. They really are supposed to be about people. It’s fiction. It’s not a textbook, yet for decades, for reasons that I don’t fully understand, there was this weird aversion to good sociology and focusing on good characterization and people acting like real people. It was all supposed to be about the science. And so you would go into forums, and you would see dozens of people nitpicking the hell out of the physics. “The equipment doesn’t work this way!” Just engineering discussions out the wazoo, but no one pointing out, “You know, your characters are completely unrealistic. People don’t act this way. People don’t talk this way. What is this?” I just feel like that doesn’t make sense. Social sciences are sciences too, and that aversion to respecting the fiction part of science-fiction; to exploring the people as well as the gadgets and the science never made sense to me. And that aversion is why it isn’t common to see these kinds of explorations of what people are really like and how people really dominate each other, and how power works.

Because, among other things in a lot of cases, the people who were writing these stories were people who didn’t have a good understanding of their own power: their own privilege within a system, and a kyriarchical system, and not understanding that as mostly straight white men with a smattering of other groups who are writing this genre for years. A lot of them bought into the American ideal of rugged individualism of, “Go forth intrepid person with their gun,” and they would go forth and do brave things and that would bring them power. No recognition of the power they already had. And I think it does take an outsider to a degree to come in and look around and read the stuff that’s key in the genre and be like, whoa something is really missing here.

But I don’t think that I was the first outsider to do so by any stretch. Most of the writers of color who have come into the genre have come and looked around and had that moment. Of course, Octavia Butler being the first and foremost who came in and looked at the alien colonization story and said, “Oh, hey it’s a lot like what happened to [black people]! Why don’t we just make all that stuff explicit? Instead of rape, why don’t we include aliens trying to assimilate our genes?” And it does take people who understand systems of power, who understand the complexities of how people interact with each other to depict that.