Hugo Award-winning author N.K. Jemisin tells us how she builds fantastical worlds and why science fiction is evolving for the better.
N.K. Jemisin is the author of a number of books, including The Broken Earth trilogy, the first of which won the Hugo Award for best novel in 2016. She spoke with Nerdette’s Greta Johnsen about being the first black person to win a Hugo, how she comes up with her book ideas, and why diversity is essential to the future of science fiction. Here are some highlights from their conversation.
Greta Johnsen: You say you write speculative fiction, not science fiction. For people who don’t know the difference, can you explain what that means?
N.K. Jemisin: Well, there’s a lot of different definitions of speculative fiction. I used it as a catchall for science fiction, fantasy, horror, interstitial and the occasional comic book. A lot of people use “speculative fiction” to specifically delineate that branch of the literary field that’s willing to toss in some unreal or secondary worldish elements in order to test characters in interesting ways. It’s not science fiction; it’s literative stuff that goes “what if?” It speculates.
Johnsen: So what you’re saying is, it’s not necessarily aliens, but things that could potentially, theoretically happen in a world like ours.
Jemisin: In my case, it simply means that I’m not just a fantasy writer. With other people, it can mean different things, too. It’s a term that everyone adapts in their own particular way.
Johnsen: Recently, friends have asked me for recommendations of things to read or watch. They’re like, “I’ll check out anything, except sci fi.” And that drives me crazy. Because to me, that’s like saying, “Oh, I like anything except imagination.” Can you help me make the sell to the haters? Because that’s ridiculous.
Jemisin: It is ridiculous. It’s because science fiction is terrible at marketing, I think. Science fiction has, for years, allowed a fairly vocal subset of its readership to declare that the only true science fiction is stuff that was written 50 or 60 years ago, that the pulps of the ’40s is what the genre is all about. The plain fact of the matter is that it’s an art form like any other. It has evolved. It has grown. It has expanded in ways that I think it hasn’t done the best job of revealing to the mainstream.
So I would test anybody who says they don’t read science fiction or fantasy. I’d say, “OK, what was the last science fiction or fantasy that you read? Where is this coming from? Did you just watch an episode of old school Star Trek and call it a day, or are you doing this with some real information here?”
And then, there’s multiple places that I would direct them. I would take them to the Nebula list and have them look at a few years’ worth of Nebula nominees and novels. I would show them some current science fiction on television, quite a bit of which is getting critical acclaim. I’m very excited that Stranger Things season two is coming. I just watched the first season of Westworld. I had some questions and thoughts, but it’s an example of something that you can shoot to people to say, “Hey, we’ve moved on a little from Star Trek.”
And even in something like Stranger Things, which is recursively looking at the science fiction of the ’80s, you will see some fascinating ways in which it’s playing with the idea of what science fiction has evolved from and is becoming. In the ’80s, you didn’t usually see a girl as the focus of a story about boys. If you did, she was a prize to be won. She wasn’t the protagonist and the person doing the most awesome things in it.
Johnsen: What makes sci fi so remarkable — and what I love about your books as well — is there’s the actual consumption of the thing, which is satisfying in and of itself, but then the conversation that arises around that, and the interaction with people who are also engaging with the same material, is just … it’s just so much more rewarding than, “Wasn’t that book fun?”
Jemisin: I mean, I’m not doing anything that science fiction and fantasy haven’t done in their own ways for decades. It’s simply that because I’m coming from a different perspective and different things interest me, I’m engaging with politics that are not easily camouflaged by the mainstream.
When you’ve got a slew of stories that are set in a version of medieval England that’s curiously devoid of people of color, and poor people, and queer people, and women, you’ve got this strange secondary world where it’s a bunch of white guys running around poking things at each other and having empowerment fantasies, that’s political. That’s communicating a political message. That’s just communicating a political message that’s fairly commonly seen in our society, and which we don’t necessarily think is weird.
There’s nothing wrong with it — the catch is that some of the rest of us like to get out there and have our empowerment fantasies too. We want to poke stuff with sticks. This is really the thing. When you change something as simple as who it is who pokes a stick at things, people get their backs up. I don’t know why, but they do.
Johnsen: I love that that in and of itself is subversive.
Jemisin: It shouldn’t be. And should our society ever become a place where everybody gets to poke a stick at stuff, then it’ll stop being so subversive. If enough people, and enough of a breadth of people, get to explore the speculative what-ifs, then the stuff that I do will stop being novel. At least in the sense of identity.
I sure hope the stories stand the test of time, but I guess we’ll see.