The Worldmaking of N.K. Jemisin

The Empire Is the World

The speculative fiction of N.K. Jemisin.


Omelas, the utopian setting of Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1973 short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” is built on deception. Le Guin introduces the city on a day of celebration, dwelling on its merry crowds, gorgeous architecture, and picturesque proximity to a bay and snow-capped mountains. As the narrator roves through this vista, describing the sights with pride and wonder, the admiration grows defensive. “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy?” the narrator asks. “Then let me describe one more thing.” The deception ends, and we’re taken to an emaciated and abused child incarcerated in a dirt cellar. The child is barred from leaving this prison, but everyone ignores its misery; they believe its suffering is necessary for Omelas to thrive. Those who cannot stomach this injustice quit the city, an act of silent protest.

In N.K. Jemisin’s version of this story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” the protesters do not leave, and instead of an abused child, the dark secret of Um-Helat (Jemisin’s pastiche of Omelas) is an underground network of activists who plot to spread disinformation and bigotry. The activists are fought by “social workers” who hunt and kill them. The result is a peace sustained by shadowy bloodletting. Both Le Guin’s and Jemisin’s stories are tales of radicalization, but Jemisin advances a more confrontational politics. The social workers, who are revealed to be former activists themselves, know intimately the city’s facade, but they live with it rather than fleeing. They do not have to leave Um-Helat to imagine changing it.

That embrace of fight over flight is a hallmark of both Jemisin’s work and her experience as a Black woman writing speculative fiction. When her debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, was published in 2010, she received her first death threat. Why? “For existing. Period. Nobody even knew who I was. The novel wasn’t a bestseller. It was before the awards,” she would recall in an interview. Before that, her novel The Killing Moon was rejected by publishers for being too Black, a slander that was retracted after she became a known name and the book found a home. After she denounced the racism she has experienced, in her 2018 acceptance speech for her third consecutive Hugo Award, the prominent science fiction writer Robert Silverberg (who edited Le Guin’s story) scoffed at her candor. “A Hugo acceptance speech should express gratitude, not anger,” he wrote to a private e-mail list.

The mental and personal costs of this persistent animus should not be downplayed, but Jemisin’s response to her reception is instructive. As her genre has shunned her, she has refused its limits. Though there is no shortage of delight or adventure in her works, which range from apocalyptic epics to swashbuckling noir to experimental vignettes, her stories are powered by a strong sense of inquiry. A detective as much as a storyteller, she builds worlds and probes them, exploring who they work for and against, emphasizing settings as well as systems of power.

Key to Jemisin’s ability to bring worlds to life is her fascination with cities, which appear throughout her short stories and novels. Whether she’s depicting real places like Birmingham, Ala., and New Orleans or imagined ones like Um-Helat and Castrima of her Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin’s cities, like the people she writes about, are layered and multiple. Deftly melding lived experience with physical infrastructure, she taps into the plasticity of city life: the capacity of urban space to fold, warp, and stretch to accommodate (or spurn) a range of perspectives and pursuits.

Appropriately, Jemisin’s latest book, The City We Became, is set in capacious New York City and inaugurates her third trilogy, the Great Cities series. A work of urban fantasy, the baroque novel uses the city and its endless lore to stage a showdown between its residents and an invading force intent on wiping it off the map. By turns whimsical and creepy, the novel proudly invokes New York’s many histories and peoples, from its beginnings as a home of the Lenape to its present state of relentless gentrification and displacement. It also continues her project of speaking back to the genre’s leading figureheads and tropes, turning past erasures and prejudices into opportunities to widen the genre’s ambit—for readers and for authors.

Speculative fiction has long been a troubled home for Black writers. In the 1970s, Charles R. Saunders laid out that history in an essay titled “Why Blacks Don’t Read Science Fiction.” In his view, the conspicuous lack of Black readers in speculative fiction was a direct product of the genre’s entrenched racism. As Saunders observed, while the sci-fi writers of the early and mid-20th century “were capable of stretching their imaginations to the point of conceptualizing aliens with sympathetic qualities…a black man or woman in a spacesuit was an image beyond the limits of [their] imaginations…. If blacks appeared at all in the pages of the science fiction pulp magazines, they were presented as offensive ‘darkie’ stereotypes.”

Saunders, along with other Black writers like Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, and Steven Barnes, endured this lineage of casual bigotry despite its hostility, writing Blackness into the canon.

Jemisin has inherited and embraced this tradition. Born Nora Keita Jemisin in Iowa and raised between Mobile, Ala., and the New York City borough of Brooklyn, she became enamored with science fiction and fantasy as a child. Reading folklore and mythology, watching Star Trek and The Twilight Zone with her father, and penning stories of her own, Jemisin devoted herself to her favorite genre. “I started writing about talking animals and the apocalypse at the ripe old age of eight and never stopped,” she recalls with pride in her 2013 essay “How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?” But that enthusiasm soured as the genre she loved began to feel exclusionary, a realization she describes with a sense of betrayal. “Why did I have to travel to the margins of speculative fiction to see anything of myself? Why was it easier to find aliens or unicorns than people of color or realistic women?… I began to realize that the exclusions I’d noticed were not just a matter of benign neglect.”

Those shortcomings initially turned her away from pursuing writing, which she believed was not a viable option: The whiteness of speculative fiction, past and present, was incommensurate with the stories she wanted to tell. Instead she studied psychology and worked full-time as a career counselor, helping college students plot their education by day while writing at night. She maintained that split until the writing ballooned into a round-the-clock commitment, but that background in social science informs her work. On her once-active blog, she often presented racist and sexist tropes as a matter of broken systems within publishing as much as poor craft by individual writers. “How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?” describes bigotry as the “conscious choices on the part of the genre’s gatekeepers,” citing an infamous instance of Delany having a story declined by an editor at Analog because its characters were Black. Another post, “Why I Talk So Damn Much About Non-Writing Stuff” (a delightfully bloggy title), insists that the best speculative fiction is inherently sociological. “That’s the whole point of speculative fiction for me, really—playing the ‘what-if’ game,” Jemisin writes. “What if, all other things being equal and people being people, the apocalypse happened every few hundred years? What if, all other things being equal and people being people, gods lived among us, and were sometimes real assholes? Those what-ifs don’t work without the people being people part. Which means I need to understand people, in the real world, in all their glory and grotesquerie.”

Her earliest work applies these sociological principles to characterization, with Jemisin constructing her fiction from choice bits of individual lives. “The Brides of Heaven” (2007) is set in Illiyin, a Muslim planetary colony composed entirely of women. The story recounts the interrogation of Dihya, who has been caught sabotaging the colony’s water supply. Dihya is pious, grieving, and clever, attributes that Jemisin uses to complicate the “space madness” trope, which presents space travelers as prone to insanity. Rather than ascribing Dihya’s actions to the inherent loneliness of space, Jemisin dwells on how the colony’s history drove her to her actions.

Due to a malfunction discovered only when the colonists landed, all of the men perish, immediately imbuing the mission with a sense of doom. After her son and the other boys die, cementing the colony’s fate, Dihya leaves, looking for “the company of living things…growing things, unlike Illiyin Colony.” She gets her wish in the form of a sentient alien pond that entices her with gelatinous tendrils and liquid spheres, then impregnates her when she enters it. When Dihya returns to Illiyin, determined to share the pond’s contents with the colony, her choices land as risky, resourceful, and faithful—a fitting end given her circumstances and the state of Illiyin.

The interplay between character, concept, and place also shapes Jemisin’s 2010 story “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters.” Set in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, the story follows Tookie, a drug dealer who shelters in place as the storm hits. On his way home after acquiring food, he encounters a winged talking lizard who warns him the levees will break. Both Tookie and the dragon speak with a warm Louisiana drawl, giving their odd exchange a sense of intimacy. After the dragon’s warning proves true and Tookie and a neighbor struggle to survive the rising floodwaters and another mystical beast lurking within them, he and the dragon become comrades. The story is bolstered by the community Jemisin fashions between the characters and the built environment. As the waters rise and helicopters fly indifferently overhead, the human and animal residents of the Ninth Ward share provisions and intel.

Dihya and Tookie, like so many of Jemisin’s characters, are not mere vessels for a speculative premise; they are its DNA, the foundational materials through which the story unfolds. There is a sense of reclamation to the way she takes stock characters—the grieving mother, the desperate drug dealer, the animal sidekick—and centers their experiences. If the core question of speculative fiction is “What if?,” Jemisin always asks “Who?” and “Where?” and then weaves the questions together. In this sense, improving representation is not just a matter of participation for her; it is also a means of telling better and richer stories. In her subsequent short fiction and novels, these twin goals would produce intricate worlds as well as characters.

The City We Became threads together the stories of five New Yorkers who each embody their respective boroughs: Manny (Manhattan), Bronca (the Bronx), Aislyn (Staten Island), Padmini (Queens), and Brooklyn (Jay-Z was taken). Jemisin uses this conceit to reconfigure the standard image of the city as a bustling throng, dwelling on the microscopic differences between its residents rather than on their shared commutes and quirks. The result is a New York that is disparate and fractured. Though the book familiarly centers on unrelated New Yorkers uniting, magnifying their differences conveys the unlikelihood of their union. In Jemisin’s view, every New Yorker lives and represents their own distinct world.

Jemisin’s characters rally around the shared experience of their worlds expanding. Representing a borough is not simply a matter of being native to it or loving it unconditionally; it is the ability to feel its pulse and immensity, to perceive it at scale and in miniature. In his first battle with the book’s transdimensional villain, which takes place on Manhattan’s FDR Drive, Manny becomes one with the highway’s infamous traffic:

Suddenly there is energy around him…. Manny hears the horns of a thousand cars trapped on the FDR. The hissing air is eclipsed by the shouted road rage of hundreds of mouths. As he opens his mouth to shout with them, his cry is delight and the ecstasy of suddenly knowing that he isn’t an interloper.

This sequence is the book’s signature mode. Jemisin portrays New York City as a land of magical solubility, a constant blurring of individual and crowd, person and landscape.

The invading force that claws at the city is unmoved by New York’s ambient magic. Led by the Woman in White—a shape-shifting entity who variously manifests as tendrils, spores, alt-right trolls, a racist white woman who has 911 on speed dial, and the New York Police Department itself—the book’s antagonists are as protean as its heroes. The goal of this oddball coalition is to annihilate New York City, which the Woman in White views as a threat to cosmic order. Jemisin portrays her as a xenophobe. “Lovecraft was right,” the Woman in White says. “There’s something different about cities, and about the people in cities…. You change one another, city and people, people and city. Then your cities start bringing multiple universes together—and once a few such breaches have occurred, why, the whole structure of existence is weakened.”

The reference to H.P. Lovecraft is a loaded one. Although the horror author’s work was filled with xenophobia and racism, his hallucinogenic writing remains influential for many horror and science fiction writers. Another Saunders essay, “Die, Black Dog!,” surveys the grossest instances of Lovecraft’s bigotry, from a cat named Nigger-Man to his regular use of the word “negroid” as a synonym for ugly and deformed. In recent years, works such as Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, James Wan’s Aquaman, and Misha Green’s HBO series Lovecraft Country (adapted from the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff) have reckoned with that influence, making explicit Lovecraft’s noxious conflation of nonwhite people with depravity and evil. But Lovecraft remains a popular and often imitated writer, and through the Woman in White and her minions, Jemisin makes sure we don’t forget his contempt for many of his fellow humans.

The bigotry that gives the Woman in White her power also creates opportunities for Jemisin to capture the social and physical topography of New York City, from the scrappy resolve of the nonprofit art world to Staten Island’s limited transit. But the diffuseness of the central conflict can be frustrating. The city’s adversaries collectively represent gentrification, white hegemony, and corporatization. These are all pressing problems, but when bundled together they feel defanged and cosmetic. While the Woman in White is a great villain of Lovecraftian import, she’s also a void, representing everything and nothing.

Toward the end of the book, Bronca inadvertently articulates the thinness of the book’s allegory: “They’re destroying everything that makes New York what it is, replacing it with generic bullshit.” Bullshit is certainly a scourge, but it’s not a rallying cry or a particularly poignant way of describing the problems of the city, be they rampant police brutality or ruthless, property-gobbling banks. While Jemisin’s tangible love for her city and commitment to showcasing its hidden wonders keep The City We Became personable and charming, that adoration doesn’t provide insight into what New York has to lose, the material and structural costs of its destruction.

In Jemisin’s earlier work, we can find far more pointed writing about cities and their usurpers. In the Broken Earth trilogy, her ambitious breakthrough work, cities and towns are united by imminent climate disaster. The Stillness, a sprawling supercontinent striated with active rifts and fault lines, is a land of regular apocalypses, or “fifth seasons,” in the parlance of the world. When a cataclysm inaugurates a new fifth season, “comms”—short for “communities”—spring into defense, fortifying themselves against outsiders and expelling the weak from their ranks. This harsh, ingrained provincialism is normal in the Stillness, but for “orogenes”—humans imbued with the power to harness and control the continent’s volatile seismic activity—the misery is compounded. The powerful Sanzed Empire, which has persisted through dozens of fifth seasons, has systematized the subjugation of orogenes, using them to maintain political power.

The trilogy follows the consequences of that brutal control. An epic of climate change, empire, and grief, the series is rightly recognized for its nuance and vision, which embraces the geological concept of deep time—change and transformation as experienced by the planet, on the scale of millennia. The trilogy’s cast comprises parents, teens, soldiers, scientists, and the planet itself, all of them enduring the social and physical extremes of the Stillness as it erupts and shakes. The series’ exquisite writing, which is rich with formal and stylistic play, is key to this scope. The opening chapter of The Fifth Season, the first book in the series, is a nesting doll of origin stories and endings. It begins with a death, then switches to the decadent cityscape of Yumenes, “the oldest, largest, and most magnificent living city in the world” and the seat of the Sanzed Empire. When an orogene visitor to Yumenes destroys the city, the view switches again, to the skies above, surveying the consequences of Yumenes’s fall, and then returns to the death that began the story. Every shift in perspective connects these happenings across time and space, a theme that runs through the series.

That sense of resonance, of quakes and their aftershocks, takes on many forms. A large portion of the series is written in the second person, a frame that conveys the dissociation experienced by Essun, an orogene who is one of the main characters. A mother, fugitive, and both survivor of and participant in military violence, Essun obscures her past in order to endure the present. Her alienation is underscored by the constant presence of “stone lore,” carved, scripture-like tracts that instruct the denizens of the Stillness how to survive the seasons. Much of the stone lore is prejudiced against orogenes and was created by the Sanzed Empire. Jemisin places it at the ends of chapters with dates and sources, a move that accentuates the antiquity and ubiquity of anti-orogene sentiment. The result of this ambient hostility is the sense that the whole of the Stillness opposes Essun and her kind. The empire is the world.

As the story moves away from Yumenes, the arrogance of its architecture persists in the empire’s smaller designs. The might of the Fulcrum, a grim military academy where orogenes face death or enslavement if they do not learn to control their powers, echoes across the Stillness. Essun was trained in the Fulcrum, and her indoctrination sours her relationship with her daughter and the other orogenes she encounters during the fifth season. Essun is tormented by her training and marked by it, a continuity that imbues Yumenes with a haunting presence even as it lies in ruin. The overall effect of all this symmetry is a world that feels vast yet claustrophobic, intricate and mysterious.

Yumenes also turns out to be an echo, predated by Syl Anagist, another imperial seat. Syl Anagist fell into ruin ages before Yumenes, but its designs pock the earth in the form of ominous, floating obelisks. What’s deft about Jemisin’s sense of place is that she never reduces a city to a single event or person, always gesturing forward and backward in time. Throughout the final book of the trilogy, we encounter Syl Anagist as a technical marvel, a city of dust, and a tragic legacy of meddling with the environment. Those leaps in time and space define Jemisin’s fascination with cities, turning them from settings into ecosystems, webs of experience.

Jemisin’s ability to nimbly bring spaces to life is tied to her attention to form. Where epics are generally defined by their length and scope, Jemisin emphasizes proportion. This is especially true of her short stories. Earlier in her career she didn’t write short fiction, preferring the space of novels, but a writing workshop encouraged her to think of the formats as interrelated. In the introduction to her short-story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (named after her 2013 essay), she writes that she now uses short fiction “to test-drive potential novel worlds,” which is the process that led her to discover how well the second-person perspective worked for the world of the Broken Earth trilogy. That holistic approach to form and content produces stories that are rich yet fleet, epic and layered without being overwrought.

The City We Became is an expansion of her 2016 story “The City Born Great,” which focuses on the avatar of New York City. (Unlike the novel’s borough avatars, this one embodies the city in full, until he enters a deep, Sleeping Beauty–like rest.) Every element of The City We Became is in place in the short story, which opens the novel in a slightly modified form. The New York avatar, a homeless and restless graffiti artist, stalks the city with alert eyes and an empty stomach. He rarely interacts with anyone but is acutely aware of his visibility, especially when cops, “harbingers of the enemy,” are around.

“The City Born Great” is nominally a character study, but in quick, deft strokes Jemisin taps into the contradiction of belonging to a place—of being a place—that is inhospitable. As the story winds into a foot chase and eventually a magical street fight, its core tensions never lose valence. The avatar’s transformation, like those of the boroughs in the book, is a mix of self-reckoning and collective consciousness:

I grow bigger…. There are others here with me, looming, watching—my ancestors’ bones under Wall Street, my predecessors’ blood ground into the benches of Christopher Park. No, new others, of my new people, heavy imprints upon the fabric of time and space. São Paulo…. Paris…Lagos….

This scene grows formulaic as it recurs in the novel, but it demonstrates Jemisin’s inner social scientist at work. She refuses to extricate people from their milieus, their potential from the forces that constrain it. Though The City We Became loses punch as the milieu dilutes into “bullshit,” it excels when the stakes are intimate and exact.

Jemisin writes both back to her genre and for herself. While her achievements defy the soft and hard bigotries of the Lovecrafts, Silverbergs, Robert E. Howards, and Edgar Rice Burroughses who populate speculative fiction’s past and present, her work should not be reduced to a mere rebuke of racism within this community or a corrective to decades of racism and sexism in publishing. Nor should the accomplishments of her predecessors and contemporaries—Delany, Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Christopher Priest, P. Djèlí Clark, Nnedi Okorafor, Violet Allen—be overlooked.

When Saunders revisited “Why Blacks Don’t Read Science Fiction” in a 2000 sequel called “Why Blacks Should Read (and Write) Science Fiction,” the subject of his critique turned from inclusion in a gated community to the achievements of his peers. “Just as our ancestors sang their songs in a strange land when they were kidnapped and sold from Africa,” he wrote, “we must, now and in the future, continue to sing our songs under strange stars.”

This is the core of Jemisin’s project: not just to write herself and her people into the canon but also to fulfill her own designs, to sing her own songs. The worlds she builds are ornate and immersive and riveting not only because she challenges the sordid past of her genre but because she plots its future, fabricating worlds and peoples that swell rather than contract. I hope her cities outlast us all.

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