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N. K. Jemisin’s Dream Worlds (newyorker.com)
78 points by apollinaire 28 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 59 comments

Be warned: the article contains some (imho) significant spoilers for "The Fifth Season", the first book of the "Broken Earth" trilogy.

I read the Broken Earth books and thoroughly enjoyed them (especially the first). I found Jemisin's worldbuilding and protagonists writing to be very compelling.

I strongly recommend to read at least the Fifth Season to see if her writings are to your taste.

The fact that some would object that she is a Sci-fi writer seems... rather reductive to me at the least. Sure Jemisin does not write "hard" SF, and the Broken Earth has some strong fantasy tropes. But so did Frank Herbert and Ursula Le Guin, two among the most revered writers of the genre.

[EDIT] I should not even say that she does not write hard SF, since I did not read her other books (yet). I should have kept it at "The Broken Earth trilogy is not hard SF"

Her other books are excellent, too. The Inheritance trilogy has probably my favorite of her protagonists, but they’re all great.

I’ve got a deep and abiding love for authors who build unique “systems” for magic / “powers” and so on, and Jemisin’s are really unique and pretty well thought out without becoming tedious.

Jemisin listed Octavia Butler as one of her biggest influences. I read a few of Octavia's books. The influence is clear. If you enjoy Jemisin, you'll enjoy Butler.

Indeed. She hits a great balance between explaining enough that it's clear, but not over-explaining to show off her world-building skills.

Same preference here. I assume you've read "Name of the Wind"?

Rothfuss had an imaginative magic system in the Kingkiller Chronicles. I'm hoping that he continues with the system even if he doesn't finish the series.

I liked Broken Earth, maybe it wasn't very consistent and somewhat too long, but overall it was good. I also recommend Ancillary series by Ann Leckie.

Ancillary Justice was pretty good, very tightly written.

I find Iain M Banks' (RIP) books quite a bit more entertaining though, as far as the genre goes.

Ancillary Justice also didn't blow my mind like The Diamond Age, which I thought was extraordinary.

> The fact that some would object that she is a Sci-fi writer seems... rather reductive to me at the least. Sure Jemisin does not write "hard" SF, and the Broken Earth has some strong fantasy tropes. But so did Frank Herbert and Ursula Le Guin, two among the most revered writers of the genre.

Do people argue that it doesn't count as sci-fi? Just because the core scientific premises revolve around the (supposedly) unsexy field of geology rather than space travel or cyberpunk adjacent (robotics, AI, etc.) stuff?

I say that if Star Wars counts as Sci-Fi I don't see why Fifth Season wouldn't. Jemisin clearly has a stronger grasp on the underlying science behind what she's talking about than Asimov did about either nuclear power or statistics/sociology when he wrote the Foundation series.

I read it as just regular fantasy. If you're going to classify books like that as sci-fi then even wheel of time is Sci-Fi. If all it takes for something to be sci-fi is "there was a civilisation with technology once and this seemingly magic artifact is a remnant of it" then a good 50% of high fantasy might be sci fi :P

I think Jemisin is moving SciFi/Fantasy toward a point in which the hard line is becoming irrelevant. In general, I can't tolerate SciFi for much the same reason that I'm bored with High Fantasy. Jemesin brings enough of each into her stories that I can enjoy the science and am not seeing an ill-defined magic system bail characters out of poor choices.

The "New Wave" authors of the 1960s and 1970s such as Zelazny, Delany (directly mentioned in the article), Aldiss and others already pushed the boundaries of the "hard line" between Sci-Fi and Fantasy to the point of irrelevancy. It's not entirely a new struggle for these "two" genres to play with their boundaries.

It's clearly not hard SF, but if I had to classify it I'd call it SF based on feel. Similar situation to The Urth of the New Sun; I don't think anyone really considers that fantasy, even though it has a similar (or even more extreme) "lost technology is unknowable magic" setup.

Outstanding audiobook series too, one of my favourites. Have listened to the whole trilogy three times now and will do so again

It's more fantasy than sci-fi. I was always expecting that the cause of the problem would be explained by some sort of ancient technology, which it was but the tech was never really well explained, it's like she was trying to but couldn't quite get there.

Saying that I did enjoy the books

Reading a whole book written in second person narrative got really annoying after a while and I couldn't finish it even though I thought there were some interesting ideas there.

It's not actually the whole book, she uses it as a literary device and explaining it fully would spoil some pretty cool things. The narrative form switches throughout the book, and I agree it's annoying a little bit, but the dissociated feeling it gives you is actually her intention.

The fifth season definitely is a series that makes you feel uncomfortable, but I suppose not all stories can (or should) be comfortable.

Second this. It's not done merely as a superficial narrative gimmick.

I can understand. I loved it personally. In fact, it is kind of the reason for why I started reading the trilogy in the first place: because Aphyr mentioned the Fifth Season as one of his influences for his series of short stories (posted several times here) also written in this style.

(ref: https://www.metafilter.com/166166/Og-to-til-javanissen#69855...)

I think only some of the parts are written this way? But still, I found this point of view pretty interesting and I actually liked it.

Besides that, I find her to be a horrible writer. I don't get the praise. Have standards dropped this low?

+1 on the spoiler-ish part.

A while ago, she was on The Ezra Klein Show (a podcast) to basically play through live a world building example. Pretty fun!

Overcast: https://overcast.fm/+QLhXLnUOw

Apple podcasts: https://podcasts.apple.com/podcast/id1081584611?ct=podlink&m...

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6xyFQhbsjQ

It's worth noting that all three of her Broken Earth trilogy won Hugo awards.

It's not uncommon for series to win like that (getting a Hugo award for the first book means people will start the series, and since the awards are popular voting having people read your book is half the struggle).

I think the first two books (The Fifth Season and the Stone Sky) were great, but I didn't love the final book. I think Ann Leckie's Provenance should have won that year - it's in the (Hugo award winning!) Ancillary Justice universe, and deals with lots of issues around AI that I think many at HN would enjoy.

And as for the dead comments complaining that her winning is some kind of conspiracy because it's not hard SF: Fantasy has long won Hugo awards.

Also: (a) go read it - it's got a system of magic that is as hard as any magical faster than light technology in a space opera, and (b) Gaiman won with American Gods and The Graveyard Book. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union won in 2008. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire won.

I thought Provenance was a lot weaker than the rest of the Ancillary series. It was still good though.

The 2018 Hugo novel field was REALLY good. There wasn't a klunker in the group. My favorite was Kim Stanley Robinson's "New York 2140" but it was a very hard call.

+1 for KSR "NY 2140", everyone should read that book

An interview with Brandon Sanderson peaked my interest in Jemisin. He said something to the effect that she is trying to move Fantasy into a new direction. At the time I read it, I had finished the Malazan Book of the Fallen, which in itself is a large departure from High Fantasy, and was in search of something other than a loosely-defined magic system that gets protagonists out of every tough situation.

Jemisin provided what I was looking for: second-person narratives, magic systems that are defined and have (loose) roots in science, plot twists, and great character development. It's also chock full of moral ambiguity. Her books are also short. After reading MBotF, I felt like I ran a reading marathon with books general being 1000+ pages. I wanted someone who could say more with less.

Jemisin listed Octavia Butler as a strong influence. So, I read the Parable books and am now reading Fledgling. The influence is clear. Butler's books are brilliant and so different for their time. Her name is really not mentioned enough.

I have to mention Joe Abercrombie as another author who is moving Fantasy away from magic-driven plots. Brilliant author.

[EDIT: first-person should have been second-person]

I was super happy to see this article when it ran. An author profile in the New Yorker is a big damn deal in literary circles, and it's something that doesn't happen super often for folks working in SF or fantasy -- especially if the work hasn't transitioned to a screen.

I will also shared this, since it's the sort of thing I like to hear (when it's true) about writers and artists: She's super nice in person. My wife and I got to meet her on the JoCo Cruise several years ago.

I read the Broken Earth trilogy a few years ago-- didn't remember it had won the Hugo award for all 3 books, and don't really understand why it would have won, unless that was a particularly weak couple of year?

It is a moderately decent fantasy series, but the writing is kind of clunky.

Looking at the 2017 Hugo, I'd say Cixian Liu's "Death's End" was a much better novel than "The Obelisk Gate", and would have given it to that book.

For the 2016 Hugo I've read 3 of the finalist("Fifth Season", "Ancillary Mercy", "Seveneves"), but I don't think any of them were all that great... guess just a weak year.

Here’s a podcast where she does a bit of worldbuilding: https://overcast.fm/+QLhVvI_Pw

Broken Earth was a great Trilogy. I appreciate how fast she writes. No patience for waiting years between books anymore. She was recommended to me since I was a fan of Butler and Bioware games. There's a lot of overlapping Dragon Age feels in the series and I think she wrote a Mass Effect novel. Her twitch is accessible if you want to ask her questions. At least a few years ago.

I absolutely love Jemisin's books. The City We Became is really fantastic.

I tried the first book in the Broken Earth series, but eventually put it down because the language was - imo - a bit too preachy and self-indulgent.


You mean the triangle in the island? It's been a while since I read the books, but I don't recall it being particularly graphic, on the contrary.

And anyway, if it was an erotic novel and the point was getting readers aroused, I would understand your warning, as it wouldn't work for most heterosexual people. That not being the case, I don't see any need for a warning.


Wow I can't believe your well-meaning original comment was flagged into oblivion.

I am not a fan of any sex in Sci-Fi or Fantasy (straight or not) so it was a valuable warning.

Do not be deterred by the intolerant mob.

Depiction of sex is very common in sci-fi post 80s, to varying degrees of success (looking at you, Peter Hamilton). If you want to avoid it reliably, you may wish to stick to YA stuff.

I must say, I didn't find it particularly noteworthy in Jemisin's books, to the point where I don't remember it at all (whereas some unfortunate sci-fi sex scenes will stay with me forever...)


Hello self_awareness, I have a different perspective on this. An erotic novel is written intentionally to arouse, but arousal isn't the only reason to include depictions of sex, sex is a powerful part of human experience, a part of our lives in which we can reveal extremes of our personality - where we can be vulnerable and also callous. To pick another Hugo winner, the sex scenes in le guin's 'the left hand of darkness' are so memorable not because they are sexually arousing but because of they explore the irresolvable unfairness of an existence in which we are subject to powerful desires for others that we long to have reciprocated, and the impatience, disgust and fear with which we respond to the desire of others towards us that we do not reciprocate - and importantly, the role power plays in how this is negotiated. I don't think there is anything cheap about that at all.

Do you have any scifi or fantasy recommendations that fulfill this criteria?

You must not be a fan of late Heinlein!

If it is neutral (in your opinion) why mention it? Your post serves like a warning, why is it needed? Would you provide a warning if there was violence, bad language or false idolatry?


> People downvote and don't even understand why.

I think probably initially because it just seemed kind of irrelevant; if this was the 1950s “there’s sex in this sci-fi!” would be notable, but it’s really very standard now, and Jemesin’s depictions aren’t notably graphic, violent, or just plain comically stupid (a common problem). You could put “warning, there’s sex in this” into most discussions of sci-fi novels.

For why THIS comment is downvoted, well, you guessed yourself; obviously it’s the systemic bias against the straights!

> obviously it’s the systemic bias against the straights!

I find it dangerous for my health that you find it funny and normal.

Moreover, even my comments where I say that I'm glad I've helped someone, was downvoted. If that's not bias, I don't know what it is.

To be clear, I was joking. There is obviously no systemic bias against straight people. Don’t be silly.

It's good to know that in this thread at least one person is having fun.

By the way, as for irrelevance; someone has disliked the book for being too "melodramatic", and it had no replies. But when someone dislikes the book because it has graphic gay sex scenes, the whole HN hive-mind unleashes its fury. How's that for irrelevance?

I think that you're a part of the group I was talking about, that they don't even understand why they're downvoting.

So you initially claimed that the same sex relationship warning was neutral but now say you disliked the book because of it. Which is it?

Also, disliking a book that covers LGBT issues is fine, you dont have to like any book. But, disliking a book because it covers LGBT issues is indicative of a certain level of bigotry.

I've been down voted for things i've said and i didn't enjoy it either. But however it's making you feel, please know that people aren't actually attacking you as a person, they are responding to something you said. It's the comments that are getting downvoted not you This is a place where we discuss ideas, and people are down voting your comment not to say you're a bad person, but because they don't think they are a good contribution to the conversation. That kind of feedback isn't pleasant to receive. There are people who come here who write incredibly well, you read their thoughts, attempt to reconstruct them in you're mind, and feel for a moment what it it must be like to be a smarter person. Neither you nor i, nor a fair number of the other people in this thread are that kind of writer, but the feedback we get on this forum, while not pleasant to receive when it is negative, is a chance to stop reflect and move ourselves in that direction.

on the bright side, the discomfort will be brief - deng will come through and quietly tuck this thread on a back shelf and we can all go on as if it never happened : )

> Damn, such systemic bias against non-gay person is astonishing. People downvote and don't even understand why.


Stepping back a bit the idea of “warnings” or “trigger warnings” for literature - and for arguments sake let’s consider all fiction literature - is complicated.

Same as what is pornographic or not, or obscene or not - https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howl#1957_obscenity_trial

As food for thought, I’ll also throw into the mix the classic critique of American culture that it’s easier to show someone getting shot in the face on TV or in a PG-13 film than it is to show a woman’s breasts. That America is much more comfortable with violence than it is with sex (between any set of genders).

> Damn, such systemic bias against non-gay person is astonishing. People downvote and don't even understand why.

Your warning was pure homophobia, nothing to do with people being non-gay.

I find the child abuse hard to deal with. It’s a central plot point across the entire series, so it’s hardly something that you can easily miss or forget.

I much more likely to not recommend it for that.

I appreciate the warning and see it as having been done in a way that is not judgemental. If the book was really graphic or even really heartbreaking, I'd appreciate a warning as well.

Moreover, I told two gay friends about the potential of two penises being rubbed together in a highly-popular Hugo award-winning SF series. While neither has read SF OR fantasy before, they are most definitely embarking on this journey now.

Just to mix it up, how does one come up with a warning for something “heartbreaking”? Asking out of half-seriousness. ;)

You know, the fact that you feel the need to point this out reaveals that you indeed think this is bad.

That's just your opinion.

Too melodramatic for my taste. Couldn't connect with anyone of her protagonists - so I stopped reading her after The Shadowed sun

It appears from her twitter account that she has done a few charity fundraiser tiltify streams. Including one yesterday. I don’t know what the right amount is for such a thing but it seems a bit low to me.

How much did you raise when you did it?

The point I was trying to make was clearly lost, as not a single person donated in the time since this was posted.

Although a bunch of people clearly feel they won some moral victory by downvoting me. Bravo, HN. Just stellar.

As to your... tone.

I did quite a bit of volunteer work for a nonprofit for five years. I gave them, as it turned out when I did the math later, about 10% of my free time, worked with thousands of other people in that time (pretty good for an introvert). We raised around a quarter million, not counting the value of public resources and tens of thousands of volunteer hours we relied upon.

I’m fine walking through the gate you just erected. How ‘bout you?

Perhaps a call to action would be better communication then, rather than your clumsy attempt to raise awareness. You came across as condescending and critical. So well done you in your volunteer work, but perhaps work on your communication style if you were actually looking to promote donating to the cause instead of criticising someone else's achievement.

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