From its earliest days, science fiction has served not only to light the way into the future, but to shine a light on the darkest aspects of the present. Our greatest writers have not only extrapolated from the science and technologies of their day, but also from the political and cultural structures around them. What if becomes a question, then, not only of what if space travel becomes common, but what if humans encounter our origins in space (Arthur C. Clarke)? What if modern communication technology and/or drugs are used to further the aims of a totalitarian state (Orwell, Huxley)? What if an alien culture is made up of creatures that are male sometimes and female sometimes and of no gender most of the time (LeGuin)?
Questions of diversity in SF and SFR plague us from a dozen different directions (and not least because we have so few authors of color). But the issues of white supremacy and racism that have boiled over into violence so recently in our current culture can be brilliantly addressed in science fiction in the work of the right author. Let me recommend that author to you: N.K. Jemisin, winner of the 2016 and 2017 Hugo Awards for Books One and Two in her Broken Earth series, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate. The third and final book in the series, The Stone Sky, debuted in August.
Given the very open and ugly debate in the SF world just a few years ago over the supposed “dilution” of the genre’s purity by female sensibilities and diverse POVs, it’s nothing short of a miracle that Jemisin, a woman of color, won recognition for her books in this way. But, then, the books themselves are phenomenal—wildly imaginative, beautifully written, perfect examples of what character-driven SF is supposed to be.
The world Jemisin creates is detailed, compelling and believable. Her characters are warm, alive and unforgettable. And the issues she addresses are so subtly intertwined with each plot point, each descriptive passage and bit of dialogue, that you hardly know what’s happening until the insight hits you.
Jemisin’s characters are not simply black and white, Asian and Native American. They are people with a mix of genetic traits, some of which we readers have not seen before. Her world is one of constant danger from geological activity—earthquakes, tsunami, volcanoes, even the shifting of magnetic poles. One group of people—orogenes—can detect and, in some cases, control these events. Orogenes are feared and hated by their neighbors. Often they are killed as infants, before they can cause the events they might later learn to control with training.
The main protagonist of the trilogy is a female origene who is known variously as Essun, Damaya and Syenite. Since it is her point of view we perceive, we feel the hatred of her family as they learn what she is, the suspicion of the neighbors she has just saved from a killing earthquake as they see her in a new and dangerous light. These passages are some of the most powerful you will ever read in describing what it is like to be “other” in a dominant culture. This is what it feels like to have people you think are your friends suddenly look at you like you are a pariah. You don’t think racism is real? Read and be educated.
Jemisin’s Stillness is not our Earth. Yet it is. The people she describes are human, at least most of them are, and they act like the humans we know. As we read further, it becomes clear that at some point in the distant past, these humans have destroyed their planet. And the planet is taking a very particular kind of revenge.
I rarely read science fiction anymore, but these books live up to all their promises. The diverse viewpoint, the high concept, the character-driven story all speak to me and lead me to recommend this series. (Note: I noticed that some reviewers classify the series as “epic fantasy,” despite the lack of any elves, swords, sorcery or the like. There is the briefest mention of “magic” as an explanation of how one form of orogeny works, but it really is more like the concept of internal energy, or “chi” in Chinese philosophy than true magic, if you ask me. Just sayin’.) I’m very much looking forward to Book 3 in the Broken Earth series, The Stone Sky.