Why N.K. Jemisin is the Future of Sci-Fi
I read a lot of great books in 2021, but there's one series that I'm taking with me into the new year: N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth Trilogy. The winner of three consecutive Hugo Awards, the first writer to manage that feat, Jemisin's trilogy takes place in the Stillness, a world where a major climate disaster (a "Season") destroys the continent every few centuries. The Stillness has a caste called "orogenes," people who can feel and control the energy of the earth. The power of orogeny is largely misunderstood and feared, leading to the mass subjugation of the caste. Orogenes who can't control their powers, particularly children, are often killed. The only socially-tolerated orogenes are those trained by the Fulcrum, a corrupt organization that teaches orogene children to use their powers to benefit larger society. Jemisin's world-building is, clearly, complex and intense, but discovering the secrets of the Stillness throughout the books is part of what makes them so enjoyable.
The first book in the series, The Fifth Season, follows three story lines: (1) Damaya, a young orogene who is learning to harness her power at the Fulcrum, (2) Syenite, a young adult orogene who has embarked on a journey with her partner Alabaster, and (3) Essun, a middle-age orogene who has fled her home after the world has entered a new Season. The book has a fast-paced story, dynamic characters, and epic plot twists, but it's the way that Jemisin tackles real-world issues that sold me on the series.
The books fall into the category of Afrofuturism, a sub-genre of sci-fi that I discuss further in my post on Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson. Jemisin populates her world with mostly black characters, but race is not a factor for mistreatment. It is the orogenes who are treated as less than human, in a way that deeply resembles modern treatment of POCs and other marginalized peoples.
Additionally, the story is tied to the issue of climate change. I actually read the first book, for one of my final college classes, a seminar on climate fiction. In that class, we talked about the purpose of fiction in informing, explaining, and solving the climate crisis. Jemisin presents a dark version of the world in her books, but the story she tells can also serve as a form of communication, a way to explain the important reality of climate change to a disinterested culture. Our society often lacks an accessible language to discuss topics based in science (take all of the misinformation surrounding COVID-19 for instance). We live in a deeply divided world with a rampant "fake news" industry, but I personally believe that there is one thing we all have in common: we all love a good story. Fiction just might be the only universal form of communication we have left.
So, why is N.K. Jemisin the future of fantasy and sci-fi? Not only is she an incredibly talented writer and storyteller, she also uses her fiction to talk about the ugliest parts of society. Jemisin's writing can spark deep conversations and serve a larger purpose. I recently started reading the first book in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. While I'm really enjoying it, I can't help but compare Asimov and Jemisin. Asimov's fiction is certainly not void of meaning. He tackles issues of power and corruption impressively. I understand why it's a classic and we do need the classics. The white male authors that popularized the genre wrote some good books, there's no denying that, but the future of sci-fi doesn't lie with Isaac Asimov or Frank Herbert. It's time to focus our attention on the new titans of the genre, the authors giving us powerful stories with modern parallels and deeper messages.