N.K. Jemisin

Out now!

The Killing Moon

The Kingdom of Gods

In the desert city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Along its ancient stone streets, there is no crime or violence. Priests of the dream-goddess, known as Gatherers, maintain order: harvesting the dreams of the citizens, healing the injured, and guiding the dreamers into the afterlife. . .

When Ehiru-the most famous of the city's Gatherers-is sent to harvest the dreams of a diplomatic envoy, he finds himself drawn into a conspiracy that threatens to drag the dreaming city into war.

Learn more.

Confirmation bias, epic fantasy, and you

Ya’ll, MedievalPoC is (hopefully) going to be at WisCon. By a funny chance, I will be, too! (Imagine that.) I am totes going to fangirl all over them. Posts like this are why:

Seeing this post reminds me that someone I’ve known for years, and who has a rather expensive college degree, said these exact words to me in regard to ASOIAF/Game of Thrones this past Tuesday at a gaming tournament:

“Things were just like that back then.”

There were not enough faces for me to palm. I just ended up yelling, “When was that again?? In the good old days of Westeros??”

P.S. literally the only reason there are almost no people of color in ASOIAF is because George R.R. Martin decided there wouldn’t be, and the reason they’re portrayed the way they are is because he decided they WOULD be. With great acclaim comes great accountability.

I suspect this was not aimed at GRRM, specifically. MedievalPoC has made the same point about “historically accurate” medieval European video games that make conspicuously inaccurate choices in development, and so forth. MedievalPoC points this problem out as endemic to the genre in general, which isn’t really a surprise since it’s endemic to our society. The blog is dedicated to pointing out the literal erasures and revisions that have been inflicted on art of the era to make it conform to modern — and quintessentially white supremacist — beliefs about how medieval Europe “should” have been. (And if you haven’t figured it out yet, you should be following MedievalPoC. Like, now.)

But this isn’t just a problem of revisionist history (by which I mean white supremacist history, though this term is typically applied to history that attempts to correct the supremacist stuff; isn’t that interesting). It’s a problem of psychology, so permit me to switch hats for a moment. To the Wikipedia!

Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. People also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. Biased search, interpretation and memory have been invoked to explain attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence), belief perseverance (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false), the irrational primacy effect (a greater reliance on information encountered early in a series) and illusory correlation (when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations).

Confirmation bias doesn’t cause the phenomenon of Mysteriously Whitewashed Medieval Europe. (Or Peculiarly Denuded of Women Europe, or Puzzlingly Focused On The Nobility Europe, or any of the other bizarre things we tend to see in medieval Europe-flavored fantasy.) Confirmation bias causes the freakouts that occur whenever somebody points out these phenomena, and names them as inaccuracies. Like the “go kill yourself” messages Medieval PoC has gotten for simply pointing out that people of color could easily have been present in a game set in central Bohemia. Or, for that matter, the rape threats that Anita Sarkeesian (no actual rape threats or misogyny in the article; just showing some of the harassment she deals with; avoid the comments, however) gets for pointing out that there should be a lot more women in fantasy games, and they shouldn’t all be buxom wenches getting rescued/laid by the male protagonist. Or the death threats that I sometimes get for, y’know, posts like this.

Like the Wikipedia entry suggests, confirmation bias is usually worst when a person feels threatened by anything that challenges their preexisting beliefs. Since the preexisting beliefs associated with bigotry are all tied up in identity and privilege, it’s not really surprising that the sense of threat is there, merited or not. Identity and privilege are things of the ego; they’re about what we think of ourselves. Bigotry tells privileged people that they deserve to be privileged; that they should have an easier life and a better self-image and more power because they are special; that the reason less-privileged folks don’t get the same preferential treatment is because they are inferior in some way. Challenging this thinking means saying to people: actually, no, you’re not all that special, or maybe you are but not because you’re [insert identity], and also those other people aren’t inferior at all, they just weren’t “lucky” enough to be born with your identity. For people who get used to being incessantly told “You’re awesome!” being told instead that, “Eh, you’re just okay” is a little bit of a comedown. (But a comedown is not oppression. Anyone who thinks that really has no concept of what oppression really is.)

But what surprises a lot of people — especially people who don’t think of themselves as racist or sexist or classist or whatever — is how much they’ve come to expect those positive-but-bigoted messages. How much they’ve come to believe them. So when you hit them in the face with contradictory facts or logic or, in the case of MedievalPoC, actual visual evidence of just how skewed and inaccurate those beliefs are, those privileged folks have to swallow that not only are they not special, just okay, but they’re also suckers who fell for the racist okeydoke. They’re thinking like racists.

And since our society tries so hard to position the word “racist” as some sort of inhuman, barely-comprehensible evil — instead of, y’know, the way our society functions — those people who’ve just realized they swallowed a bit of bigotry immediately suffer pangs of cognitive disonnance. They can’t be racist. That would make them an inhuman, incomprehensible evil! DANGER WILL ROBINSON DOES NOT COMPUTE bluescreen 0011010 reboot. What are they to believe, that they’ve turned into inbred hicks wearing white sheets? (Or whatever cartoonish image exists for “racist” in their mind.) Unpossible! So instead they reject the contradictory evidence. They reject it vehemently; they repudiate it, they throw holy water at it, and they toss a Molotov cocktail after that. And then they decide that the person who showed them this contradictory fact must be Evil Incarnate for causing them psychological pain. This person must be stopped. Or at least, intimidated into silence.

And meanwhile, they double down on the original problematic belief. Because if the person who contradicted this belief is Evil Incarnate, well, that must mean the original belief is good, right? So of course there were no people of color in medieval Europe. Evidence to the contrary? La la la can’t hear you. Can’t fool me with logic. So there’s no need to diversify any medieval European fantasy novel because Things Were Just Like That Back Then.

And here’s the thing: us fantasy readers are particularly susceptible to confirmation bias because we tend to be binary thinkers. Just look at the works that have become bestsellers in our genre: how many of them contain a force of good and a force of evil? A Dark Lord versus warriors of light? A Shadow in the East versus the good Men of the West? This is comfort food for most of us — yeah, me included. Binary thought was our formative meat and milk. And even though a lot of us have moved on to accept shades of gray since — as GRRM fans can attest — there will still come a point where we’re faced with facts that threaten us on some level of privilege. When that happens, a lot of us default back to these formative modes. We react to the ego-threat with confirmation bias and other cognitive defense mechanisms; we double down and raise shields and prepare to defend our psychological selves to the death. Us vs Them. We stop thinking, in other words, and lose our goddamned minds.

So if you catch yourself getting upset when someone puts something in a fantasy that “doesn’t belong” — women in positions of power who aren’t sexualized, for example, or people of color in a part of the world where you think they never “existed”*, or a trans woman in a patriarchial society, or an important disabled person in (this! is!) Sparta, or whatever… Take a breath. Calm down. Do some research. Don’t immediately reject the contradictory information, and don’t assume that the person giving it to you is trying to hurt you. Ask yourself why you feel hurt, if you do. Why is this making you so mad? Why is it so important to you that Things Were Just Like That Back Then? Why does it bother you so much to realize things weren’t like that? We can’t always control our reactions to psychological threats, but sometimes understanding why those reactions happen can help us at least short-circuit them before they really blow up. It takes work, but you can shake it off.

And if you’re a writer, and you catch yourself getting defensive when someone suggests you add something to your fantasy novel that “doesn’t belong”… again, take a breath. Do some research — beyond the basic stuff you got in high school history class, that is. (You should be doing that anyway. It’ll improve your worldbuilding.) Write whatever you want, of course; handwave the historical evidence if you feel like it. But own your decisions, if you do so. Recognize that the Things Were Just Like That excuse is just that — an excuse. Existential angst manifesting as unjustified certainty. You wrote what you wrote because you wanted to write it that way. And if you don’t like what these choices imply about you… well. Then you’ve got some work to do, too, haven’t you?

* Scare quotes because, FFS, people of color have “existed” everywhere, in every age of human history. Most of the world is people of color, and always has been. Sometimes I’m just amazed at the leaps of non-logic white supremacy tries to put over on us.

An update on the update and the progress of the progress

Just occurred to me I’ve been really quiet here, aside from yelling at old men yelling at clouds. Yikes! Sorry ’bout that. I haven’t been quiet anywhere else, of course; it’s just that it’s usually easier for me to microblog on Facebook or Twitter than to macroblog here. Still, some things work better when discussed at length.

So, I’ve been getting lots of questions lately about The Fifth Season, and I have a marketing blurb for you, which my editor and I recently hashed out:

THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS. AGAIN.

Three terrible things happen in a single day.

Essun, masquerading as an ordinary schoolteacher in a quiet small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Mighty Sanze, the empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years, collapses as its greatest city is destroyed by a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heartland of the world’s sole continent, a great red rift has been been torn which spews ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

But this is the Stillness, a land long familiar with struggle, and where orogenes — those who wield the power of the earth as a weapon — are feared far more than the long cold night. Essun has remembered herself, and she will have her daughter back.

She does not care if the world falls apart around her. Essun will break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

This will appear on jacket copy and in distributor magazines and stuff like that, as I understand it. I’ll publish sample chapters here too, the way I have for all my previous books. That said, these things won’t be appearing for awhile, because the publication date for TFS has recently been pushed back to 2015.

Now, there’s a good reason for this: TFS is the first of a big, complicated trilogy, requiring a ton of research and in many ways taxing my creative abilities to their fullest — it’s the most challenging novel I’ve ever written, craftwise — and these aren’t exactly the kinds of books I can crank out like popcorn. So even though the first book is finished, I don’t think I can spit out the second one in, like, three months, which is what I’d have to do if the second book was to come out a year later! And Orbit (rightly, IMO) tries to arrange for its epic fantasy series to come out on a relatively compact timescale, so they’re pushing back the first book to give me more time to work on the second and third. I don’t think it’s fair to readers to keep them waiting for years and years between segments — except for writers whose last name is Martin and whose readers are obviously cool with that :) — so I’m completely on board with this decision.

And this is complicated by the fact that I’m working on something else in the meantime — a Seekrit Projekt — which is going to keep me off the TFS sequel for a few months. But I think most of you are going to be very happy when you see it.

So, that’s the state of the state. Any questions? (No, I’m not telling you what the Seekrit Projekt is. It’s a secret, good grief.)

Pretty much the only comment I’ll make here on the current SFWA shenanigans

Because dozens more people* are talking about and archiving it already. Nothing but admiration for folks who have the patience and blood pressure left to spend on this, but I can’t headdesk anymore. I need my head, and my desk, to write. Doing this pre-coffee, BTW, and hepped up on cold medicine, so brace yourself.

But here’s the thing: I am all about the First Amendment**. Most writers are. And if this current brave blow in defense of artistic expression had been actually about artistic expression, I might’ve been in their corner. If they’d gone to bat like this, poured out all this sturm und drang and all these Privileged Writer Tears, over the kinds of things the First Amendment was meant to protect — the voices of the minority; the rights of those who need to speak truth to power; subversive art, incisive journalism, political protest — then I would’ve signed the damn petition myself.

But context matters. Ethics matter. The guy initiating this petition has an extensive history of filling some of the most visible parts of the SFFsphere with his misogyny, homophobia, and other choice bigotries. He often wraps these ideas in anti-political-correctness freedom-fighting MURRICA flag-waving, but when it comes down to it, that’s what this petition is pushing for — this guy’s right to be a bigoted asshole, essentially unchallenged, in SFWA publications. Ditto a few other (mostly older, white, straight) guys’ right to do the same; this freedom to spout hate and fear and contempt for whole swaths of people is a privilege they once gleefully embraced, and they’re mad because it’s not the norm of professionalism anymore. They want it re-normalized. And by standing up not for artistic expression, but for the violent, exclusionary rhetoric that has made SFFdom such a hostile environment for many non-male non-straight non-white people, every signatory on that petition has basically laughed at the First Amendment. This has squat to do with freedom of expression. It’s about making sure the old (sorry, “The Old”) white guys get to talk how they want about the “furry pussies” and the “savages” and the “metrosexuals”, while making sure the targets of their vitriol STFU, waste energy defending their right to exist unobjectified, or leave the profession. That’s basically the opposite of what the First Amendment is supposed to do.

And yeah, I get that part of the problem here is that some of the petition’s signatories feel marginalized. Yet somehow Truesdale had a column in F&SF for years, and somehow Malzberg and Resnick had the SFWA Bulletin as a platform for years. And somehow lots of these signatories are bestsellers or former SFWA officers or have earned the highest awards in our genre, as the petition so-helpfully emphasized.

But you don’t get to claim marginalization when you’re at the center of a thing. You can’t endorse the efforts of bigots to establish a safe space for their bigotry, and then plausibly claim you’re not one of them. You don’t get to pretend that you’re in the demographic minority when you’re… not. And like I Tweeted yesterday before I had to go offline for some therapeutic Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer, you don’t get to pretend you’re being mistreated when really, you’re just being treated like your voice isn’t the only important one in the room anymore.

Oh, and — people who signed that petition: you want to know the real reason why you’re getting so much disrespect from the rest of the genre right now? It’s because you and your friends keep pulling shit like this while the rest of us are just trying to keep the lights on and put food on the table. It’s like Republicans passing bill after bill to fuck up reproductive health rights while the economy’s in the toilet; what the hell does this have to do with anything that matters? You got yours. You’re still getting it. You had every advantage in your favor, and you used the hell out of it. Good on you. But stop pitching shitfits just because the rest of us want a piece of the pie — the pie all of us helped to create — too.

Freedom of artistic expression does not trump good common sense, and at least a perceived modicum of morality (whether divinely inspired or by human agreement and consensus), or an innate sense of fundamental ethical awareness. -Dave Truesdale***

Yeah. Right.

* And that’s just one week.

** Despite the fact that the First Amendment has nothing to do with this situation, because SFWA’s not the government. The “spirit of the First Amendment”, right. Funny how they focus on the Amendment’s spirit of free expression but not its spirit of inclusivity, etc.

*** Hat-tip to Nick Mamatas, for reading through Truesdale’s stuff so I didn’t have to.

Fave Reads of 2013

Yikes! This went up days ago and I forgot to link it here. Bad author! No biscuit. In my defense, though, I’m up to my neck in trying to finish a revision of The Fifth Season, so all the little things are kind of falling by the wayside. Like — oh. Happy new year. :)

Anyhow, my favorite stuff of 2013 is up over at The Book Smugglers, if you’re still looking for a way to burn those holiday gift cards and whatnot. Enjoy!

Concern trolling and “gratuitous diversity”

I really wasn’t planning to engage with this semicoherent muddle by Felicity Savage over at Amazing Stories. Half my Twitter feed has been laughing at this article for days — it’s usually amusing when people who don’t understand a thing attempt to critique it — but I don’t find it funny, just sadly exemplary of the kind of cluelessness that abounds within this genre, and Anglophone society as a whole.

But it got pointed out to me that Steve Davidson, the AS editor, has jumped into the discussion to try and clarify the muddle. It hasn’t helped much, but I think the gist of what he, and ostensibly Ms. Savage, are trying to say is right here:

I think that calling into question gratuitous examples of diversity advances a valid argument: stating that a character belongs to a particular minority while not backing that character up with background and characteristics that make them genuine representatives of that minority is, in many respects, gratuitous. The point of featuring non-majority characters is to expand our experience and knowledge, not to make a work more marketable. (And other things, like creating more opportunity, providing good role models, etc)

I, for instance, am bothered by television commercials where it is obvious that some corporate hack somewhere demanded that “one of every kind” be visualized in the commercial. They’re not genuine portrayals, they’re contrived and as such distort.

Really, Steve? That’s what bothers you?

Let me tell you what bothers me.

Concern trolling. Y’know, when someone “participates in a debate posing as an actual or potential ally who simply has some concerns they need answered before they will ally themselves with a cause. In reality they are a critic.” (From here.) It’s not lost on me that neither Mr. Davidson nor Ms. Savage have done or said much to advance the cause of “genuine diversity” in SFF — whatever they think that means — unless they’re doing it in so esoteric a way that I simply can’t recognize it. Quite the contrary: Ms. Savage seems to have advocated against full inclusion for women in adventure fantasy*, and judging by her ridicule of Expanded Horizons in the article, it’s clear she’s not all that interested in racial inclusiveness in SFF either. Not fictionally, and not in real life:

Fandom has tried to develop this literal-minded concept of diversity in real life with the establishment of “safe spaces” for female and non-white fans at conventions. It hasn’t always worked too well, owing to a problem with gawkers. The Angry Black Woman, a blogger, had an unfortunately typical experience at WisCon in 2010: her squee was harshed by “people who just stared into the POC safe space room like it was a particularly interesting zoo exhibit complete with pointing.” Pity the poor black fan who can’t attend a convention without people touching her hair or asking her to teach them about negritude. But also spare a wee drop of compassion for the straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered male! He’s lectured on his lack of diversity, told to read more stories about and by people with diverse perspectives–and yet when he tries to approach them in real life, it all too often … doesn’t end well.

Yes, pity the poor straight white guy, endless recipient of profane anger whenever he drops a bit of earnest, well-meaning bigotry. (Warning for Shetterly, linked and in the comments.) So pathos. Much meanies. WOW.

Indeed, the only kind of diversity Ms. Savage expresses a positive interest in is this kind:

Twitter post by Felicity Savage dated 11-29 stating: Valid disagreement. This is my kind of diversity - diversity of opinion! Personally I like...

Twitter post from Felicity Savage dated 11-29, stating: ...SFF that doesn't get bogged down in contemporary identities, but builds worlds I couldn't have imagined.

She concludes: “I want characters to be themselves, not reflections of us.” To which I can honestly say good luck, if she intends to write nothing but characters who are unimaginably non-reflective of human identities. I’m thinking the only way to write a character who reflects no human identity is to write a non-human — since after all, all humans have gender, and all humans have race, even if these are only things which have been ascribed to them by the reader. But y’know, I kinda don’t think what she’s doing here is some revolutionary call for more non-humans in SFF. I get the impression that what she’s calling for is unmarked default characters — i.e., characters whose identities aren’t mentioned, or who at least don’t force her to pause and think about whether and how they belong. But presumably she understands the point of all this gratuitous diversity that so irks her — which is the fact that in English-language literature, only straight white men are granted the privilege of unquestioned ubiquity. If we want to change that, we need to see more non-straight non-white non-men popping up in SFF, as gratuitously as straight white men do.

So what we have here in Ms. Savage’s post is an expression of concern about the rise of “gratuitous” diversity… framed by a call for more straight white men. And what we have in Mr. Davidson’s call for “minority”** characters who genuinely represent their own background is… the very gratuitous superficiality that he claims he doesn’t espouse. Because, well, he only demands that “minority” characters justify their existence in a given narrative. Only women and people of color (etc.) risk being less-than-genuine for appearing alongside dragons and spaceships without reason. There has to be a point, see, whenever people like me pop up in fiction. We’re there only to “expand our experience and knowledge”, to educate; we can’t just be kicking around for the same reasons white men would be. I mean, really: if we’re not doing something black (or gay or Jewish or whatever), why are we even there? Because, amirite, God knows we’re not marketable.

And we never will be, with friends like these.


* Yeah, OK, we live in a world where 95-lb child soldiers have been used to conquer nations, with and without modern weapons; women soldiers really shouldn’t be that hard a stretch of the imagination.

** Scare quotes are because it’s a bit silly to refer to 3.5 billion women or 1 billion Muslims (or whatever) with a term that suggests they’re only a small portion of humanity.

Contemplation, at the end of a season

It’s the end of awards season in SFFdom. The Killing Moon was published in May of 2012, and I meant to address this in May of 2013, after it had been on the market for a year — but when the book got nominated for a Nebula, a Locus, and the World Fantasy Award, I decided to wait and see if it won any of them. Alas, it did not. (The Shadowed Sun won a Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice, tho’!) That said, the old aphorism that it’s an honor just to be nominated is very much truth for me, and here’s why.

I consider The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun to be my first novels.
Continue reading ›

Reading along with Mark

I’ve been enjoying the hell out of my own books lately, thanks to Mark of Mark Reads/Watches/Does Stuff. I mentioned before that he’s been doing a read of the Inheritance Trilogy lately, and I’ve been following along. He’s at the penultimate chapter of the first book now, and… well, hell, just watch him:

For bonus points, count the number of times he says, “FUCK!” or “THIS BOOK!”

Let me tell you guys: it’s an unbelievable thrill for me as an author to watch someone react to my work like this. A good chunk of writing is trying to manipulate your reader’s emotions — yeah, I said it — and seeing if it worked is better feedback than even the best writing group or critique can offer. It’s also so gratifying to know that someone noticed a turn of phrase or line I was especially pleased with, and it’s awe-inspiring to know that someone finds my words, my little words, profound. Even though I wrote The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms years ago, watching this is doing wonders for my writing now, because it’s helping me refine and better-understand just how hard to hit something, or whether a delicate glancing blow would be more effective. Mark, if you’re reading this, thank you. And fellow authors, if Mark decides to do a reading of your work, brace yourself, because you’re in for an amazing ride.

To that end, I have just commissioned 10 videos for the last few chapters and end-material for The Kingdom of Gods. I feel a little weird commissioning readings of my own work, though, so to make myself feel better I’m going to throw down a challenge gauntlet and rope you into the fun too. :) Most of The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods have not been claimed thus far. So if you’re enjoying these videos too, then please commission a chapter yourself — it’s only $25, though please note the rules on length — and I will match your commission, up to $250. So if just 10 of you commission a video, I’ll do 10 more, and between us we could get most of the trilogy covered!

But even if you can’t commission anything right now, please spread the word about Mark’s awesome Reads. Seriously, these deserve to be seen far and wide.

New York Comic Con

After taking last year off, I’m heading back to NYCC this year — though only for a day (Saturday), since I generally find comic cons overwhelming and exhausting. But I’m making a nice packed day of it!

First off, I’ll be doing a signing at 1 pm at the Orbit/Hachette booth. I’m told there will be copies of The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun available! Second off, at 2:45 I’ll be on a panel sponsored by The Mary Sue on underrepresented groups in geek media. Lastly at 6:30, I’ll be on Geeks of Color ASSEMBLE!, on specifically PoC in fandom and media.

Maybe I’ll see you there!

How Long ’til Black Future Month?

In celebration of Janelle Monae’s new album, which I’ve bought but haven’t listened to yet since I’m holding it as a carrot/reward for meeting certain writing goals over the next few weeks… here’s an essay that I wrote for Jonathan Wright’s ADVENTURE ROCKETSHIP! Let’s All Go To The Science Fiction Disco anthology. If you haven’t done so yet, check out both!

Note: this is the not-fully-proofed not-final draft of the essay.

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? The Toxins of Speculative Fiction, and the Antidote that is Janelle Monae

Continue reading ›

Cover for THE FIFTH SEASON

Wah! I’ve been so busy at work I didn’t have time to post this here. But fortunately The Mary Sue is on the case. Here (and there) is the cover for the previously-Untitled Magic Seismology Project:

Book cover featuring a stone embossing flecked with gold inlay. Text reads "THE FIFTH SEASON. Every age must come to an end. N. K. Jemisin"

I haven’t talked much about this book because busy. But I absolutely love this cover. The Fifth Season is set in a world which has suffered frequent, repeated Extinction Level Events for millions of years, and all life (and magic) in this world has adapted to it. Hundreds of years might pass between these events — easy, plentiful years in which great cities rise, and people have the leisure for art and science and rapid advancement — but then, again and again, the cities fall. The world is littered with the detritus of these times of plenty, and this cover hints at them: past ages of decadence, now decaying; stone that endures beneath flaking gilt. Lauren Panepinto (Orbit’s Art Director) has nailed it again.

Whee!!


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