A season of endings has begun. It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world's sole continent, from which enough ash spews to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter.
It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.
And it ends with you. You are the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where orogenes wield the power of the earth as a weapon and are feared far more than the long cold night. And you will have no mercy.
OK, to start this post off, I have to say that it is only for people who have already read The Fifth Season. Haven’t read it yet? This post is not for you.
No, seriously. If you haven’t read TFS, scram.
Oh, so you wanna be hard headed.
OK. But I am not responsible for any damage done to your reading experience, if you continue. And if I may say, TFS is a lot more fun with its surprises unspoiled. But from here forth I’m going to assume you’ve read it.
I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately, and it’s been hard to keep track of them. I post them on Twitter or FB usually, but I wanted to point to this one in particular since it contains a lot of behind-the-scenes info on The Fifth Season and the Broken Earth trilogy. MASSIVE SPOILERS HEREIN, and I strongly do NOT recommend you listen to it if you haven’t read TFS. But for those of you who’ve read the book, you might find it interesting. A great Skype-based interview with Mahvesh Murad of Midnight in Karachi.
So, now that The Fifth Season is out, I can finally talk more about the making of. Over at Scalzi’s I blogged a bit about why and how I chose to use second person, among other things. Now I’m going to talk about creating the Sanzeds, the orogenes, and the stone eaters.
BTW, after further thought on this topic, I’m going to use the words “race” or “people” rather than “species” in talking about these groups because all three are obviously people. It used to bug me to see “race” used in lieu of species, particularly when the human race is depicted as consisting of a single race (nearly always white people). That approach seemed to encourage treating orcs, demons, etc., as substitutes for human non-white races, which is super-problematic. But I think using “species” may feed into the tendency of fantasy to treat groups that are equally sapient as somehow lesser because they’re different. “Race” emphasizes personhood, IMO, where “species” emphasizes inhumanity. And in the case of the Broken Earth trilogy, personhood matters. (Also, I’ve played a lot of Mass Effect, and once you’ve romanced Garrus someone of a different species, you start rethinking words like “dehumanize” and how they apply within a secondary or far-future world. But I’ll save those thoughts for another post. Also, Garrus is the best space dinosaur boyfriend ever.)
So, I still don’t like the idea of maps in fantasy novels in general. But I needed one as I wrote The Fifth Season, so after I scrawled something hideous in a Microsoft Word file and sent that to Orbit, and the collective screams of horror died down, they worked with artist Tim Paul to create something much better (click to embiggen):
Yeah, OK, I could get to like maps a little now. Maybe.
Seriously, Tim did an awesome job, especially considering he got a lot of vague guidance from me like, “I can’t remember if those pokey things are mountains or canyons,” and “Can you make the tundra more tundra-y?” (I’m not kidding when I say I don’t do maps. Just not a very visual person; I have trouble transforming what’s in my head into a two-dimensional maybe-to-scale unavoidably distorted rendering.) I love the end result.
ETA Paul’s actual maps site, instead of his illo blog!
Confession: I had a despair moment again while writing The Fifth Season. Convinced myself that it was just too strange, too dark, too hard to write, and no one would ever want to read it. I actually called my editor and discussed whether I could just turn the trilogy into a standalone, wash my hands of the whole thing, and go cry in a corner somewhere. Fortunately, Devi had the sense to tell me to calm down and go think about it first, which I did. And more fortunately, friends helped talk me back from the (artistic) cliff. Now as the positivereviewsroll in, all of them are giving me “I told you so” attitude, and that’s okay. They were right. I’m glad I listened. Thanks, guys.
Well, enough maundering. I’m currently about 90,000 words into the second book of the trilogy, which means it’s just about on schedule to be turned in at the end of this month. Going to be tough to make good progress this week, though, because I’ve got a crapton of Launch Week activities lined up — like a launch party tonight, if you happen to be in the Brooklyn area and want to drop by. The next sample chapter of The Fifth Season is up, if you needed another taste to help you decide. If not, and you’re sold, then links are in the sidebar. I can’t promise you’ll like it, but I can say we’re all in for a wild ride.
I did a recent talk for the Writers’ Digest Online Workshop and Annual Conference on worldbuilding, in which I basically explained how I do what I do, and led participants through an exercise in creating their own world. I’d hoped to actually do the exercise in realtime, using some poster paper and audience participation, but alas, ran out of time. There’s a good example in the Powerpoint, though. Note that if this doesn’t make sense in places, remember that it was meant to be shown alongside me talking and filling in conceptual gaps. But hopefully you can figure it out. PDF file for download.
And I’ve got some stuff lined up in the next few weeks. I will not be doing a book tour; I’m still in Deadline Hell on book 2 of the Broken Earth trilogy, which is due at the end of August. So this is it for big events… but I’m amenable to the occasional podcast appearance or phone interview. (No guestblogs or text interviews, sorry; those eat up too much writing time.)
Week of July 27th: Goodreads giveaway
Some lucky people will have a chance to win a free signed copy of any of my novels, including The Fifth Season. (Seriously, you guys, I’m drowning in author copies; gotta do something with ’em.) Unfortunately this will be US-only; I can’t afford to mail things to other countries right now. Sorry! Will post those on Twitter when the giveaways begin.
Just saw a trailer for the Shannara TV series that’s soon to exist:
Very pretty. Don’t think I’m going to particularly go out of my way to see it, because at this point I’m a little tired of New Zealand landscapes, orcish hordes, and John Rhys-Davies. I like Tolkien, but I was never a fan of Tolkien clones in textual form, and the film medium doesn’t make them any more palatable. But those of you who are Shannara fans, yay! Enjoy.
I got distracted from the cool landscapes and glowing beads and so on, though, by the fact that once again this trailer depicts an apocalypse that makes no demographic or sociological sense. First off, why would a far-future magical America transform into anything remotely resembling medieval northern Europe, complete with British accents? But more importantly… This is specifically a far-future Pacific Northwest, or so the decrepit Space Needle would suggest, yet it appears to be populated entirely by white people and Manu Bennett. (Or at least I’m told Bennett is in the trailer. If so, he’s there so briefly that I didn’t see him despite viewing it twice.) Well, wait, some of the non-human characters appear to be played by actors of color; there’s one at 2:30 in the trailer for about half a second. Okay. So while it’s possible the show itself features more than this, the show is being advertised with an all white cast plus a token magical brown person, and literally dehumanized PoC. Well, alrighty then.
::sigh:: Let me note once again that choices like these are not neutral in any SFF. They are even less so in fantasies which — intentionally or unintentionally — evoke the real world and real historical erasures. Against the backdrop of systemic racism, every casting choice develops added meaning. This production doesn’t even have the excuse, weak as that one always is (summary and good discussion, for the un-Tumblr’d), that it’s set in some alterna-European country and therefore the exclusion of people of color is somehow justified. This is America, and one of the most diverse parts of Canada. These nations have never, except in the most fevered wish fulfillment fantasies of historical revisionists, been all white.
And that is precisely what we end up with, when this kind of fantastical exclusion gets layered onto the site of real historical exclusion: racist wish fulfillment fantasy. (Way to go, MTV.) Narratively, the exclusion suggests some Shit Went Down after the collapse or the plague or whatever it was that created this future world. What kind of shit? Genocide, apparently, on an epic scale. Eugenics, maybe, since apparently the orcish folks are some sort of mutant; that touches on the long, ugly history of medical experimentation in this country. So now I wonder why I should be particularly entranced by the stirring saga of a magical white supremacist utopia, or near enough to qualify. Don’t I have to deal with enough racist fantasy in real life?
(Note: I haven’t read the Shannara books, at least not past the first few chapters of the first one, so I have no idea if any of the characters are people of color. I’d be pleased — delighted — to know that this is only the doing of the TV show producers and not Brooks himself.)
But let me not single out Shannara; this isn’t the only recent post-apocalyptic story I’ve seen that suggested by the jangle of their appropriated trappings (or the ominous silence of their exclusions) genocides and internments and the Tuskeegee-ing of vast swaths of the human race. As I skim through future after future — some of which seem cool as hellat least on the surface — I begin to realize that most of them bear this creeping evidence of an entirely different apocalypse that happened before the cameras started to roll. And since it’s now 2015, and we have had these discussions again and again and again… now I’m starting to think it’s intentional. Now I’m wondering whether SFF creator after SFF creator is just so fucking horrified by the existence of people of color that they have to wipe us out again and again, without so much as a grave marker.
It probably isn’t intentional. Probably. But that’s the problem with tossing an unacknowledged race war into the background of your post-apocalypse, see. In these post-Charleston days, it’s become clear that plenty of people out there really do want a race war to happen — which means that fictional depictions of same become hard to wave off as simple carelessness. Especially not after the fifth, the tenth, the twenty-fifth, time.
Well. Maybe I’m just feeling especially salty about this because I’m writing my own post-apocalyptic fantasy right now.
The Fifth Season isn’t set on Earth. That’s not a spoiler. I don’t intend to ever write that kind of “but it was our world all along!” gotcha into any of my novels, because at this point it’s a badly overused trope. And as I’ve just shown, it’s usually used badly, without sufficient care for the complexity of real-world social science. Readers, I promise you: if I ever write Earth it will be recognizable as such, and it will be plausible — a future to which you can draw a line of reasonable extrapolation from our currently 52% female and 80% PoC planet. And by every god who doesn’t mind the oath, if I put an apocalypse in something, you will know it. None of this inferred, unintentional shit.
(This isn’t what the trilogy is about, BTW. It’s about wars that have become background noise and secrets with geologically long histories and how people love when they cannot possibly protect the people they love. I’m just saying that the setting makes phenotypical, sociological, human sense as the characters go about their business. At some point someone’s going to throw a mountain at someone else, and there’s some talking-statue shenanigans, but there will be motherfucking black people in it. And Asian people, and multiracial people, and queer people, and women who are built like brick houses and Mack trucks, and so on. Because I refuse to ever write a fantasy in which magic is believable but human beings aren’t.)
So the moral of the story, or the point of this post, is: SFF creators, keep track of your apocalypses. If you don’t actually believe that the survivors of that plague or that meteor would divert energy from survival to systematically exterminating millions of people, then don’t “accidentally” write futures where that obviously happened. Or at least if you do it, have the courage to go whole hog with it. Some of our best — and worst — SFF has come out of thoroughly brutal explorations of what can happen when human beings let their bigot flag fly. If you’re going to go there, then go there — consciously, thoughtfully, and respectfully of the real Middle Passages and Trails of Tears and Holocausts you’re using as inspiration. Some material deserves better than an afterthought.
And if you’re not prepared to go that far, then just stop. Your worldbuilding needs work; you can’t handle the apocalypse yet. Talk to a variety of futurists. Read some actual history so you won’t reinforce any more unexamined white supremacy, or at least not by accident. Read outside your comfort zone for awhile. Then, once you’ve learned more about the actual world, you can play with its future — or its end.
Remember, kids: apocalypse responsibly. Your readers/viewers will thank you for it.
I’ve been sitting on the news of this for a few months now, waiting for the cover, etc., so I could squee about it in the shiniest way. But in addition to writing “The Awakened Kingdom” as a palate-cleanser after The Fifth Season, I also wrote some shortier shorts. I’d intended them to just be fun stress relievers, a chance to play with style in a familiar milieu, but the result ended up being so good that I thought, “Readers should see this.” So now you can.
From the shadows of the greater stories, away from the bright light of Sky and wending ’round the sagas of the Arameri, come three quieter tales. A newborn god with an old, old soul struggles to find a reason to live. A powerful demon searches for her father, and answers. And in a prequel to the Inheritance Trilogy, a newly-enslaved Nahadoth forges a dark alliance with a mortal, for survival… and revenge.
So: ask me anything about these tales, here in the comments. And note that you can preorder this triptych now at Amazon, B&N, iTunes Books, and other major retailers! It launches July 28th, 2015.
No, seriously. Beyond whether “The Wheel of Time” could get a Hugo, or whether you, personally, like short fiction or not. Did you consider how proposal B.1.3 looks, both within and outside SFFdom? What message it sends about WSFS priorities?
Consider the context. In a year when there’s been intense mainstream-media coverage of an attempt to ideologically tarnish the Hugo Awards, effectively making them less representative of the genre’s current dynamism and way more representative of racist white guys’ vanity publishing, this proposal compounds that problem. Let me break down how this looks to people outside of the WSFS process.
The “sagas” proposal privileges not just established authors as John Scalzi notes, but established successful white male authors. Systemic bigotry being what it will, it’s tougher for people from underrepresented groups to survive in this area, let alone thrive in the way that a multipart series would indicate. We need rooms of our own, so to speak. We’re writing from perspectives that tend to break away from the “comfort food” factor that sagas satisfy, of sprawling, rugged power fantasies set in strangely Middle-Americanish futures and carefully cropped medieval Europes. When we do find publishers for (or self-pub) our works, they get less buzz — from professional reviews to the endless “Best SFF of the year” lists composed entirely of white male authors. It’s hard enough to start a career under these conditions, or to sell any single book, but selling well enough to manage a second, or a third, or however many books it takes to get up to 400,000 words, is something that happens only for writers who are very, very fortunate.
(And yeah, I’m well aware that I rank among the fortunate; the Inheritance Trilogy probably would qualify for this “sagas” category.* The Broken Earth might, though I’m only halfway through the second book now so it’s too soon to tell. But notice how few other women of color are successfully writing multipart epic fantasy. Trust me; that’s not because we’re incapable of imagining stories of epic struggle.)
And then there’s the novelettes clause. Scalzi covers a lot of reasons why this is an absolutely terrible idea, and I agree with all of those. But in addition, as C. C. Finlay has also pointed out, the novelette category has until lately been a good entry point for new and underrepresented writers to gain recognition. Why? For all the reasons “sagas” privileges established successful white guys, basically: short fiction must rely (usually) on quality rather than preexisting financial success to prove itself; it requires a much lower investment of free time to write; and short fiction in general is less about comfort food than challenging the reader with new ideas and perspectives. The competition is actually more fierce for short fiction than it would be for sagas; there are more markets willing to publish novelettes than there are publishers willing to grind out multiparters, and the short fiction markets pump out multiple stories, multiple times per year. It’s just that fewer of the barriers that make it hard for non-white non-men to compete exist here. Women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups usually do pretty well when they’re working with a level playing field.
So let’s review. In a year when misogynists, white supremacists, and homophobes have already managed to use the Hugos to advance their own interests, along comes this proposal making it easier for privileged white men to gain recognition, at the direct expense of the marginalized. I’m going to assume it’s an unintended consequence that this proposal effectively reinforces the Puppies’ efforts; there’s been no reason to think that anyone on the WSFS is anything other than professionally neutral on the matter. Until now.
So, c’mon ya’ll. Did you really think this through? Is this the best time for B.1.3? Are you really willing to throw short fiction under the bus just to give bestsellers another accolade? Do you mean to throw a level playing field under the bus, to give more affirmative action to successful white men?
Think about that again, please. Seriously. Think about it again.
* Some of my readers asked whether the Inheritance Trilogy could be nominated for a Hugo, same as the Wheel of Time, especially with a new novella published in 2014 making it “complete”. I told them no, because I thought it was wrong for the same work to be nominated again when parts had already been nominated for Best Novel in previous years. But I could have pushed the issue.
I’m unable to go to Sasquan this year, but I bought a voting membership. If you’re actually going, plan to attend the Business Meeting. Might want to bring popcorn.