Must Epic Fantasy Be Set in the Past?

Happy post-Labor-Day, for you Americans out there. I spent the weekend relaxing with friends, eating peaches and drinking peach-flavored wine, and writing — blissfully writing. ::happy sigh:: It’s been awhile since I could write as much as I wanted. Felt really good.

Anyway. Earlier this weekend (starting September 3), I inadvertently provoked a sprawling discussion on Twitter by wondering out loud, “Does fantasy have to be set in the past, or use bygone technology?” It was a good convo — included reviewers like Niall Harrison and Rose Fox, as well as fellow writers Justine Larbalestier and Nnedi Okorafor. Go check it out.

However, I’ve been noodling a corrollary to that question: “Does epic fantasy have to be set in the past, or use bygone technology?” Because I tried to think of an epic fantasy that’s set in the future — one which is clearly fantasy, not just space opera with a little handwavium a la “Star Wars” — and it took some effort. I suppose one must consider “Star Wars”, since it fits many of the tropes: there’s a prophesied Chosen One, a Dark Lord (who’s even called a dark lord), a quest, a Five-Man Band, there’s magic (however much they BSed it with “midiwhatchamacallits”) and despite the ubiquity of laser pistols, the decisive battles are mostly fought with swords. But it takes more than tropes to make a fantasy, IMO, and as Lucas has continually expanded/revised the SW universe and franchise, he’s mostly added science fictional tropes: aliens, weapons based on actual Science, the occasional bit of real astrophysics. It’s clear that he intends for it to be science fiction, so I’m inclined to give him that — lest he retcon even more skiffy stuff into it and render the conversation moot.

But fictionwise, textually, the only other clear example I can think of is Weis and Hickman’s “Star of the Guardians” series. Which, like SW, is peppered with enough science fictional tropes that it’s debatable.

But does futuristic epic fantasy have to look like soap opera, and resemble past-oriented epic fantasy so closely? Must it contain swords, Chosen Ones, prophecies, all that? Is there any epic fantasy in a postapocalyptic setting? (Hmm. Maybe Steven Boyett’s Ariel and Elegy Beach qualify. Or Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series.) What about dystopian settings? Any epic fantasies set in the near/high-tech future, maybe cyberpunk? (Might “the Matrix” qualify? OK, but that’s not textual.) Could there be such a thing as an epic fantasy with a hard science fiction aesthetic?


…is up here! Chapter 1, too, if you missed it.

A brief public service message

Saying this because in the past couple of days I’ve had some Incidents, both professional and personal, and I’m beginning to be Pissed Off. Warning for profanity.

Let me make something clear: I talk about race, gender, and other issues of social justice because I have to. Because if I want to survive in this business, I don’t just have to adapt myself, I have to adapt the field itself — or I will die young of a heart attack or a stroke or something. But this does not in any way mean I talk about race and gender because I enjoy doing so. I don’t. It sucks up energy I desperately need to stay afloat while I’ve got two demanding fulltime jobs. And nobody really listens, anyway — for every one person I reach, five more declare me a PC Nazi and run off to lament the passing of the Good Old Days when they could be assholes with impunity. But as long as the literary field still reeks of bigotry, I feel I have no choice but to continue calling it like I see it. If I want change I have to act. See something, say something, etc.

However. I’m getting a little tired of so many people in the SFF genre treating me as N. K. Jemisin, Professional Black Woman.

At most conventions I go to, I get asked to be on the “race panels” (I stopped saying yes last year, except at cons like Wiscon where there’s a reasonable chance that the moderator and audience will not be clueless). In almost every interview, I get asked how I feel about Octavia Butler — even when I don’t mention her as a literary influence. (She’s not, ya’ll. She’s a career influence; knowing she made it in this business made me realize I could do the same. But in terms of her subject matter and writing style? No.) I’ve been invited to write for probably a dozen anthologies that have diddlysquat-all to do with the kind of stuff I usually write; it’s painfully clear in some cases that they’re just trying to increase their table of contents’ diversity. (I say no.) Walking down the hall at random events, random strangers ask me to teach them how to do a better job of writing people of color — WTF, people, at least offer to buy me a drink first, if you’re going to impose on my time like that. This is apart from the fact that I get mistaken for every other black woman in existence everywhere I go. At Worldcon I was Nalo Hopkinson, twice. So in some people’s eyes I’m clearly not even N. K. Jemisin, unique Black Woman. I’m just… Black Woman. Able to represent everyone like me and educate the clueless in a single bound.

Oughtta get a damn superhero emblem.

Look, I am a black woman. That’s not a problem. People notice my race and gender, I get that; that’s not a problem either. I certainly notice everyone else’s various identities. That’s the way the human species works. This is not what I’m complaining about. What pisses me off is being tokenized, essentialized, stereotyped, and being noticed for nothing but my racial and gender identity. How many motherfucking awards do I have to win to stop people from doing that? (Or will that just make it worse?)

Because I am also N. K. Jemisin, Author. I am N. K. Jemisin, New Yorker and former Southerner. How ’bout N. K. Jemisin, Counselor? N. K. Jemisin, Gamer? N. K. Jemisin, Pretty Good Cook and Lover of Good Restaurants? Or at least just N. K. Jemisin, Extremely Busy Person? Yeah, all that’s me, too.

So I’m establishing a rule. The next time somebody starts treating me like N. K. Jemisin, Black Woman, I’m going to ask that person what else they know about me. Just a simple question. Nothing rude about that, is it? I’m just going to make sure they see a little bit more of me than my skin, or my tits. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Snippets 2: The Gods’ Realm

(Snippets 1 is here.)

One of the things I had to spend a lot of time on, in creating the Inheritance Trilogy, was figuring out what went on in the gods’ lives when mortals weren’t around to see them. This was something that I knew might never actually show up in the story — the gods are the focus of the trilogy, but it’s their interactions with mortals that matter most — but I still needed to understand it. I’ve heard other writers compare worldbuilding to an iceberg, and I think that analogy fits perfectly: readers see only ten percent, but writers still have to imagine the other ninety. So even though the story wouldn’t spend much time there, I had to imagine the unimaginable: the gods’ realm.

The first snippet comes from an alternate version of The Broken Kingdoms — one that would’ve focused on Shinda, Itempas’ half-mortal son, whose murder helped drive Itempas over the edge, and whose blood poisoned Enefa. In this version I experimented for awhile with the idea that Itempas — being Itempas — would naturally lay claim to any son of his and take the boy away from his mortal mother (who might, after all, be a less-than-perfect parent) in order to raise him in the gods’ realm. Itempas would’ve justified this as an experiment to see whether demons and gods could somehow coexist, long after the demons’ holocaust. But it would’ve eventually become clear that demons do not belong in the gods’ realm, so a familiar figure appears to guide Shinda to the next stage of his life.

Continue reading ›

Here, have a pretty.

Folks who follow me on Twitter already saw this, but otherwise it’s buried in the comments of the previous post. So I decided to bring it out here where everyone could see, since the author was kind enough to share it with me, and since it’s amazing:

Nahadoth as imagined by Casey

Click to biggify, which is well worth it. Original here at Casey’s art Tumblr, where you may comment to the artist directly. I don’t know Casey, and haven’t yet mastered the mysteries of Tumblr so haven’t sent a response to her — but Casey, if you’re watching, my response is WOW. As I said on Twitter earlier, I’m a very lucky author, ’cause ya’ll, I got the best fanartists.

Feel free to send more, folks. Note that I won’t always have the time or wherewithal to devote a post to it, but I’ll try.

Reading outside the lines

Just flew in from Reno, and boy are — ::slaps self::

Sorry. Punchy from the jetlag, hangover, sleeping on airplanes, and oxygen deprivation. Just got back from Worldcon, which was in the quite lovely town of Reno, Nevada. Unfortunately it was in an unlovely series of spread-out, smoke-filled, noisy-with-many-blinky-lights casino hotels, which I might’ve enjoyed more if I was a gambler or a smoker. I’m neither, so I spent much of the weekend trying to fend off sensory overload, watering eyes, and potential emphysema. (On a completely different level, I can’t help but admire the social engineering of casinos like that. They’re elaborately designed to get you lost — but steer you inevitably towards the slots floor — and to keep you from noticing the passage of time outside. The bathrooms and restaurants are next to impossible to find, but the ATMs are right there in your face. The bars are too loud to talk in — but that’s fine, because every seat has built-in electronic gambling to keep you occupied. Fascinating.)

Anyway, the con itself was nice, as was the delightfully smoke-free convention center. Didn’t win a Hugo, alas — but I’m OK with that, as I hadn’t really expected to win given the slate I was up against. Congrats to Connie Willis and the other winners!

Anyway, since I was scheduled for five panels, the writers’ workshop, a reading, and all the Hugo stuff, I didn’t get nearly as much time to socialize as I would’ve liked. Most of my conversations were conducted while walking from one end to the (very far away) other end of the convention center, often with me fumbling with my smartphone in one hand and balancing a much-needed cup of coffee in the other. But I had one very brief, and very interesting, conversation that I think I’d like to continue here.

What was the last book you read that fell outside the range of your usual stuff? How often do you read such material? Do you consciously, intentionally seek it out, or happen onto it and read only reluctantly?

I ask because someone challenged me with that one at the con, after I’d challenged her to read something she said she hated but had never actually tried — a romance novel, specifically. We were discussing the benefits of trying new things, in part because in the previous panel I’d mentioned being bombarded at Worldcon with people saying that they “didn’t usually like fantasy” (and in fact only read my book because it was in the Hugo packet) but they liked my book. I wondered whether the experience had helped make any of the non-fantasy readers less rigid in their resistance to fantasy, or more able to see the value in something they’d previously scorned. I’d also made the statement that I thought it was crucially necessary for SFF fans to try reading outside their own identities — race, gender, etc. –in order to eliminate some of the genre’s most aggravating and nonsensical cliches.

My conversation partner then asked what I’d done lately to step outside of my own comfort zone, and I did have to stop and think about it it. Because, well, I haven’t, not in the last six months or so. That’s partly because I barely have time to read at all these days, let alone read outside of my preferred areas of fantasy, science fiction, economics, food activism, history, and other stuff I read for worldbuilding chewiness (e.g., The World Without Us). But my lack of time is no excuse; I’ve found time for other good books recently. So I’m overdue for a dose of reading diversity.

Maybe I’ll pick up a mystery; it’s been awhile since I read one. Possibly an American comic book? Something classic, perhaps; haven’t read anything more than 20 years old in awhile. Dunno.

But what about you? How long’s it been since you mixed it up a little in your reading list?

The Kingdom of Gods Final Cover

At last! The final version of book 3’s cover is here, for you to enjoy:

Enjoy! Oh, and check out Orbit Art Director Lauren Panepinto’s thoughts on the design!

Worldcon Schedule

Yes, I will be at Worldcon next week, ’cause hey, possible Hugo. But I’ll be doing other things besides! Like this:

  • Fri 13:00 – 15:00, Writers Workshop (with Louise Marley as a co-host!)
  • Fri 16:00 – 17:00, Manga: Which Book Series got You Hooked? (Panel): An introduction to manga.
  • Fri 17:00 – 18:00, Post-Modern Fantasy, Epic and Otherwise (Panel): There’s been considerable discussion of Fantasy, Fantastika, and Post-Modernism. What is this about, and why is it interesting for those who read, review, or critique present day fantasy?
  • Sat 12:00 – 13:00, Autographing
  • Sat 15:00 – 16:00, Exploring Social Justice via Science Fiction (Panel): How then does science fiction address social justice? How can writers convey ideas through characters and world-building without being preachy? Can authorial distance provide a single political interpretation? The reader’s role in constructing the politics of the work will not be neglected in the discussion.

And also, the Hugos. If you’ll be there too, look me up!

Snippets 1: The Broken Kingdoms

Going to try something new now, as I lead up to the publication of The Kingdom of Gods (remember, kids: October 27th!). I’ll try to post these once a week or so.

Like many authors, I make lots of false starts in the process of writing a novel. Some had legs, but just didn’t go far enough toward my goal; some were badly-written crap; some would have been beautiful — in a different novel. I tend to keep most of my significant text cuts, just because I’m a textual packrat and I’m always worried I might change my mind about that turn of phrase, this patch of description, and be unable to recreate it just that way if I delete it. So instead of deleting those bits, I store them in “snippets” files, one for every book. I’m going to share a few of the better snips here and explain why I wrote them, and why I didn’t continue them. Note: spoilers will abound in these posts, so consider this your fair warning.

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Considering Colonialism

A few years back, I read a great anthology: So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Meehan. Having not really started studying historical analysis or the impact of colonialism back then, I wasn’t entirely clear on what “postcolonial” meant. “Colonial” I got, since as a longtime fan of SFF I’d read scenario after scenario of stories about people from one society establishing beachheads in another, whether as invaders or friendlier visitors. But what was the “post” part all about? Reading the definition didn’t really bring it home… but that anthology did. In its pages I found several of the basic premises of SF reconsidered and re-centered. Instead of Us vs “the Other” there were stories from the Other’s PoV, othering “the us”. These were stories of what-happens-next, picking up where the alien invasion tales of Hollywood usually end; there were stories of Us becoming Them, via assimilation; there were stories of Them influencing Us without really noticing or caring about the results of Their cultural invasion, and vice versa. It took me awhile to process what I read from that anth, and I’m still chewing on it, though it’s been years since I first read it. As you can probably guess, I’m highly recommending this one. (And to whichever of my friends I loaned it to, I want it back, doggone it. ::gimlet eye at the universe::)

I didn’t make a conscious choice to tackle the subject of colonialism in the Inheritance Trilogy. I just developed the worldbuilding in a way that made sense to me. But in the wake of stuff like that anthology, and the fact that I had begun to understand how “isms” operated in intersecting systems, and the fact that I’ve been reading a lot of history that some would call “revisionist” when in fact it’s the stuff I learned in school that was pretty much made up out of whole cloth revised — well, let’s just say that what made sense to me after reading SLBD versus what had made sense before, was very, very different.

As an illustration, let me list some of the worldbuilding differences between the original version of the book that became The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and the version that I wrote 12-ish years later:

  1. (Old version) Most of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms were happily, inarguably Itempan; there was no examination of how most of them became Itempan. The Enefadeh — a term I used to refer only to the mortal worshippers of Enefa — were the only dissident sect. (New version) Most of the world is reluctantly Itempan, and people remember that their ancestors were forced or coerced into the faith. Most of these “converted” cultures have pockets of their old faiths, practiced in secret; the old faiths are varied, one for every god/godling, and sometimes different forms of worship for the same god. The gods themselves have tried to retain something of their old culture despite pressure to conform; in this version of the story, “the Enefadeh” refers to the gods who’ve chosen to remember the old ways and who refuse to submit to Itempas.
  2. (Old version) There was mention of other races, but most had been so assimilated/mixed that all of them except the Amn were “vaguely uniform brown”. The protagonist’s home culture had been fully assimilated in every way, but was just poorer. (New version) The protagonist’s home culture had been forcibly assimilated but managed to retain something of itself — their own language, their own customs kept in secret, their own phenotype — and was poorer as the direct result of policies implemented by the Amn and global bias against those cultures deemed “darkling” (those that had been forced to assimilate, versus voluntarily doing so).
  3. (Old version) The Enefadeh were treated as weapons, yet the Arameri still referred to them as “Lord” or “Lady”, because they’re still gods and deserving of basic respect. Viraine was the one to torture Nahadoth, but he did so without the other Arameri’s knowledge, and for his own purposes. (New version) The Arameri make a calculated and sustained effort to disrespect and dehumanize the captive gods — not just abusing them physically and sexually, but destroying their worshippers and maligning their contributions in doctrine and history, and even refusing to acknowledge that they are gods.
  4. (Old version) The protagonist was male, so I didn’t touch on the gendered aspects of colonialism much — I could’ve really explored what it means to be a man in Darr’s still-mostly-matriarchial culture, but I didn’t. (New version) With a female protag, I could explore the ways in which Darren sexual and reproductive customs have been altered to suit the tastes of the Arameri. Also, in this version I show that Kinneth’s sin wasn’t just marrying beneath her station; she could still have come back to the Arameri for awhile after doing that. It wasn’t until she let Dekarta know she was pregnant — that she had stooped so low as to interbreed with the Other — that Dekarta had her struck from the family rolls. (Note: I didn’t make this explicit in the text because the story is about Yeine’s effort to piece together the mystery of the past; no one knows what happened in the final conversation between Dekarta and Kinneth except them. But I could imply it via the timing, so I tried to do that.)
  5. (Old version) The gods are gods, period full stop. (New version) The gods are gods, but they’re also effectively another sentient species sharing the planet with mortalkind, and there are cultural and power-balance implications to that sort of thing that I decided to explore in this case. For example, mortals gain the power of magic by accident, thanks to interbreeding with gods — and the gods feel threatened by this, which eventually triggers the Gods’ War.

There’s more, but I think that’s enough of an example. Like I said, not all of this was consciously, deliberately constructed in the new version of the story/world. It’s just the kind of worldbuilding that makes sense to me now.

So, obviously I now have a taste for postcolonial SFF. I still don’t have a ton of free time, but when I do, recommendations for interesting worldbuilding would be welcome! Any suggestions?