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.

“The Next Big Thing” Meme

Last week I got tagged by buddy Kate Elliott to participate in The Next Big Thing, a meme that’s been going around. I’m slow, so only just now doing it (d’oh). But this looks fun, so here goes. I think it’s meant to be filled out by someone who’s got a soon-forthcoming novel, but I’m going to treat this as a between-series snack and just talk about everything I’ve ever written.

Cutting for brevity!
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Fantastic Profanity

So today I’d like to talk about fantastic profanity — by which I mean not “really good” profanity, but “made up for fantasy and science fiction” profanity. Therefore this post will contain quite a bit of cussin’. FOR ART AND SCIENCE. You are warned.

There are some words that are universally vulgar, in my opinion. I only speak 1.25 languages — English and just enough of a few other languages to mangle them all magnificently — but in my vast experience I haven’t yet found a language that doesn’t treat either the act or the product of defecation as something rude/crude to talk about.* Nobody likes shit.** But several languages that I’ve thus far encountered seem to have no vulgarization for the act or various by-products of sex. Not being a linguist, I can only speculate as to the reason for this, but my guess would be that Anglophone countries tend to be kind of sexually regressive and repressed, so naturally “fuck” is one of our harshest epithets. We don’t like sex. Many other cultures think it’s no biggie, and they find other things to malign in their slang. So when I’m creating a new fantasy world, if I want to include a fantasyism for “fuck”, I have to pause and do some deep thinking about whether this is a culture that’s got some issues with sex. And if so, then I have to think about why they might have issues with sex. In Anglophone cultures, most of our hangups about sex have to do with religion; Christianity doesn’t like sex. That’s because Christianity enshrines Western cultures’ various forms of patriarchy as doctrine — in England, frex, sex was the means through which men historically passed on property rights to their sons. In order to know who their sons were, men had to control the source of those children, i.e. women, which meant sex with women had to be rigidly controlled. (Ditto sex with men, actually, though to a lesser degree, and any other forms of non-procreative sex. While I’m at it, it’s kind of remarkable how many cultures’ religions have made statements about sex with farm animals. But I digress.)

But in cultures where property can be passed to anyone, sex doesn’t need to be regulated to the same degree. An example is ancient Egypt (researched this while writing the Dreamblood). Granted, ancient Egypt’s culture changed lots over its 3000+ year history, but as far as historians can tell, Egyptians regarded all property as belonging to the gods. It was merely overseen temporarily by the Pharaoh and officials for the benefit of the whole community. …So, naturally, the Pharaoh and high officials owned most land, and everybody else paid those folks rent. However, among landowners, anyone — male or female, firstborn or other, relative or some random schmoe the landowner chose — could inherit their parents’ property. In fact there was a special “land overseer” or judge/official in most Egyptian communities who made sure property was fairly distributed, precisely to prevent arguments among the children/acquaintances of property owners. This might be why — as far as I can tell — the Egyptians did not have a vulgar word for sex. They also didn’t particularly care who fucked whom or how said fucking occurred; their lore is rife with lurid tales of marathon oral sex sessions, hilarious anal sex follies (well, hilarious for the people hearing about it), and sex contests to honor the gods. (Seriously. As a harvest celebration, villagers would sometimes imitate Nut and Geb: a chosen couple would lie beside the river, and the woman would kneel over the man. The man would then try, using just his penis and while lying on his back, to have intercourse with her — generally while his fellow villagers were looking on and laughing it up. I think the idea was to give the gods a good laugh, too.)

Which means that before I toss off a “frak” or a “frell”, I have to decide whether and why the people of this society have such a problem with sex that they’ve made a curse of it. How do they handle property? Is it especially important that men know which children are theirs? If so, how have they codified this — does their religion mention sex? Do they listen to that religion, mostly? And so on. I didn’t use “fuck” in the Dreamblood because that was based on ancient Egypt. In the Inheritance Trilogy, though, most of the story takes place in the patriarchial parts of the world (Amn-controlled or -influenced nations, which is most of the world). I imagine there was no “fuck” in the Darre language because the Darre were matriarchial, and a woman always knows who her children are; there’s no question in primogeniture. But the Amn are slightly patriarchial — once more so, though they’ve egalitarianized over the ages — and the remnants of that patriarchial past linger in their language. Moreover, I had to consider what curses gods would use, since they exist as another culture in this world. That’s how I came up with “mortalfuck”, which Sieh used in The Kingdom of Gods. Gods have trouble having meaningless sex with mortals; they can’t quite help sharing something of themselves whenever they copulate, and catching feelings as a result. Mortals are painful to love, though, because they will inevitably die. So although gods fuck each other with abandon — sometimes even the abandonment of form and flesh altogether — fucking mortals is an altogether different thing, risky and potentially devastating. Worthy of an epithet or two.

“Damn” is worse, though. Goddamn it I hate the word “damn”. Because the instant I want to use it, I have to stop and consider a fantasy culture’s beliefs about the afterlife. Do they have a Bad Afterlife Place to which people can be damned? Who does this damning, and why? Why is being damned such a problem? I mean, if the culture has an afterlife that’s full of ice cream and rainbows — or if they don’t believe in an afterlife at all — there’s no reason for “damn” to exist as a word. But since I come from a culture that constantly rants about the afterlife, my own language is deeply permeated with damnation, and that one slips out even when I don’t want it to. Every time I write a short story I have to do a scan for damns, because I always include them, and they don’t always belong.

In my novels I’ve gotten around this thus far by writing worlds that have a Bad Afterlife Place — the infinite hells of the Inheritance Trilogy, the shadowlands of the Dreamblood. Right now, though, I’m working on the Untitled Magic Seismology Project, and it’s a very different beast. In this world of frequent catastrophic seismic events, life is pretty damn (argh) harsh, so they regard death as a relief, not something to fear. And most cultures of this world don’t have much religion, in part because every few centuries there’s an Extinction Level Event that reboots society. Not much time to develop or syncretize beliefs. The majority of nations at the time of the story have been influenced by the oldest country in the world, a sprawling Romanesque empire which views Father Earth as god — and they hate him, because he keeps trying to kill them. There’s a bit of self-blaming cosmogony around this: they believe that some of their ancestors pissed off the earth by becoming too numerous. But for the most part they just think the earth is an evil dickwad who is and will always be the Enemy. So these are the curses I’ve come up with thus far:

  • Evil Earth (e.g. “Evil Earth I’m tired. Let’s get some rest.”)
  • Earthfires/Underfires (e.g. “The town… it’s gone.” “Earthfires, no…”)
  • References to earthquakes or volcanic activity — which they call “shakes” and “blows”, and which allows me to use “blows” for a similar-yet-different reason to the way modern English does. (e.g. “What a shitshake.” “Yeah, that blows.”)

But then I had to also consider what they would value in this world. Property’s not much of an issue; most parts of this world are essentially socialist, with a central authority in every community apportioning property in ways that will best-benefit everyone. This does cause problems in times of plenty and ordinary seasons, but it’s a lifesafer during the years-long volcanic winters, when nobody has the time or wherewithal to waste on arguments about inheritance or paternity. So if land doesn’t matter, what does? The answer I came up with was stability. This is a world in which people avoid coastlines (because of frequent tsunami) and faultlines whenever possible; only the poorest people are forced to live in such areas. The ideal community is built on good solid bedrock; the biggest cities are located at the center of a tectonic plate. And given that early metallurgy would not provide especially useful building materials — most primitive metals have relatively low flexiblity and are quite brittle — this is a society which values stone over metal. Most metal rusts, after all, and even wood was more reliable at certain points in our own world’s history. And since this is a world littered with the remains of past civilizations, it’s easy to see that certain kinds of building materials and techniques stand the test of time better than others. In this world no one spends a lot of time wondering why a past civilization died. They just note that it did, and they figure it’s best not to repeat past mistakes.

So they swear by stone and curse by metal. A kept promise is “stonebound”; an unreliable or unlikeable person is a “rusting [cockcrack/daughter of a moocher/son of a cannibal/etc]”. When Essun (the story’s main protagonist) is feeling especially creative or pissed off, she says “Rust it and burn it in the earth’s steaming hot ass crack”, and so forth.

…I’m having a lot of fun with this, if you’re wondering.

So that’s what I’ve been up to lately. You?

* If you know of a language that doesn’t have a vulgarity for shit, tell me.

** If you do like shit, don’t tell me.

Assorted Awesomeness

Sorry for the silence lately; holidays, travel, the usual. Back now and getting into the swing of things again, so here’s a little of what I’ve been up to:

The folks at Open Road Media have created a series of advertisements for Octavia Butler’s novels, which are being released in ebook form at last now that it’s the 25th anniversary of Dawn — not her first novel, but arguably her first hit. (If you haven’t read the Lilith’s Brood books, read them. They’re my favorites of hers.) The first one came out a few months ago, showcasing Butler’s agent, some of her friends, and… er… me:

Recently they’ve released a new video that’s all me. ::wibble::

Considering that they took about an hour’s worth of footage — yeah, that’s my apartment in the background, they came and set up a little studio, it was all kind of weird, but they really liked my blueberry-mint lemonade — I’m amused by how carefully they edited these to trim out my babbling and “um”-ing. They make me sound so smart! I spoke as much about race as about gender, and a lot about the state of science fiction in the aftermath of Butler’s presence, so there might be more of these.

In other news, The Killing Moon is up for a Goodreads Choice Award! It’s got some stiff competition, including books I’ve enjoyed lots, so it’s definitely an honor to be nominated (and reach the semifinals).

And in social networking news, just a quick update: as you know readers, I keep track of most of the reviews I find on my novels over at Del.icio.us. There are new reviews of the Dreamblood books linked now. And I now have a Pinterest account, if you follow such things. Not much in it yet.

And to end on a lovely note, just saw this piece of fanart from sqbr on DeviantArt, based on the characters from my steampunk short “The Effluent Engine”. Isn’t it so cute and sweet? Go tell sqbr so!

two women in 1800s dresses, one in tophat and other in glasses, sharing a romantic moment

Toodles!

Predators, the GOP, and you

People sick of American politics and American media, you might want to look away from this one. Or not. Also, I reserve the right to use copious profanity throughout this post… because it involves American politics and media.

Still from the movie Predators. Shows all main cast members, including one black guy, one woman, etc.

Guess who lives? Guess who dies? YOU CAN PREDICT THE WHOLE MOVIE’S SCRIPT FROM THIS ONE IMAGE.

For various reasons on Sunday night — mostly having to do with the fact that I can’t beat that one hidden boss in the Dragon Age 2: Legacy DLC wtf why doesn’t Anders heal faster he’s so damn useless and seriously why is Sebastian even in this game — I found myself watching Predators (2010) on TV. I’d been vaguely interested in seeing the film back when it was out in theaters, but something warned me not to, so I didn’t. So I got to see it on cable, sans the first 20 minutes in which I wasn’t paying attention while I made dinner… and wow. What an utter mess. My instincts were completely correct.
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More Awesome Compilations I’m In

I’ve been remiss in not talking about this one here, but I have to admit I’m a little disorganized and frankly I just forgot about it — until editor and anthologist extraordinaire John Joseph Adams reminded the world that this baby is out now:

Cover of EPIC, showing some of the names published.

EPIC, the ultimate anthology of short-form epic fantasy, from some of the biggest names in the genre and also newbies like li’l ol’ me.

Here’s the Table of Contents. Yeah, just bask in that for awhile. Then if you’re interested, it’s shipping already from Amazon and B&N in the US, and I suspect other retailers will have it up soon. My story in the volume is The Narcomancer, which, granted, is up free. But it’s also a sample of what kind of stuff you can find in this volume — self-contained short fiction set in some of your favorite epic fantasy story worlds, and maybe some new worlds you’ve never seen before.

I do think it’s hard to do epic fantasy well in short form. I’ve done it, a few times, but I have to admit that one of the reasons I write so many novels is because short stories frustrate the hell out of me sometimes. I mean, once you’ve invested so much in creating a complex, detailed world, it’s frustrating to just… stop. But every big world has little stories, and some of them can be quite powerful and profound.

I talk more about “The Narcomancer”‘s creation here. An excerpt:

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

It kind of wrote itself, actually! I do wish I’d done more research before I wrote Ginnem, the male Sister. I’d intended for Ginnem to be a trans woman, but I worried that it wouldn’t seem plausible for a Bronze Age society to so readily accept a person with male organs who identifies as female. But if I’d done my research, I would’ve realized many ancient societies did just fine with transgender issues; it’s our (American in my case) modern society that’s hinky about it. So instead Ginnem is a transvestite–identifying as male, “performing” a female role because that’s what he has to do to belong to the Sisters. Still gotta do some learning in that area.

Check it out!

Oree: Pinup Style

This is amazesome, you guys. I’m not even gonna shrink it down; you’re just gonna have to look at it in its full magnificence. Though I will cut for slightly NSFW artful nudity.
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YAY Dystopia!

Whenever I see the phrase “YA dystopian”, it scans as “Yay! Dystopia!” in my head.

I say this because I am perhaps not the best person to write dystopian stories. For one thing, I’m generally a cheery soul. For another, I don’t really believe in most of what SFF posits as dystopia. All societies have good and bad aspects, and any society that proves stable for the long term is one that works for the majority of its people, however horrific it might seem to outsiders. One person’s nightmare is another person’s Tuesday. That’s the thing, though; most dystopian fiction doesn’t depict the kind of society that would be stable in the long term — not without some sort of artificial engineering of human sociology or external pressure keeping it going. Most of the dystopias I’ve read are so unrealistic, so extreme, that most of their citizens would be miserable; no one would put up with that. There’d be a revolution, for good or for ill. So sometimes I write dystopias that feature artificial/external pressures — like human colonies struggling to survive on a hostile planet, in the case of my story “Bittersweet” (which unfortunately seems to not be posted at Abyss & Apex anymore… I’ll post it here shortly if I can’t find a way to link it there). Most of the time, though, I write dystopias set right here in America, or in recognizable variations on future America. “Valedictorian” is an example of the latter. It’s also my first YA dystopian, and it appears in After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia (eds Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling), which is out today.

Cover of anthology. Person's silhouette against image of a burning city.

“Valedictorian” is set in an ordinary high school in a middle American town, and it follows an ordinary teenage girl, Zinhle Nkosi, as she strives to become the top student. Except, no one else is striving against her. There’s a reason for that.

Zinhle earns top marks in all her classes. The teachers exclaim over this, her parents fawn, the school officials nod their heads sagely and try not to too-obviously bask in her reflected glory. There are articles about her in the papers and on Securenet. She wins awards.

She hates this. It’s easy to perform well; all she has to do is try. What she wants is to be the best, and this is difficult when she has no real competition. Beating the others doesn’t mean anything because they’re not really trying. This leaves Zinhle with no choice but to compete against herself. Each paper she writes must be more brilliant than the last. She tries to finish every test faster than she did the last one. It isn’t the victory she craves, not exactly; the satisfaction she gains from success is minimal. Barely worth it. But it’s all she has.

AFTER has gotten a lot of positive buzz already, including an elusive and rare positive review from Kirkus. Last Short Story also did a podcast review of the anth, with some intensive discussion of several stories — including mine! — along with an overall review. So check these out. Also, for those of you who are in the NYC area, I and some of the other authors in the anth will be doing a reading/talk at Books of Wonder on Thursday night.

And then if you’re feeling all “Yay! Dystopia!”, buy it — and tell me what you think!

Wealthy is she who has such friends

So I had a little shindig this weekend:

Panorama image of people at party

I don’t usually celebrate my birthday on my actual birthday. That’s ’cause I work in education and September is to us as April is to accountants — an extended fugue-state of overwork and chaos that can only be endured, never eliminated. (And that’s why I haven’t updated the blog much lately; sorry.) This year, tho’, was many things: my 40th birthday, my 5th year in NYC, etc. I’d been hoping to take advantage of the beauty of a New York autumn and have a rooftop party. So I asked my friends Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman if I could borrow theirs. (Also, a cup of sugar.) They live in a building whose rooftop is made for parties and has an awesome view of the Hudson and the lower Palisades; if the weather had cooperated, it would’ve been perfect.

But. The evil demons of construction intervened! And sadly the rooftop was closed off for surprise renovations. I contemplated cancelling the party, as I didn’t really have time to scout around for an alternate location. However! D&E, wonderful people that they are, offered instead their gigantic, elegant, fantasy-author’s-dream apartment, which is full of fascinating little tchotschkes and busts of creatures that never existed and numinous depictions of perfectly ordinary things and surprise poems by Neil Gaiman. So I decided to proceed. And it. Was. AWESOME. There was wine (oh so much wine), and music, and a sticky toffee pudding as birthday cake, and hilarious conversation. The photo above was taken using the “panorama” setting on my camera, which I totally didn’t know existed, and which takes and overlays three pictures on top of each other which is why my father looks like a ghost and I have three hands. But still. AWESOME.

It’s nice to have friends.

(Also, I received three submissions in my call for tattoo art — thank you! I haven’t had time to do more than look at them and wibble over how cool they are, but they’re all excellent. It’s hard to choose! More on this later.)

Shameless Begging for Presents

My birthday is in one week. I’ll be turning the big 4-0, and yeah if you’re wondering I’m having a party; if you’re a friend of mine and in NYC you’ll get the invite soon. (Dayjob madness means I never celebrate the big day on the big day; it’ll be closer to the end of the month or early October.) But in addition to a party, I’m doing something else to celebrate: I’m gettin’ a tattoo.

I mean, most people have their midlife crisis at this age, right? I got mine out of the way at 30, when I looked around and realized I was miserable in Boston, in debt up to my eyeballs, and nowhere near my dream of becoming a published author. So I got a new job and moved to New York, tried to manage my finances better (and eventually got out of debt), and started making a serious effort at getting published (which worked). I’m actually pretty content with my life these days, so I’m not sure what else I can have a midlife crisis about. But that’s OK! I can still pretend to have one, at least superficially. I’m not much interested in getting a sports car — you know how much parking and insurance costs in NYC? And I wouldn’t say no to some cute young thing, provided he likes the right books and although my definition of “young” includes fortysomethings so I’m not sure that fits the midlife crisis paradigm. But the tattoo? That I can do.

And I’ve always wanted to get a tattoo based on the Gatherers’ tats in the Dreamblood. Specifically I want a stylized blue lotus on one shoulder, and a black rose on the other. (Yes, Nijiri and Ehiru’s Gatherer marks.) In my head, these symbols are a cross between Adinkra and Egyptian hieroglyphs — thick black lines, simple, elegant. But since the world of the Dreaming Moon isn’t Earth, I didn’t want to just mooch actual Earth symbology. I’d like to make something new. The problem, though, is that I can’t draw. But some of you can.

So I guess this is a kind of contest. If you are so inclined, send me an image file (under 1 mb, please) with your rendering of what these two symbols would look like. If I like your design, I will a) showcase it here, b) send you your choice of any of my books, signed, or give you a raincheck for a future book, and c) have it driven into my skin with surgical needles. Cool?

Of course, if you just want to wish me a happy birthday (in a week), that’s cool, too!

Forthcoming Stuff

Apologies for the relative silence on the subject of writing lately, folks. I’m still hard at work on book 1 of the new trilogy I’m writing for Orbit, which as yet still has no real name other than “Untitled Magic Seismology Project”. It’s going slow, as all my new worlds are wont to do when I’m first creating them, but steadily — I’m at 25K words now. Hampered by the dayjob a bit, since it’s the beginning of the school year and I am working ALL THE HOURS, but there’s always the weekends. More on this much, much later.

Review copies of AFTER have been sighted in the wild! And you can preorder it now! The apocalyptically awesome ToC is here, if you don’t remember.

Cover of anthology. Person's silhouette against image of a burning city.

Also, been working on a seekrit project lately. I got invited to participate in the forthcoming 2013 Fantasy Pinup Calendar being put together by Pat Rothfuss’ Worldbuilders charity, with artist Lee Moyer. I have to admit, I’m a little iffy about pinups. In principle they’re a great idea, and beautiful when they’re done artfully enough… but in practice pinups have traditionally focused on white women to the exclusion of all others. Being the sort of woman who prefers beefcake to cheese, I initially thought about asking the artist to insert Nahadoth — though I would’ve left the choice to him as to whether to make Naha male or female, in deference to Naha’s nature. But then the artist and I talked, and I tentatively mentioned that being a pinup spread didn’t really fit the personality of any of my characters*… except one. Oree — snarky, hedonistic, unselfconscious thing that she is — would totally be tickled by the idea. But I’ve never seen a pinup with a black woman. They did exist — trigger warning on that link for some ugly racist remarks, and also borderline NSFW — but they were rare, and seen almost exclusively in publications aimed at the black audience, on the assumption that no one else would want to see a black woman looking hot. Which is painfully ironic considering all the ways in which black women have historically been sexualized in every other aspect of life. I worried, even as I suggested Oree, about contributing to the stereotype of black women as sexually voracious, etc.… but done tastefully, I think an image of Oree being sexy could be a positive thing. The problem with the stereotypes is their exaggeration of normal sexuality, and their transformation of ordinary women into caricatures of people. Maybe depicting an ordinary woman — one my readers will know, having “lived in her skin” for awhile — enjoying her perfectly normal sexuality, can help to combat that.

So I got to chatting with Lee, and talked about Oree’s personality, and how she doesn’t notice anything else when she’s painting, and how she really doesn’t care what other people think of her; she’s very self-contained, so to speak. She just wouldn’t give a fuck if people see her naked or nearly so; physical beauty means little to her, and modesty even less. She also doesn’t think like a sighted person; she’ll wear something because it’s made of nice-feeling cloth, or because it smells good, regardless of how it might actually look. Lee sounded so excited as we talked that I got excited too! So I’m really looking forward to seeing her. I’ll post the image here when I receive it. In the meantime, here’s the calendar cover — and check that list of contributors. ::wibble:: I’m in good company!

Cover of 2013 calendar

So, that’s things in Noraland. How’s it going for you?

* Nahadoth would’ve worked. But then Nahadoth is pretty much an eldritch abomination that just happens to be in humanoid shape; that kind of sexy has a serious side of creepy, and not everybody finds that a turn-on.


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