In my journey out here in the hinterlands, I have begun writing again. To get good enough at it to gain any note, or even sell a few books still is a far off dream. There have been several notable black Science Fiction writers – Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, and Steven Barnes to mention the best known. For many years black writers shied away from presenting black characters, and some even used pseudonyms to publish their work.
So it is great to see that, one, there is a new generation of black speculative fiction writers, and two – that one has won the titular award in the industry – a Hugo. A victory that didn’t come without racist push-back from the alt-right.
A conversation with the recent Hugo Award-winner about science fiction, race, gender, power, and Trumpism
Last week, the World Science Fiction society named N.K. Jemisin the first black writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, perhaps the highest honor for science-fiction and fantasy novels. Her winning work, The Fifth Season, has also been nominated for the Nebula Award and World Fantasy Award, and it joins Jemisin’s collection of feted novels in the speculative fiction super-genre. Even among the titans of black science-fiction and fantasy writers, including the greats Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, Jemisin’s achievement is singular in the 60-plus years of the Hugos.
The Fifth Season is a stunning piece of speculative-fiction work, and it accomplishes the one thing that is so difficult in a field dominated by tropes: innovation, in spades. A rich tale of earth-moving superhumans set in a dystopian world of regular disasters, The Fifth Season manages to incorporate the deep internal cosmologies, mythologies, and complex magic systems that genre readers have come to expect, in a framework that also asks thoroughly modern questions about oppression, race, gender, class, and sexuality. Its characters are a slate of people of different colors and motivations who don’t often appear in a field still dominated by white men and their protagonist avatars. The Fifth Season’ssequel, 2016’s The Obelisk Gate, continues its dive into magic, science, and the depths of humanity.
Just a year ago, the idea of a novel as deliberately outside the science-fiction norm as The Fifth Season winning the Hugo Award seemed unlikely. In 2013, a small group of science-fiction writers and commentators launched the “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies” campaigns to exploit the Hugo nomination system and place dozens of books and stories of their own choosing up for awards. Those campaigns arose as a reaction to perceived “politicization” of the genre—often code for it becoming more diverse and exploring more themes of social justice, race, and gender—and became a space for some science-fiction and fantasy communities to rail against “heavy handed message fic.” Led by people like the “alt-right” commentator Vox Day, the movements reached fever pitch in the 2015 Hugo Award cycle, and Jemisin herself was often caught up in the intense arguments about the future of the genre.
I spoke to Jemisin about her works, politics, the sad puppies controversy, and about race and gender representation in science-fiction and fantasy the day before The Fifth Season won the Hugo Award. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Vann R. Newkirk II: Tell me more about the creative process that goes into this trilogy. This seems like a huge undertaking.
N.K. Jemisin: It is, and this is the first time that I’ve ever done one continuous story all the way through three books. Trilogies are relatively easy when each story is a self-contained piece, which I’ve done for all of my previous books. I have a lot of new respect for authors who do like giant unending trilogies just because this is hard. It’s a lot harder than I thought it was. But I’m enjoying it so far. It’s a solid challenge. I like solid challenges. I had some moments when I was writing the first book where I was just sort of, “I don’t know if I can do this.” Fortunately I have friends who are like, “What’s wrong with you? Snap out of it!” And I moved on and I got it done and I’m very glad with the reception. I’m shocked by the reception, but I’m glad for it.
Newkirk: You’re shocked by the reception? This seems like something that is tailor-made to be a hit right now.
Jemisin: Ehh. You may have seen some of the stuff that’s been happening in the genre in terms of pushback, reactionary movements and so forth. Basically, the science-fiction microcosmic version of what’s been happening on the large-scale political level and what’s been happening in other fields like with Gamergate in gaming. It’s the same sort of reactionary pushback that is generally by a relatively small number of very loud people. They’re loud enough that they’re able to convince you that the world really isn’t as progressive as you think it is, and that the world really does just want old-school 1950s golden-age-era stalwart white guys in space suits traveling in very phallic-looking spaceships to planets with green women and … they kind of convince you that that’s really all that will sell. Told in the most plain didactic language you can imagine and with no literary tricks whatever because the readership just doesn’t want that.
Newkirk: For you, are those people something that bothers you as you build a profile? Are people louder now that The Fifth Season is getting so much love?
Jemisin: They may be, but I’m not hearing them as much. I seem to have passed some kind of threshold, and maybe it’s something as simple as I now have so many positive messages coming at me that the negatives are sort of drowned out. As a side note, the so-called boogeyman of science-fiction, the white supremacist asshat who started the Rabid Puppies, Vox Day, apparently posted something about me a few days ago and I just didn’t care. There was a whole to-do between me and him a few years back where he ended up getting booted out of SWFA [Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America] because of some stuff he said about me, and I just didn’t care. It was a watershed moment at that point but now it’s just sort of, “Oh, it’s him again. He must be needing to get some new readers or trying to raise his profile again. Or something.” I didn’t look at it. No one bothered to read it and dissect it and send me anything about it. No one cared.
I think that’s sort of indicative of what’s happening. To some degree, as I move outside of the exclusive genre audience, the exclusive genre issues don’t bother me as much. Maybe that’s just speculation. I’m reaching a point where I’m still hearing some of it, but it’s just not as loud, or maybe it’s just focusing on different points. I don’t know. It’s still there. It’ll be there. I think that the Hugo ceremony at this upcoming WorldCon is going to be another not-as-seminal moment as last year when the Puppies tried a takeover that was somewhat more successful at the nominating stage and where they got smacked down roundly at the actual voting stage with no award after no award. I don’t think that’s going to happen this year, and I don’t think it matters as much. But who knows? I’ll guess we’ll see. If I win I’ll be happy. If I don’t win, I’ll be happy. I’ll continue to write…Read the rest here…