The Big Idea: N.K. Jemisin
Author N.K. Jemisin has a lot to be excited about today: Yesterday saw the release of her debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and the book is getting the sorts of reviews, starred and otherwise, that most debut authors can only dream about (“Multifaceted characters struggle with their individual burdens and desires, creating a complex, edge-of-your-seat story with plenty of funny, scary, and bittersweet twists,” reads one of those starred reviews, from Publishers Weekly).
But in the middle of all of that excitement in the present, Jemisin is thinking about history: Who writes it, what it reveals (and what it doesn’t), and what it means for the people who have learn their history or be doomed by it. How does this tie into her novel? Well, I’m glad you asked. N.K. Jemisin is on hand to tell you.
This week, in my copious free time, I’m reading Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. It’s basically a dissection of the history that most US citizens learned in school, and some of its core fallacies — like the idea that the New World was an undeveloped, sparsely-populated wilderness before Europeans arrived. In reality, Mann explains, the pre-Columbian Americas had a population to match that of Europe — much of it concentrated in sprawling urban-centric empires like those of ancient Rome. And like ancient Rome, these New World civilizations thoroughly engineered the landscape, building aqueducts and roads and planting forests to optimize hunting, fishing, flooding, and commerce. (Did you know there’s a “Great Wall of Peru”? I didn’t.) It’s a fascinating book, though obviously not without controversy, and it seems well-researched and well-written. I’m not done with it yet, but I’m enjoying what I’ve read so far.
Why am I talking about somebody else’s book when I should be talking about mine? Because this is the kind of thing that really gets me going: hidden truths. History is written by the victors, after all — which means that beneath many historical “facts” lie counter-facts and conflicting events, illogical assumptions and unrealized motivations, all of which would shake us to our foundations if we ever found out the truth. Maybe. Because there are always those who have reason to keep the truth alive, often at great personal risk, even if only via whispered tales and half-remembered songs. And yes, via a few lies too, told maliciously or through ignorance. One person’s truth is always someone else’s heresy. This is what I decided to write an epic fantasy about.
Hidden truth isn’t really a new concept in fantasy, granted. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” (LotR) trilogy is basically the coda of a much longer symphony that most of its principals don’t know they’re playing. Discovering the symphony’s earlier movements (OMG, Uncle Bilbo’s gag ring is really Teh Ultimate Accessory of Ultimate Eeeevil!!) is a big part of what makes the story “epic”. Thing is, what makes LotR work for most readers is that it isn’t really about the whole symphony. Although the scope of the story widens as each hidden truth is revealed, it remains resolutely centered on people — the hobbits, mostly — who are ignorant/innocent of the weighty history that precedes them. And they don’t particularly want to be enlightened. Even as they discover the truth, they don’t really care about it beyond its effect on their everyday lives and comfort. With the revelation of the One Ring’s origins, their whole world has been knocked off its foundations… but all they really want to do is put it back the way it was, so they can go home and have a beer.
This kind of epic fantasy has always felt incomplete to me, somehow. Yeah, sure, there’s a certain mental comfort food in the idea of putting the world back to rights. But there’s always a part of me that wonders, which rights should it be put back to? Did the heroes make the best choice, or just the easiest one? Who gets to answer that question? But such questions aren’t easy to answer, which is why I think a lot of fantasy simply doesn’t try.
So. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I start with a woman who isn’t happy with the world as it is. Yeine would like to go home and have a beer too — and she’s the kind of girl who would happily do so, though never to excess. (She’s very responsible.) That beer’s not likely to happen, however, because her kingdom is suffering through a terrible economic crisis and most of her people can barely afford food, much less beer. The reasons for this crisis seem simple at first: her people have offended the most powerful family in the world. Yeine’s mother, once a member of that family, committed the sin of marrying beneath her station — Yeine’s father — and the family disinherited her and blacklisted Yeine’s kingdom in retaliation.
Standard overthrow-the-tyrants fantasy plot, right? Well, no. In fact Yeine’s world exists in a golden age of peace and prosperity. War is strictly controlled and limited, slavery and child exploitation have been eradicated, starvation and illiteracy are rare, and all nations function at a baseline of technological and social sophistication so that none are left behind. All these wonders are the doing of a single family — the same family that’s tormenting Yeine’s people. Overthrow them, and the result would be anarchy, horror, and death on a global scale.
Or so they say.
But history is written by the victors in this world too, so Yeine spends most of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trying to figure out the truth about her estranged relatives and the sources of their power. But what happens if she learns the truth? What if those truths could destroy the world? Is she really doing a good thing by trying to put the world back to rights? Which rights should she put it back to? And will she make this decision based on what’s best for the world, or based on her own selfish motives?
These aren’t easy questions, and although the first book wraps up Yeine’s story pretty solidly by the end, I don’t think I go for the easy answers. The implications of Yeine’s decision will impact her world for two more books, and the ultimate outcome… well, I’m still writing Book 3. But let’s just put it this way: in the end, no one will want to put things back the way they were. Mostly because that would mean going through the whole mess all over again.
(I, however, will want a beer.)