The Big Idea: N.K. Jemisin
I have admiration for writer N.K. Jemisin. Not only because she’s one of the most accomplished and exciting fantasy writers to arrive in the last few years — as the praise and award nominations for the Inheritance Trilogy series of books gives evidence for — but because she looks up from the computer more than occasionally and thinks and writes cogently about the world around us. In her Big Idea for The Kingdom of Gods, the concluding book of the trilogy, Jemisin nods toward what’s going on the world and the US right now and tracks the parallels in the books.
Revolution is on my mind a lot, these days.
(Don’t worry; I’ll keep this non-political. Mostly.)
Maybe I shouldn’t say “revolution.” I should say “societal change”, because that’s all revolution really is. All human societies go through these kinds of upheavals; they’re normal, natural. Things fall apart, the center does not hold, a new center appears. Sometimes it’s just the same old center with a new veneer — but the fact remains that it had to change to survive.
At the center of everything, in the universe of my Inheritance Trilogy, are the gods. They’re who the story has been about all along, even though the first two books of the trilogy have focused on humans caught up in godly affairs. So what does revolution/societal change mean when gods are involved?
We have plenty of examples of how this goes in mythology. In general, societal change among gods is… messy. Think Ragnarok. Think Cronus castrating his father and noshing on his own kids. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms, the first two books of my trilogy, we learned that there have been not one but two major upheavals among the gods: the one called simply “the Gods’ War”, which was pretty much an Extinction Level Event for mortalkind (they got better); and a quieter but no less brutal war between the gods and their half-god, half-mortal children, called demons. The demon war wasn’t so much a war as an extermination; the gods won hands down. But a few demons survived — as did the psychological fallout of that war, because now everyone knows that the gods are willing to kill off their own flesh and blood, if necessary, to maintain their power. Which has left the gods’ loyal full-blooded children, the godlings, kind of concerned for the past few millennia. Because nothing stays the same forever, even among gods.
Societal change doesn’t have to be violent, though. There have been plenty of bloodless — or relatively low-blood — revolutions in human history, including a few recent examples. Still, it’s human to fear change — and given that the gods in my books made humans in their image, fear of change is a perfectly natural reaction for gods, too. Especially when that change threatens one’s own safety or whatever power one has accumulated within the old system. We’ve seen how this happens, over and over again: those for whom the old system never worked lay the groundwork for the change. Those for whom it sorta kinda halfway worked eventually join them, depending on how much they’ve got at stake — and it’s these people, the ones who once supported the status quo and then turn against it, who often have the most impact. They’re the canary in the coalmine, so to speak; the sign that something must change, or the society itself will collapse.
But that’s usually when those for whom the old system was perfect freak the hell out. Sometimes they fight back, and that’s the point where things can get ugly. Sometimes they read the writing on the wall and make concessions before that point, so that at least they can retain some control over the change. Either way, the change occurs.
Until that happens, fear can make people do strange things. I’m a USian, and I can’t help noticing that we’ve become awfully apocalyptic lately, as a society. Every time I turn around, there’s a new end-of-the-world movie coming out in which the world as we know it gets destroyed. Now, I like a good apocalypse as much as the next girl — especially one with zombies — but… really? We just got through one period of apocalypse hysteria in the late Nineties, when everybody was terrified of Y2K; since then it’s been one apocalypse or another. The end of the Mayan calendar. This guy. This movie, which was bad enough to qualify as an apocalypse all its own. Basically, I’ve been hearing about the end of the world in one form or another for twenty years. I’m plum apocalypsed out.
We’ve even got people in our government actively working to bring about the End Times — But whoops, I said I wouldn’t get political. Back to my point.
There’s a school of thought which holds that this “apocalypse fever” is a kind of mass freak-out by the people who hold power in our society (like the people who greenlight films in Hollywood). They see change coming, and to some of them it probably feels like the end of the world. Some would rather see the world end before that time of transformation comes, because at least they’ll theoretically go out while they’re still on top. I get it; there’s a certain romance in this. In a postapocalyptic society, there’s an elegant solution for the biggest problems: shoot them in the head. Or take off and nuke them from orbit. (It’s the only way to be sure.) A lot easier, and probably more fun, than dealing with problems before an apocalypse.
But fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on your personal viral load of apocalypse fever — most of us can’t trigger an apocalypse whenever we feel like it. Gods, unfortunately — or fortunately — can.
So. The Kingdom of Gods, third and final book of the Inheritance Trilogy, tackles these problems from the perspective of the gods, as they face a time of epic change. I tried to reflect this change in a few ways: on the micro scale, as Sieh (the god of childhood) inexplicably begins to grow up, and on a larger scale, as the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms of the world finally turn against the Arameri — the ruthless, power-obsessed family that has controlled everything for the past few millennia. But this is epic fantasy centered on gods, so why should I stop with something so minor as the complete overthrow of the world order? Must’n’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling. So while all this is brewing in Sieh’s personal life and human society, one of Sieh’s fellow godlings decides it’s time to strike a blow for freedom against the ultimate oppressors: parents. Or in this case, the three gods who created and control all reality.
There’s more to the story than this — a rather complicated romance, several mysteries, an eternal boy forced to confront adult mortal problems — but I think I’ll stop there. Don’t want you to revolt, after all.