The Big Idea: N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin is has been on a hot streak for the last couple of years; her novel The Kingdom of the Gods was nominated for the Nebula Award this year, and its predecessor The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was nominated for both the Nebula and the Hugo. That being the case, it’s not entirely a surprise that her latest novel, The Killing Moon, the first of two “Dreamblood” titles, is garnering starred reviews and other praise. So it might surprise you that the original idea behind The Killing Moon was maybe just a little silly. But as Jemisin explains, it’s not always just the idea, it’s what you do with it, and where it takes you.
I’m supposed to talk about the idea that touched off the Dreamblood duology here, but if I talked only about that, this would be a really short post. That’s because it wasn’t a very big idea, at least at first; really, I just wanted to write about ninja priests. Nothing grand or revolutionary, nothing especially thought-provoking, no gods or universes at stake. Just shadowy figures who would creep into people’s rooms in the dead of night and… I dunno, bless them to death or something. “Missed you at confessional today, Bob.” “Wha — AGCK!” That was how all this began.
But that’s the punchline of a bad joke, not a story, and fortunately the image that popped into my head to accompany it was considerably less silly than the idea itself. I envisioned a man — tall, shaven bald, remarkable in his stillness both physically and spiritually — standing at the foot of a bed and contemplating the person who slept there, whom he meant to kill. This man, this priest, would work only at night; indeed, night would be a holy time for him. And the clincher of his character was that he wouldn’t be doing it for some paltry material reward or to satisfy a bloodthirsty god; he would be doing it because he cared. He would intend only the best for his victims; indeed, he would be trying to save them from a far worse fate. He would love them. And what could be more effective — or relentless — than an assassin motivated by love?
This was the Gatherer Ehiru, protagonist of The Killing Moon, who spun himself in seconds from subconscious nothingness into conscious near-completion as a character. Once I had him, though, I had to begin the much more difficult work of figuring out what sort of society would harbor a man like this, and consider him an asset rather than a monster.
From the beginning I envisioned this story taking place in a land of warmth and water. I had a vague idea at first of placing it in pre-Columbian South America, possibly a fantasy analogue of the Incan Empire — but the place in my head felt much older, relatively speaking. It would be a society weighed down by tradition, I felt instinctively, and wealthy enough to support a large, powerful priesthood. It would be a civilized place, full of sprawling cities and temples, with an enormous populace and monuments huge enough to inspire awe… kind of like ancient Egypt. Since at the time I knew squat-all about ancient Egypt beyond what I’d picked up from many bad movies, I started researching it, and that only confirmed my choice. Egypt was perfect.
Next I tried to figure out why Ehiru — his name popped into my head too — would be sneaking into someone’s home to kill them. Obvious answer is obvious: for mercy. To ease pain or a lingering death. But that seemed too easy. Lots of societies have had to wrestle with how to care for their dying elders or deathly ill; none that we know of have evolved a cadre of mercy-killing priests. That suggested to me that there had to be something more involved. Something that would give the whole nation a stake in not only allowing but encouraging this priesthood’s activity. What could a priesthood provide that would benefit every citizen so much that they might be willing to sacrifice their sick and old…?
Health and longevity, of course, for the rest.
There are some obvious real-world inspirations here. Gujaareh is in many ways a land out of a Sarah Palin nightmare; every older citizen’s final days are decided upon by a literal “death panel” consisting of both priests and the person’s own relatives. Also, as an American I live under the constant shadow of worry that I will fall ill or get hurt during a time when I’m without insurance. For most of us that means bankruptcy at best, homelessness or a terrible death at worst. This fear peaked for me a few years ago, when I took time off 9-to-5 life to write the last two books of the Inheritance Trilogy — just as the housing crisis triggered the Great Recession. So although in day job life I’m a career counselor who’s never previously had much trouble finding employment when I needed to, I did that time. Oh, I had insurance via the Freelancers’ Union, for the “affordable” price of $400/month. (If I hadn’t lived in New York, where there’s a critical mass of freelancers [including writers], it would’ve been $1100.) But as my “writing year” ticked into 15 months, then 18, my savings dwindled first to dregs, then fumes.
I was lucky: I found a job about a month before I would’ve had to cancel my health insurance. But I know many, many people who haven’t been so lucky. And while in theory the Affordable Care Act might alleviate some of this fear (if it’s allowed to stand by the Supreme Court)… it’s not really a solution to the problem, just a small and ill-fitting band-aid.
But Gujaareh, the Egypt-esque land in which Ehiru plies his trade, has found a workable solution. In Gujaareh every citizen contributes to the system: they are required to make monthly tithes of dreams. In the hands of skilled narcomancers — the priests of the Goddess of Dreams — these dreams can be used to generate a kind of supercharged placebo effect, accelerating wound-healing and boosting immune response to nearly every disease. Wet dreams can be used to encourage abnormal growth — the regeneration of lost limbs, for example — while nightmares stop abnormal growth, such as cancer. But the most powerful dreams, which can ease the most debilitating mental or physical pain and extend life itself, is obtained only at the moment of death. That’s where Ehiru and his fellow priests come in… and that’s when I realized I had a real story on my hands.
I also had to figure out Ehiru himself, and the circumstances that drive him to kill people out of love; the priesthood that supports and controls him like a family, and the theological cosmology behind it; the political and economic pros and cons, and the kinds of hard choices Gujaareen citizens have to make; and most importantly I had to figure out all the ways this whole system could go horribly, horribly wrong. But I don’t want to spoil any more.
So I guess we’ll have to see which part of the story attracts more readers: the adventure and conspiracy? The magical examination of socialized medicine and its consequences? Ehiru, the loving killer? His companions: Nijiri the killer-apprentice, Sunandi the nation-killer? The magic system rooted in psychodynamic dream theory, the medical system based on the collective unconscious? The promise of a sequel which will come out in just another month?
‘Course, if it’s the ninja priests that intrigue you, I won’t judge. That’s what did it for me, too.