The Big Idea: N.K. Jemisin

If you’ve ever wondered how much thought goes into worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy, you’re going to love this Big Idea, in which N.K. Jemisin goes into detail about what it took to make the world of The Fifth Season real and believable. But worldbuilding is not enough to build a novel. Jemisin goes into that, too.


A few years back, I had a dream of a woman doing a Badass Power Walk towards me, with a mountain floating along behind her. I knew she was about my age — early forties, that is — and I could see that she wore dredlocs as I do, but it was very clear in the dream that she was not me. She was angry with me, in fact, because of something I’d done or hadn’t done, and if I didn’t find a way to appease her quickly, I knew she was going to throw that mountain at me. Why was she so pissed off? No idea. How was a mountain following her around like a geological puppy? She was controlling it through some unknown means. I woke up from this dream in a cold sweat — and fascinated. That was the moment the Broken Earth trilogy, of which The Fifth Season is book 1, was born.

I made some immediate assumptions about this woman and her world. First, that she wasn’t unique; there were others who had the ability to control mountains and everything associated with them (i.e. orogenesis). Second, that her anger wasn’t something recent or new.  You don’t toss around mountains over one bad day.  This woman had a lifetime’s worth of reasons to be angry — like being treated as a second-class citizen and having her hopes for the future crushed again and again.  But what kind of society would discriminate against such an obviously powerful person, and why?  The trilogy is my answer to that question.

Right away I faced two major challenges in trying to tell this story: the worldbuilding, and the voice.

Now, I love worldbuilding. I do it for fun and profit. The worldbuilding for TFS was more daunting than usual, though. See, in the Stillness (the sole supercontinent of The Fifth Season) extinction-level volcanic winters and other seismic disasters occur on a frequent basis. This meant I needed to learn a lot more about seismology, given that I’d never even felt an earthquake, or seen a volcano or a geyser, before I started researching this novel. (I was so excited when we had a quake in New York right after I started work on this novel! Even though at first I just thought the subway was unusually rumbly that day.)

More challenging was the fact that nothing in this world could resemble anything in our own world. Why should it? No society on Earth, outside of a few “preppers” and religious extremists, is designed for apocalyptic survival. Yet the people of the Stillness are biologically and culturally adapted for periods of extreme, rapid, hostile climate change. The can detect impending quakes through the use of special areas of the brainstem that we don’t possess, and one of their races prides itself on its acid-proof, ash-filtering hair type. To them, it’s normal to speak of six senses rather than five, and to consider a woman beautiful only if she’s at least six feet tall, at least a size 16, and looks like she can wrestle a bear. (At least.)

This was where the other challenge, the one of voice, kicked in: how could I immerse readers in such a fundamentally alien milieu? Doing that might be a staple of science fiction, but it’s rare — and not always welcome — in fantasy.

I experimented with test chapters and a proof-of-concept short story to get a feel for things before I settled into writing the novel. I picked different tenses, voices, characters, sounds and feels. First person felt too intimate, somehow. Past tense lacked impact. I like the immediacy of present tense; it can feel odd when you’re not used to it, but it’s surprisingly easy to adjust. (Psst: you just did.) Makes for some really visceral action scenes.

But there was one character for whom third person present tense never worked: Essun, my protagonist. The story starts in a moment of extreme trauma for her: she comes home from work one day to find that her son has been beaten to death by his own father. This is thankfully an experience that few readers will have had in real life, and yet it’s something that any reasonably empathetic human being can understand: that moment of almost surreal shock, the disbelief, the mental reeling. I needed a voice that could convey these feelings, which would underlie all of Essun’s actions throughout the trilogy — because that kind of trauma never really goes away. You just rebuild yourself around it.

What worked best was second person. I’ve always thought of second person as distancing; after all, it’s impossible for the reader to ever truly be “you”. Yet I’ve read some incredibly intimate second-person stories, and as I actually tried writing it for the first time, I found that it’s sort of amazing and powerful — both distancing and intimate at the same time. You can’t be this person, but you can understand her. It was perfect.

…Aaaaaand here I had an artistic panic attack. I liked what was developing, but was it even remotely salable? It’s been five years and I haven’t stopped hearing complaints from readers about the first-person that I used in the Inheritance Trilogy. SFF readers are remarkably quick to declare that they “just don’t do [person/tense]”. Or they’ll declare a story pretentious without ever having read it, simply because it’s written in a style they’re not used to. I wish I could say that I don’t care what those readers might think. In a fit of anxiety I showed those first few chapters and an outline to my editor and agent and said, “OK, is this worth something or is it a hot mess?” They must’ve decided it was worth something; I got a contract for the whole trilogy a few days later.

Now I guess I’ll see if readers think it’s worth something, too.


The Fifth Season: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

33 Comments on “The Big Idea: N.K. Jemisin”

  1. Fascinating, and a series I’ll definitely look out for.

    I recently challenged myself to write a story in second person, mostaly as an exercise to see whether I could do it, because I’d seen some writers (like our esteemed host) pull it off. I floated it in my critique group. Apparently, I’m no John Scalzi… :-) But I reather liked the feel of it, and I suspect you carry it off far better than I ever could, and it makes me want to read the book all the more.

    Also, I wanted to say: “[T]hat kind of trauma never really goes away. You just rebuild yourself around it.” That stopped me dead in my tracks when I read it, because it so perfectly encapsulates so many forms of life-altering trauma and their aftermaths. That’s going to stick with me. Thank you for that.

    And thanks for sharing your Big Idea!

  2. I’ve seen that rejection based on person/tense a couple times, and it’s bizarre to me. You’re reading a book about post-singularity humans going out to meet invading starfish aliens, and you can’t get past the sections written in the second person? That’s the weird part for you? Sigh.

  3. I’m about half-way through and it’s definitely worth something. Highly recommended (based on the first half).

    Also I didn’t know “orogene” came from a real-life term, but that is seriously cool!

  4. Sounds fascinating! Second person writing can feel… disconcerting sometimes, but when done right, that’s definitely a feature not a bug! Like you said, it can be both distancing and intimate. In that sort of traumatic situation, it can also work very well as othering your self in order to distance the trauma. I really like that experimentation and pushing boundaries, and it sounds like it is a great fit for the story. So, this book just went from “gotta make sure I read that someday” to “how soon can I finish my current reading and start that one?!” I am definitely reading this sooner rather than hopefully-sometime-in-the-next-several-years-why-do-i-have-so-many-books-to-read!

    So, if nothing else, I am at least one person who is MORE interested in the book because of the playing with tenses and voices rather than less. So first person you hear complain about it, feel free to completely ignore them since I directly cancel them out. :)

  5. I seem to recall that Charlie Stross said that he found writing in the second person(in Halting State and Rule 34) to be difficult. It would be interesting if you could explain(sometime) why you found it easy.

  6. I really need to stop reading these Big Idea pieces, because my To Be Read pile keeps growing larger and larger. Added to my wishlist for future reading. Thanks!

  7. Read it, loved it, how many more minutes until the second book comes out? And the third? I didn’t even notice the tense, or the second person, because N.K. Jemisin is such a terrific writer that she pulls you in to the story immediately and the writing choices she’s made just work.

  8. Wait…people complained about the use of *first person* in the Inheritance Trilogy? First person, an extremely common story perspective? Christ. I believe it, but man, people keep finding new ways to be disappointing.

  9. I initially rejected second person tense works because the first one I read reeked of an Iowa Writer’s Workshop product. Since then, I have seen it done to good effect, and I trust Nora implicitly, so I’m looking forward to The Fifth Season.

  10. I admit I have a prejudice against second person tense narratives. No, not prejudice: I read a few Ivory Wank spt novels and that seriously put me off that form.
    This sounds like the novel that might cure me from that phobia.

  11. The second person did throw me off of wanting to read it (just from reading about it in the post). But Stross pulled it off so well that it was almost invisible after the first few pages, and there was a Tom Robbins novel (that I think might have been the first long form I read in second person) where it mostly worked, too, so I’ll probably still pick this one up (partly because of some of these comments from people who’ve already read it.)

  12. I tend to love first-person- it really lets me hear the protagonist’s voice. I don’t however, dislike second- or third-person. What I want is something good to read, and this sounds like it!

  13. She has the first two chapters on her web site, so you can always try out the second-person and see what you think. It works terrifyingly well for the explanation of the trauma.

  14. I’m actually reading The Shadowed Sun right now, having devoured The Inheritance Trilogy last week. This one’s on my to read pile, waiting for me. I love finding new-to-me authors who are so brilliant!

  15. Got a copy a bit early, and seriously had one of those “can’t put it down, keep waking up in the middle of the night to read more” experiences with it. It’s going to be really hard to wait for the sequel. The thing I love about her writing is that if you’re heartily sick of “elves and orcs and Middle Earth knock-offs, oh my” her worldbuilding will be such a breath of fresh air for you – it’s so not Yet Another Medieval Europe Fantasy Novel, and yet it’s so believable, it will get into your head and your dreams.

    This is her best yet.

  16. I love second person, and really barely noticed it because I was so immersed in the story. I think of second person as being first person where the speaker is trying to distance themself from their own experience.

  17. “What worked best was second person. I’ve always thought of second person as distancing; after all, it’s impossible for the reader to ever truly be “you”. Yet I’ve read some incredibly intimate second-person stories, and as I actually tried writing it for the first time, I found that it’s sort of amazing and powerful — both distancing and intimate at the same time. You can’t be this person, but you can understand her. It was perfect.”

    I’ve never thought about 2nd person like that, but now that you’ve said it I completely see what you’re saying. My favorite example of 2nd person to date (about to go download TFS) is a short story called “How to Be a Writer.” The narrator basically uses 2nd person to talk about these soul-numbing life experiences that lead her to a creative path, in the format of a how-to manual. It’s exactly what you said–both distancing and intimate. Very powerful. Like a friend confessing a really intimate life experience late at night after a few drinks.


  19. Going to be honest. I was intensely interested in this story just by reading this and the author’s plot synopsis. After attempting to read the first chapter, I gave up. It sounds like a child in middle school trying really hard to sound impressive, and it lost me along the way by being simultaneously juvenile and yet using big words that the average reader just wouldn’t know.

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  21. Never read anything by this author before, but after all the good reviews I decided to read the first two chapters of the book on her website. I got hooked, downloaded it to my Kindle and spent the morning devouring it. It was fascinating, I loved it and can’t wait for the next book! I’ve never read anything before (that I recall) using second person, but I enjoyed that way of telling the story. (And I, personally, had no trouble at all understanding the meaning of the words used in this book.)

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