Roundtable: N. K. Jemisin

Karen Burnham

I’d like to shift the topic over to Jemisin’s short fiction. Two of her most recent stories, both in Clarkesworld, have gotten significant attention. Both “Non-Zero Probabilities” and “On the Banks of the River Lex” do interesting things blending contemporary settings, mythical beings (or mythical knowledge), and world-building that feels almost science-fictional. Certainly they seem to indicate a much broader range than the secondary world/high fantasy setting of The Inheritance Trilogy. Would anyone like to talk about what qualities stand out in Jemisin’s short fiction?

Jeffrey Ford

I hadn’t read any of the short fiction, before undertaking this discussion.  I’d read only the first novel of the trilogy, and after agreeing to “talk” about that, read the second.  Just before we began I read two short stories and then another that Rachel suggested.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the stories were as accomplished as the novels.  I agree with Karen that they indicate Jemisin’s potential success with different styles and structures.  But in a way all that is already indicated in the novels.  I’ll be interested to see if she continues to write many stories and in what directions they will head.  I think I read that she’s already slated to write two more novels beyond the final installment in the trilogy (which, by the way, sounds like it’s going to be pretty incredible if she pulls it off).  Jemisin seems at the height of her powers and more than willing to challenge herself, which is going to render interesting fiction, short or long, well worth reading.

Rachel Swirsky

I’ve read a number of N. K. Jemisin’s short stories, but the ones that stick out most in my mind right now are:

“On the Banks of the River Lex”
Red Riding-hood’s Child
“Non-Zero Probabilities”
The Narcomancer
Sinners, Saints, Dragons and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters

Some of the other stories I’ve read–for instance, “Effluent Engine” and “You Train”–are interesting in and of themselves, but they don’t feel as much like they contribute to a body of work that is particular to N. K. Jemisin.

Now, I should, like, define what I mean by a body of work that is particular to Jemisin. In short stories, I get a very strong mood from Jemisin–a kind of darkness, but also a thinness–not in the sense that the work lacks dimension, but in the sense that we’re seeing only a slice of things. The stories tend to feel a little bit brutal. “Red Riding-Hood’s Child” is probably iconic of that; even the hope in this story is dark. There’s a lot of helplessness. But the story doesn’t feel sad, per se, more like a factual statement. Bleakness presented in a way that does not flinch, excuse, or sensationalize. It is what it is.

“Non-Zero Probabilities” has that mood to it, for me–although I think it ends with hope, that always felt like an extra added onto the story, something that didn’t quite belong.

I think “Sinners, Saints” and “On the Banks of the River Lex” reflect a more complicated, growing aesthetic. There’s still bleakness–both stories can be read as post-apocalyptic–but there’s a sense of rebuilding afterwards, as well. One could compare this to the arc of HTK through TBK–HTK presents a system that, for the colonized peoples, has similarities to a  post-apocalyptic world. HTK breaks it down; TBK begins to rebuild it.

Like her novels, the short stories have a preoccupation with power. I think that power can be analyzed either as literal political powers, or as unyielding natural crises. In “Sinners, Saints” the natural crisis is caused by political powers; the system causes and becomes a destroying force. “Sinners, Saints” imagines fighting systemic abuses as a literalized metaphor where one can attack them physically.

There’s also clearly a thread about sex and power that bears exploration, I think. Yeine and Nahadoth; Red riding-hood’s child and the Smith; Red riding-hood’s child and the wolf; sex is presented in all three cases as between people with unequal power. The smith, the wolf, and Nahadoth, can all kill. This seems to provide the erotic charge in the material (not that it has to; it’s just my reading of the texts that it’s intended to). So there’s something else going on in Jemisin’s body of work about people facing almost unbeatable systems. They’re fighting them; they’re also fucking them. They’re taking on the danger through sex or battle; and perhaps, in the cases where the dangerous lover is not also malevolent, they’re creating something that’s different and complicated out of lovemaking in the same way that they must rebuild a new world after smashing the systems that propped up the old one.

Those are just off the cuff thoughts, though; I’m not sure they’d bear close reading.

Maureen Kincaid Speller

I’ve not read enough of her short fiction to be able to make much of a comment, but of those I have read, those mentioned above, and “The You Train”, I’m most struck by “On the Banks of the River Lex”. I like what she’s doing in the way she mixes the fantastical and the science-fictional, and in particular the use of the contemporary/post-contemporary New York setting. I think ‘Lex’ seems to resonante a certain amount with TBK in the way it addresses the manifestation of belief. ‘Probabilities’ seems to be heading in that direction in the way it works with ideas of belief and empiricism, but ‘Lex’ has a wonderfully elegaic quality to it. There is something terribly touching in the way that some of the ‘gods’ and beings are trying to reconstruct a semblance of ‘normal’ life for themselves in the aftermath of an apocalypse that seems to be physical and epistemological.

Siobhan Carroll

I’ll follow the pack in saying that “Lex,” for me is a real standout. Thematically, I notice in Jemisin’s stories an emphasis on people choosing their stance towards unpleasant social circumstances that they themselves did not create: in “Lex,” the apocalypse; in “Non-Zero,” the explosion of the improbable; and in “Bittersweet,” an alien planet that demands a high price from its survivors. Even in stories such as “The Effluent Engine,” where “choosing one’s stance” is not a preoccupation of the main character, it still surfaces as an issue for secondary characters.

We’ve talked about the way that Jemisin’s postcolonial bent deviates from high fantasy conventions, but looking over her short stories, I’m struck by how her stories also work against the grain of Golden Age SF. My stereotype of Heinlein / Asimov stories, for example, is that they either feature strong professional men solving problems as they occur, or they feature people following the pattern laid down by them by the strong professional man (i.e. the Foundation series and, much more problematically, Heinlein’s “All You Zombies-“). In most of Jemisin’s novels and stories, her protagonists are operating without a map; they have to decide for themselves how to respond to depressing, bizarre circumstances to which there does not seem to be a “correct” response.

Frequently, the protagonist’s response to a dramatically altered world is to accept that the world has changed rather than (as in the case of “Lex” and “Non Zero”) expending energy on trying to retrieve the world that was lost. Yet at the same time, Jemisin really makes you feel the impact of loss on her characters. Unlike the protagonists of Hughes’ Invitation to the Game (for example), Jemisin’s characters were doing just fine in the World Before; they don’t look forward to the World After with unabashed eagerness.

The exception to this story pattern is “Bittersweet” and “The You Train.” “Bittersweet” seems to fall more into the Golden Age SF camp I mentioned earlier: the protagonist’s approach to her planet is modeled for her by the strong, professional man who visits her settlement and whom she eventually replaces. “The You Train” is a completely different kind of story: it’s a story about escaping from an alienating world rather than accepting it. It’s also the one Jemisin story I’ve read in which the protagonist seems to achieve self-fulfillment (the “You” of the title) entirely on her own terms. I haven’t read it in a while; I’d have to think more about the relationship between the speaker and her addressee before deciding whether self-fulfillment is also equated here with exclusion from society.

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