Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: N.K. Jemisin

I loved how you subverted the concept of alien parasites in “Walking Awake.” What inspired you to create the Masters the way you did?

I think of the story as a response to Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, and to similar science fiction of the era. A lot of that fiction reflects the paranoia of privilege—fear of a more (theoretically) egalitarian political system like communism, fear of external threats because the straight white men of the time simply assumed they would continue to dominate women and people of color within their own societies, and so on. There’s also some apparent fear of the tables turning, because so much of this “privileged people’s science fiction” contains stalwart, iron-jawed, able-bodied fellows suddenly having to deal with (symbolic) weaponized rape, infected blankets, unwanted medical experimentation, and other things that stalwart, iron-jawed fellows have inflicted on people they considered less than human throughout recent history. But that’s the thing: We don’t need aliens to do things like that to each other. We’ve been doing it to each other for ages. So call “Walking Awake” the paranoia of the less-privileged, if you want.

I noticed you kept the location of the story unspecified, and never showed who exactly created the parasites. Why was it important to keep the story universal?

Partly because biological warfare and systematic dehumanization have occurred throughout human history, in various forms and in various places. But also just because, after so many generations of having their history carefully removed from them, humankind in the story no longer retains the old distinctions; those have been replaced by new distinctions. Granted, the fact that the Masters are basically GMOs does at least localize the origins of the problem to industrialized countries, or corporations originating in same, but by the point of the story, none of that matters anymore.

Sadie seems confident that the Masters rule the whole world, but is it possible there are any holdouts hidden anywhere?

It’s certainly possible. We’re still discovering pockets of people who managed to avoid colonialism or contact with outsiders, like the Jarawa. The Masters are no more omnipotent as rulers of the earth than human beings are.

Your story explores themes of freedom and oppression, obedience and responsibility. What Sadie does at the end not only kills her, it will wipe out the only society she¹s ever known—freedom comes at a huge price. Are these important ideas for you in your fiction?

Yes. I wanted to depict a revolution—but this is, all in all, a relatively quick and bloodless revolution. A heavy price has already been paid by all the people taken over by the Masters at the point of takeover; they’re basically dead already. But I felt that Sadie also needed to risk something, pay something, if she was going to join this revolution.

I know you’re working on a new science fiction trilogy. Can you share anything about that with our readers?

Well, it’s sort of science fantasy. Basically, the story is set in a secondary world that suffers from frequent seismic extinction-level events—volcanic winters that last years, chemical changes that toxify whole swaths of land, things like that. These are called Fifth Seasons. In this world there are people called orogenes, who have the power to control seismic energy: They can stop volcanoes, start earthquakes, that sort of thing. But there’s a terrible price that must be paid for this power, which makes them a dire threat to everyone around them, and so orogenes are hunted down and enslaved whenever they appear. They’re feared even more than the long winters.

The story follows a woman who’s been living an ordinary life in an ordinary small town, but who is secretly an orogene, and her children are, too. When her husband finds out, he reacts . . . badly. He murders one of their children, and kidnaps the other. She’s forced to hunt him down, but while she does this, another orogene has uncovered an ancient mystery of the world and used it to bring about the worst seismic event in history—one that will cause a Fifth Season that lasts centuries, which no one is prepared for.

It’s a trilogy, and the first book is done; I’m at work on the second, now.

You’re highly accomplished at destroying science fiction. Do you have any advice for ambitious, under-represented destructors out there?

Thank you. My advice is just this: Write. Improve. Submit. Keep doing it, and before you know it, you’ll be destroying science fiction too!

Laurel Amberdine

Laurel Amberdine

Laurel Amberdine was raised by cats in the suburbs of Chicago. She’s good at naps, begging for food, and turning ordinary objects into toys. She currently lives in San Francisco where she writes science fiction and fantasy and works for Locus Magazine. Her YA fantasy novel Luminator is forthcoming from Reuts Publishing in 2017. Find her on Twitter at @amberdine.