THE CALCULATING STARS, by Mary Robinette Kowal
A Short Review
I highly recommend reading or listening to this novel. Below are 4 reasons why I loved it…
- Lots of dynamic female characters, told in first person by a female pilot/mathematician
- Well-written prose, making it easy to read and enjoy
- The characters are well drawn and realistic, despite the fact that they’re intellectual superstars
- It portrays a healthy marital relationship (for once!). Sometimes, you just want the husband to not be a jerk, and in this novel, that is absolutely the case. *Elma and her husband also enjoy a dynamic sex life, which is why I give the book a PG-13 rating. Nothing terribly graphic, but there are a few heated encounters between husband and wife.
THE CALCULATING STARS is a part of the Lady Astronaut Series, by Kowal, which includes a short story, The Lady Astronaut of Mars and another novel, The Fated Sky.
These stories emerge in an alternative history of Earth, focusing on the US Space program after a meteor plunges into the ocean off the coast of Maryland. The disaster strikes on March 3, 1952 and kills nearly all of the inhabitants of the Eastern Seaboard, including DC and most US government officials.
Kowal quickly frames the narrative from here. A meteorite of this magnitude will change the climate of the Earth forever. It is a matter of time (5-10 years) before the Earth becomes uninhabitable. Nations must work together to relocate to another planet and on this front, women have to be trained alongside men, don’t they? That is the question around which the book pivots. This is the 1950s and not only does racism rear its head in the space program, so does sexism.
The main character, Elma York narrates the story in first person, and I liked her as narrator. She is ambitious and brilliant, but flawed enough to give the story tension.
Elma is not only a renowned mathematician, she is also an experienced pilot, having flown for the WASPs in WWII. Her husband becomes the lead engineer of the new space program. Elma is recruited as one of the computers, seemingly an acceptable “role” for women in the new space venture (think Hidden Figures), but her real hope is to convince the NACA bosses that women are just as able to fly into space as men.
The Calculating Stars won the 2019 Nebula for Best Novel, the 2019 Locus Award for Best Scifi Novel, the 2019 Hugo for Best Novel and the 2019 Sidewise Award for Alternate History.
I love science fiction, dreaming about the future, imagining what our life in outer space might look like someday, but my passion for the genre has as much to do with the past as it does with the future. Science fiction shows us the future but also has the ability to teach us about our past and often does so without the baggage of politics and biases. The stories below are launch pads. Their portrayals of history through story are not by any means comprehensive, but rather snapshots into the lives of people encountering challenges that may be imagined by the author, but mirror history.
Here are a handful of scifi stories that bring the reader face to face with the past:
- Superman Smashes the Klan
- The Man in the High Castle
- An Excess Male
History Lesson #1. SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN. Launch a discussion about the Ku Klux Klan (it’s inception and impact on US race relations).
In this three-issue Superman Comic, Gene Luen Yang gives historic tidbits at the end of each issue. You can read my review of the series here.
In issue 1,Yang highlights the 13th amendment to the constitution (abolition of slavery) and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act
Following issue 2, Yang discusses the Jewish immigrants who created Superman.
Following issue 3, Yang discusses the challenges of his own parents, both of whom were immigrants from Taiwan
History Lesson #2. Watch or read, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (book by Philip K. Dick. The Amazon Prime TV series was produced by Dick’s daughter, Isa Dick Hackett). Discuss and learn about World War II.
This series is a great way to understand the Axis powers and that tentative alliance that almost took over the globe. You’ll find yourself or your student understanding the world that was inhabited by those who lived under occupation during that war. The French, The Koreans, and many others were forced to survive under Nazi or Japanese rule. Some made compromises, others rebelled. Can you imagine who you would have become to survive an occupation? That question is a great way for students to enter into and understand history.
History Lesson #3. Watch COLONY on Netflix to begin to grapple with the reality of living under occupation.
In the case of COLONY, the true enemy is an alien race that has invaded Earth, but some of the darkest villains are the human beings who have allied themselves with this conquering force.
Living under occupation, whether under the Greeks, Romans, The Islamic Caliphate, the Brits, the USSR, it requires turncoats, or those who will help to subdue the masses for the sake of the little bits of power and privilege that are doled out by the occupying power. The tv series COLONY does an amazing job of capturing this reality. A longer review can be found here.
History Lesson #4. Read AN EXCESS MALE, by Maggie Shen Chen, to begin to understand 20th century Chinese history.
Although this book imagines a future China, this story highlights what is perhaps the most disastrous public policy mandate of all time, THE ONE CHILD POLICY. For my review of this novel, click here. To read my guide for educators, click here.
History Lesson #5. KINDRED, by Octavia Butler. Read this book (fictional) and one of the other historic slave narratives like, MY LIFE AS A SLAVE, by Frederick Douglass. Discuss the ways slavery dehumanizes all those who participate in its reality.
KINDRED, by the late and great Octavia Butler, gives the reader a taste of the slave-inhabited South of yore. The brutality is evident and palpable. Lessons are brought so close…it’s hard to read this book, yet it is valuable for those trying to understand slavery in 18th and 19th century US. Here is my longer review of Kindred
Read All Three Issues of SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN You Won’t Be Sorry
- Comic book action and a great story
- Relatable kid characters who make poor or good choices and learn from them
- Even Superman grows and changes
- History lesson combined with Gene Luen Yang memoir tidbits in the final pages of each issue are perfect for spurring deeper conversations about racism in the US
- I can’t get enough of Gurihiru’s lovely art
It’s a sad season for many of us on planet Earth who are living under the threat of COVID19 spread. Schools have been shuttered, so many activities cancelled and parents are left trying to figure out how to keep their kids off screens and at least somewhat engaged in their education. Great books, ones your kids will be motivated to read without any of your coaxing, are the home-school parent’s best friend.
On my website, you can use the menu bar for educators to see what science fiction books might appeal to your student. It’s not an exhaustive list, but there are more than a few gems you’ll want to check out. When I review a book, I give the story a movie type rating…G, PG, PG-13, etc.
If you want to read a review of issue 1 of this series, click SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN, A No Spoiler Review
If you want to read a review of issue 2, click here
In the case of issue 3, I have no reservations in recommending this book to all kids and adults, though you might give it a PG rating for the serious topic it tackles, racism and violence.
The story (as portrayed in all three issues) is accessible to a child. He/she might need to be old enough to engage in a basic conversation about race, justice and belonging, but my experience in having two kids who attended public schools in California, they were ripe for the beginning of that conversation by kindergarten. I would recommend you don’t shield your young ones from starting this conversation early.
In this third issue of SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN, the story climaxes with a confrontation between Superman and the Klan of the Fiery Cross. Superman has befriended the Lees, an Asian American family that has moved out of Chinatown and into the suburbs. They are the focus of the Klan’s animosity and Superman is defending them against the Klan’s violence. Author, Gene Luen Yang does not pull punches. There is a real portrayal of race hatred in this comic series, but that is what makes this story all the more powerful…it delivers truth.
Roberta, the young sister in the Lee family plays a crucial role in helping Superman beat back injustice. She will appeal to both girls and boys with her quirks (in the opening sequence of the first issue, she gets car sick and has to throw up while her family is driving out of Chinatown) and her bravery (she confronts evil and injustice head on, even though she can’t always defend herself). In this issue, Lois Lane takes Roberta under her wing and encourages her to research a mystery for the Daily Planet as a cub reporter. Roberta is a wonderful hero.
Given the talented writer that he is, Yang draws out a number of characters on both sides of the conflict who have depth. The bad guys are more than just foils. Likewise, the good guys are not always perfect. Even Superman is grappling with flashbacks around his own childhood, trying to make sense of his alien nature. It’s one of a number of great storylines that will please the Superman fanatic and add much to the themes that emerge in SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN.
A bonus delight in all the issues are the final pages where Gene Luen Yang puts forward a bit more history of his own immigrant story and that of the Klan…In a vulnerable and testimonial way, he reflects on both the challenges and the beauty of our mixed cultural nation.
SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN is a story in three issues. One issue every other month released since October. This is something comic book readers understand. You buy one issue, read about your favorite hero and wait in anticipation for the next issue to come out. Comic book adventures are serial-styled stories. Each comic book usually contains one story arc and always ends with a cliffhanger. That is one reason why readers buy the next issue. There is delight in this way of consuming a story, but it requires more patience than most of us are used to.
In case that style does not appeal to you or your child, buy all three. All three SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN issues contained in one book, a story that will grab your child and keep him or her reading. The three will be released together on May 12. To preorder the story in one paperback instead of 3 separate issues, click here.
My advice in case you plan to discuss race with your child, make sure you read the story too. The education that will come out of the reading will benefit parent and child.
To buy SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN, ISSUE 3, click here.
To buy the previous issues, click
SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN Part 2 hit comic book stores in December. It’s over a month old and I have been delinquent in reviewing it, until today. This story is appropriate for just about all readers. Rated PG.
For a review of Part 1, see this no spoiler review
Warning: This review will have spoilers if you have not read the first installment.
Inspired by the 1940s radio series Clan of the Fiery Cross, Gene Yang picks up the cliff-hanger from part 1. In part 1, Tommy Lee, a Chinese-American boy has been abducted by a white supremacist group, Klan of the Fiery Kross.
The aim of the Klan is to tar and feather Tommy, therefore teaching his parents a lesson. They resent the Lees moving out of Chinatown and into their white neighborhood. The Lee family has made this move because Dr. Lee, Tommy’s father, has been offered a job in a nearby lab.
All the storylines ratchet up a notch in Part 2.
- Superman backstory: Superman continues to have flashbacks of his parents, aliens who look very different than humans. He is grappling with his own “alien” identity. His journey parallels the journey of the immigrants and their children in the story
- A little bit of romance: Yes, it’s a bit comedic and fun to see the budding affection between Superman and Lois and a little flare between Jimmy and Roberta, the main character in the story, the Lee’s spunky daughter.
- A community undergoing change: Yang captures an aspect of American life that rings true…especially, second generation immigrants moving out of the inner cities, out of enclaves and integrating into white America, changes that have historically led to tension. As in Part 1, Yang treats the “bad guys” fairly, always grappling with their feelings and their perspective. Not excusing their views or actions, but giving all his characters humanity.
- Another history lesson/bio on race relations in the US: At the end of the comic, a memoir section called Superman and Me describes Gene Yang’s childhood relationship with Superman and other comic heroes. Underneath Yang’s love affair with comics is the power of story and how they provided a sense of identity and empowerment for the author. In case you’re enamored by the history lesson, consider Yang’s early graphic novel masterpiece, American Born Chinese Definitely worth owning and passing around to friends, especially young teens.
Overall, this is a great middle to the story. I look forward to reading the finale, Part 3 when it is released on February 19, 2020.
A note on the art: The art in the series, created by Gurihiru, is colorful, capturing a blend of retro and anime. It seems apropos that this Japanese female duo would create the artwork for a comic grappling with some of the first Asian-American characters portrayed in a sympathetic way in the American Comics Universe.
To buy Part 1, click here
To buy Part 2, click here
SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN, written by Gene Luen Yang and drawn by Gurihiru was released exactly one week ago, Wednesday the 16th of October and understandably, it is moving off the shelves fast. I highly recommend this first installment in the three part series. I rate this series PG and would encourage parents to read it with children and discuss the many aspects of the story that are rooted in history.
Short Review: Five Reasons to Own and Read SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN:
- Be a collector! Only 3 installments to buy. Keep this historic series forever while using only an inch of space on your bookshelf!
- The drawings and colors are beautiful and stylized to deepen the reading experience.
- Learn history. There are historic truths woven into the story. Yang also adds autobiography relaying the story of how he has experienced racism and historical facts about the Ku Klux Klan at the end of the comic.
- The characters are well-drawn (literally and figuratively), avoiding cliches that sometimes populate comic book fiction
- The story is full of action, suspense, but doesn’t paint an overly simplified view of good vs. evil. This is one Gene Luen Yang’s strengths…the empathy he feels for all his characters, even the very broken ones.
To buy this book, Part 1 of 3, you’ll need to visit your local comic book store or click here. Also, if it’s been a while since you entered a well-stocked comics store, you owe yourself the treat. Go now and browse the shelves!
Most science fiction fans love comics, but not all. I know a few who have avoided them in favor of novels, television and film, but the comic format has proven its heft in recent years with literary stories like American Born Chinese. Gene Luen Yang, the author of American Born Chinese, also wrote the much-acclaimed New Super-Man, in which an Asian American young man emerges as the Superman in the story. It is no surprise Yang was DC’s choice to bring SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN to life. The story is an adaptation of a 1946 smaller story arc within a radio series called The Adventures of Superman. In it, an Asian-American family is threatened by the Ku Klux Klan and Superman is inspired to protect the children of this family from racist terror.
BINTI, by Nnedi Okorafor, is a novella about a young woman from a desert tribe on Earth. Her people are called the Himba people and they make a vital piece of technology on Earth called an astrolabe. Binti is the name of the main character. The story, told in first person, begins with Binti climbing aboard a transporter that is taking her to a launch port, then onward to Oomza Uni. Oomza Uni is a university on a distant planet where Binti will have the opportunity to study mathematics with the best and brightest from all over the universe. She is the first of her people to be admitted, so there is the sense of her achieving a great honor. However, she and we (the reader) clearly understand how high the cost is as she leaves her tribe and family behind, potentially forever.
Binti is a 16-year-old, but this book is not a YA book according to the author. However, the back cover of the paperback calls it a “coming of age story”, which might put it in that genre for some. I believe it will appeal most to the middle grade and YA audience, with some degree of PG-13 gore (one incident).
The Novella, BINTI, won the Hugo award in 2016 and the Nebula in 2015 for best novella.
To order BINTI, click here.
What I enjoyed about BINTI.
- Sometimes, a novella is just right. There aren’t many around, but novellas can be a satisfying reading experience. To get through a story in one long sitting or two or three short sittings is a lovely thing. Also…light-weight, perfect for a 2-hour plane ride.
- The main character is unique and different than a typical caucasian protagonist. Her culture will feel different to many readers. Okorafor has ties to Nigeria and I am guessing that her place of origin impacts the writing of this world. That world is powerful in many respects in how it anchors the character’s identity. For the sci-fi reader who loves to enter into new cultures and worlds, this story will scratch an itch.
- Decent tension to keep the reader going.
- A satisfying introduction to an author’s burgeoning world. (two novellas follow this one)
It’s a bargain to order the complete trilogy. To do so, click here.
What annoyed me about BINTI and makes me hesitant to give it the highest review…
- Somewhat shallow character development. This is the negative of the novella format…it’s a challenge to develop the characters deeply.
- The conflict is resolved too easily.
- There are wonderful characters here, but I found the writing a bit underwhelming. My exposure to literary fiction makes me a snob sometimes…the writing won’t be a problem for most readers.
- The tech is more like magic in this story than science…or might as well be. I’m wondering if it will be explained in the next novella in a sciency way or not?
Today, I look at China Miéville’s, EMBASSYTOWN. Beware of spoilers. This won’t be a review of the novel, but a study of the Ariekei, the aliens indigenous to the planet Arieka.
First, a little advice…If you have the opportunity, consume EMBASSYTOWN via audiobook. To buy EMBASSYTOWN via Audible, click here. To buy the physical novel, EMBASSYTOWN click here. Language is central to the story, but the Ariekei language is best experienced when heard rather than read, therefore my encouragement to read via Audible. The Ariekei (also known as the hosts) speak from two mouths at once. One mind, but two words emerge from the creature when it vocalizes. In the audio reading, the sound producers overlay two words spoken at once, like hearing two notes played at the same time. The effect is marvelous and strange.
For a synopsis: One human culture, the Bremen, has adapted and figured out a method of speaking with and listening to the indigenous population of Arieka, a planet on the edge of the known universe. Their motivation for doing so is to maintain a colony on Arieka. Like a typical colonial power, the Bremen dig for metals and also trade with the Ariekei, whose biotech is advanced and valuable across the known universe. The Ariekei are advanced in many respects, but their language does not allow them to lie or even speculate.
Conflict arises in EMBASSYTOWN when one Bremen ambassador introduces lying into the Ariekei language. He does this in the hopes of taking control of the host population, but chaos ensues. The main character, a woman named Avice Benner Cho, steps in to save those living on the planet, both human and Ariekei.
How does Miéville give the aliens, the Areikei, personality and tap into audience empathy?
- Similar to the film Arrival (see post 2 of 3), point of view is key. POV rests in one human character who is relatable. Avice narrates this tale in the first person. Not only is she human, she was raised on Arieka and is known by the indigenous population. She is returning to her home after many years of traveling through space. Avice is the “in between” character. She describes, interprets and translates for the audience.
- Miéville finds colorful shorthand ways of describing the physical and personality attributes of particular Ariekei. Miéville, through his narrator, Avice gives the aliens nicknames, like Spanish Dancer. It’s genius because this shorthand gives the audience color, shape and depth to individual Ariekei and is so much better than than referring to all of them as “insect-horse-coral-fan things” another set of descriptors Avice muses on in the novel. An artist’s rendering in the top image is not necessarily what I had imagined when I pictured the Spanish Dancer, but Miéville doesn’t need me to have that specific picture in my mind. The broad brush strokes are there in the nickname and not just any nickname…calling the creature a dancer implies grace and dignity. The name takes an alien that might be perceived as monstrous and draws our attention to its beauty and gentleness. Maybe this is why ocean scientists call the sea creature (pictured above) a Spanish Dancer. The moniker is descriptive and if I’m visiting an aquarium staring at this thing through glass, if I am thinking of dancers instead of monsters, my eyes are drawn to its beauty. Miéville is doing the same thing when he has Avice call one particular Ariekei, The Spanish Dancer.
- The Ariekei have known Avice since she was a child. Avice has a positive association with the Ariekei. She was raised on their planet and thrived. Humans and Ariekei have lived together for many years in peace. This underlying truth makes a difference in how the audience feels about the Ariekei.
- The Ariekei are vulnerable to human abuse. The narrative of indigenous people groups used and abused by empires and greedy civilizations is not an uncommon story for the current sci-fi reading audience. Miéville dips into that narrative in this novel, portraying the aliens as complex, but also also as innocent, in large part because their language makes it impossible for them to lie. The audience empathizes with the vulnerable indigenous population. The narrative of “empire” taking over the “innocents” and using them for its own gain is familiar. That story taps into the audience’s empathy and our empathy lies with the Ariekei in this case.
- Avice relates to individual Ariekei, Miéville’s way of showing the audience that the Ariekei are not a monolith. Spanish Dancer is the most important Ariekei to the story, but there are others. As Avice relates to her and describes her and other Ariekei, the audience recognizes that though they are different from humans, the Ariekei are not all the same as one another. They are distinct in appearance and personality just as human beings are distinct from one another. (contrast this reality with the hive mind aliens, like the Formics in the Ender’s Game series, or the big computer brain of the Cylons “toasters” in Battle Star Galactica television series. I will tackle hive mind aliens in my final post on this topic.
SNOW CRASH, by Neal Stephenson was put before me by a member of my sci-fi book group. It’s my second exposure to cyber punk (novels) and I enjoyed the ride (in part). This novel, if turned into film, would likely be rated R. I recommend SNOW CRASH with reservations.
My Review in Two Parts
Why read SNOW CRASH?… 4 Reasons for YES!
- The world-building is remarkable and for many sci-fi fans Neal Stephenson is a must-read author in the cyberpunk sub-genre. I absolutely loved the beginning. The entry into this world felt fresh and dynamic. The first 50 pages (at least) will have you riveted.
- The action scenes are numerous and mostly well-timed and well-written. The action begins on page one and sets the tone for the rest of the story.
- The intersection of virtual reality (Stephenson calls VR the Metaverse…he claims to be the originator of this term) and physical reality feels fluid and actually not that weird now (though it was a genuinely futuristic concept when he published the novel in 1992).
- Stephenson unearths some original and fantastical ideas. Some folks will love the philosophical bent of the story, having to do with ancient and current religions, computer coding, language as code and viruses that cross from virtual reality into the physical world.
Why avoid SNOW CRASH?…4 Reasons for No!
- Shallow characters inhabit this book. The world-building went deep, but the emotional depth and intelligence of the characters bored me.
- (related to reservation 1) The characters, especially the main characters, did not have any real physical or mental weaknesses, sort of like superheroes. In fact, the protagonist is called Hiro Protagonist. By naming his main character Hiro, Stephenson is channeling the comic book/superhero genre. I read about the development of the novel. Stephenson began this book hoping to make it a graphic novel, it did not evolve in that form. However, even superheroes will have angst or some kind of existential danger. Every Superman must have his longing (Lois), his vulnerability (kryptonite) and face a villain who understands how to use these vulnerabilities to press the hero to the point of making a moral choice about his/her power. Though Stephenson’s characters get banged up here and there, I never felt they might actually be in danger or that they feared for their own lives. They took their beatings in stride. Moreover, I never felt there were emotional stakes for either of them (the secondary character is called YT…she is a skateboard delivery person). Hiro’s and YT’s motivations for putting everything on the line to save the world did not seem to connect to any ounce of characterization that I understood.
- Stephenson’s bad/shallow theology was disappointing for me. I will assume that Stephenson did his homework in regard to Sumerian religion and philosophy. (I deduce this from reading his acknowledgments). However, I hang out with a number of Christian thinkers because I’m married to one, and Stephenson’s characterization of Biblical theology is weak and ill informed. I don’t mind critiques of my religion…I even enjoy them if they are well thought out. Stephenson’s were not.
- The info-dump sections were enormous, boring and preachy. A cyber librarian is the character in the Metaverse who does the explaining to Hiro Protagonist, therefore to us. It’s a clever idea to use the librarian, but his information still comes in large swaths and awkwardly disrupts the drama. The info-dump is a huge temptation for sci-fi writers. I struggle with it myself. It’s difficult to build the world, explain the conflict, the problem that will drive the narrative and incorporate all your own ideas/themes without taking up scores of pages explaining stuff to your audience, but great writers tell us that the info dump method is lazy writing. There are other ways to do it! See an earlier post on allscifi that discusses Jemisin’s chosen method for handling backstory in the narrative. Good friend and fellow sci-fi writer, Lit Prof Liam Corley is a Jemisin fan and wrote the post a couple of weeks ago.
In short. If you’re a sci-fi nut/nerd, YES…read SNOW CRASH, but if you’re a literary person wandering around in sci-fi…read Octavia Butler, Jemisin, Le Guin, Vandermeer, Scalzi…almost anyone, but Stephenson.
To buy SNOW CRASH…click here.
My husband and I are watching Battle Star Galactica (BSG) for the second time in our married lives. The first time we watched, our kids were always in bed. It was just-for-parents entertainment…Our daughter was a middle schooler, our son, a couple of years behind her. They’re both out of college now. So it was a while ago.
BSG was created for the SyFy channel by Glen A. Larson and Ronald D. Moore.
There is much pleasure in the re-watching for me. Last night, we viewed The Hand of God, episode 10, one of many amazing episodes in that first season. Our re-watch has me reflecting on what makes BSG so good?
- The writing is absolutely spot on. No-nonsense story-telling that provides the audience with a solid long-term arc of purpose and meaning: humanity, betrayed by A.I. known as Cylons, must leave their home and find another habitable planet. An epic journey in a space ship. Grafted onto the journey narrative are countless subplots that will draw in scifi and non scifi fans. How do the writers do this? That leads me to my second point…
- This story is inhabited by heroic, but flawed characters most of us can relate to.
- The production value is superb. Even in the 2019s, the set, special effects and costumes create a believable fictional world.
- The actors embody their characters well, extra dramatic heft carried by the Commander of the fleet, William Adama and President of the survivors, Laura Roslin (played by Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnel respectively).
- The themes around protecting a way of life, more specifically, a democratic society in the midst of battle, are extremely poignant in our current political environment.
- Ethnically diverse cast of characters and women in key leadership roles.
If this will be your first time viewing the series, or if you’re re-watching like me, consider this podcast aptly named Galacticast to augment the full depth of each episode. It’s a fun and easy way to be extra nerdy about BSG. Click below for the link up.
As an aside, I find myself wishing The Expanse would produce an episode by episode podcast…Sometimes, I feel like I’m not quite getting it. Maybe in the re-watch, I will.
To watch the entire series, click here.
I am delighted to introduce this third guest post. Professor Liam Corley, an old friend from my early years as a University pastor at UC Berkeley, writes on Jemisin.
First, Professor Corley will show us why Jemisin is worth reading. Second, he will comment on Jemisin’s deft handling of the story-telling craft. The latter part of the post contains spoilers, but for anyone who cares about writing great characters in epic novels, the professor’s sharp analysis will be incredibly helpful. Enjoy!
Five Reasons…(no spoilers)
Sure, N.K. Jemisin has won all of the top prizes in the industry, and every one of the books in The Broken Earth trilogy has won the Hugo. But you’re a discerning reader. You don’t follow trends or hype. Why will you be glad you read Jemisin’s amazing novels?
- You’re a mom, and you have fought with your daughter. Maybe been mean. Apologized. Did it again. Jemisin’s work is all about the woman protagonist, especially mothers, and the tangled relationships she depicts will have you thinking about YOUR relationships in a new way.
- You know Black Lives Matter, but you don’t know how to talk about it without bursting into flames or tears. Jemisin’s work is a treasure trove of insight into how to confront, live through, and go beyond racial injustice and all of the horrors it has inflicted. From lynching to the casual use of the N-word, it’s all there, in sci fi clothing.
- You care about the environment–really care–and wonder what humanity is doing to its survival prospects by destroying our home.The Broken Earth faces up to the end of the world. Again and again and again. Why are we destroying the world? Because we’re greedy and hate each other. Yup, that’s pretty broken. But Jemisin also shows people learning how to survive in the aftermath and figuring out how to make things right.
- You think Toni Morrison is the best writer ever. Hands down. Ever. If Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison had a love child, it would be N.K. Jemisin. If you can remember reading Beloved in college or watching the movie with Oprah and bawling your eyes out because it was all just so wrong, so beautiful, and so painfully wrong and beautiful, you’ll want to read The Broken Earth.
- You love great science fiction and fantasy world-building and character-driven plots. If you are an avid sci-fi reader and especially if you write it, you’ll want to immerse yourself in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. For more on this point, see my longer review on Craft and Culture in Jemisin’s work below.
Click here to buy the first book of The Broken Earth trilogy. Click here if you want to buy all three.
Warning: there are spoilers below, so in case you haven’t read Jemisin yet, you may want to stop reading and pick up the first book of the trilogy.
Craft and Culture:
Notes on N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy
Readers of SFF (science fiction and fantasy) have embraced N.K. Jemisin’s acclaimed Broken Earth trilogy, and every installment of the series has won the coveted Hugo Award. Consequently, this post is not meant to introduce new readers to the series. Instead, I will be pointing out elements of Jemisin’s writing that contribute to the magic of the reading experience. Other SFF writers will find this of interest, but so will readers who want to understand why the novels affected them as they did. I’ll touch briefly on how Jemisin weaves her alternating timelines into a narrative fabric that turns flashbacks into a strength, not a weakness, on Jemisin’s incorporation of racial politics that are already part of her reader’s core emotional lives, and on the genres novels’ connections to more literary traditions.
I found myself reflecting on Jemisin’s woven chronologies when I was trying to think through the best ways to incorporate character backstories in my SF work-in-progress. Writers know that flat characters live only in the moment, and their motivations tend to have more to do with survival or accomplishment than working out emotional consequences of their past. Yet providing a character’s past can be a distraction from engaging readers in the drama of the story’s “now” time. How then can authors deepen their characters without losing narrative engagement? Jemisin’s solution is brilliant.
In the first book of the trilogy, Jemisin takes her main character’s timeline and slices it into three parts—childhood, adulthood, and post-apocalyptic adulthood. The character has different names in these time periods and acts in much different geographies and societies, so it takes a while before most readers realize that the chapters which alternate between these three perspectives are actually all the same character at different times of her life. What this allows Jemisin to do is to provide the entire scope of her main character’s life in a nonlinear fashion that is as engaging as it is emotionally excruciating. Getting to know the main character at three very different stages of life gives readers a clear view of the character’s depth, journey, change, and motivation.
This technique shouldn’t simply be adopted wholesale by authors wishing to provide an engaging saga, but it makes evident a point that could be adopted more broadly: backstory needs to be as engaging as the main story or it shouldn’t be indulged in beyond broad strokes and hints. All narrative is a dance between scenes and interludes, scenes and interludes, scenes and . . . Flashbacks, to be compelling and to maintain the hooks of engagement, should be fully realized scenes and not inert paragraphs of backstory.
The Broken Earth series is almost entirely a story about race-based injustice and the ways that civilizations built on exploitation create systems and stories to obscure or recast their dependence on a despised underclass. Jemisin is incredibly effective in evoking readers’ feelings about American racial politics by incorporating parallel dynamics in her fictional world. The first, and probably most overt, instance is her use of a racial epithet, “Rogga,” to indicate orogenes, the enslaved and exploited earth magicians. The sonic similarity of the epithet to the N-word is obvious and intentional. Indeed, even the complex ways the term is used in the series—as slur, as indictment of injustice, as insider labeling—mirror the many ways the N-word is debated in our society. This instance of labeling leaves no questions in the readers’ minds about the allegorical nature of racial politics in Jemisin’s world.
What makes Jemisin’s evocation of contemporary race so powerful is precisely such correspondences that, despite their overt nature when reflected upon, fit so well within plot of the novel that readers can escape the sorts of mental coping mechanisms they have for engaging racial issues in their non-reading lives. Edgar Allan Poe was a master of this technique. His tales of the grotesque and macabre are set far distant in time and geography from the slave-owning Southern states where he lived, but their depictions of torture, fear, guilt, and sadism draw indirectly on the repressed experience of those dynamics on plantations. Jemisin’s incorporation of lynchings, segregation, dehumanization, and other tools used by racist societies to subjugate their victims both draw on and make explicit the prevalence of these practices in our own world.
I’ll pivot here to Jemisin’s relationship to African American literature because the series has numerous plot points and characterizations that evoke masterworks by Toni Morrison, one of the most important American writers of the last century. Morrison has won both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize in a distinguished career that exploded into prominence with the publication of Beloved in 1988. Morrison’s novels often focus on a strong African American woman character, something Jemisin also does through her allegorical association of orogenic ability with African American identity. [spoiler alert] Several key plot points in The Broken Earth draw on Sethe’s world in Beloved, most notably when Sethe murders her own child to prevent her from being taken back into slavery.
There are at least a dozen other correspondences between Morrison and Jemisin that occurred to me as I read The Broken Earth, but I won’t spoil your reading pleasure by listing them all. Suffice it to say, SFF editors and agents interested in fostering more #ownstories in the genre should expect to see more explicit borrowing from more established traditions in the future. Most importantly, I think that editors and agents should take note of what Morrison and Jemisin already have expressed through their work: #ownstories aren’t niche or sideline stories; they are central to the human condition, and in the case of the United States, foundational to our national identity and culture.
Related to the issue of a society’s foundations in racial injustice, i.e. SLAVERY, is how Jemisin draws on another classic of SFF literature, Ursula K. Le Guin’s immensely powerful and well-known story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The story poses a philosophical question about injustice and the related phenomenon of scapegoating: would I live in a society that seemed perfect if I knew its perfection depended upon the suffering a single nameless child? The Broken Earth stages this epiphany and existential crisis time and time again throughout the series, with the added element of the unmerited scapegoating being race-based.
On the whole, I’ve become quite a fanboy of Ms. Jemisin’s work, and I hope someday to assign it in one of my classes on American literature
Liam Corley is a professor of American literature at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is also a Navy Reserve officer, and he returned to creative writing as a way of understanding the world after his deployment to Afghanistan in 2008-2009. His work on literature and war can be found in Badlands, Chautauqua, College English, First Things, The Wrath-Bearing Tree, and War, Literature, & the Arts. He is currently at work on a science fiction manuscript about genetics, time travel, and humanity’s irreligious future. He lives in Riverside, CA, with his wife and four children.