Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, co-creators of DARK, sold their masterful production to Netflix sometime in 2016-17. It began streaming in December 1, 2017. Rated PG-13 (a couple of sex scenes more than graphic violence). This series is dubbed in English. It’s done well, you’ll likely not notice after watching for a few minutes.
Here are 5 reasons to check out DARK…
- DARK is part mystery, part scifi and part thriller…in a similar way that Stranger Things draws in the viewer, so does this tale.
- Yet…DARK is smarter than Stranger Things. Throw in human angst, religion, time travel, Goethe and Nietzche and you’ve got a jumble of ideas that provoke any viewer.
- Perfect for binge-watching over Christmas vacay.
- The casting was done well and there a number of brilliant performances, including those of the child actors.
- If you like a good soundtrack, this one is pitch perfect, utterly creepy and poignant.
Black holes are considered to be the hellmouths of the universe. Those who fall inside disappear. Forever. But where to? What lies behind a black hole? Along with things, do space and time also vanish there? Or would space and time be tied together and be part of an endless cycle? What if everything that came from the past were influenced by the future?
There are a number of reasons why DARK has been compared to Stranger Things. The main one is that it features a small town where an unnatural mystery is unfolding within its boundaries. Other ways in which it feels familiar: A couple of the main characters are policemen and youth are important to the story. DARK is “dark” and may not have the charm of the funny and sweet tween friendships at the heart of Stranger Things, but the narrative takes on the isolation and claustrophobia of small town life. It features a number of disaffected teens and adults, not often friendly toward one another, all living in Winden.
Winden is the fictional German town where a tunnel under a nuclear power plant holds mystery. The story opens with the suicide of one of the town’s people in current time and unravels from there. Tidbits of the mystery are revealed. Various families and their histories who live in Winden are revealed. Within a few episodes, the audience begins to see the tangled mess. Not only are these folks relationally connected, they are connected by a society of time travelers, who go by the name Sic Mundus, meaning “thus the world was created”. By the end of the first season, the audience understands that fate, individual choice and the agency of those who understand the dynamics around time travel, will continue to hinder or help Winden restore some semblance of order to their community.
The first season was much acclaimed and the second (I have not watched yet) apparently did not disappoint. A third season is under production as I write. I can’t speak highly enough of DARK, the story, the performances, the music and visuals. There is much artistry in this production and it is a welcome reality for story consumers to see another brilliant tale come from a place beyond Hollywoodland.
Congrats to these filmmakers and I look forward to viewing and reviewing season 2 in the coming weeks.
Another Delta plane flight, another dive into Hulu’s offerings. I haven’t yet paid for Hulu’s streaming service. Maybe I will. I’ve been impressed with their original productions. What I viewed today, my second INTO THE DARK* episode, this one celebrating New Year’s Day: NEW YEAR, NEW YOU. This film is 84 minutes long, rated R for adult themes and violence, though the gore was not over-the-top. INTO THE DARK was co-written by director, Sophia Takal and Adam Gaines.
MY SHORT REVIEW: 5 Reasons I Recommend
- Compact story, tension ratcheting up with every scene.
- All-female cast of characters, all solid performances
- Surprising turns in the story
- Well done production, including a creepy soundtrack
- Director, Sophia Takal is a talent worth watching and following
NEW YEAR, NEW YOU is Mean Girls on steroids. Those viewing INTO THE DARK know the genre, so it’s not a giveaway to say that the story opens with flashes a tragedy, the body of a young woman with cuts across her face, floating face up in a swimming pool. It’s a quick and foggy flash and not explained initially. In the next scene the audience attaches to the main character, a young woman named Alexis. Alexis is the nanny for a teen girl. Together they are watching a video of an Instagram/YouTube star: Danielle. Danielle’s screen presence feels part shopping channel, part self-help guru, part inspirational speaker. Based on the enthusiastic fawning of the teen, the audience understands Danielle to be one of those personalities able to drive her fans to buy products (including a line of her own overpriced juices) that promise to deliver the screen-projected happiness she exudes.
Alexis is disgusted by Danielle’s image and message. The audience sees this in her face, her attitude, her posture. Alexis is one angry woman. She bears a scar along her jawline, also not explained. Alexis notices it often, touches it, focuses on it as she looks at her face in a mirror at least twice. The audience grows in understanding that Alexis’ old friend and now superstar, Danielle, might have something to do with Alexis’ scar.
In the second set of scenes, Alexis is preparing her house for a New Year’s Eve party, but there is little joy in her preparation.
Point of view shifts briefly to the interior of a car. Two other women, Kayla and Chloe, are driving in a rainstorm on their way to Alexis’ party. Danielle comes up in their dialogue, both her fame and how much money she has been making. Kayla and Chloe wind up with a flat tire a few blocks from Alexis’ home and walk in the rain the remainder of the way.
The two of them are warmly welcomed by Alexis. Danielle, has been invited to the party as well, though these women haven’t seen her in a while and are uncertain whether or not she will come. Danielle finally shows up, a much anticipated moment for the audience. She is alone.
Kayla and Chloe seem excited to see Danielle. Alexis tries to act happy, but she’s not a great faker. The friends proceed to drink and celebrate their evening. Danielle pushes her agenda, wanting to shoot various videos of her friends to promote herself/her lifestyle. Her controlling and shallow presence draws out the worst in Alexis, literally and figuratively. The climax takes place as the women countdown to midnight, at which point all hell breaks loose.
I didn’t come close to predicting all the twists and turns of NEW YEAR, NEW YOU, but it was a pleasure to feel on edge from beginning to end, which is why I consume such tales.
*INTO THE DARK…The series, INTO THE DARK, is a Hulu concept, a horror anthology series in the vein of The Twilight Zone, though each production is as long as a feature film. In the anthology’s first season, Hulu released one episode per month, starting with Halloween and for a total of 12 episodes. All of the episodes were tied thematically to a holiday that falls within that month. NEW YEAR, NEW YOU is the 4th episode in the anthology. It is tied to New Year’s Day.
The series, INTO THE DARK, is a Hulu concept, a horror anthology series in the vein of The Twilight Zone, though each production is as long as a feature film. In the show’s first season, Hulu released one episode per month, for a total of 12 episodes. All of the episodes were tied thematically to a holiday that falls within that month.
The 8th episode was released in May under the title: ALL THAT WE DESTROY. The story is inspired by Mother’s Day.
ALL THAT WE DESTROY is horror, but with a scifi twist. It is a tale in the vein of Ex Machina, the drama unfolding around a brilliant scientist who runs a lab in a remote location. It’s a story as old as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and a trope that will please both the science fiction nut and the horror fan. In other words, this HULU original does not disappoint in terms of revealing a monster or two…
I would rate this film R for violence and language. Trigger warning to those who might be disturbed by violence perpetrated against the vulnerable. This is a monster movie.
Short Review: Four Reasons To Watch INTO THE DARK
- Lots of edge-of-your-seat suspense and mystery.
- The characters surprise, yet for all their weirdness, they are relatable.
- Strong female leads, with themes around motherhood and life-creation.
- The story takes place in a desert hideaway where the sun shines brightly. I found it refreshing to see this setting for such a dark and troubling tale.
Point of View determines how a story like INTO THE DARK will unfold. In the case of this film, the POV primarily rests with the supposed monster, the creation. In the opening scene, the audience watches her wake up out of a tub of black sludge. The audience learns within the first 20 minutes of the film that this young woman is a clone. The clone is lovingly washed and dressed by the scientist, whose hands the audience sees, but does not meet until later. Instead, we meet the scientist’s son. His mother is the scientist and she is a woman fixated on solving the dilemma of her son. She’s doing this in the only way she knows how, by using her science in what is clearly an unethical way.
The twist in this story, as you might imagine, is that the clone may or may not be the true monster.
Ex Machina was on my mind during much of the viewing of INTO THE DARK
In the case of Ex Machina (which I loved, but still haven’t reviewed on this site), the point of view is mostly held by the visitor who enters the lab. Mystery about what the heck the scientist has created drives the plot, ramping up tension as the visitor discovers (therefore, we the audience discover) the horrors of the scientist’s experiments. This tension culminates as the visitor understands that in order to survive, he will need to escape from the lab before the monster overcomes him. This is where a story such as Ex Machina, science fiction in its vibe, follows the haunted house script. Think Poltergeist, Amityville Horror, The Shining. Survival equals escape. Will the hero make it out?
INTO THE DARK gives the audience a twist on this haunted house trope. The point of view starts with the clone, but moves to the scientist and to the son at various points in the film. The clone is innocent in her birth and clueless about the dangers that lurk. The audience understands those dangers and strongly empathizes with her, is rooting for her.
Part way into the film, a visitor enters the action. It’s a chance meeting, but reveals the vulnerability of the scientist, her son and the ghastly experiment she has been conducting. The finale brings all the characters together. I liked the ending. It was packed with symbolism, but not overdone. A true Mother’s Day tale.
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. 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.
If you don’t have time to visit a local comic book store, you can click on this link at Amazon’s DC Comics Store. Superman Smashes the Klan
So…I’m on an airplane and thinking it’s my chance to watch something new. Yay! I turn on my personal tele, flip through the film and television options. I see a TV series called ALMOST HUMAN. It looks scifi enough and I see JJ Abrams’ name attached to it. I decide to try an episode. I imagine I am watching something new, but apparently, I’m not.
ALMOST HUMAN aired in the late 2012 and early 2013s (in the media world. 7 years is a lifetime). JJ Abrams, Bryan Burk and JH Wyman produced this series.
The premise of ALMOST HUMAN is not so original. It’s basically a cop drama. The unique aspect to this story is his AI partner. Dorian is a humanoid AI, often referred to as a “synthetic” in the series. John Kennex, the main character, is a cop who frequently bends/breaks the rules. Typical cop drama trope. He also carries a lot of emotional baggage. Also typical. Some of that baggage is introduced in the first episode. What is unique about this cop drama is that his partner Dorian is an AI programmed to be empathetic and does not hesitate to tell Kennex when he sees him making poor choices. Those moments are both poignant and funny. Watching their unlikely friendship develop makes for an interesting story. In a way, both are helping the other to become better humans.
ALMOST HUMAN was cancelled at the end of the first season. Thirteen episodes is all that is available to the viewing audience. However the four episodes I watched were entertaining and would interest most scifi fans, especially if your second love after scifi is cop shows. In case that doesn’t sound gripping enough, here are three more reasons you might want to check it out…
- The series puts forward a robocop-type world. In this well-drawn urban landscape of Earth’s future, human cops team up with Artificial Intelligence cops. That’s a nice twist on the typical cop drama.
- The series explores a lot of possible future tech for law enforcement like instantaneous DNA identification. Some of how the cops do their work and the ways the criminals try to outsmart or subvert the new tech is fascinating.
- There is a satisfying “solving of the crime” in each episode, like many typical cop dramas.
While I do recommend this series, it will cost you money. Amazon Prime and YouTube dangle the fruit of the one season in front of us…for $20. Each episode is $1.99, so if you’re doubtful, rent one or two episodes and see if you like it…or fly Delta sometime in the next few months. I liked episodes 2 and 3 more than the first, so try to watch more than the pilot.
KINDRED, perhaps the most admired novel written by the late, great Octavia Butler is a nearly perfect novel.
I rate this novel PG-13 for the violence that is shown, though not celebrated, against black slaves.
I plan to write a separate post for educators after this general review of the novel.
Short Review…3 Reasons to Read
- KINDRED is a page-turner. As a novelist, I so admire this book. It ain’t easy to keep your audience on edge. Butler does it with genius.
- KINDRED humanizes slaves and slaveholders…In my mind, KINDRED is a literary narrative because it does not simplify the incredibly complex story of slavery in US history/society.
- KINDRED is literary, yet it is also an adventure story…Read the book to gain empathy, knowledge and understanding, but count on being entertained and in suspense while you learn.
Octavia Butler did write great science fiction, like The Xenogenesis Trilogy, but KINDRED falls into a different category. It’s a time-travel fantasy with fewer of the typical time travel tropes. We all know those tropes, how tension builds as the reader/audience wonders whether a character who impacts past will change the future. In KINDRED, that tension (changing the future by impacting the past) stays in the background. It is a worry, but not the primary worry. What creates the tension in KINDRED is the survival of the main character.
The story premise is brilliant.
Dana, whom the reader affixes to very early, is an African American woman, married to a white man living in the 1970s. She is living her life in the present as a happy person. Suddenly, she finds herself yanked back into history. It takes her a while to figure out why, but eventually, she and the reader understand that every time one of her ancestors (a white slave owner) finds his life in danger, Dana is summoned to the past. This happens multiple times. Dana comes back into real time when she finds herself in danger of being severly injured or killed. The going back and forth is painful, but an interesting narrative device. The reader, who empathizes with Dana, finds these short respites back in the modern era as hopeful and yet terrifying because the readers knows, as does Dana, that she will be yanked back in time within minutes, hours or days of her respite. Her oasis in the modern era taunts the reader and gives the reader pause. At least in part, our society has grown out of the horrifying reality of slavery. That reality cannot be denied, or at least it is harder to deny when the reader is identifying so powerfully with this main character.
Dana, because of her experience of liberty in the 1970s as a black woman, becomes a guide to those in the past. She has agency, yet because of her skin color, she is also threatening to everyone who exists in this past world, including the slaves she will try to help.
Regarding KINDRED’s captivating narrative, I challenge you to read the first twenty pages of this book and be able to put it down.
Regarding KINDRED’s story, I challenge you to read something of greater substance that falls into the category of “time travel narrative”. I doubt you will find one.
To buy this masterpiece, click KINDRED
To buy the first of Butler’s science fiction the Xenogenesis trilogy, click DAWN
To buy the whole trilogy, click The Xenogenesis Trilogy
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?
Don’t miss this film. It’s easy to watch. Right now ANNIHILATION is free for Amazon Prime members.
Five Reasons to Watch this Film
- It puts forward a non-humanoid portrayal of an alien species invading our planet–always a welcome change in sci-fi land.
- Watch it for the tension, mystery and suspense (on par with films like Alien and The Thing).
- Watch it for dynamic, mostly female cast. Realistic and flawed characters with agency and intelligence.
- Watch it for the beautifully imagined world. The CGI and other effects are a visual feast.
- I also enjoyed the creepy music. I expect it will make your skin crawl as it did mine.
ANNIHILATION is based on The Southern Reach Trilogy novels by Jeff Vandermeer. Watch the film and read the first book (in particular), also called Annihilation. To read my review of the first novel, click here. The film diverges enough from the novel, spoilers aren’t an issue. Both stand alone and give the consumer something different. The most important commonality in both is the main character: Lena, as named in the film. She is not named in the book, but is only known as the biologist.
Alex Garland wrote the screenplay based on the trilogy, but focused on the first book. He takes that novel told in the first person, a story relayed by the journal entries of the biologist, and creates something that makes sense for the screen.
In one of the film’s earliest scenes, a comet or asteroid hits Earth, near a lighthouse on the North-Eastern coast of the US. Within a few years (we learn later), an anomaly develops in and around the area where the asteroid hit. It becomes circumscribed by what the government people call, the shimmer.
The story of Lena opens with her sitting in a chair in a mostly empty hospital-type viewing room. She is dressed in scrubs, surrounded by men and women in hazmat suits, many of whom watch her through windows. One man is interviewing her about her journey into the shimmer. She is only survivor who has returned of a 5-person team. As he questions her, the story unfolds.
The casting of ANNIHILATION is strong, with nuanced performances by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh (as the psychologist and expedition leader).
This film was released on a February weekend in 2018, the weekend following the release of Black Panther. While the Marvel masterpiece sucked nearly all of the movie-going public into the theaters, one, two and three times to ooh and aah over that story, the graphics and the unfolding of a Wakanda power struggle, ANNIHILATION quietly drew its small and eclectic audience. It left the theaters before the Hollywood press had a chance to say much about it. In truth, even without Black Panther as competition for eyeballs, the film was rated “R”, and therefore would not have attracted the masses.
However, similar to a film like Under the Skin, this story is so creepy and alien in a way that pushes the imagination, the sci-fi fanatic will adore it…as should biologists, who will see their discipline elevated in a way not often witnessed on the big screen.
If you are a DVD watcher, here is a link for purchase.
I end with a favorite quote:
“Was it carbon based? What did it want? It came here for a reason. It came here for a reason. It mutated everything.”
The Short Review. Why or Why not Read ACCEPTANCE?
- I already consumed the first two in the trilogy and like to finish things
- I wanted to understand more of the mystery that is Area X. There was definitely more backstory to absorb in this volume
- I enjoyed the deeply flawed, but thoughtful characters
- I wanted to spend more time in the imaginative world of Area X
- The writing style was unique and often beautiful
Why avoid reading?
- Because the point of view was shifting all the time, it was a challenge to attach to any one character
- Disappointing ending
- The writing style grew stale after a while…lots of interior musings and struggles without enough plot or even conflict (the conflict is underlying, but too diffuse)
- Not only does Vandermeer shift points of view with every chapter, he also moves back and forth between past and present
- I started this book on audio, but switched to print about a 1/3 of the way through because POV and time switching was too confusing
To buy ACCEPTANCE, click here.
To buy the SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY, click here.
The Longer Review of ACCEPTANCE
If you read my earlier reviews, you understand that I started out a big fan of Annihilation. Not only was the main character, compelling, but the mysteries that unfolded in the narrative created the perfect amount of tension to keep me engaged. I’m guessing this was true for many other readers interested in the interior life of this quietly observant biologist as she ventures into Area X. The biologist (she is never named in the book) is at the heart a true scientist and in certain respects more attuned to flora and fauna than to people, but she observes people with a scientific eye. She is spooky, highly intelligent and trustworthy as a narrator in surprising and interesting ways. I really loved this character. I loved that she was anti-social and an introvert. She also had clear motivation to act because her husband had been on a previous mission into Area X and returned damaged before succumbing to death She is a worthy rival to the various human and monster challengers that get in her way. In fact, she is such a great character that Alex Garland (screenwriter) took the story and created a feature-length film around her, that character played wonderfully by Natalie Portman. I loved the film, but it is not the same story told in the trilogy, nor is it the same story told in the novel after which it is named. The film narrative diverges in significant ways. I will post my review of the film tomorrow. I ought not say more unless I spoil the story.
What to say about Vandermeer’s style? Be prepared for words like ziggurat to be on the page in large numbers. His writing is lovely and intellectually gratifying if you’re interested in imaginative metaphors and curious juxtapositions. This language mimics the beauty and strangeness of Area X. Here is an excerpt:
In Control’s imagination, the entrance to the topographical anomaly was enormous, mixed with the biologist’s vast bulk in his thoughts so that he had expected a kind of immense ziggurat upside down in the earth. But no, it was what it had always been: a little over sixty feet in diameter, circular, located in the middle of a small clearing. The entrance lay there open for them, as it had for so many others. No soldiers here, nothing more unusual than the thing itself.
I’m not opposed to imaginative language, but the extensive descriptions did sometime bog down the story for me, especially when I was trying to consume the book via audio. With a passage like above, I would sometimes have to rewind…What did he just say? Did he say ziggurat?
Finally, my reticence to fully praise this trilogy is that the mystery is not explained to my satisfaction. Too many unanswered questions. I guess Vandermeer has another novel called Area X, but given this group of books…Annihilation, Authority and ACCEPTANCE are presented to the world as a trilogy…I want the satisfaction to take place by the end of the third book and not have to pick up another novel to figure out the answers I need.
Regarding the audio experience. For whatever reason, my brain struggles to follow an audio narrative that jumps around in point of view and in the timeline like this novel did. I struggled with this same issue when I listened to The Three Body Problem. Annihilation as an audio book was easier to listen to. It was straightforward, narrated by one character in the first person and unfolded in a linear timeline (with a few memories/backstory as a part of filling out the character). That narration works well for me. I’m curious for those of you who consume a lot of audio books if you have these same struggles? Drop me a line and let me know.
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.