The 2017 Nebula Award nominees were announced last week, and the Best Novel nod for N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky means all three books in The Broken Earth trilogy have been so honored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
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Though she’s lost in the final voting the past two years, this means there’s one more chance for one of the defining works of the last decade of fantasy to take home a Nebula to sit beside the two consecutive Best Novel Hugo Awards Jemisin has claimed (for The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate). There’s also a good chance the third volume will make Jemisin the only author ever to win the Hugo for every installment of a trilogy.
It’s easy to see why the trilogy has impressed so many fans (who vote on the Hugos) and professional writers (who award the Nebulas) alike: they are as structurally innovative as they are narratively compelling. Across multiple points of view, hopping across time and fearlessly changing styles from chapter to chapter, Jemisin tells the story of Essun, a woman navigating the dual burdens of grief and motherhood amid a magical apocalypse—an event that has shattered a world that might not be worth saving. With a striking geological magic system that works with a rigor that pushes the books into the realm of sci-fi, a plot that speaks with immediacy to the struggles with race and inequality that plague our contemporary world, and a host of damaged characters you won’t soon forget, the trilogy is truly monumental.
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Strangely, one of the most masterful aspects of this groundbreaking saga almost kept me from reading it in the first place. The prologue of the first volume, The Fifth Season, begins with ferocity: “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.” But it then continues on from a second-person point of view*, a fact that made me put the book down the first time I tried to read it. I only gave it a second try because my science fiction book club decided to read it. I now realize, of course, that Jemisin’s use of point of view is one of the trilogy’s great strengths.
*In case you have forgotten your elementary school grammar, the narrators of novels in first person use “I,” “me,” and “we”; those of novels in third person favor “he,” “she,” and “they.” Stories in second person are much rarer, and address the reader directly as the “you” operating within the story.
The third-person point of view is most common in Western fiction: the author refers to protagonist(s) by name or a third person pronoun—“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday…” Third person allows authors and readers to seamlessly switch between characters’ viewpoints, or even go inside their minds if so desired—it can be limited to what one protagonist perceives, can or cannot include the protagonist’s thoughts, or even be omniscient, accessing all the characters’ experiences and thoughts. A novel in first-person POV is also easy to follow, as it mirrors the way we all experience the world—as a play in which we are the primary actors. It’s also how our friends tell us what happened to them last night. (Oddly, none of the stories that make up Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot let a robot narrate in first person.)
But the second-person POV is much rarer in fiction—which is not to say other award-winning SFF authors haven’t used it. The main body of John Scalzi’s Hugo-winning novel Redshirts is written in straightforward third-person POV, but the book ends with three codas titled “First Person,” “Second Person,” and “Third Person,” each written from a point of view to match the title. Gene Wolfe uses second person in his Nebula-nominated story “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” (not to be confused with his other tales “The Death of Dr. Island,” “The Doctor of Death Island,” and “The Death of the Island Doctor”). And portions of Acceptance, the third volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s head-trippy, Nebula-winning Southern Reach trilogy, are written in second person, adding to the bewildering effect of an already mindbending plot.
There’s an obvious reason books from a second-person POV are rare: they seem to be significantly harder for readers to accept than stories in first or third person (though I’ll entertain arguments that their rarity has an ouroboros effect; maybe we wouldn’t mind them so much if we encountered them more often).
Even us SFF readers, so readily suspend our disbelief to accept faster than light drives and magical elves, can balk when an author addresses us in second person. (Note: the preceding sentence was written in what’s known as the first person plural, if you were wondering.) (And there we see that second person is not quite as rare in blog posts.) The Fifth Season’s first chapter starts, “You are she. She is you. You are Essun. Remember? The woman whose son is dead.” If your first reaction is, “Well, I’m not really Essun. Why is the author talking to me like I am?” then Jemisin’s job just became that much harder.
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In a recent interview on this blog, Jemisin said she likes to try out different tenses and points of view to see what works for a particular story. She admits she doesn’t know what made her try second person for The Fifth Season, but she liked the result so much, she kept it. Jemisin also uses first- and third-person points of view throughout the first book and the series. Because (slight spoiler warning here) it’s not really the author speaking to us in second-person POV; it is a first-person narrator who exists within the book and is speaking to Essun—their identity not revealed until rather a lot of pages have gone by. That narrator explains why in The Obelisk Gate—“I want to keep telling this as I have: in your mind, in your voice, telling you what to think and know. Do you find this rude? It is, I admit. Selfish. When I speak as just myself, it’s difficult to feel like part of you. It is lonelier. Please; let me continue a bit longer.”
The special abilities of the narrator, and his connection to Essun, provide a context that makes the second person POV both plausible and meaningful. The same narrator is able to know other characters stories well enough to tell them too, albeit in third person POV. Eventually, they tell their own story as well.
The Fifth Season starts with the end of the world. The Stone Sky ends with the first-person narrator and Essun ready to try and make a better new one. In between, Jemisin spins an intricate tale worthy of all its nominations and awards. If they give out another Hugo for Best Series, you wouldn’t be surprised to see The Broken Earth on the ballot.
You leave a comment telling us your thoughts on books written in second person.