The Logistics of Throwing Mountains: N.K. Jemisin Discusses The Broken Earth Trilogy

In 2015, N.K. Jemisin published The Fifth Season, and the world watched an already accomplished writer level up in a big way. The book—the beginning of the apocalyptic Broken Earth trilogy—was leaps and bounds above her earlier books (a few of which, mind you, were nominated for Nebula awards, so we’re not talking juvenilia here) on every level, from complexity of storytelling to a mastery of narrative voice. For her troubles, she won a Hugo for best novel, the first African-American woman to do so—and then she did it again: at WorldCon 75 last week, sequel The Obelisk Gate earned the author her second consecutive Hugo.

On the eve of the release of the concluding volume, The Stone Sky, we caught up with Jemisin via email to talk with her about wrapping up the trilogy, awards pressure, and what comes next. 

You’ve described a dream as the starting point for this series, one of “a woman walking toward me … with a mountain moving along behind her.” In this series we meet both the woman and the mountain. How different was the dream from the woman on the page? Did she or the mountain surprise you in their telling?
Well, the mountains don’t float. 🙂

I couldn’t really work out the logistics for having people throw mountains at each other; that’s the kind of thing that feels awe-inspiring and haunting in a dream, and looks great in anime, but in actuality would be kind of slow and ponderous and probably not very dramatic. Essun, though, got better as she became more fully realized. That didn’t surprise me, though, because I was trying to make her so!

The Broken Earth series seems to straddle a line between fantasy and hard science (e.g. the orogenes of the novels acquire their names from orogeny: a folding of the lithosphere that creates mountains, but functionally what they perform is magic). There’s a whole mess of science underpinning the magic. What kind of research did you undertake to make orogeny something done by orogenes. and not a flat, scientific term?
I did want to play around a bit with that corollary of Clarke’s law—the idea that any sufficiently systematized magic is indistinguishable from science. A few years back I wrote a blog post called “But but but—why does magic have to make sense?” in which I argued that the whole point of magic was to defy reasoning and repeatability and all the things that equal science.

But then I wanted to write a world that tries to make sense of it anyway, and partially succeeds. And we can see by the obelisks floating through the sky of the Stillness that at one point in the distant past, people did figure magic out to a much greater degree. At that point, is it still magic? Has it become science? That’s one of the concepts the series is chewing on.

Research-wise, I hung out in seismologist forums and follow a bunch of geologist accounts on Twitter, and read a lot of layperson-oriented articles. I also visit volcanoes whenever possible, because I’m fascinated by them. Awesome demonstrations of the Earth’s power and potential fury. On a research trip to Hawai’i a few years back, I visited four volcanoes in four days. That was fun.

There’s a lot of post-apocalyptic literature out there, but this trilogy details the most apocalyptic society I’ve ever encountered: The Sanzed Empire is built on preparing for regular extinction level events that strike the continent of Stillness. Were there specific post-apocalyptic tropes that you were trying to avoid? Comment on? Destroy?
I think the distinction that matters is that the Stillness is not post-apocalyptic. This isn’t what happens after normal goes away; the Seasons are their normal. So basically it’s a society of preppers whose paranoia and obsessiveness is actually justified.

And I think I wanted to mess with that notion—that you can ever truly prepare for disaster. I don’t go much into how many comms die horribly during Seasons because they’ve prepared for the wrong thing, but it should be obvious from the discussion of the Seasons themselves. A comm might have sturdy walls but falter from the inside as some of its members turn out to be selfish or abusive. It might have adequate food stores, but then the trigger for the Season turns out to be a huge fungal bloom that destroys the stores.

There’s a tendency in American thought—maybe elsewhere, but that’s the culture I know best—to default to social Darwinism, even though even Darwin noted that’s a misapplication of his ideas. Regardless, a lot of people think survival is about being the toughest or the most amoral, or having the most stuff. Yet as we’ve seen from actual accounts of people surviving disasters, the people who do best are the ones who adapt, and cooperate. So since I was trying to write a realistic survival-oriented society, and not some kind of skeevy paean to eugenics, that’s what I put into the series.

Much of the series is told in the second person, often from a deliberately obscured first person. It works beautifully for reasons that are a spoiler to point out to those who haven’t read the book. How did you come to this second person narration? Was it always a part of how this story was told? Did you ever consider a more straightforward narrative approach?
When I start a new novel, I often write “test chapters” in different tenses and from different points of view in order to figure out which is best to tell the tale. I don’t know why second person occurred to me, but it did, and when I wrote a test chapter (now the “prologue” of The Fifth Season), I liked the result. So I just kept at it. It’s the voice that worked, so no, I never considered a more straightforward approach.

Did anything about this story surprise you in the writing of it? Discoveries along the way, characters acting in ways you never expected?
Nope. 🙂 I’m surprised at some of the reactions [it has received]. Schaffa’s got quite the fan club, to my shock. But the story itself is what I envisioned it to be.

The Stone Sky is the last of a continuous trilogy, a much longer form than you’ve tackled before. The way you must keep a very complicated set of relationships in your head, in addition to eons of time, feels incredibly difficult. How was writing the Broken Earth series different from writing your other novels?
Basically I had to keep a very complicated set of relationships and eons of time in my head. 🙂

I wrote a lot of things down.

How did the response to the first book change your experience of writing the other two? Particularly after you won the Hugo last year, did you feel additional pressure to get this book right?
Not to the degree that I felt pressure to get it right in the first place. The Broken Earth is one story, as you noted in the previous question; it didn’t feel like writing three books. It felt like writing one—for a very long time. I don’t think I’ve ever felt pressure because of awards, though; awards are lovely, but at the end of the day I need to walk away from this book feeling like I’ve done the story justice. I write for myself—but it is nice when other people like it, too!

Since this trilogy began, your life has changed in a major way—can you talk about the shift to becoming a full-time writer, and why that was important at this stage in your career?
I wouldn’t call it important so much as necessary. Having two full-time careers worked for me for many years, but lately the writing career ratcheted up enough that it started to take a toll on my health. Something was going to give, and if I didn’t lose the day job, it was going to be me.

Can you talk to us about what you are working on now? Are there any other slices of SFF you’re eager to try out?
I’m currently working on my next series for Orbit. It’ll be based on my published short story, “The City Born Great,” at Tor.com. I’m also working on a few other projects, but unfortunately I can’t discuss them at this time!

The Stone Sky is available August 15.

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