I started off by remarking that I'd heard Nora reading the short story "Stone Hunger" (at Clarkesworld, here) at WisCon, and I wanted to know more about this world, since I'd heard it was the world featured in her new Broken Earth Trilogy, which begins with The Fifth Season. She explained that this short story was a "proof of concept story" with which she began to explore the possibilities of the world she was designing, but that the novels themselves are significantly different.
The world of the Broken Earth trilogy is a secondary world (not Earth), inhabited by humanlike people, and it is very seismically active. Certain people in this world are born with the ability to influence seismology, either by using the energy of ongoing seismic events, or by drawing energy from the living things (including people) around them in order to induce seismic events. They are called orogenes, and because of their ability to harm people with their powers, they are not well liked.
Every few hundred years, there is an extinction-level seismic event, such as a volcanic winter. Cultures on this planet have adapted to it, calling it the fifth season. Thus this is a world prepared (as prepared as it can be) for periodic apocalypses.
The plot of The Fifth Season revolves around a mother whose husband finds out their kids are orogenes, kills one of them and kidnaps the other. She goes after him to bring her surviving child back.
I asked her what the inspirations for this world were. She said that she was fascinated by seismology, and mentioned experiencing a rare earthquake in New York, where most people found it exciting. She also said she'd had a dream about a woman doing the "badass power walk" toward her with a mountain floating behind her.
It was important to Nora that this world be accountable to science and plausibility. She specifically wanted to avoid the word "magic" and its implications that the mundane and the magical are somehow separate. Here they are part of the same worldview, and orogeny (a word from seismology) is a kind of science, while Astronomy is considered a pseudo-science.
She continues in her work to move away from the traditional expectations of epic fantasy (Medieval Europe, etc.). The question becomes how far one can cross the line. She told us about asking on Facebook about whether people would find the word "polymer" problematic in a fantasy setting. This kind of thing can happen when people associate specific technological assumptions with a word like "polymer," which can then potentially throw readers out of the story world when it is used. In this world, metal is unreliable but there are lots of natural polymers.
I asked Nora about her research process. She said she'd done a lot of research on seismology, and taken a research trip to Hawaii where she went to a different volcano each day, and took a helicopter tour of Pu'u'o, the active part of Kilauea.
Nora asks, "What can fit within the boundaries of fantasy?" She reads authors like China Miéville and Martha Wells, and says she doesn't generally like epic fantasy because it's too "lockstep." She wants to see things that don't look like our world, rather than resembling different "iterations" of it. The Dreamblood world wasn't Earth, which was communicated in many ways, but not least by having a gas giant in the sky. Fantasy can do so many things.
The magic of orogenes defies logic, in this world, in that it's mostly genetic but not entirely. People have tried to breed them but it's not controllable. People in the past understood it better, and made mistakes. Jemisin has worked hard creating a sequence of plausible scientific development in a setting where magic works. This makes sense to me because alchemy was regarded as a science, though it's now most often referred to as a kind of magic. It led to chemistry, in fact - real science growing out of pseudoscience. Much fantasy takes the familiar and adds magic on top of it; I'm personally looking forward to a vision of magic fitting into the development of a world.
I asked about the cosmology of the Fifth Season world. Understandably given the circumstances, the people hate God and believe that God hates them. Father Earth created them, liked them for a while, then tried to wipe them out. Myths and legends involve how to deal with the fact that the god hates you. There are no churches. What is revered is Stone Lore. Past societies have written down wisdom that helps their descendents survive apocalypses by chiseling them onto tablets. Most proverbs are things like "store legumes because protein." Some are mystical hints.
The first book of the trilogy (The Fifth Season) is done, and the second is in progress. The different books are more closely tied together than those of the Inheritance trilogy, which was following the story of the 3 deities across long periods of time and thus used different POVs, or the Dreamblood, which was following the story of Gujareeh, the discovery of corruption in a city that was supposed not to be corrupt, and how that corruption was dealth with. By contrast, The Fifth Season focuses on the main character and follows her while she pursues her husband and child. All the while, the environment is changing, adapting to new conditions.
The change in the environment is very thorough. Nora mentioned that only the rich keep dogs. Poor people have kirkusa, like giant otters. They are cuddly, but the season change makes them carnivores and they have a tendency to eat their owners! [This made me think of a recent story where the owner of dogs had died and been eaten by them, so...] The woman's journey through the world allows her to discover many of the changes as they happen, as the world becomes more unsafe.
Cultural practices in this world based on the season - it's called seasonal law. There was a continent-spanning empire that developed rules for getting through the fifth season. Each comm, or community, has a head person to run things when the season changes. The communities have walls, and they close the gates. Everyone in a comm has a function, and this is reflected in their names. A person will have a given name, a use name, and a community name. These names will depend on the caste they are assigned to. Resistance is for people who are survivors of past plagues. Strongbacks are the laborers, and there are always too many of them. People who don't have a "use" don't fit into this system, don't get a use name, and get kicked out when the season changes. If you are judged useful, you get a comm name.
Nora took the time to emphasize that despite all our discussion of the details of the world, the center of this book is on the character and her story. Keeping worldbuilding in the service of story is an important aspect of excellent writing! The novel features the worldbuilding obliquely. Orogenes are hunted, and only acceptable if leashed, oppressed in terrifying ways. The main character wanted to settle down and have a family, but her husband's violence leads to the end of her world, which parallels the end of the world in the fifth season.
I, for one, can't wait to read it!
Thank you so much for joining us, Nora! You are welcome at the hangouts any time. We really appreciate you coming to discuss your work and your fascinating new world with us.