N.K. Jemisin’s 2014 short story “Walking Awake” begins with a very familiar power dynamic. In the opening lines a “Master” appears, “wearing a relatively young body.” The Master appraises some young, strong bodies, which we’re told will then be sent to the “transfer center.” It’s pretty clear within a few paragraphs that “Walking Awake” is a science-fiction take on the master/slave dynamic. Readers almost immediately get the sense that Masters subsume slave bodies entirely and live inside them, a surprising elaboration on the idea that anyone can “own” another human being’s body.
But Jemisin isn’t interested in a polite, finely wrought allegory. Soon we meet a Master’s potential body: “Ten-36 was a bright, pretty child, long-limbed and graceful, Indo-Asian phenotype with a solid breeding history.” Support staff assures Ten-36 that “The Masters were always kind. Ten-36 would spend the rest of her life in the tall glass spires of the Masters’ city, immersed in miracles and thinking unfathomable thoughts that human minds were too simple to manage alone. And she would get to dance all the time.” Like most fairy tales, it’s a lie. Ten-36 rests on one of two tables and prepares herself for the procedure.
When the Master came in and lay down on the right-hand table, Ten-36 fell silent in awe. She remained silent…when the Master tore its way out of the old body’s neck and stood atop the twitching flesh, head-tendrils and proboscides and spinal stinger steaming faintly in the cool air of the chamber. Then it crossed from one outstretched arm to the other and began inserting itself into Ten-36.
The image that Jemisin was coaxing the reader into imagining, that of two people lying on individual steel tables as headbands transfer thought waves from one body into another, was a feint for a more horrible truth, a transaction of spilled blood and torn flesh and broken bone. The reality of slavery, the horror of one body forcing its will on another, is always worse than whatever your imagination can muster.
Jemisin has written novels and short stories and even a novel adaptation of the Mass Effect video game. Her fiction is interested in the idea of freedom and free will, of oppression and struggle, and of trying to explain the inexplicable. It’s big-idea sci-fi, the kind of mind-exploding fiction that is not at all interested in showing you something you’ve seen before.
Seattle-area sci-fi writing organization Clarion West is bringing Jemisin to town as the fourth reader in their summer reading series, with a musical set by SassyBlack. If you believe that good sci-fi holds a mirror up to our time, this is the must-see Clarion West event of the year. Everything Jemisin writes about is tied to Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump’s nationalist racism and the legacy of violence that white people still enact on African-American bodies today. These are stories that tell the truth with such passion that you cannot avert your eyes for even a second.
Seattle Public Library, 1000 4th Ave., 386-4636, spl.org. Free. All ages. 6 pm.