Thursday, January 26, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Walking Awake - N. K. Jemisin

Walking Awake is one of the original stories in Lightspeed's special edition Women Destroy Science Fiction. Jemisin is very successful with her novels at the moment, picking up a Hugo and a whole lot of nominations for other awards for her novel The Fifth Season last year. She is one of the voices calling for more diversity in the genre, something that has brought her in open conflict with Vox Day, one of the people behind the Rabid Puppies campaigns to influence the outcome of the Hugo Awards in recent yeas. As far as I am concerned she deserved a Hugo just for that.

The story is set in an establishment which caters to the Masters. These long lived individuals are capable of taking over human bodies, and as long as they change before the human host dies, they can live for centuries. The bodies they wear, are the product of a careful breeding program. The honour of serving the masters that way is only reserved for the finest specimens. Sadie is flawed. She has taken on the role of caregiver, taking care of the next generation of hosts for the Masters. Slowly she is beginning to realize that serving the Masters may not be the honour she was taught to believe in.

The main theme of the story is oppression. The Masters are obviously not quite what they appear to be, and serving them most certainly is not an honour. They are vain, wasteful and view humans as a resource. The Masters are powerful however, and Sadie is not. The story goes on to detail how Sadie finds out the true nature of the Masters, and how a powerless, flawed and scared person such as herself can challenge them anyway.

Another point this story makes, is that oppression is of our own making. The Masters did not create their slaves, humans created the masters and in doing so enslaved their offspring. Oppression cannot just be fought, it can be prevented from occurring (or reoccurring, the story is set in the future) if one is avoids dehumanizing even one's enemies. "All the monsters" one of the characters says, "were right here."

Walking Awake is a story with a powerful message. One that isn't delivered with any great subtlety. That was definitely something the anthology could use. It is, after all, among other things, a statement against sexism in publishing and the science fiction fandom. People who do not appreciate so much politics in their fiction will probably not like this story. I'm pretty sure it will draw very mixed responses from readers. I liked the story and I think the message needs to be heard. Given the ongoing Hugo mess and other events in the genre, a bit more directness might be just what the progressives of science fiction need.

Story Details
Title: Walking Awake
Author: N. K. Jemisin
Language: English
Originally published: Lightspeed Special Issue Women Destroy Science Fiction! (June 2014)
Read in: Lightspeed Special Issue Women Destroy Science Fiction! (June 2014)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 6,000 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed

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