Neil Gaiman interviews N.K. Jemisin, 5/2/2020
Gaiman: Back in 2014, I was in Jordan in a Syrian refugee camp – I was talking to the refugees about what made them flee their homes, what made them flee their cities. In order to get to those camps, they had to cross a desert where there would be people shooting at them, where they would cross the bodies of people who had failed to make the journey. Some of them had come all the way across Syria during a civil war. I would ask them what had happened. My realization, which was slow in coming, was how incredibly fragile civilization is. We see a city and we see something immutable, we see something really solid. Then I would talk to these people and they would say, “The tanks ran through our village.” If you drive a tank through a village, everything underneath the tank in the road is destroyed, which includes the water main, so now your village has no water. All it took was a few bombs, a few land mines in the farmer’s field, and now the farmer’s aren’t farming. And very soon they’re getting permission to eat cats and dogs from their religious leaders, and then they run out of cats and dogs.
Jemisin: The part of it that’s most fragile, I think, [are] connections between people, where people are looking out for each other and willing to take risks for each other. That’s what’s kind of being eroded here in the United States right now. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to put those webs back together. Within the city, they’re still pretty much still in place, but there are cracks starting to show. Things like the concept of a nation, or the concept of a group of people being one people are actually really easy to separate and fission off, and we’ve got some parties actively engaged in trying to do that. That’s the part that I was not prepared for. That’s the part science fiction didn’t help me with. Science fiction was all about, When the plague comes, the U.S. will come together and try to fight it.
Gaiman: That, to me, has been the most amazing part. The one bit that I could never have predicted was the levels of idiocy and incompetence and the strange, sad shit show. I would’ve gone, Okay, well, there will be a pandemic, therefore all of the grownups will step up and they will do the right things. That is what grownups do. The only reason they wouldn’t is if we were writing some kind of satire intended to point out the foolishness of people, but even in that we would expect them to come together under the umbrella of sanity, in the end.
Jemisin: And the incompetent people would eventually be deposed by the heroes, and the heroes would be the grownups. Then the grownups would take over and everything would get better, and there would be a nice period of I-told-you-so when the heroes got to tell the incompetents, What were you thinking? Then we would see them all brought to justice – no, none of that’s happening here. And honestly, at the moment that the U.S. is in right now, I have some despair of it ever happening, or the justice part of it ever happening.
Gaiman: One of the things that I’ve always said is that life doesn’t have to be convincing; science fiction does. Had we written this, I don’t think you could’ve written the complete chaos, getting to the point where states are randomly coming out of lockdown.
Jemisin: I don’t think anybody was expecting the states to have to guard their stashes of PPE from the federal government, either, for fear that the feds would come steal it. Good grief! None of this makes any sense! This is all bad writing! We’re living in a really badly-written season of “COVID-19.”