N. K. Jemisin, best-selling science fiction and fantasy author well known for her book trilogy “The Broken Earth,” spoke about building a better world at this year’s Bartels World Affairs Lecture on Wednesday, Oct. 4 at 5:30 p.m. in a packed Rhodes-Rawling Auditorium. Jemisin spoke about how building fictional worlds helps her discuss the reality of our society, and concluded by calling on the audience to make choices in order to build the world they wish to see.
Following her talk, Jemisin joined a panel of Cornell faculty to kickstart the latest Global Grand Challenge: The Future. Global Grand Challenges bring together people and resources to understand and develop solutions to humanity’s most urgent challenges. The first challenge launched in 2019, and this year’s challenge, “The Future,” focuses on how to employ creativity to build a more equitable and sustainable future world.
Supported by the Henry E. and Nancy Horton Bartels World Affairs Fellowship, the Bartels World Affairs Lecture is an annual, signature event hosted by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies that brings renowned individuals to Cornell’s campus to speak on international matters with students and faculty.
Seats at the event sold out and an estimated 330 people attended. In-person watch party tickets were made available as well, where attendees live streamed the lecture from an adjacent classroom near the auditorium. More than 270 local, national and international viewers who registered through eCornell also streamed the event live.
Vice Provost for International Affairs Wendy Wolford said that in addition to launching this year’s Global Grand Challenge, this event also fits into Cornell’s academic year theme of Freedom of Expression. Wolford explained that the world building, kindness and empathy in Jemisin’s work encouraged the Einaudi Center to select this event as the launch for the University’s new Global Grand Challenge.
“The theme of this new challenge is fittingly ‘The Future.’ With this challenge, we invite all of you, students, staff and faculty to step back from the immediate questions of your studies, your work and your research, to think about the world you want to live in,” Wolford said. “The Global Grand Challenge calls on us to go beyond the cutting edge… to imagine what the world would look like if we asked not just what can I do, but what do I want? What do we want?”
Jemisin began her lecture by describing her background in higher education, in which she spent 20 years working as a career counselor, academic counselor and director of experiential education before becoming an author. Jemisin writes science fiction and fantasy novels that explore a variety of themes, including power, cultural conflict and systems of subjugation.
“Many of the questions I tend to get are: Why science fiction? Why fantasy? Why would you, an ostensibly intelligent and mature person, write this kid’s stuff? And I tell people the same thing that Octavia Butler has said in interviews, which is in science fiction, I can do anything,” Jemisin said during her lecture.
Jemisin explained how people’s fears in a specific time period are reflected in their writing, especially in science fiction. She cited underlying fears of the sexual revolution displayed in 1960s feminist science fiction as an example.
“There’s another misconception out there that typically happens, which is that people think of science fiction as being about the future. They think of fantasy as being about the past,” Jemisin said. “It’s neither. Science fiction and fantasy are actually about our present world.”
Jemisin also described the process of science fiction worldbuilding on two levels — macro and micro. Macro worldbuilding involves creating the physical world of a story, including planets, continents, climate and ecology. Micro worldbuilding is crafting the society the characters will exist in, which includes species, morphology, racialization and power, among other things.
“The point of this [worldbuilding] exercise is to get people to start questioning their assumptions,” Jemisin said. “Understanding how our society functions is a lot more constructive than they think, so it’s important that I get across that all of this is changeable.”
Jemisin also spoke about how real people build worlds, and how our current world is not arbitrary, but rather the result of a series of choices. She emphasized that different choices remain possible, and that our understanding of ourselves and self-identity is evolving. Jemisin encouraged the audience to consider reasons for both creating and resisting change.
“We are being blasted with a constant firehose of disinformation which is fueled by a whole lot of money,” Jemisin said. “The only thing that we can do in order to resist this is begin to question and push back on how we became the society that we are and begin to recreate that society in our own design.”
Following her lecture, Jemisin joined a panel with Cornell faculty members Prof. Anindita Banerjee, comparative literature and feminist, gender and sexuality studies; Prof. John Albertson, civil and environmental engineering; and Prof. Kaushik Basu, international studies and economics. Each professor took turns briefly speaking about how their field of expertise relates to building a better world, and Jemisin followed with her thoughts.
“We see society now envisioning futures and being bold, making pledges of decarbonizing our energy supplies, decarbonizing our economy and setting ambitious timelines on which to do that,” Albertson said. “It’s relatively straightforward to plan the direct linear path of what you need to do there. But the question is: where are all the other parts of society that are touched by each of these changes?”
Asher Bergmann ’26 said his goal going into his sophomore year was going to more school events, and was excited to find this lecture as someone who reads a lot of fantasy.
“I think she did a good job of not diving too deep into fantasy to where some people wouldn’t be interested, because while she’s a fantasy author, the point of this lecture wasn’t actually writing fantasy,” Bergmann said. “I think she did a good job of balancing her goal with what other people may have come here to see her speak about.”
Annabel Baniak ’24 decided to attend the event at the encouragement of both her professor and her mom, whose favorite book is “The Fifth Season” by Jemisin. Baniak said she enjoyed the event and left feeling motivated and inspired to create change in the world.
Jemisin left the audience with a message to continue questioning the current world and to work towards building an ideal society.
“I have been having conversations all day with the students here, and they’re thinking ahead of me. I have to catch up. It is an innate part of youth to question our reality, and if the way that we live makes any sense,” Jemisin said. “I have to retain my own youthful questioning. They are right to question reality, and the rest of us need to keep doing that.”
Grace Liu ’27 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].