How does science fiction become history? Few artists are better equipped to answer this question than GRIMES, who has gone from being a visionary indie musician to having a front row view of humanity’s potential future among the stars. Here, she talks with award-winning sci-fi author Nnedi Okorafor about embracing the dark and the light, the spirituality of technology, and writing her own saga.
GRIMES I’m a massive fan. I really love your work. I was insanely blown away by Who Fears Death. I thought it was the most completely unique piece of fiction I’ve ever read in my life. And I feel like making something that’s completely new is probably the most admirable thing you can achieve artistically.
NNEDI Thank you so much. Your work is awesome of course, as well. And I totally agree. I like the fact that you’re saying that it is possible to make something new. Because a lot of people will say the exact opposite: that everything’s already been made, all stories have been told, all art has already been done. And I am in strong disagreement with that.
GRIMES I feel like there’s a deep lack of optimism coming in at the corners that’s scaring me a lot. But your work super combats that. And I would argue that we’re in sort of a renaissance period creatively anyway. I’m seeing so much new art that it’s just breaking my brain. And so I feel like people are getting caught on a narrative that isn’t actually reflective of what’s going on.
NNEDI Yeah. I totally agree.
GRIMES One of the things I feel like I’m seeing is one group of people fighting about this thing and then this group of people fighting with the opposite point. And sometimes, they’re both right. One thing that’s really getting lost right now is that there can be two simultaneous truths that seem to be in opposition to each other. And I feel like people are losing the ability to digest that reality. Like you can have a thing that, most versions of this are destructive, but this one version of it is good. But it’s like we’re just—we’re entering a moment of symbolism because everything is being condensed into short form. We’re regressing into stereotypes really hard. It’s this death of nuance.
NNEDI Everything gets shaved away, and it has to be this specific, easily identifiable thing. And if it’s not easily identifiable, then it gets pushed out. Like it basically doesn’t exist. And that’s where this lack of nuance comes from. And that way of thinking is really destructive. Like things have to be black and white, so everything in between gets lost. Everything becomes very simplified. And so it’s basically a lack of diversity.
GRIMES I feel like people suck at listening and taking criticism, and internet criticism is never super nuanced or accepting. And a lot of the same people who are talking about restorative justice are the people who are doubling down on a lot of this negative criticism. I just feel like beyond prison and politics, restorative justice is really important for humanity. If we could approach criticism in a way that is aligned with healthy discourse and restorative justice at the core of it, we probably wouldn’t have these defensive reactions that we get.
NNEDI I agree that people are really bad at listening. And in some regards, I understand why they’re bad at listening because they’ve had to hear a lot. And I also think that there’s a lot of hurt and a lot of fear. And then on top of all of that, there’s this structure that we already live in, the systemic stuff that’s already there, that’s just messing with the possibility of people being able to start to listen because of the fear and the hurt. That’s the cycle I think we are stuck in…and you never know, the next thing you say, you’ll just get canceled.
GRIMES I feel like I’ve surpassed the fear of being canceled. I feel like I’ve been canceled so much that I’m in this zone right now where I’m like, “All that I want to do right now is just have the difficult conversations because I feel I have nothing left to lose.” Out of curiosity, what did you read growing up?
NNEDI I didn’t grow up reading a lot of science fiction because…the science fiction that I was exposed to was very white and male and cold. I don’t have to see reflections of myself to vibe with something, but when it’s a world where I feel like I could never even exist—that made me just kind of shy away from it. And a lot of the narratives were colonial narratives. When they’d go to other planets, I’d find myself relating more to the aliens than the main characters.
But I eventually came to love science fiction in my own personal way. Both of my parents are Nigerian—they’re immigrants. We would go there when I was young, and as I got older, I started seeing technology showing up in different areas where there was no running water or electricity. It was crazy. So I started thinking about the future in those places. I started writing it because I wanted to see that, and I wasn’t seeing that in literature. What about you? How did you find your way to science fiction and fantasy?
GRIMES I had actually quite a similar experience. I remember feeling with science fiction, I was like, “I’m here for the concepts, but I’m slogging through the lack of humanity in a lot of it.” The first science fiction book that really caught me was Dune. It’s still super white, but the characters—like Jessica, who is this 40-year-old mom—are such abnormal protagonists, and that definitely caught me. My dad was actually like, “Okay, we’re not going to read the Bible. We’re going to develop our sense of morality based on Lord of the Rings and Dune. We’re going to talk about loyalty and fighting for what’s right.” He sort of created this world when I was a kid, so I considered [these stories] deeply formative to my existence. Have you read Surface Detail by Iain Banks?
NNEDI No, I haven’t.
GRIMES In the first chapter of the book, the main character dies. She’s a sex slave, and she gets immediately killed, but unbeknownst to her, she has a Neurolink in her brain. She wakes up in cyberspace, and they’re like, “You can now revive yourself and be born in a new body that you get to choose exactly yourself.” It’s one of my favorite books aside from Who Fears Death.
“I’m really interested in how mysticism and technology coincide. There’s this weird cultural idea that futurism and mysticism are on separate paths. But the deeper I get into physics, the more I feel that there are spiritual qualities to the universe.”
NNEDI Yeah, that’s one of my core things in almost all of my works. From the very beginning, I started writing fantasy that was linked to a lot of my ancestral cultural beliefs, Ebo culture. I wasn’t even calling it fantasy. And then, when I started writing science fiction, it was a natural link because the greatest technology is nature. When you look at human advancement in technology, it’s very easy to see how it will eventually link up with spirituality because it’s just naturally going in that direction. And this idea of those two things being separate has always been weird to me.
And so when I wrote Who Fears Death—it’s funny because people call it fantasy. And I’m like, “It’s not fantasy. How are you not calling that science fiction?” But that’s because the spiritual aspects in the narrative overshadow the technology, and people see the two as separate. And I’m just like, “No, this is in the future. This is the future. And we’re at a point where technology has gone far, and then the spiritual and the mystical have returned. And they’re coming together.”
GRIMES When I read Novacene by James Lovelock, I felt like it was the best representation of a spirituality that I could vibe with. He talks about how the dawning of human consciousness is the universe itself waking up, how us becoming conscious is the universe actually becoming aware of herself. And when you think about the fact that, as far as we know, there’s nothing else out there, it seems incredibly profound and beautiful that we might be the nexus point where the universe is becoming conscious, where nothing has become something. I feel like with the internet and everything, what’s happening is that we’re all becoming individual neurons in some kind of super brain. And I can’t help but feel like there’s this super-intelligence developing where we’re all these individual parts of it. And the universe is its body. I’ve never felt more spiritual than when I’m doing math, because it feels so perfect and beautiful and designed. It’s so hard to feel like there isn’t some designer or some super-profound thing developing from nothing.
NNEDI That is definitely something that I’ve explored. In my Binti series, the main character is a mathematical genius. And she can do this thing called “treeing,” which is basically math as mysticism. She uses complex and beautiful mathematical equations to achieve a trance-like state where she can harness the energies of the Earth. And that comes from the idea of math. Math in its perfection, in its profoundness, being the path to the mystical. And so it just makes sense.
GRIMES I think the fact that religion has often been averse to the scientific method has turned people off of spirituality. It really comes down to people wanting things to be black and white and people wanting to simplify things. We’ve been like, “Well, Christianity sucks and it doesn’t abide by science, so obviously this is invalid.” But we’re invalidating a topic or field of study based on previous iterations that maybe didn’t pan out or maybe didn’t abide by logic. And I wonder if that’s the smartest move right now. I would love to see more application of the scientific method to more spiritual pursuits.
NNEDI So much of our technology is about finding a way to control or hold back nature. Why do you think that is? And what relationship do you think nature and technology have with each other?
GRIMES So I recently had a baby, and it was incredibly traumatic for me. And the whole time I was like, “I fucking hate this and this is so fucked up and there’s not enough information.” Having a child is one of the few things in the modern era that is just inherently a pretty savage experience. It’s hardcore, you cannot escape the nature of it. It’s just happening. And it actually really recentered me in the end. I was like, “You know what? I’m really glad I did that. I feel really reconnected with nature in an interesting way.” And it also made me grateful for modernity. We’ve eradicated pain from most parts of existence at this point, and that’s really amazing. I feel like we don’t realize how lucky we are.
NNEDI Yeah, that makes sense. I think at some point we jumped the rails: technology was a good thing used to make our lives better, and then it became about control. It made things better, so we were like, “Oh, we don’t have to suffer. We don’t have to feel any pain. We don’t even have to die now.” I think that’s where it jumps what’s natural and just goes too far.
[Your album] Miss Anthropocene plays a lot with point of view, and I love that. And one thing you did was take one of the greatest and most serious problems of our time and channel that through a villainous goddess. One of the greatest things about speculative fiction is that it takes heavy topics that have been discussed to death and renews them by getting people to view them through sort of a skewed lens. That’s one of the things I love about speculative fiction, as both a reader and a writer. Is that what you were doing with this album?
GRIMES Yeah. I feel like part of the problem right now is the banality of villainy. I can’t name the fucking CEO of any of these oil companies. The villains of our current society, they’re so boring that I just don’t know who the fuck they are. And so I was like, “How do you villainize climate change? How do you make the Joker out of climate change?” Because people care about the Joker, and people care about comic book villains. The villains that we’re dealing with right now have cloaked themselves in anonymity through being exceptionally boring people. People really struggle with abstract concepts, and climate change is so nebulous. You see polar bears dying, and it feels like no specific people are responsible even though there are specific people who are responsible. And so it becomes hard to muster a reaction that is adequate.
NNEDI That’s really brilliant. There are so many things that you’ve just said where my mind is like, “Oh yeah, that’s so good.” The boring villains and how they cloak themselves in being boring. It’s almost like camouflage. You can’t see them. You can’t remember them. That is a superpower. But like also this idea of climate change being so big—it’s huge—so how do you wrap your brain around it and get people to care about it? Because in being so big, it feels so hopeless.
GRIMES It also isn’t so big. Like a third of it is factory farming and eating animals, which is pretty solvable. People are working on lab-grown meat, and there’s definitely a solution to the way that we consume meat. A third of it is transport: planes and cars. It is actually kind of manageable.
NNEDI You’re close with people who are at the focal point of addressing, or not addressing, issues of climate change, and we’re running out of time—maybe we’ve already run out of time. Like right now, this is it. So the decisions that are being made right now will impact the fate of humanity. That’s clear. And so I’m curious if you might know some of the deeper conversations and narratives that most of us are not privy to. How do you process all of this and how does this affect what you create and what you publicly say and do?
GRIMES I feel an incredible amount of hope because I’ve seen so many things in action. I don’t want to invoke certain names, but when you talk to the engineers at Tesla or SpaceX, you see a bunch of really young, ambitious people solving problems in real time, and they’re ecstatic about it, and they’re doing amazing work. The stuff they’re doing—they’re actually fixing it. When you see things getting actually fixed, things coming to fruition, it’s hard to keep feeling cynical.
I just feel like the government, for better or for worse, is losing control. It’s scary that corporate power might be more powerful than the government in the future. But at the same time, if we look at corporate power 10 years ago, people were only caring about profit. And as much as everyone hates the woke movement, it has created social incentive to do better and make things that are actually good for society. People don’t like decisions that impact humanity to be made by people who are not voted into power, and that’s always a concern. But if other people are going to create [solutions] that are sustainable and safe, then I’m down—because we need them.
NNEDI Wow. That’s really thought provoking. I’m processing everything that you’ve just said. It’s really good to hear hope and positive ideas and imagining in a positive direction. And also to know that there are solutions because all you hear in the public sphere is doom and gloom. And that kind of leads into one of my questions. I’ve always felt that it’s important to go really dark and heavy, as you read with Who Fears Death. But I also feel an equal importance to shine a light—even if that light is a distant star, in other words, hope. I’m not afraid to gaze into the void, but I refuse to be crippled by hopelessness. Where do you stand on this notion? How important is it for you to hold up the mirror so we can stare into the void but to also have that hope?
GRIMES It’s hard because I’m into dark shit. But it’s not where I feel like my responsibility as an artist is right now. I’m getting extremely nervous about the state of mind of humanity. And I’m noticing that there’s this incredible negative reaction to even expressing hope or optimism. If I express hope or optimism, the response is just like, “You’re privileged, and that’s why you think this.” And I’m like, “If we cannot even consider an optimistic future, if we can’t even propose or ideate about an optimistic future, then there is no way in hell that we are going to achieve that future.”
So much of our science fiction is dystopian. But I recently heard about this term “protopianism.” It’s not utopianism—it’s a realistic, positive future. It’s a future we can strive for. Because when you start talking about utopianism, people get turned off because it feels unachievable. So I feel a moral imperative to try to represent a more protopian kind of future. I feel like I accidentally fell into a state of more responsibility than I understood. I was acting like I was still just an indie musician and I could just fuck off and do what I want. I think I had more influence than I realized and behaved very immaturely. And I’ve been really observing and understanding that I have more responsibility than I would like—but that’s reality. And maybe that’s a good thing.
NNEDI My last question is: what new music do you have on the horizon? What’s coming next?
GRIMES I’m making an EP for my label Columbia. And then after that, I’m working on this thing called Book One and Book Two, which I’m going to release independently. I’m a huge student of history. I’m just obsessed. My dream in life would be to be able to observe or be around events that matter. Again, I don’t want to invoke the names of certain people because I can very easily get sucked into just being a satellite in the story of certain unnamed people. But whether I like it or not, I’ve had this unavoidable association with certain people, and recently I started being like, “Why am I thinking about this so negatively?”
At first it really hurt me because it undermined all the things I’d accomplished and turned me into arm candy. And then I started being like, “I have a front row seat to the most historic thing that has ever occurred. The Earth was formed, blue and green algae turned into tiny little creatures, and then creatures went onto the land, and then mammals were formed, and then humans were formed, and then civilization happened—colonization of the stars is on the level of the top five craziest things that have happened in our whole universe. And I’m sitting here watching it with the best seat in the house. Why am I denying this out of some perverted sense of feminism?” So it’s a weird time because everyone keeps telling me, if you refer to it, you’re losing yourself.
“Colonization of the stars is on the level of the top five craziest things that have happened in our whole universe. And I’m sitting here watching it with the best seat in the house. Why am I denying this out of some perverted sense of feminism?”
NNEDI Right. And that’s opposite of that feminism idea, because how is it that you lose yourself just by mentioning this other thing that you are experiencing?
GRIMES I’ve been getting so interested in famous mistresses and concubines in history. I’ve been reading about Josephine and Marie Antoinette and I’m like, “There’s this incredible realm of storytelling that society has mostly ignored about the companions to historical events.” If you look at Justinian and Theodora, Theodora is such an interesting figure because she was an artist and possibly even a prostitute and sort of a stage actress. She was the least likely queen of the Byzantine Empire, but she had incredible influence in it. You start getting into these crazy stories that are weirdly left out of history about the women who are proximal to powerful men.
So I realized that I need to start creating art that’s like the Icelandic Sagas or Herodotus. I want to make this super fantastical, over-the-top artistic observation of this incredibly historic story that I’m in. So I’m calling it Book One and Book Two. It’s a double album, and I’m imitating the incredibly inaccurate histories of the past and making this wild sci-fi version of what my life is.
NNEDI Woven with truth and spinning fiction.
GRIMES Historic fiction.
MAKEUP TIFFANY LEIGH PATTON USING M.A.C COSMETICS AT ART DEPARTMENT HAIR DYLAN CHAVLES USING BUMBLE & BUMBLE AT MA + GROUP PRODUCTION ROSCO PRODUCTION PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS PATRICK CHEN, LARRY PANG DIGITAL TECH RICHARD LOHR STYLING ASSISTANTS SILVIA LEE, TAWNEE CLIFTON HAIR ASSISTANT MILLER BRACKETT PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS ELI KENNEDY, SHANNON KINTNER SPECIAL THANKS INDUSTRIA STUDIOS CGI ARTIST RODOLFO HERNANDEZ RETOUCHER HAMZAH AMIN