The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin
This is the way the world ends, and nothing is as it seems.
I’ve recently finished reading N.K. Jemisin’s new novel, “The Fifth Season”. It’s by parts interesting, bleak and challenging. It’s a book best viewed along the lines of a Greek tragedy. You know it will end badly, we’re told explicitly at the start that yes, this is the end of the world and no, there will be no magic rescues or cunning escapes. Rather, what we’re studying here is the process by which this mess came into being.
So, what happens in said process? Quite a lot, actually, and all of it intriguing. One property of this book is that it’s quite the page-turner – I found it very hard to put down.
I think I know which book I might be nominating for Best Novel for 2016’s Hugos now 🙂
My review is below the cut. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, as best I can…
SETTING AND THE BASIC EVENTS
The world the book is set on (we’re explicitly told it is a planet; no implicit high fantasy Flat Earths here, thank goodness!) is rather volcanic. Instead of happening every few hundred thousand years, supervolcano events go off every few centuries, and ‘normal’ volcanos and earthquakes are so commonplace as to be unremarkable. The titular Fifth Season is what happens when a big one pops – the Season is a planetwide ecological disaster that usually also results in the collapse of whatever the current dominant society is.
The situation is so bad that the world itself is widely perceived as a hostile divinity – Father Earth, who rages against his faithless children, and desires no more or less than their destruction in cleansing fire.
The Sanzed Empire is unusual in that it has survived no less than seven consectuive Fifth Seasons.
Part of its success has been careful (and realistic) disaster contingency planning. Another part of its success has been down to its coldblooded and unsentimental exploitation of a group of people known as the orogenes – the dreaded roggas.
An orogene is a human with an ability to manipulate geological forces. The existence of these people is implied to be an adaptation to the planet’s sheer, unrelenting hostility. An orogene can instinctively still earthtremors and redirect lava flows. However, unfortunately, their powers appear to follow the principle of Conservation of Energy – when an orogene acts on the environment, they have to draw energy from said environment to effect change. If there’s a big seismic wave on its way, then obviously this isn’t a problem – but if there isn’t one, then they have a bad habit of inadvertently killing innocent bystanders.
Consequently, orogenes face a degree of social hostility. The Sanzed Empire has fostered and encouraged said hostility and backed it up with the force of law – orogenes are legally considered subhuman and the State can kill them at will. (It can also kill anyone who helps an unregistered orogene.) Officially the Sanzed government manages the registered orogenes through the Fulcrum, an organisation at which their powers are supposedly trained and developed and used for the collective good of all. In practise, orogenes occupy a status that’s part slave, part cattle.
Basically, the treatment of orogenes is somewhere between that of Sanctioned Psykers in the Imperium of Man and the Circles of Mages in Thedas.
Needless to say, this system has built up some pretty powerful resentments. And the Empire has been selectively breeding their pet orogenes for greater power for several thousand years. (After all, it was use of orogenic power in war that allowed Sanzed to conquer a continent.) And it’s been rather a while since the last Fifth Season, and Father Earth is getting tetchy.
There’s no *possible* way any of this could go horribly wrong, is there? None at all. Nope. Nothing to see here, move along now…
Suffice to say, at the start of the novel, the entire system self-destructs in a particularly extreme manner. In fact, the opening segment sees seven million people killed and trips off a Fifth Season of a scale never seen before in history. The Sanzed capital city is destroyed and the continent is – literally – broken in two. Whereas previous Seasons were Toba Supereruptions, this one is a Deccan Traps. The world is fucked. Everyone is going to die. It is the end.
And nothing is what it seems.
As I mentioned, this is a challenging book, and there’s a lot to think about. I don’t think the normal ‘what I liked/what I didn’t’ format can do it justice, so I’m eschewing that here.
First off, I’ll note that TFS didn’t really “feel” like a fantasy novel to me. The societies are more advanced than usual in fantasy; Essun’s village apparently has elections for various positions in its hierarchy and Sanzed has electricity, asphalt and penicillin. This is good; I’m getting very bored of cod-European feudal monarchies. Also, the magic (if indeed orogeny is magic) didn’t really feel that magical – in fact it felt like something you might find in a Sanderson novel.
I’ve avoided writing about the main characters so far, because There Be Spoilers. (No, seriously, there really are.) The book is written from the viewpoints of three different women. It’s also written partly retrospectively, so we see the ‘normal’ society before the opening of the equatorial rift.
The three main viewpoints are the young girl Damaya, the partially-accepted Fulcrum initiate Syenite and the middle-aged housewife Essun.
Essun, Damaya and Syenite initially appear to have separate and wholey-unconnected narratives, but as you later discover, they are interrelated in surprising ways. All three of them are orogenes, rejected by wider society and all have encountered the Fulcrum’s system of exploitation. All of them have been bruised by the experience.
Regarding that bruising, this book gives a devastating depiction of the reality of internalised oppression. Syenite has been conditioned to partly loathe what she is, even though she can live (somewhat) openly as a Fulcrum orogene. Damaya, the youngest viewpoint here, is discovering just how bad her misfortune to be born an orogene was – her family abuse her, neglect her and then throw her to the Fulcrum’s wolves at the earliest opportunity. And Essun has succeeded in creating a facsimile of happiness – by utterly rejecting who she is, and trying to “pass” as a non-orogene.
All three viewpoints have something in common: none of their situations are sustainable, and all of their situations will be wrecked by forces beyond their control. The depiction of the abuses and cruelties all three suffer is bleak, accurate and uncompromising. Their miseries, and the often-futile attempts they make to deal with those miseries, are shown in granular detail.
The book makes clear that this a social system that works by pushing people to breaking point – and, tragically for everyone, in at least one case it succeeds far better than ever expected.
Another supporting character is Alabaster – the orogene who actually breaks the continent at the start of the book. And the thing is, although he is directly guilty of seven million murders and arguably indirectly-guilty of genocide (and possibly even planetary ecocide, depending on just how far this goes), by the end of the book you have some sympathy for him. This is the Greek tragedy aspect – although he did what he did by himself, at the end of the day, Alabaster was also the logical product of the abusive system that the Sanzed Empire had nurtured. Their own abuse has come round to bite them in arse. It’s hard to see a single individual as a complete monster when the society itself is governed in a monstrous manner.
Another thing that’s interesting about this book is that in spite of the darkness in it, you keep reading. It’s a page-turner. It’s hard to put down. Yes, it’s a tragedy, but it’s a tragedy that’s epic in scope and is playing out across an entire planet.
In addition, the world itself is intriguing.
At first, it just appears that the planet is simply just what it is, and there are no real reasons why it’s such a mess. However, as the book progresses, hints become apparent that there might just be reasons for all of this. Stonelore contains some very odd misconceptions about some geological processes. The planet has a puzzling lack of shield volcanos (seriously, where are they? hotspot volcanism should push up loads of them). It also becomes clear that there’s a lot that the Fulcrum doesn’t know about orogeny, and then there are the obelisks. And it’s anyone’s guess what’s going on with the obelisks. As for the ecology, it looks suspiciously well-constructed. And there is also a suggestion that sometime in the past, the world was nothing like as hostile as it is now.
And then of course there’s the very last dialogue line of the book, which supplies a full-on kick in the epileptic trees.
This book is well worth reading, although I’ll note that it’s far from cheerful.
One thing that nagged me was how exactly will the trilogy work? TfS is apparently the first book of three, and yet it’s already clear that there will be no survivors here. The main characters are still alive at the end of TfS, and their personal situation is arguably better than most of (both) continents, but their current location precludes any agriculture. Two books of people gradually freezing and starving to death could risk going over the “this is just too bleak” narrative event horizon.
Another aspect that might throw some readers is that TfS can be read as implying an “Earth All Along” situation. On her blog, N.K. Jemisin says specifically that it isn’t Earth and never was, which is why I bring that up here – it isn’t really a spoiler if the author tells you that in as many words!
Another thing the book does chillingly well is it shows you how abusive relationships work. Syenite’s Guardian is by turns violent, affable, enigmatic, angry and sometimes almost friendly. She’s never able to get her balance around him and never fully able to predict what he does next. There’s one scene where I was convinced he was going to kill her – instead he tells her she should go and take her first Fulcrum examination now, and is actually *pleasant and encouraging* about it. This gave me the shudders, because of course this is exactly what some abusers do – if they were consistently nasty, you’d make the connection that this person was an utter shit and avoid them completely. Instead they keep you guessing, wobbling around with one foot in the air, never quite able to stand still or to run away.
Also, it definitely hasn’t escaped my attention that TfS contains an allegory to certain Real World™ injustices.
I also really, really want to talk more about Damaya, Essun and Syen … but I can’t, because spoilers!
Oh, and then there are two other characters I haven’t even mentioned, because they are basically walking spoilers.
I would definitely say, read this book if you’re tired of cookie-cutter fantasy. Read it if you’re interested in a serious exploration of the macro- and micro-politics of power and oppression. Read it if big volcanos, tsunamis and cracking continents bring you to the movies 🙂 However, keep in mind that it is quite definitely a tragedy and not a comedy.