By Victoria Hoyle
The Fifth Season — N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
(Fair warning: This review reveals key plot points of The Fifth Season. If you haven’t read the book and that kind of thing bothers you, you could try my spoiler-free opinion video on Youtube instead. It’s also worth noting that I haven’t yet read The Obelisk Gate and so am writing from knowledge of the first book in The Broken Earth trilogy only.)
N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season casts a long shadow on the Clarke submissions list, having won the Hugo Award for Best Novel last year and having been shortlisted for almost everything else. Thousands of words have already been spent praising it, critiquing it, speculating about it online since it came out in the US in 2015 and I imagine few people reading this are encountering it for the first time. In spite of its pedigree I was sceptical going in. The only other book by Jemisin I’d read – The Killing Moon – wasn’t a highlight. I thought its excellent world-building came at the expense of almost everything else. Then there was the thorny issue of eligibility and whether or not The Fifth Season conforms to the Clarke requirement that books be science fiction rather than more broadly speculative. When I shortlisted it I did so partly because it offers an opportunity to wade into the eligibility question and partly as a test for myself, to see if I would admire it as much as everyone else. I almost hoped I wouldn’t because, let’s be honest, it’s easier to talk about what doesn’t work in fiction than what does. Also, dissent prompts debate and this project is all about that. But, sorry folks, I’m afraid I’m about to tell a familiar story. The Fifth Season is just as good as everyone said it was and the genre controversy is dead in the water. It’s perfectly eligible for the Clarke Award.
The book begins as it means to go on: coy, playful, informal. “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?” the narrator says, “Get it over with and move onto more interesting things.” It’s an opening gambit designed to put you off your guard and to play on your expectations; to mislead you about the magnitude of what is about to happen and the moral challenge you are about to encounter. In the Prologue that follows an unnamed man uses his supernatural abilities to rip a hole in the earth and cause a geological extinction event that will end in the deaths of millions of people. Some will die quickly, others have slow, excruciating years of suffering ahead. It is an act of total genocide and it happens simply, without fuss and unopposed. If this was a different kind of novel it would be the catalyst for a band of heroes to team up and save the world. Instead the narrator instructs us to dismiss it, or rather to look away from it. The big bad, the special effects explosion and saving the day against all odds isn’t what this story is about.
Instead, in the moments after the apocalypse, we are invited to shift our attention. Essun Resistant Tirimo is already on her knees, the quiet unassuming life she has built for herself in ruins. She barely registers the moment the world ends because she is already grieving over the body of her three-year old son, Uche, killed by his father in a brutal attack. Like Essun, Uche was an “orogene” born with the power to manipulate the earth, causing or quelling earthquakes and volcanic eruptions with his mind. Unlike Essun he was too young to know to hide it. In their world of The Stillness, a single mono-continent riven by tectonic fault lines, orogeny is such a threat to social order and safety that a man would kick his infant child to death rather than see him use it.
Many miles away a young girl called Damaya, the novel’s second point of view character, is learning the same lesson. Caught using orogeny at her school she has been locked up by her parents and is awaiting an uncertain fate, either at the hands of a lynch mob or in the custody of the Fulcrum. The Fulcrum is a state-sanctioned centre for the training of orogenes, one-part magical university to nine-parts prison. There, under the strict supervision of Guardians, children are taught how to manipulate their power and harness it for the good of society. If they are able to master self-control and pass the requisite tests, earning a ring for each progression up the hierarchy, they are allowed back out into the world on missions. Stop an earthquake, cool off a volcano and so on. In this way the Sanzed Equatorial Affiliation, the continent’s ruling Empire, has preserved its people from geological disaster for thousands of years.
Our third and final protagonist, Syenite, has just earnt her fourth ring and is about to embark on a mission to clear coral from the harbour of a coastal town. For this apparently routine task she has been partnered with a ‘ten-ringer’ called Alabaster, a man whose abilities are legendary. Before they embark on their long journey she is given an additional directive. While they are away Syenite and Alabaster must also conceive a child together, a baby that will almost certainly be an orogene. The Fulcrum can’t just depend on finding “feral” children like Damaya, whose pedigree is messy and uncertain; instead they mate their most powerful orogenes like breeding pairs in a zoo.
Multiple points of view are old hat in genre these days, too often employed as a lazy alternative to working within the strictures of omniscient or first person narration. In The Fifth Season though they are an integral function of themes of structure and control that Jemisin codes into the DNA of her story. The Stillness, like the narrative, is rigidly designed. Its government demands that all people conform to distinct roles and cultural practices. Outside of the capital people live in ‘comms’, the smallest political unit of the Sanzed system. Members of these self-supporting communities share responsibility for protecting and sustaining them, each belonging to a ‘use-caste’ that determines their particular role. A person’s name is made up of a forename, followed by their ‘use-name’ and the name of their comm, marking where they belong in the order of things. Strongbacks, for example, provide labour and security, while Resistants are the doctors and teachers. The Leadership caste does what the name implies; Breeders likewise. The caste passes from mother to daughter, from father to son, and in times of natural disaster comms rely on the characteristics and skills of all their members to survive. The ‘commless’ are outcasts, isolated and ostracised. This system is essentially survivalist. The deep history of The Stillness is punctuated by geological events that threaten the future of humanity: pyroclastic ash clouds, tsunamis, acid rain caused by volcanic eruptions or earthquakes. Each comm has to be prepared for a ‘fifth season’, a period of years or decades in which nothing will grow or thrive. Coming unpredictably at intervals of five hundred, a thousand years, the threat of a season is at once real and mythical. Traditions that were once necessary for the survival of the species are now mechanisms for the uneven distribution of power and the restriction of personal choice.
Through Essun, Syenite and Damaya The Fifth Season explores this system at its most extreme. Orogenes are hated and feared, treated as sub-human glitches in the natural order. Sanzed society has to tolerate them in order to survive but only barely. Their only choices are to live in hiding, passing as another use-caste, or to wear the uniform of the Fulcrum. Each of their stories expresses and embodies different aspects of their unbelonging, disjuncture and exclusion. You spend the first one hundred pages waiting to see how the story is going to bring them together. Perhaps they are going to save the day after all? It’s only around the half way point that the trick of the multiple narrative becomes clear and you realise that Essun is, or was, Syenite, who is or was Damaya. They are the same body in triplicate, moving through three different timelines; each unique and complete at her own point in the story, each experiencing a life changing event that will propel her forward into the devastated future.
It’s clever in terms of both world-building and character enrichment. Essun – whose sections are written in an alienating and uncanny second person present tense – is revealed as the product of the other narrative strands. The book has conspired to be two thirds back story without ever losing momentum or drama; and we have benefited from varied experiences of The Stillness without getting bogged down in exposition. Which is not to say that it works perfectly. To pull off the reveal Essun has to be a sufficiently different person to Syenite or Damaya and even with the revelations of the final chapters it’s hard not to see differences and gaps between one and the other. Syenite is an ambitious, restless, passionate young woman. It’s a leap of faith to believe that she could settle down for the better part of a decade in Tirimo as Essun and be content. It also means that the value of multiple POV, in terms of breadth of experience, place in society and future role in the narrative, is quickly closed down. As a storytelling device it is both satisfyingly rich and infuriatingly narrow.
But then this is a story about narrowness; about limitation and restriction; about mental and actual slavery. The Stillness survives only because it restricts the agency, movement and knowledge of all its children; the most powerful ones most of all. The Fulcrum is the antithesis of every magical school or found-family of superheroes you’ve seen or read about. It’s a centre for dehumanisation and indoctrination which trains people to hate and distrust themselves. Arriving as a child Damaya is a “grit”, a blunt instrument to be honed or discarded. She and her fellow students are subjected to torturous punishments in the name of love. Her Guardian Schaffa breaks all the bones in her hand while telling her that he is hurting her for her own good, to teach her to control the evil inside of her. Later, Syenite works hard to earn her rings and sublimates her own humanity; she has internalised Schaffa’s teachings and accepted a system that promises her more freedom, more privilege if she will submit and serve. Of course it’s an illusion. Even the most powerful and valuable of orogenes, a ten-ringer like Alabaster, has no power over where he goes, whom he loves, who he has sex with or what happens to his children, who are immediately recycled back into the machine. He chafes constantly against his invisible chains, almost broken to the point of despair by what has been done to him and his family. No matter how hard you work for your masters there is no reward.
Children are often positioned as the key to positive change, especially in the fantasy genre; their youthful innocence and unformed opinions offering the possibility of renewal and reform. The Fifth Season has no patience with that idea at all. Parenthood is central to the novel. Essun has two children, Syenite at least one, Alabaster an unknown number but they are not heralds of hope, or at least not for long. The very worst crimes of The Stillness are perpetuated against them and the novel contains graphic depictions of child abuse and murder. It opens with Uche’s broken bruised body; follows it with Damaya’s betrayal by her parents and torture by Schaffa; shows us the horrifying future of Alabaster’s children, drugged and hooked up to machines to maximise their powers; and finishes with Syenite killing her own son in order to save him from the Fulcrum. It’s desperate and sickening. What should be relationships of love and happiness are utterly poisoned. It’s indicative of the rottenness at the heart of what, on the surface, looks like a reasonable system of government. Jemisin takes you to the darkest extremes of her world and doesn’t flinch.
It is Alabaster – back in that Prologue – who finally cracks under the weight of this horror and uses his power to destroy the world and everything in it. In spite of some brief experiences of happiness, he believes what Syenite, what Essun, what we, perhaps, don’t want to contemplate. That compromise is impossible, that survival is useless, that oppression is so fundamental to the culture of The Stillness that no amount of reform will make it right. The only option is to destroy it and start again, even if that means the genocide of all the world’s people, going about their ordinary lives; all those millions who are participating in and upholding the system without actively designing or desiring it. For Alabaster, a brilliant mind abused to the point of destruction, this makes perfect moral sense.
In her brilliant Strange Horizons review Kate Schapira questioned the value of this sort of story, with it’s the implication that only those who suffer matter and that only pain can move us to action. She hoped that the second book would map out alternative ways to live and die well in the face of disaster. It seems likely from the last line of the novel, which teases us about the possibility of leaving The Stillness, that this is exactly what the series intends. Alabaster has taken his drastic step in order to break humanity out of the coercive assumptions of which he has been the personal victim. It is both an act of deliverance for himself – “End,” he says, “Please.” – and for the world. This first book is not about hope though. It’s a deafening shout of rage, pain and sorrow that challenges us to confront the usefulness of narratives about social justice, climate politics and human rights. It reminds us that thinking is not doing and that simply observing and vocalising injustice is not changing it. The worst sins of society are deep strata in our social, cultural and political geology that go back into deep history. Radical action may be necessary.
If The Fifth Season is shortlisted for this year’s Clarke Award – and I think it stands a good chance – I’m sure there will be that obligatory debate about whether the book should be eligible. Let’s finish by rehearsing it. If it walks like fantasy, talks like fantasy, if it has earth magic and stone monsters and a map in the front for gods’ sake, then it must be fantasy, right? Well, no, not really, not only fantasy. There are sufficient signals of SF-ness in The Fifth Season too. The remains of mysterious technologies of previous civilisations and some elements of geography and language hint that The Stillness is a far future Earth. The unexplained obelisks that float in the sky are faintly reminiscent of space craft; at one point Damaya discovers a mysterious room at the centre of the Fulcrum that might be some kind of docking port. The power of the orogenes, located in an organ at the back of their neck, and the ability of the Guardians to shut it off, may be supernatural or may be the result of long ago genetic engineering. You could take any of these things and make a convincing argument that the book is SF. Or you could make a softer argument, that The Fifth Season is SF because of the way that it focuses on the relationship between people, their planet and the technologies they use to control it and each other. It simply takes and borrows tropes as it pleases to get the job done, playing with our expectations about what kind of book we’re reading. The Fifth Season is neither fantasy nor science fiction but both, a hybrid story about a woman who thinks she is in one type of story realising that she is part of a different story altogether.
Victoria Hoyle is an archivist, blogger and part-time PhD student. She lives with her partner and a dog called Juno in rural North Yorkshire in the UK.