The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: Orogene Lives Matter
Essun lives in a shattered world. The Stillness is a land of earthquakes and volcanoes and tectonic calamities that darken the skies and blight the land for years. In fact, such a catastrophe has just been unleashed, a great red rift snaking out from the capital, Yumenes, into the heart of the continent. The society of the Stillness has adapted to these changes and built up a body of lore to withstand such calamities — known as fifth seasons — when they happen.
But Essun’s world has shattered for a different reason: her son has just died. What’s worse, he died at the hands of her beloved husband, who has run away from town with their daughter in tow. But the awful truth of it all is this: her son was killed because he was an orogene, like her — a person born with the ability to control the energy of the planet itself. In a world of such unstable composition and geology, orogenes are feared, shunned, and manipulated in equal measure. And now Essun must travel across the cracked and trembling earth to find her daughter, Nassun, before Nassun meets the same fate as her brother.
Essun is only one lens through which the lives of orogenes are examined in such a (literally) unstable world. There’s also Syenite, an orogene trained by the Fulcrum, the government body that finds, fosters, and trains orogenes from a young age so they can be “prove their use” to the state. Such proof includes preventing and neutralizing tectonic events or doing grunt work like cleaning out coral-encrusted harbours. Life under the Fulcrum is harsh, but at least orogenes there have a purpose.
Of course, the fact that Fulcrum-trained orogenes live a circumscribed life, where survival can be ensured only through continued compliance and conformity, is something that those in power conveniently never say out loud. Bits of lore about the world of the Stillness, including excerpts from major religious and political texts, are included at the end of each chapter. Here’s a charming example:
Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at these contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.
— Erlsset, twenty-third emperor of the Sanzed Equatorial Affiliation, in the thirteenth year of the season of Teeth. Comment recorded at a party, shortly before the founding of the Fulcrum.
Syenite’s slow realization that no matter how hard she tries, she’ll always be viewed as a thing, a threat, forms a major backbone of the book.
The third lens through which we learn about the world of The Fifth Season is Damaya, a young girl who has recently manifested orogene ability. She’s been entrusted to a Guardian, a person who is responsible for monitoring orogenes and bringing rogue ones to heel. Travelling to the Fulcrum under the supervision of her guardian is fun, at first, but Damaya is taught about her place in the world quickly:
“I’m not sorry for the pain I’ve caused you, little one, because you needed to learn the lesson of that pain. What do you understand about me now?”
She shakes her head. Then she makes herself answer, because of course that is the point. “I have to do what you say or you’ll hurt me.”
“And,” she adds, “you’ll hurt me even when I do obey. If you think you should.”
“Yes.” She can actually hear his smile. He nudges a stray braid away from her cheek, letting the backs of his fingers brush her skin. “What I do is not random, Damaya. It’s about control. Give me no reason to doubt yours, and I will never hurt you again. Do you understand?”
Questions about control, humanity, and how we Other people by simultaneously fearing and subjugating them run all throughout The Fifth Season. This is a book that I honestly don’t think could have been published before 2015. It’s too raw, too deep, too pulsing and red and full of uncomfortable truths about systems of power and oppression to have been saleable within the fantasy publishing market 5 or even 3 or 2 years ago — there just weren’t enough open ears and hearts willing to hear the message this book truly conveys.
(Hell, I count myself among that audience who probably wouldn’t have been ready. I like to think of myself as inclusive and liberal and respectful of others, but I’ve led a fairly privileged life. I have blinders on just like the next nominally progressive but politically inert white/straight/hetero/cis/ablebodied person.)
But in a world where Michael Brown and Rekia Boyd and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland and Renisha McBride and Freddie Gray and so many others die every day because we refuse to acknowledge how destructive our own national myths and and history and lore are, this book is vital. Necessary, even, because sometimes we need to read about a made-up world to help us realize how untrue our own world is in so many ways.
Damn, this is a book you need to read. Seriously. The politics of The Fifth Season are there on the surface, openly defiant, daring you to look away. And I can’t. And we shouldn’t. (And, of course, it fills me with pleasure to think how the Sad Puppy contingent would go absolutely apoplectic when reading a book like this. Because SF books shouldn’t be political, dammit, unless they adhere to some Golden Age fascist/militaristic wet dream! Obviously.)
What’s more, Jemisin is willing to take risks in her narration — gorgeous risks that pay off once every moving tectonic plate of story melts together and you see just how precisely the seams have been laid. Essun’s story is told in second person, while Syenite’s and Damaya’s are told in third person. However, taken together, they form a thematic whole.
And the ending, where the three stories converge and the past actions of one character echo the current circumstances of another, contain revelations that are, literally, earth-shattering.
In short: fuck yes, I will nominate this for a Hugo.