Category Archives: Climate Change

“The We Time”: two papers on transition design

  • Hesselgren, M., Eriksson, E., Wangel, J., & Broms, L. (2018, June 28). Exploring Lost and Found in Future Images of EnergyTransitions: Towards a bridging practice of provoking and affirming design. Design Research Society Conference 2018. https://doi.org/10.21606/drs.2018.324
  • Wangel, J., Hesselgren, M., Eriksson, E., Broms, L., Kanulf, G., & Ljunggren, A. (2019). Vitiden: Transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practice-oriented energy fiction. Futures, 112, 102440. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.102440

These two papers both deal with Vitiden, a speculative-design futures project whose final output (as a PDF) can be found here. This review, as is often the case on this blog, is more aimed at extracting useful and transferable conceptualisations and methodological frames than digging into the details of method, but if you’re at all interested in design research as applied to energy futures, or any futures-oriented work whatsoever, I recommend getting hold of both of them, along with the final document linked above.


Hesselgren et al. (2018). “Exploring Lost and Found in Future Images of EnergyTransitions: Towards a bridging practice of provoking and affirming design”

I’m going to start with Hesselgren et al., a conference paper whose full title uses the term “bridging practice”, which feels to me like a clear echo of Auger (2013; reviewed here) without Auger, so to speak; it may well be that the term is sufficiently canonical in design research that it can pass without the need for citing a source. But the real merit of this paper in light of my ongoing work is its concretisation of cognitive bridgework in the emergent (sub)discipline of transition design (TD hereafter), which is also defined and positioned herein.

(Note that the publicly accessible version of this paper has no page numbers, and that all page references here presume a count that starts from 1 on the title page thereof.)

Introduction

Here Hesselgren et al. address the gap between emissions reductions pledged and actions actually taken, and refer back to earlier studies re: resistance/avoidance of addressing even locally obvious instances of climatic change; this is interpreted as showing that “it is not lack of information that upended action […] but that people tend to shut down information that makes them uncomfortable. Through avoiding negative emotions and refraining from thinking about the future, climate change is actively (although not consciously) made into a ‘back-of-the-mind’ issue” (p2).

[Supplemental note-to-self: there is presumably a literature concerned with the dynamics and side-effects of such subconscious repression of the immediately and environmentally obvious, which would be worth looking into, particularly if there’s a CC-oriented thread thereof.]

The authors also cite various sources for claims that an excess of “alarmism” depersonalises climate change (CC hereafter) in such a way as to prevent engagement and action; fear of CC consequences is noted as a potential driver of pro-environmental action, but “many people suffer from a perceived lack of agency and alternatives”, such that fear leads instead to “feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and inaction” (p2).

While I have yet to finish and review it, it’s worth noting here that Garforth’s Green Utopias (2018) includes a strong swathe of citations counterarguing that climate dystopias (can) serve to breach the BAU-trap of “adaptation/mitigation” discourses, opening up imaginative space for radically alternative futures through the articulation of necessity. This is dystopia less as a goad, exactly, and more as the hazard whose envisioned presence encourages us to steer away from it—the Scylla across the strait from the Charybdis of technosolutionist ecomodernism, to use a metaphor I’m growing increasingly fond of.

Hesselgren et al. briefly try to thread that needle, marshalling citations whicha) favour of the “concretisation” of CC consequences made “more specific” and more spatio-temporally immediate, b) note the lack of “positive images of […] low-carbon futures”, and c) point out the parallelism of catastrophic dystopias on the one hand and, on the other hand, solutionist futures which are “devoid of loss”, which can also block or distract from efforts to instigate change (p2).

Thus this paper positions futures studies (FS) and TD as “empowering tools” for mitigation efforts, and seeks to “explore ways to identify and articulate what people see as lost and found in the transition to a low-carbon society […] ways to confront the lost, so this seems less threatening, and to mentally and emotionally invest in the found, to make the transition more appealing” (p2, authors’ emphases); in other words, something rather like the critical utopian modality in sf, navigating carefully (and contingently!) through the difficult strait of Messina invoked above.

Framing

The project is framed within the field of transition design, a transdiciplinary branch of design research aimed at “exploring and enabling transitions toward more sustainable futures”. Drawing on Irwin, Kossoff & Tonkinwise (2015), TD positions the designer as a “change agent”, and relies on four main planks of practice: 1) visions for transition, 2) theories of change, 3) posture and mindset, and 4) new ways of designing. Regarding 2) and 3), Hesselgren et al. note that TD advocates for a precautionary mindset/posture, but also a participatory one, and this is linked to both the Geelsean MLP-based transitions literature and the Shovean social-practice (SPT) perspective:

[TD] could be used to mediate between sociotechnical transition theories, with their top-down hierarchical approaches, and social practice theories with their bottom-up focus on everyday life and flat ontology.

p3

(SPT is noted as being particularly useful for TD due to the pre-existing orientation of design to libidinality; I parse this as a claim that the “use case” is always already a sort of speculative ethnography of the practice, albeit one with highly variable motivations and sophistication.)

Also in the frame is the practice of co-design, in which “bridging between pasts, presents and futures is often used” to spark creativity in participants; this, as mentioned before, feels rather like Auger (2013) without Auger, though that may be an artefact of my unfamiliarity with the broader (co-)design research literature. Hesselgren et al. further argue that co-design can help to “explore the connection between the tangible, present and local (such as dinner practices) with the more abstract, future and global (such as climate change impacts)” (p3), but also note the challenge inherent in this aim, and the lack of tools to assist participants in making these temporal and spatial “movements”.

(I note in passing that the medium of that connection, considered concretely, is infrastructure, though it is the conceptual connection and movement with which this paper is concerned; however, I suspect there may be a useful way to collapse that distinction.)

This leads us to a pair of paradigms or approaches to design, namely provocation and affirmation: the former is intended to destabilise/de-familiarise the routine and “taken for granted”, thus clearing the way for re-presentation and re-narration, while the latter “support[s] an exploration of the self [while] providing full preferential right of interpretation to the user” (p4).

Concretisation

I am by necessity skipping over a lot of the detail of the execution of the Vitiden project in this review, so going directly to the papers themselves is highly recommended: it’s a lovely, low-key and subtle work of energy futuring. My aim here is to extract concepts and methodological principles for use in projects with a similar intentionality, so I will simply note for now that Hesselgren et al. observe that the “source scenario” for the project—the ‘Legato’ quadrant from the Swedish Energy Agency’s Fyra Framtider report (2016)—provided descriptions of behavioural shifts, but that these “were quite detached from everyday life […] making it difficult for people who were not energy systems experts to engage in this future and understand how it would affect them” (p4-5); furthermore, some were “focussed on ‘production’ activities, such as how and where to go to work, and […] the rest mainly dealt with transport” (p5). Domestic practices were notable by their absence, and absence explained by the scenario’s mitigation targets being calculated primarily through efficiency measures in production and/or infrastructure (which is an inevitable consequence of the Geelsean perspective, IMHO); this necessitated the introduction of “eating and residing practices”, partly because it is plain that these would be affected by ‘upstream’ effiency measures, but also, crucially, because “previous experiences have shown that it is very difficult to engage people in discussions about everyday life while excluding large parts of it” (p5); this, then, is Haraway’s argument for situated knowledges against the (Geelsean) god-trick, borne out in the experience of design research.

In describing the workshop methods deployed, Hesselgren et al. discuss the use of pre-prepared props or “trigger materials”, which were intended to “[help] the participants to bridge the tangible-present-local to the abstract-future-global, and with particular emphasis on finding ways to balance the provocative with the affirmative” (p6); this is the clearest connection to Auger (2013) on the SD prototype, the notion of the “cognitive bridge”—and in particular, the strategies of adaptation, provocation and versimilitude.

Discussion

In the closing sections of the paper, Hesselgren et al. note that the balance between provocation (i.e. estrangement of the mundane) and affirmation (i.e. refusing to frame the mundane of the participants as “wrong”) is tested through the production of the trigger materials. One example is a self-administered carbon-footprint assessment, as “sensitizing device” that “create[d] space for reflection” and provocation, thus linking the necessity and possibility of change to lived practices (p11); they cautiously conclude that the materials produced to this end “managed to, if not bridge, at least allow for a coexistence of provocative and affirmative approaches” (p12).


Wangel et al. (2019). “Vitiden: Transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practice-oriented energy fiction”

Now to Wangel et al., which also deals with the Vitiden project, but approaches it instead through the process of converting—or “translating”—a top-down corporate scenario into a practice based “energy fiction”. Both the concept and methodology of this “translation” are of interest and utility, and as with the paper discussed above, I’ll be sticking here to the parts which are most useful to that end; do check out the actual paper, it’s well worth the time.

After noting the visual rhetorics of the original report containing the “source scenario”—heavy on stock photography, and the inevitable crude signifiers of “the natural” juxtaposed with technological innovation tropes and intimations of abstract velocity, and invariably portraying humans as solitary, distanced and faceless—Wangel et al. describe their ambition to take the Director General’s preface at its word, and to develop the abstracted visions therein into something more concrete:

We decided to […] develop what we felt was missing—a re-presentation of the future that takes its starting point in the activities of everyday life, and that invites to reflections and debate also for those [sic] who are not used to (or interested in) reading and interpreting reports.

p3

Wangel et al. chose to describe these bottom-up futures as “practice-oriented scenarios (pos)” as a deliberate (and minor, in the Deleuzian sense of the term?) counterpoint to the design-oriented scenario (DOS), which is intended to support “innovations in and by design” (p3). Stated more broadly, then, the aim of the project, “to create more accessible re-presentations of energy scenarios, is accompanied by initiating an inquiry into the possibilities and limitations of shifting from the more general scenario perspective to a practice-oriented design fiction” (ibid).

Theoretical frame, sustainability/practices

As mentioned in Hesselgren et al. above, the Vitiden project was built upon the foundation of the Shovean strand of applied social practice theory, which “changes the focus from seeing (and treating) people as individual decision-makers, driven by a (bounded) rationality, to addressing them as skillful social negotiators” (p3); in the process, research methodologies need “to appreciate what people perceive as the (their) normal ways of doing things, and how these ‘normal’ and ordinary routines are maintained, evolve and/or change over time” (ibid).

Also mobilised here (by drawing on work by the excellent Lenneke Kuijer, among others is the notion of the proto-practice, the nascent forms of of what Shove has called “innovations-in-waiting”; these are suggested as prime sources for prototyping probes, as through their experimental realisation, “these future practices can be made present (in the dual sense of the word), and experienced, examined and rehearsed” (p3); they are also related here to Levitas’s notion of the interstitial utopia, such that Wangel et al. here define interstitial practices (which are proto-practices with a sustainability orientation, in this case) as “practices that are based in and contribute to the production of alternative economies and counter-narratives” (p4, emphasis in original).

Theoretical frame, futures/speculative design

Much familiar material here, drawing on the FS tradition of the future as open and thus imaginable, and “a critical social-constructivist perspective on what futures are seen as probable, possible and preferable” (p4); likewsie the Twentyteens thread of ‘alternative futures’ with a focus on social practice perspectives and the “re-presentation” of scenarios through the use of creative/artistic methods, which the authors see as a democratising trend, “increasing the availability of alternative futures across societal groups” (ibid). Of particular interest and influence here are the “speculative ethonography” approaches of speculative design and architecture, wherein the speculation is fundamentally (though not exclusively) material in orientation.

Method, results, conclusion

The process of re-presentation used for Vitiden is explored in rich specific detail in the methods section; while not pertinent to this review, it is strongly recommended to anyone engaging with this sort of work, whether directly or indirectly. The results section, meanwhile, presents a simplified overview of “the process of transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practiced-oriented design speculation” as a three-stage schema of translation (p14) with the following steps:

  1. setting the scope of the transitions
  2. exploring practices and contexts
  3. re-presenting the future

This is unpacked as two parallel and interlinked translations: one focussed on the translation of content (i.e. from policy-orienting -> practice-oriented: the concretisation of god-trick abstractions), and the other focussed on form (i.e. policy/PR report -> design speculation: this might be thought of as a switching of narrative modality from the passive/corporate voice, which might be thought of as a sort of omniscient and disinterested third-person perspective, to first- or limited-third-person; also could be seen as analogous to the problematic but nonetheless useful distinction in practical narratology between “telling” and “showing”). This doubleness of the translation process is seen as crucial: doing the translation of content without also translating the form would forfeit the opportunity to reach wider audiences and thus provoke a more affective engagement with futurity (p14). The three stages are summarized neatly, along with some considerations and hazards to be kept in view throughout any attempt at implementation.


In the context of work done (and yet to be done) at LU, the paper by Hesselgren et al. is the next link in a methodological/conceptual chain from Auger, picking up the strategic concepts of provocation and affirmation and articulating them as a (sensitive and challenging) balancing act in execution, and orienting them toward the exploration of a pre-constructed (or pre-bounded) context or world in collaboration with (as opposed to for an audience of) publics. With reference to the Museum of Carbon Ruins (MCR hereafter), for example, it should be noted that the “future” it presents is much more weighted to the provocative, which explains some of the audience responses to the ‘standard’ version of the intervention; however, the version of MCR performed at the Anticipation conference in Oslo in 2019, with its Brechtian breachings of the temporal frame, flip-flopped between provocation and affirmation rather than attempting to hold them in balance, thus sustaining and troubling the cognitive bridgework of the performance as a whole. Whether this approach would have been viable with an audience that was not predominantly academic (and thus already more accepting of both CC complicity and the necessity for action, not to mention already familiar with the abstract practice of thinking about and re-narrating futures) is an open question, but one that can be cautiously answered in the negative; the Oslo performance was as much a meta-methodological demonstration as an intervention, and thus took the theatrical form to an extreme that might not be viable elsewhere. That said, as an edge case and proof-of-concept, it still stands as a useful case for thinking about the deployment of similar interventions aimed at a broader and less specialised audience.

Meanwhile, Wangel et al’s specification of the double-translation is particularly valuable, as it not only offers the possibility of wider engagement, but also frames that broadening as a necessity in practical terms: it’s not an advantageous extra step, but rather an extension of established techniques of futuring in such a way as to improve on them in substantive terms. The narratological equivalences applied above are my own, but—if you will excuse the shameless meta-movement of this claim—they act as a translation of the translation, enabling the movement of this double-articulation from design research into other futurity-oriented fields, e.g. sociotechnical and/or climate imaginaries, where thinking in terms of story is more established and flexible; the accessibility, relateability and immersive capacity of different media stand as affordances for futuring, and further research and experimentation will serve to identify their various strengths and weaknesses. Seen another way, the argument positions the corporate report as a particular medium with its own rhetorical affordances which, albeit unintentionally, exclude and alienate non-expert publics from engagement with the energy futures depicted therein; using the tools of design—or of literature, or cinema, or theatre, or comics, or music, or, or, or—not only opens up futurity itself, but also the possibility of participation in re-presentation thereof.

elements of that necessary magic

Well, I sure as shit picked a great week to start using the birdsite again, didn’t I?

I don’t have much to say about it all, really—which isn’t to say I don’t have opinions about it, mind you, but I think the having of opinions is best left to those most directly affected, at least for now. (As a British rat who only recently scrambled off his own sinking ship, I’m in no position to give advice or laugh from the sidelines, either.) But I will reiterate the fairly common consensus that, far from being some shocking breach of USian norms that came out of nowhere, this was being signalled clear as day for months, if not years, and represents exactly the norms of a country that’s done a heckuva job of draping flags over falsehoods from day one*. It’s the naked lunch: suddenly everyone can see what’s on the end of the fork.

But the long game, beyond the borders of that souffle empire, and beyond the foreshortened temporalities of the current crisis, waits for no players. Adrian Ivakhiv knows the score, and also picked the most succinct possible title for his own post:

… the fate of the world rests between contending uses of the same tools employed by those conjurors — the tools of media, imagination, narrative, and passion, as well as reason. If some are using these tools to conjure illusions, the “magic” they are practicing — a magic of fears, lies and half-truths, and outworn but (to many) comforting myths (like QAnon’s “Storm” and the return to the Confederate States of America, depicted above in yesterday’s events) — must be counteracted by another magic, one that conveys the hope, the joy, and the real possibility of building a world of respect, dignity, beauty, social justice, and ecological flourishing.

The latter magic is more challenging to produce. It is also challenging to the halls of power, such as those represented by the U. S. Capitol, and I harbor no illusions that that building will ever be the epicenter of the great changes we need. But the elements of that necessary magic can be found all over the world, and it inspires my continued work.

I’m currently working on—or trying to work on—some of the framing arguments for my current project, which involves me making the case for the co-production of relateable and concrete climate futures with ordinary people. In that framing I am, as I have done for many years, positioning it as a question of a battle of narratives, but it might just as well be thought of as magic—and it’s a comfort to know that there are others out there looking at it the same way, and working up their own spells and cantrips. As Ivakhiv points out, dark magic is easy; fear is a highly combustible fuel, and there’s a lot of it about. Hope is scarcer—but, just like fear, it can be generated, distilled, shared, and used as as a medium for a magic with a different purpose, to make a light against the encroaching darkness.

Mystical hippie bullshit, Paul? Well, maybe. But if you still think that good old-fashioned Enlightenment rationality and liberal norms are all we need to get us out of the downward spiral, then I suggest you revisit the footage from Washington DC last night, and think again. That story had a good run, but its narrators lost control of it. Unless we replace it with something better… well, we’ve now had a pretty clear foreshadowing of how the movie ends.

there is no transition

Maybe I’m being over-optimistic, but seeing arguments for non-solutionist and demand-side approaches to decarbonisation research appearing in a journal from the Nature stable feels like a sign that the idea is getting some traction at long last. That said paper is by Elizabeth Shove, a brilliant and tenacious researcher whose work has been a huge influence on my own—and who has done a huge amount of leg-work over the years in both fighting against behaviourist and managerial models of consumption, and advancing social practice perspectives as an alternative—makes it all the sweeter.

… the timescales across which energy research is defined and framed do not exist in isolation. Seconds are part of minutes, and seasons are part of years. What look like comparably massive ‘turns’, for instance from renewables (wind) to fossil fuels (coal), are made of overlapping trajectories, not all unfolding at the same rate and pace, and made up of different units (seconds, minutes) that are not equivalent but that are part of the historical periods in which they are set.

This is obvious, but research problems are routinely carved out in ways that obscure these interactions and the threading together of past, present and future. Energy efficient building renovation is a good example in which the age of the building, the payback time on investment, the lifespan of the owner/occupier, and the durability of different materials interact.

Interventions in buildings and in energy systems occur within and as part of multiple dynamic processes that defy easy description, but that are crucial for conceptualizing and fostering transitions not only in the types of fuels that are ‘plugged’ in to the supply system, but the timing of demand and thus in the making of a substantially lower carbon society.

Research agendas that focus on ‘the’ energy transition, and debate about how long this transition might take overlook this point. Given that energy systems (supply and demand together) are woven into society and into the constitution of always-changing sociotemporal rhythms there is unlikely to be any one such shift now or in the years ahead.

That last point—very much contra the self-referential definitions of ‘transition’ from the Geelsean MLP literature, still hugely popular in policy circles—was a major plank of the argument of my doctoral thesis. As I put it in my discussion chapter:

… if we are to think of transition at all, it is perhaps better to think of it not as a bounded entity, not as something that somehow happens to entire populations all at once, but rather as a basic condition of existence in human society. Transition is not “there, and then”, but ubiquitous and perpetual, always-already ongoing everywhere, albeit at different rates and in different directions. The transitions of the MLP are stories that only make sense in hindsight, tautological artefacts of their own analysis; in effect, “transition” is a fairytale that we repeat in the hope that repetition will make it come true.

If we wish to truly understand the dynamics of sociotechnical change, rather then merely describe a dynamic which we imagine might be amenable to certain forms of control or management, then we must abandon the hackneyed plot of transition and return our attention to the actual actors on the stage.

Raven, PG (2018), Making Infrastructure Legible, p262

The more distance I get from the process of writing that thesis, the more I understand why it was such a struggle to get the damned thing passed in the context of a civil engineering department…

luma daze / nine notions of the metasystemic

Among the many things on my list of events to speak at in 2020 was Luma Days, which is a kind of annual arts-community-philosophy shindig in Arles, southern France. Of course, the prospect of actually going in person went the way of almost all long distance travel this year—but Maria Finders and her team have made an admirable job of shunting a lot of their output into online channels, and pivoting the theme of the year somewhat; it was already about infrastructural uncertainties, but that ended up with a pandemic twist, just like pretty much everything else has done.

Absent the possibility of travelling and talking in person, the Luma folk had me write and present a short piece (titled “Nine Notions of the Metasystemic”) via Zoom, before Maria picked my brains in an interview about the piece and much more besides. Here’s the summary text from the website:

Throughout this conversation [Paul] offers us his comprehensive view of the neoliberal infrastructure within its own complex geography in the post-Covid world. He questions technological evolution and the connivance of platforms enabling the infrastructure to lock in and perpetuate existing hierarchies, as opposed to protocols. He also addresses the topic of socioeconomic change, and the role of artists and thinkers in this process, as well as their limits.

Sounds like the sort of thing I’d say, doesn’t it? I recall it being a hot afternoon here in Malmö… and I also recall realising that the somewhat synoptic thing I wrote/presented could be taken as a sort of preliminary survey for the work I want to spend the next decade or so doing. Other than that, in truth, I don’t recall a lot. Many pixels have been spilled, by far better writers and thinkers than I, on the topic of the Covidean timewarp… so I’ll spare any extra philosophising on that front, other than to note that late July feels like aeons ago, even as it also feels like I haven’t really gotten much done since. Selah—that feeling would be more uncomfortable were it not so familiar.

Anyway, point being: the video is up. (It may have been up for a while? I know it wasn’t up a month ago.) It’s not embeddable, I’m afraid—inconvenient, perhaps, but Luma is an independent arts organisation trying to do its thing outside of the usual circuits of capitalist exploitation, and so keeping their IP away from the Stacks is an understandable instinct, not least coz it means they actually get some click-through and engagement on their own site. So please do pop on over there and spend an hour in the company of my overheated brain as it was a little more than four months prior to time of writing… and if you want to pop back and tell me whether I made any sense, well, please do.

(I haven’t watched it back myself yet, so I’m kinda gambling against my own tendency to garble, here. I seem to recall they sent me a transcript, so I might look into tidying that up and seeing if they’re OK with me putting it up somewhere.)

Geology and empire : Jemisin (2015), The Fifth Season

So, N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. I’m going to have to try to restrict myself a bit here, because I can’t spend all day writing about a novel (or at least I can’t spend all day today writing about a novel), but it would be very easy to spend all day, or possibly more than one day, writing about this novel.

Confessions first, though: I didn’t think I was going to get much out of it before I started. I really hope that’s not some sort of internalised racism thing on my part, but I guess I shouldn’t discount the possibility, because, well, internalised racism? It’s a thing, and I have it, like pretty much anyone from my background has it, and the whole point is that you don’t realise you’ve got it until a teachable moment turns up. Mostly, though, I think it has to do with the way the book is dressed up, which looked to me to be very much a sort of secondary-world fantasy kind of vibe; also perhaps because I’d seen it listed many times as climate/ecofiction, but the blurb made it sound more like your average fantasy cataclysm. You’d think that by now I’d be well past the error of judging books by their covers… but then again, while marketing’s claims to being a science are merely meta-marketing, it nonetheless knows something about how we react to certain signs and stimuli. And it might well be the case that, running the numbers on these things, the marketing folk would conclude (and possibly conclude correctly) that making Fifth Season look more like a secondary-world fantasy cataclysm would shift more units than making it look like a work of very advanced (in both senses of that term) dying-earth science fiction. Point being: it’s kind of both of those things at once. But it’s also so much more than just that.

Already my attempt at brevity and concision is falling apart, so let’s try to break it down to a few main points. First up, as we’re already there, the worldbuilding here is… well, look, if I was blurbing this thing for an audience that was au fait with the sf canon, I’d say that it’s perhaps the most ambitious work of worldbuilding I’ve encountered since Aldiss’s Helliconia. And that’s no faint praise: Helliconia is one of the few books (or sets of books—I still have the old paperback trilogy version that I found in a Southsea second-hand shop back in the late Nineties, the spines of which are screwed by rereading to the point that the pages come out in sheafs if I’m not careful with them) that I re-read every couple of years, just to remind myself of what’s possible. The world of Fifth Season easily matches its imaginative scale, and there’s a certain consonance in the underlying conceits of both books: layered cycles of seasons. But the mechanics of that seasonality are very different… and while you can say that Helliconia is on some level a story of changing climate, Fifth Season is a novel of climate change in our more modern sense of the term.

But like I say, that wasn’t immediately apparent, in the way that it’s immediately apparent that, say, Parable of the Sower is a climate change novel; the displacement into a deep futurity of Fifth Season seems at first to detach it from any of the more immediate dynamics of climate change as we’re facing it. Sure, we’re facing temperature increases, changes in weather patterns, sea level rise… but runaway tectonics, vulcanism, five-year seasons of acid rain, continent-wide fungal blooms? This seemed at first too much, like a metaphor turned up not to 11 but to 50, 100, more. But then as you get sucked into the story—and this happens quickly, for reasons I will get to—you start to realise that Fifth Season is a climate change novel because it uses that overdriven environmental metaphor as the basis from which to build from scratch a long history of imperial/colonial politics that both produces and exploits environmental degradation and maintenance for its own reproduction. That this history is effectively detached from the one we know is a stroke of understated genius, because it removes the possibility of quibbling with interpretations of the history we know, and obliges that the reader engage with the history of the future that Jemisin has constructed here. And through that history it is made clear that not only are alterations to the environment made by human meddlings–sometimes deliberately, sometimes less so—but also that the power to make those meddlings, and the power to take advantage of their second-order consequences in such a way as to consolidate and expand power, is closely tied up to assumptions of entitlement and historically compounded advantage.

Also worth noting that the secondary-world/dying-earth ambiguity is actually a strategy in and of itself. There are very faint clues from the start that this might not be a secondary world after all, but it was probably only two-thirds of the way through that I could feel confident in coming to the dying-earth diagnosis, and even then I was left wondering what had happened (besides, y’know, humans doing the regular human stuff) to put the planet into that condition… and while I don’t normally hold much truck with the Spoiler Police, I will only note here that a) it’s not until the very last page of this book that you get a clear steer on one of the big things that messed up this particular future earth, and b) the reveal of that thing was a genuine sensawunda slingshot such as I’ve not had from a novel in a long, long time. I’d be looking forward to the rest of the trilogy even if seeing the worldbuilding get fully worked out was the only enticement.

But that is far from being the only enticement, because Fifth Season also manages to be a novel about race and repression which, as it does with the question of climate, uses its deep temporal distance to totally remap those questions away from the white/non-white binary of our present politics, and build a whole new intersectionality based on ethnicity, social assumptions of inherited aptitude, and a seemingly magical ability to channel thermodynamic energy (which I think is going to turn out to be the only novum without a historical-technological backstory… though given how consistently this book has managed to subvert every expectation I had of it, I’m fully prepared for the sequels to prove me wrong on that point, too). But saying that Fifth Season is “about” race would be reductive, and to do it a great disservice; what it’s really about is structural repression, institutional abuse and trauma, the damage done to individuals by a social system built to sustain its own autopoeisis of power. Again, without wanting to blow the whistle on the story here, I found myself getting multiple shocks of recognition from the depictions of educational-institutional abuse (and consequent internalisation of self-loathing)—shocks which were less about the violence thereof, and more about the recognition of violences that disguise themselves as forms of care, or even love, for both abused and abuser.

So, yeah: probably pretty clear by now that this is not a cheerful happy-ever-after fantasy, I’m guessing. In fact, it’s pretty harrowing at times, though there are moments of peace and respite. But it is incredibly compelling, a tour de force of characterisation; it’s a reviewerly cliche to batter on about “having to know what happens to these people”, but Jemisin’s characters here spring so instantly to life on the page, in all their brokennness and persistence, that you have no choice but to follow them through the traumas of their psyches and the traumas of their world. I get the impression from the students I discussed it with that it was a more challenging read than, say, Parable of the Sower—and perhaps the digging into internal trauma, compared to Lauren’s cold bottling-up of it, makes it all the more emotionally harrowing. But it’s also technically challenging, and I know that a large part of my admiration for this book is rooted in its narratology. Three viewpoint characters, each approached with a different narrative POV modality, but not for the arbitrary sake of showing off a writerly skill-set; rather, the choice of POV mode is carefully tuned to and reflective of the character in question, and their circumstances and situation. (And as with the worldbuilding/dying-earth thing, your understanding of why those choices make sense, and who those characters are, slowly unfolds and blossoms through the book.)

I could gladly write an essay on each of these themes, and probably a few more besides—I haven’t really touched on the question of sociotechnicality, for instance, and an STS-centric reading of Fifth Season would be well worth doing. But time is short, and this isn’t a commission… so I’ll leave that work to others, who will likely make a better job of it (if they haven’t already; I’ve gotten rather out of the loop on genre criticism in recent years). The main point to make is that Fifth Season is a masterpiece, an sf gesamtkunstwerk for the 21st century, bleak and rich and incredibly involving. I’m ashamed for having prejudged it, but immensely pleased to have been proven so wrong in doing so.