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.