Faren Miller reviews N.K. Jemisin
The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit 978-0-316-22929-6, 468pp, $15.99, tp) August 2015.
N. K. Jemisin’s new novel The Fifth Season starts the Broken Earth, a series ‘‘set in a world where apocalypse is routine.’’ We see its devastating impact on a large continent known as The Stillness, an ironic name for land this volatile, periodically beset by Fifth Seasons where great faultlines crack, spawning volcanoes whose smoke can hide the sun for years at a time, while lava obscures most of the previous culture – leaving behind only a mix of rumors and ruins, in the fragments of ‘‘stonelore’’ that endure.
Rather than depict an escalating series of disasters where some brave survivors live beyond Great Doom (the format shared by most scripture and myth, epic F/SF and disaster novels), Jemisin scrambles narratives and viewpoints throughout the book. As early as the Prologue she defies tradition, declaring ‘‘Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with, and move on to more interesting things.’’
While this intro makes no obvious connection between the ‘‘personal’’ ending of a woman devastated by finding her young son’s ‘‘broken little body’’ in her own home, and the act (elsewhere) that triggers a new Fifth Season, it does acknowlege that a wound which ‘‘will scab over quickly in geological terms’’ has a deadlier effect on more transient beings, where it ‘‘will fester with not only heat but gas and gritty dark ash – enough to choke the sky.’’ But the prologue’s attention soon wanders to relics of earlier times: the obelisks, ‘‘huge and beautiful and a little terrifying: massive crystalline shards that hover above the clouds, rotating slowly and drifting along incomprehensible flight paths….’’ Though general opinion either ignores them or considers them ‘‘irrelevant’’ (later, a character calls one ‘‘just another deadciv leftover’’), Jemisin takes care to inform us they that ‘‘play a role in the world’s end, and thus are worthy of note.’’
After this preliminary bout of worldbuilding – strewing the stage with endings, wounds and relics – the next chapters establish separate but possibly connected narratives of female orogenes: wielders of the kind of ‘‘magic’’ that periodically strikes the Stillness. ‘‘You, at the end’’ returns to the woman with the dead son, and we discover that she has a stolen daughter; ‘‘Donaya, in winters past’’ looks back at a girl whose fearful mother turned her over to someone who brings her in for training in tight control; ‘‘Syenite, cut and polished’’ shows a young woman, on the eve of her first mission back in the outer world, with an accomplished male to mentor her (and perhaps sire a child). No one escapes the fear and loathing of ordinary Stills, or manipulation by Guardians.
Plots that can resemble both SF and fantasy, in quasi-epic mode, share other themes. The Fifth Season is dedicated to ‘‘all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question,’’ so prejudice is foremost. As a black writer, world-builder, and activist, Jemisin doesn’t link hatred directly to color in this far-future world where humans and transhumans all come in a range of skin tones. Nonetheless, our own troubles seem to echo in the most loathed word for an orogene, ‘‘rogga’’ (damningly like a derogatory term for black people, sometimes known as ‘‘the N-word’’). In the course of their travels, these characters witness enough horrors to prompt the act that split The Stillness – an act of doom that could last for centuries.
But the moral structures that dominated myth and legend, persisting through fairytale, fable and beyond, seem vulnerable now. Could they be mutating into different forms? Hobbs’s medievalesque fantasy and Jemisin’s somewhat more SFnal repeating apocalypse share a surprising number of elements. Where Fool’s Quest involves portals, The Fifth Season has obelisks; where Quest leaves room for Fitz to question his own identity and purpose, ‘‘You’’ questions them here – each after years away from life as a kind of agent at the center of power, spent tending to a family that got broken along with their world.
Both novels (epic-length) are haunted by wounds and weirdness. Since I first encountered that spirit in poems like Eliot’s ‘‘The Waste Land’’, and songs like Dylan’s ‘‘The Gates of Eden’’, I shouldn’t call it new … unless it’s come more recently to hefty works of genre fiction, driving a few explorers far from the realms of arch-mages and Doctor Strangelove.