Saturday, August 20, 2016

Anger is an energy - N K Jemisin's The Fifth Season

Edited to add: congratulations to The Fifth Season and N K Jemisin on their Hugo win in Best Novel!

To begin with, a prediction: one day soon N K Jemisin will write a great novel. 

The Fifth Season isn't quite it, but it's such a giant step forward from anything else I've read by her that it went from 'novel I was least looking forward to on the Hugo shortlist' to a very pleasant surprise. 

Everything I've read by Jemisin has always delivered conceptually, and The Fifth Season is no exception. Imagine a science-fantasy world of such tectonic instability that disaster - volcano, earthquake, tsunami, climate change, starvation - threatens on a regular basis. Where orogenes, those with the power to control the forces of the earth, are respected yet hated and feared, cossetted yet coerced into labouring for 'the greater good'. 

The Fifth Season tells tales of three orogene women at different stages of their career. In the main plotline, Essun is searching for her missing daughter and infanticidal husband against the backdrop of a civilisation-ending volcanic eruption. But the novel also flashes back to Damaya's experiences of training and Syenite's unpredictable field mission with Alabaster, a seismic wunderkind with all kinds of issues.

If that sounds grim - that's because it is. It's crapsack world time again, and this is one of those novels where a good deed rarely goes unpunished. Essun, our notional protagoist, is herself a mass-murderer out of anger and perceived necessity, while the implicit body-count from the eruption begins to rival Seveneves, another novel about the end of the world.

Yet The Fifth Season is no exercise in cheap nihilism. Jemisin sets up a world which is always waiting for the hammer of natural disaster to fall and therefore must function according to an iron code - part Darwinian calculus, part inherited wisdom - in which sentiment plays no part.

And while the reader is not asked to condone the actions of orogenes driven to revolt - despised and spat upon as they are - their root causes can be easily understood, even sympathised with. You'll be unsurprised to hear that both the orogenes' situation and their response function as a fertile metaphor for anger and oppression; correspondingly the novel makes signposting nods in the direction of race and gender. 
The Fifth Season doesn't offer simple parallels or didactic exercises though - these are themes not tablets of stone. It's a cracking story and a great exercise in world-building, regardless of political context. 

But anger is an energy, as John Lydon pointed out some time ago. And it's anger expelled in the form of concentrated story that gives this book an edge and a boldness that lifts it above anything N K Jemisin has done before.

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