Fantasy Worldbreaking


Consider this a belated postscript to Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons. (Which, by the way, has no Amazon reviews, so if you hated it you can totally sabotage its sales by giving it a one-star review, just like you can support the site on Patreon and join the backers who voted to bring you this post. I’ve just set up new milestone goals, including Game of Thrones Season Six reviews.) That, after all, is my book about science fiction and fantasy in 2015. And whatever the major awards might say, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is the best SF/F book of 2015.

Let’s go one further, in fact, and make it clear that its quality is inseparable from what might banally be called its “commitment to diversity,” and slightly less banally be called its “politics.” For instance, its central fantastic concept, the practice of orogeny, defined in the glossary at the back of the book (it being a fantasy novel and all, and it is a proper fantasy novel of the sort that starts with a map and ends with, well, a glossary) as “the ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events.” Or, perhaps more accurately, its central fantastic concept, orogenes, the people with this ability, upon whom the stability of the empire depends, but who are second-class citizens, allowed to live only under the despotic supervision of the Fulcrum, and often murdered in childhood by angry mobs before they even get the chance to be given to the empire.

If one wanted to read The Fifth Season as allegory, it would not be hard to decide what orogenes represent. The most blatant clue is in the derogatory term for them: rogga. Its real-world phonetic analogue is self-evident, doubled down on when one of the major characters, Alabaster, the famously mad ten-ring orogene, reclaims the slur in the course of explaining a particularly horrifying degradation: “they only reason they don’t do this to all of us is because we’re more versatile, more useful, if we control ourselves. But each of s is just another new weapon, to them. Just a useful monster, just a bit of new blood to add to the breeding lines. Just another fucking rogga.”

The link can readily be sharpened. The larger rhetoric by which the orogenes’ treatment is justified is based on the degree to which their powers are dangerous combined with their inherent lack of control. A mixture, in other words, of emphasizing their inherent strength - indeed “physical prowess” would be a justified term based on the ways in which Jemisin focuses on the bodily experience of orogeny - but coupling it with a suggestion that they are inherently predisposed to violence. This is familiar as the logic that explains why a black man acting in a manner that can even plausibly be described as “threatening” needs to be gunned down by cops in a way that a white man does not. And I want to stress, this is not some strained analogy. This is part and parcel of the texture of The Fifth Season. The empire’s ideology of oppression is worked with the same sort of rich detail as Westeros’s aristocratic lineages; a nuanced and careful bit of worldbuilding based on taking parts of European history and exaggerating them to myth.

In other words, orogenes are black people in the same way that Orcs are. Which is to say not in an allegorical way, but in an applicable way. And indeed, Jemisin breaks the analogy in significant ways, not least of which the fact that orogenes actually do have the ability to, for instance, slaughter an entire crowd of people by flash-freezing them while simultaneously causing an earthquake that will result in the slow collapse of the town by killing all its wells, which is actually kind of a different situation to Michael Brown. (And Jemisin has written fascinatingly about the complex and multiple valences of “fantasy races” in the novel.) But the resonance is there, albeit made obvious by Jemisin’s own blackness just as Tolkien’s is made obvious by his whiteness.

What is satisfying about building fantasy out of nuanced thought on the material experience of oppression is that it provides new ground for exploration - ground more fertile than the overplanted fields of noblesse oblige. The scope of this is aptly demonstrated by the first sentence, which is, impressively, just as good as the last, a cliffhanger twist so breathtaking in its implications that even I, who adamantly refuse to offer spoiler warnings, won’t spoil it: “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?”

(Personal disclaimer: I’d already written the first sentence of Neoreaction a Basilisk, “let us assume that we are fucked,” when I read The Fifth Season.)

The promise of this opening is quickly lived up to. Indeed, by the end of the prologue the entire foundation of the empire will be emphatically destroyed, along with the capital city, countless lives, and the basic habitability of the continent for several millennia. There is a man who does this. Jemisin describes him as well: “you may imagine what he’s thinking. This might be wrong, mere conjecture, but a certain amount of likelihood applies nevertheless. Based on his subsequent actions, there are only a few thoughts that could be in his mind at this moment.” (This essay contains enough clues to narrow the field dramatically, but again, spoilers.)

There’s another compelling moment that the book is built around the thoughts of, alluded to in the second paragraph, several pages before the obliteration of Yumenes - a woman discovering the dead body of her son, murdered by his father. Her thought, “then, and thereafter, is: But he was free.” This is always followed: “He wasn’t. Not really. But now he will be.”

The mother (Essun) is one of the primary viewpoint characters of the novel, her chapters narrated, unlike the other two’s, in the second person. The effect is fascinating - an actively depersonalizing experience that captures the prolonged and stunned horror of grief in a way that is unrivaled in the history of the genre. The novel follows her as she wanders across the ruined continent looking for her husband to find out what happened to her daughter and also to kill him. Like any such protagonist, she has secrets, and these become relevant over the course of her journey.

Balancing Essun out are Damaya and Syenite, whose chapters are narrated in the more conventional third person. Damaya is a recognizable fantasy archetype - a child orogene taken in by the Fulcrum, and put through standard set pieces like learning the way to survive at her new school and exploring the secrets of the school grounds. But these set pieces exist within the context of Jemisin’s nuanced oppression, their normal resonances twisted and perverted. (Indeed, nothing contributes quite so much to the reader’s visceral understanding of the world’s cruelty quite like a shocking intrusion of violence early in Damaya’s tale.)

Syenite, on the other hand, is not a familiar fantasy trope, though she’s a familiar sort all the same: a talented woman who is informed, in no uncertain terms, that she’s going to have to sleep with a guy if she wants to see further advancement in her career. It’s a typically ingenious move on Jemisin’s part - a concept that’s familiar and yet still largely new to fantasy. As with Damaya, the story does not play out in entirely expected ways, but even if it had, this would be fresh and exciting territory for fantasy.

The overall narrative approach here is familiar. A Song of Ice and Fire is probably the most obvious touchstone for a fantasy novel that shifts among multiple point of view characters; not the only example, certainly, but the obvious one. Jemisin’s usage is not exact - Damaya and Syenite’s chapters are explicitly set prior to the destruction of Yumenes, for instance, a non-chronological structure that Martin eschews. Nevertheless, as with much of the novel, there is a weathered, aged quality to it that feels almost like "comfortable."

This is a trap. The novel reminds you early on that it’s a trap, in one of its many crucial asides to Essun. “Much of history is unwritten. Remember this.” Of course the three strands converge into a single story; indeed, even to an explanation as to why the man on the hill destroyed the world at the beginning. And exactly how they converge is another good twist, explained by Jemisin in fascinatingly prosaic terms about the difficulties of representation. But that’s not the point; the point is that by the time they do, it’s clear that the familiarity is that of a broken thing.

Clue’s in the title really: The Broken Earth Trilogy, of which this is the first part. And as the start of a trilogy, it’s mainly invocation. It answers many of its own questions, and answers them satisfyingly, but the ones left for The Obelisk Gate in August feel more interesting than the ones that have been answered. This is as it should be.

As I said, The Fifth Season is the sort of fantasy novel that opens with a map. In this case, it is a map of a world that is about to end. Indeed, it is a world that is used to ending (the book doesn’t actually end with a glossary, but with a timeline of world endings), if not to ending with quite the emphatic calamity that opens the book. But more than that, it is a world that needs to end. It is tempting to say “deserves” to end, but that is not quite right. The Fifth Season asks many questions, but “what do people deserve” is not one of them.

No, “need” is the right word. Not just in the sense of a world that craves its own ending, although there is something frightening and nihilistic in the casual, reflexive sadism that inevitably rears its head within the Fulcrum. The world needs ending in the simple sense that ending is what it instinctively moves towards. It needs ending like lungs need oxygen and death needs mourning. History, like Father Earth, will have its way.


Aberrant Eyes 4 years, 10 months ago

"Wy dont i start at the end and see were we go from there?"
-- Lloyd Jefferson, "The Kingdom of No" (Doom Patrol v.2 #29)

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Roy Berman 4 years, 10 months ago

I've added it to my reading list based on the extremely strong recommendation in your first couple of paragraphs, but to avoid spoilers I'll come back and read the bulk of the essay once I get to the book.

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triturus 4 years, 10 months ago

I bought this based on your recommendation a few weeks ago, and finished it last week. It's really excellent, one of the best books I've read in a while.

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Shannon 4 years, 10 months ago

I've heard so many great things about her, but this post is really what's motivating me to go buy the book. As I'm due in a few weeks, I look forward to a lot of time in the near future, sitting in the dark, nursing. I'm going to need a lot of good, engaging things to read!

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Shannon 4 years, 9 months ago

I did read it and it was just as amazing as Phil advertised. The world building is just as rich as he describes, plus the characters are incredibly compelling. Highly recommended.

However, it does need all of the trigger warnings available for the parent of a young child/children or anyone else particularly sensitive to violence done to children. In addition to the awfulness Phil mentions, there is another major incident that is possibly even worse. If I had read this six months earlier, it probably would have triggered my own trauma that I was still processing at the time.

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