The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
“Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall; Death is the fifth, and master of all.”
N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is a strikingly original fantasy novel. It is set in The Stillness, a continent ruled by the Sanzed Empire on a world plagued by constant tectonic plate movement, causing frequent devastating earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. There are people called orogenes who can manipulate the power of the earth, causing them to be feared and hated by the stills, people without this power. Jemisin uses this unusual setting to tell a story that is part fantastical quest, part post-apocalypse survival story. Underlying it all, and giving it a rare passion and intensity, is her deft exploration of slavery, dehumanisation and complicity. By following three orogene women at different stages of their lives she shows the ways both subtle and blatant in which groups of people are subjugated and abused. It is her most powerfully angry work so far.
The book tells the story of Essun, an orogene woman who discovers that her husband has murdered her son and kidnapped her daughter, just as a world-ending Season has erupted. It also tells the story, many years earlier, of Damaya, a child whose parents give her away to a Guardian of the Fulcrum when they discover she is an orogene. In between these time periods, Syenite, a five-ring orogene trained by the Fulcrum, is sent on a routine mission with powerful ten-ring orogene Alabaster as the Fulcrum hopes to breed the two of them.
The Fifth Season’s structural boldness is demonstrated in Essun’s chapters being written in the second person present, whilst Damaya’s and Syenite’s are in the more usual third person present. Second person is rarely used to tell stories, and its use here is striking. It has the effect of making Essun’s sections more immediate, as the reader is forced into sharing her viewpoint as they read text directed at her by an unknown voice. It stealthily reveals depths of the narrator’s character, once the reader figures out who it is. It also chronologically anchors the book, with Essun’s story the main narrative thread and the other two threads providing history and context.
By focusing on different stages and phases of orogene life, Jemisin not only furnishes detail and context to her characters’ lives, she also explores the different pressures, forces and restrictions placed on orogenes by a society that sees them more as monsters and weapons than as people. One of the first things Damaya’s Guardian Schaffa does after taking her from her parents is tell her a story in which the orogene is a villain. This is significant as it marks the start of the Guardians’ campaign of systematic emotional and physical abuse, designed to rewrite Damaya’s worldview so that she sees herself as a monster incapable of looking after herself without harming other people. This is a key way in which the Sanzed Empire controls the orogenes; by breaking down their will and self-confidence so that despite their great powers they will do as they are ordered.
Syenite is forced to prostitute herself to Alabaster, because the Fulcrum wants to use any powerful children that breeding together two powerful orogenes might produce. The Fulcrum again illustrates the ways in which orogenes are controlled by Sanzed society; orogenes can rise up to positions of power within the organisation, but because they are treated as second class citizens they have to not only show exceptional talent, skill and dedication but also prove that they will do whatever the Fulcrum asks of them, however much they may not want to. By dangling the remote possibility of a position with some small amount of agency and respect in front of Syenite, the Fulcrum can manipulate her into doing whatever it likes.
Breeding orogenes like animals also functions as a tactic to dehumanise them, so that the stills won’t think of them as people and to reinforce their social control over them. Essun is an orogene living in a small village who has been passing as a still, but when the earthquake exposes her and her children as orogenes, her son is killed by her husband and her friends and neighbours turn against her. Jemisin explores the intense, ingrained fear and hatred on a societal level that would cause a father to murder his own child, and the complicity of the whole society in creating this culture of fear and hatred. Essun’s villagers are not all bad people, and indeed some of them try to help her escape the village before some of the others kill her, but they are still responsible to an extent for the subconscious othering of an entire people, for letting this fear and prejudice fester and grow until it erupts violently.
The book is unsparing in its portrayal of the horrors meted out by people in power on those they view as less than human. Jemisin is interested in how dehumanisation allows people to do utterly morally reprehensible things, and she explores this unflinchingly, nowhere more so than in how the Sanzed Empire treats orogene children. They are taken from their parents, abused, and if they can’t prove themselves useful they are killed or worse. This is contrasted with the innate privilege of children of stills in power in the Empire; when Damaya meets one, she finds her utterly unable to understand what it’s like to live in fear, and her blithe courage almost costs Damaya her life whilst having almost no consequences for the child in question.
The society in The Fifth Season is always on the cusp of collapse, because of the constant and unpredictable threat of Seasons. Jemisin explores how this climate of paranoia and dread would influence any society that managed to survive through these cataclysms. An interesting way this manifests is in the society’s utilitarian view of not only orogenes but all people. People in Jemisin’s book are given middle names that reflect their talents and skills, such as Innovator for creative people who can come up with new solutions, Breeder for people who are prolific or have desirable genetic traits, Resistant for people with natural immunity to various diseases, and at the bottom of the pile, before orogenes, Strongbacks, manual labourers. Depending on what your use-name is, you are treated with different amounts of respect, and it may even influence how likely you are to be exiled from your community to starve during a Season when resources are limited. Like the treatment of orogenes, this view of people’s worth based on how useful they are perceived to be is borne of fear, and Jemisin draws parallels between a society that has such a base, reductive view of human worth and how this feeds back into the way orogenes are treated not as people but as dangerous tools.
The Fifth Season is an interesting blend of genres, mixing post-apocalyptic sci-fi with fantasy. Most post-apocalyptic stories take place in the real world, and gain much of their power and potency by acting as a warning of what could happen to us in the future if we make certain choices as a society. Much of what makes them get under our skin is the recognition of elements of our own society extrapolated or gone out of control. It is ambitious and unusual to set a post-apocalypse story in a secondary world fantasy novel. The author has to create an engaging imaginary setting that is different from our world, in addition to sowing the seeds for its destruction in a way that reflects the fears and neuroses of our own world.
Jemisin manages to solve these problems in two crucial ways. The Stillness works as a fantasy setting because it is a vast, strange canvas full of strangeness and wonder, with giant floating crystal obelisks and mysterious underground crystalline cities left by vanished civilisations. Yet at the same time Jemisin integrates elements of geological science in order to ground her flights of fancy. From the fact that metal is unused in construction because it buckles, corrodes and rusts while stone doesn’t, to the fact that there is a scientific reason why the world of The Stillness is more fluid and unstable than ours, Jemisin has clearly thought long and hard about the realities and mechanics of her world, making it feel as realistic as possible.
The cycles of destruction and rebirth created by the frequent Seasons also give The Stillness more historical depth than many fantasy books. Rather than one conflict with a Dark Lord that echoes down the ages, the history of The Stillness is tumultuous and varied, filled with starts and stops and rises and falls. The other reason Jemisin’s ambitious project works is that she understands people. Not only her characters but also her societies are richly drawn and vividly fleshed out. There are obvious parallels between the treatment of orogenes in The Fifth Season and the enslavement and oppression of African Americans, and the social and cultural forces at work in Jemisin’s book, the truths it tells about the ways Empires brutalise and control those they fear, are relevant because they reflect and resonate with those in our own world.
Jemisin’s passion for humanity is also reflected through the book’s effortless diversity. The Stillness is inhabited by people of various races. Orogenes can be from any one of them. The Fifth Season has a lot of interesting things to say about race, both in the foreground with the treatment of orogenes and in the background details of the world. The advantage of the ruthlessly utilitarian view of humanity by the societies in The Stillness means that they can’t afford to be picky about race, if you can do the job you’re useful, unless you’re an orogene. However the book touches on the ways in which the Sanzed Empire has spread its ideals of beauty and aesthetics throughout the communities it has conquered, the subtle and unsubtle ways in which Sanzed ideals have come to replace the original community’s.
The book also explores sexuality, portraying healthy and unstigmatized gay, bisexual and polyamorous relationships, as well as a trans woman, whose identity as such is accepted by the other characters as simply part of who she is. Again this all ties into the struggle against the proscriptive views of humanity encouraged by the Empire, and how humanity is always more complex and interesting than that.
Throughout the book, we learn there are other intelligent beings in the world, the mysterious stone eaters are feared and hated almost as much as the orogenes. They aren’t exploited by the Empire as they’re impossible to control, but they are viewed as frightening, nearly mythical monsters, even by the orogenes. However Jemisin neatly subverts this by revealing who the narrator is at the end, which demonstrates the depth of empathy and emotional connection the stone eaters have with humanity. Jemisin reveals that, at the end of the day, the stone eaters are people too, with all of humanity’s capacity for love and hate.