Sunday 2 September 2018

Book review: The Fifth Season, NK Jemisin (2015)

This fantasy novel got a good shake before I gave up on it, finally tiring of the pseudoscientific claptrap surrounding its formative ideas, which are based on tectonic theory. The book won awards and resembles in its concept the 2016 speculative novel ‘The Power’ by the American Nancy Alderman, which I reviewed on 15 July on this blog. In that novel, women in the terrestrial world discover one day that they can conjure electricity from their hands, enabling them to kill at will. In Jemisin’s novel, a subset of humans on the continent Stillness on another earth than ours has the power to control the forces that are buried deep below the earth’s crust (also sometimes using their hands to do this trick) which is similarly fatal for their enemies. The congruences linking the two novels are striking.

In Jemisin’s novel, we are given a set of characters who drive several different strands of the plot forward as we work to unravel a secret that is revealed in one scene placed strategically near the beginning of the book, where one of the holders of volcanic power (called “orogenes” officially in this world, but the name is condensed to a deprecatory epithet as “rogga” by people in the broader community) does something with his hands that sets off a series of tremors and ultimately leads to a vast rift appearing in the surface of the continent, which kills many and causes those left alive to go into survival mode, following old teachings that had been written in stone.

The civilisation that is sustained in “comms” (communities) throughout the continent is formed on the basis of the village. Your name includes three elements: a given name, a use-caste name, and a comm name. The use name determines much about you including your role in the comm and the way you are educated. At the centre in this society, in the city of Yumenes, is the Fulcrum, a special community of orogenes who are given tasks aimed at helping to maintain the viability of the government that is headquartered in the capital and of the comms that it administers.

But orogenes are not always born within the borders of the Fulcrum, and in the book we are shown how roggas in the broader community are shunned and sometimes even killed because of the power they can harness if trained. The scenes that involve the child Damaya, who is aged about five when she discovers she has the power during a fight in the playground of the creche in her comm, Palala, are particularly effective. Jemisin shows a touching ability to realistically focalise the narrative through a very small child in these scenes.

Another orogene we meet early on is Essun who lives in the comm Tirimo with her husband and two children. An undeclared orogene, she finds her husband has one day killed her small son and taken her daughter away on the road headed for a destination she is ignorant of. Essun goes in search of her remaining child and on the road meets a small boy, aged about ten, who adopts her in a way that she can’t refuse. Again, Jemisin shows a disturbing ability to focalise her narrative through different characters, each of whom has a singular personality and point of view.

But the story is drawn mainly around what happens to the characters Syenite and Alabaster, who are Fulcrum orogenes. Alabaster is a ten-ring orogene, and the most powerful of his kind. Syenite has been chosen to bear his child, and while they are occupied with this task they are also sent on a journey to help remove a coral reef in the harbour of a coastal comm. On the way there is a major seismic event that Alabaster traces back to the “maintenance node” the government keeps in the area. They visit the compound and find something shocking that causes Syenite to question her future.

I finished around a third of this novel before abandoning it. I thought that the character of Alabaster had echoes of Howl in Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 animation movie ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’. There is something ethereal and dazzling as well as deeply vulnerable about him. The pathos that accrues in the margins of his personality as it is portrayed in the novel is a critical part of the dramatic machinery that animates the book. Syenite’s relationship with him forms a part of the nexus of feelings and ideas that lie at the core of the narrative, and she is in a way, along with the two other female characters already mentioned, the true hero of this book.

The paradox at the heart of the orogenes’ existence is set out as something that we are meant to question. Equally admired and feared, orogenes are institutionalised by the government and in the process lose part of their humanity. Certainly they lose much of their freedom. Like anyone else in the society we are offered up to scrutinise they have to conduct themselves appropriately.

But if you base the entire structure of your fantasy on one small part of your imagined society, you are going to have blind spots and absences that throw up other questions. There is little time given to examining the economy that exists on the continent, for example, and while the stonelore provides the seeds of a type of religion, there is not enough time given to examining the nature of belief as it involves people living in comms on Stillness. I felt that Jemisin’s single-minded focus on the fate of the orogenes left the drama feeling two-dimensional. I needed a bit more nuance and depth in order to justify investing more time in the book.


Stephanie Dasilva said...

Wow you actually read something I've read. Tho you read the first book of a trilogy, I think the point of trilogies is to read all three of the books.

Anyhow, I liked Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy much more than the Broken Earth trilogy.

Matthew da Silva said...

I didn't finish this book. I was not convinced by the author's vision nor by the narrative, which I felt wasn't developed well enough for me to care about the main characters.

I took up a challenge to read some more science fiction because I had had a long conversation with a friend about the merits of the genre and how it compares to literary fiction in the comments section of a blogpost about Neal Stephenson's 'Snow Crash' (published here on 21 August this year). He recommended a series of books to me and I gave each one a go. The only one that I finished was Christoper Priest's 'The Affirmation', which I thought was brilliant.

Matt said...

So I recently read all 3 books in this trilogy in the space of a week. Personal taste obviously counts for a lot but I want to respond to this comment: "I felt that Jemisin’s single-minded focus on the fate of the orogenes left the drama feeling two-dimensional."

Jemisin has created this world not purely as an intellectual exercise. She wants to explore prejudice, oppression, identity and the possibility of communities that can reach beyond those (the other big strand is about the nature of families - and specifically parental relationships). Hence the focus on the orogenes as the key point where these intersect (altho other POVs are brought in). World-building elements like economics and religion are there but remain in the background.

I found the books mostly compelling (some of the more fantastical elements jar with the SF elements) and I understand the narrative choices that the author has made.

Thanks for the recommendation of The Power - it looks interesting!