‘The Fifth Season’ by N.K. Jemisin
In most speculative fiction, we get the chance to lose ourselves in made-up worlds. Most often, we also are able to lose our own struggles in these worlds as well. Instead, our daily struggles with ourselves, others, and our society at large are replaced by simplified ones, where the monstrous evil is clear-cut. We root for Beowulf to kill Grendel. We cheer for Odysseus to take revenge on his wife’s suitors. We want Frodo to destroy the Ring. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is different, blurring the lines between good and evil, society and nature, and makes us think about ourselves and our own role in society in a fantastic way.
Why am I just now hearing about these books?
Every year one novel wins the Hugo Award. But no trilogy of novels has ever won three consecutive Hugo Awards, until now. So, like many others, I paid attention when the news broke about N.K. Jemisin’s big win #3 for The Stone Sky this year. And, like many others, I loved her awesome acceptance speech. She touches on injustice and the struggle for people to thrive under system oppression. It’s clear that the themes for the book come from her own experiences and convictions. In her words “when they win it’s meritocracy, but when we win, it’s identity politics.” A powerful, and much needed message in our present times from a powerful author.
The Fifth Season: People Against the World. And Themselves.
The Fifth Season examines a world that is at war with itself. Father Earth continuously tries to destroy what civilizations that people can create, through earth and fire and rock and rubble. People are at mercy, oppressed by forces they cannot control. Jemisin really exposes a latent fear of processes beyond our control that readers from all walks of life can relate to.
But she also layers oppression. In addition to fighting the Earth, people have oppressed a sub-class of humans called “orogenes” who have the ability to draw energy, and manipulate and calm the Earth. They are “protected”, so that they can preserve a system that oppresses them for the purpose of protecting itself.
The story unfolds through several such oppressed orogenes. Damaya, the child taken from her home for training. Syenite, the apprentice orogene, and Essun, the mother orogene who fears for what the system she helped preserve will do to her children. Jemisin creates a world where the oppression is a force of nature, immovable and baked into the world. The story, masterfully told, challenges the reader to join with the characters in learning to understand that world, and find hope to overcome a world where both the planet itself, and the civilizations on it, would otherwise kill you.