“This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say ‘the world has ended’, it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine.
But this is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
For the last time.”
The world is ending. Again. As it has done many times before. Multiple apocalypses, seasons of destruction that have lasted any number of years or even decades, occur again and again in the Stillness, a place where geography and the land’s physical instability is the world’s own worst enemy. In N.K. Jemisin’s latest novel The Fifth Season, survival has only been possible because of the orogenes, people with an innate ability to “manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy”. They are an oppressed, controlled people, essentially colonised, ostensibly for the benefit of the greater good of the entire world. But the cost of the world’s survival is highest for the orogenes — they are captured as children or ‘bred’ into captivity, trained, controlled and forced to reproduce as adults in order to create more of their kind for the use of the Fulcrum, the rulers of which use them to calm the earth. It’s an unending cycle of vicious violence, the earth against its inhabitants, the inhabitants against each other. The imperialism of the Fulcrum is explained away as something necessary, the subjugation of the orogenes as duty, when they are told they “serve the world … From birth, an orogene child can stop a shake; even without training … with training, however, and with the guidance of other skilled orogenes at the Fulcrum, [they] can be useful not merely to a single comm, but all the Stillness”.
The Fifth Season’s narrative is that of three main characters: Damaya, Syenite and Essun, each a female orogene at a different phase of her life. Their narratives are temporally disconnected but eventually link up in a skilled, perfect way. Damaya is a child in a small village, a rogue orogene whose abilities have just been discovered by her parents and so she is taken away from her family by Schaffa, her new Guardian from the Fulcrum who takes her to the city of Yumenes to essentially break her, train her and make her compliant to the system and emotionally dependant on him in a warped, frightening relationship. Damaya discovers a strange secret hidden within the Fulcrum but is made to not question it, because within the life of the Fulcrum, if an orogene has not displeased the Guardians, they “are the closest thing to safety a rogue will ever have … Schaffa loves her, in his tender and terrifying way. She does not pay attention to the bloody print his right hand leaves on her hip, or the press of his fingers — fingers strong enough to kill — against the bases of her skull. Such things are irrelevant, in the grand scale.”
Some years later, we meet Syenite, a young woman orogene at the Fulcrum who is being set on a path that has been chosen for her — what she must do, who she must be with and whose children she must have, all the while travelling around to smaller towns to control the movements of the earth, clearing ports of the raised rock that has blocked them and calming the land alongside Alabaster, a powerful older male orogene who knows much more than her and questions a great deal of their situation. Syenite and Alabaster discover a floating obelisk in the port they are meant to clear, one like others that float over certain places in the world but have so far gone unexplained.
Later still, there is Essun, an older woman who comes home one day from the village school she teaches at to find out that her husband has murdered their son and left with their daughter, having found out what Essun really is and what she passed on to their son. Essen begins to search for her daughter, while somewhere else far away, a massive rupture of the earth begins, close enough for the shocks to come through and for people to know that worse is coming, an apocalypse that may last longer than any they’ve seen before. Someone, somewhere else, with the power and desire to destroy the earth has done just so, and once again, the world begins to break.
Essun’s chapters are written in second person entirely — the reader is Essun, she is the reader, all her struggles are the reader’s. The immediacy in this perspective is gripping, fascinating and incredibly effective in pulling the reader deeper into the narrative. For some writers a second person narrative would be a huge risk; for Jemisin, it’s skilful and quite perfect.
Each of The Fifth Season’s point of view characters is an orogene, one of the subjugated, controlled people without whom the world would not be liveable. Why do they not control society, when they are the ones with the power? “Orogenes built the Fulcrum”, Alabaster tells Syenite, “we did it under threat of genocide, and we used it to buckle a collar around our own necks, but we did it.” What has been done to the orogenes, for generations and generations, to subjugate them in this way that they are, essentially, slaves to a system completely dependant on them, a world and an economy that cannot function without their innate abilities? Jemisin effectively, cleverly explores imperialism in a world with a broken history that is the basis for society, one that is written, of course, by the imperial powers themselves. All orogenes are taken away from their families to be trained in the Fulcrum — any orogene child may instinctively move a mountain, it is said, but only a trained orogene can move a single boulder with specific purpose.
“‘You’re firemountain-glass, Dama,’ explains Damaya’s Guardian, ‘you’re a gift of the earth — but Father Earth hates us, never forget, and His gifts are neither free not safe. If we pick you up, hone you to sharpness, treat you with the care and respect you deserve, then you become valuable. But if we just leave you lying about, you’ll cut to the bone the first person who blunders across you. Or worse — you’ll shatter, and hurt many’.” And so rogue orogenes are considered unacceptable, as are those who disobey or rebel or are considered untrainable. The future for those “roggas” who cannot or will not fit into the Fulcrum’s system, as they are referred to derogatorily, is extremely bleak — they are still used for their abilities, but in ways that are cold, cruel and shocking.
“And he reaches forth with all the fine control that the world has brainwashed and backstabbed and brutalised out of him, and all the sensitivity that his masters have bred into him through generations of rape and coercion and highly unnatural selection. His fingers spread and twitch as he feels several reverberating points on the map of his awareness: his fellow slaves. He cannot free them, not in the practical sense. He’s tried before, and failed. He can, however, make their suffering serve a cause greater than one city’s hubris, and one empire’s fear. So he reaches deep and takes hold of the humming tapping bustling reverberating rippling vastness of the city, and the quieter bedrock beneath it, and the roiling churn of heat and pressure beneath that. Then he reaches wide, taking hold of the great sliding-puzzle piece of earthshell on which the continent sits. Lastly, he reaches up. For power. He takes all that, the start and the magma and the people and the power, in his imaginary hands. Everything. he holds it. He is not alone. The earth is with him. Then he breaks it.” — Excerpt from the book
This is the story of slavery. The story of colonisation of a people whose agency has been stripped from them, who have been brainwashed and beaten into submission. A large element of internalised racism within the orognes is present; they even refer to themselves and each other by the slur “roggas”. Jemisin cleverly, subtly, brings to mind the horrendous stories of the American slave trade, of the British Raj, of the colonisation of any people at all, in fact — that’s what’s so powerful about The Fifth Season — those of us who bring our own postcolonial baggage to it will see ourselves in it, read the histories of our oppression in it, again and again. “Better that a child never have lived at all than live as a slave”, writes Jemisin, immediately bringing to mind some of the very real horrors we have witnessed in our own very recent history of imperialism. There’s nothing heavy handed about The Fifth Season though — this isn’t a didactic story about slavery or imperialism or colonialism. Of course, it very much is a story about slavery and imperialism and colonialism, but deftly woven into a story about identity, agency and breaking free of the chains that bind a people to a restrictive social structure that abuses them to keep the wheels turning.
Jemisin’s world building has always been solid and in The Fifth Season it is impeccable. There’s a glossary at the end of the book but that’s not to suggest that it is necessary to the understanding of the narrative — there’s no need to flip back and forth and look up words because everything makes sense in its context.
The history of the Stillness has been shattered just as frequently as the land itself has. Records and stories are found in fragments, with no real sense of how things got to where they are. Jemisin gives us tiny samples of this fragmented past, hints at how things may have developed but a great deal is left unsaid — left just under the surface for the reader to infer. There is not a single note of condescension in Jemisin’s narrative — intelligence is expected from a reader and it is rewarded. It’s a clever, craftily created narrative, all coming together satisfactorily towards the end but leaving room for bigger, other stories to come in the trilogy.
The reviewer is a book critic and editor of the Apex Book of World SF4. She also hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com.
The Fifth Season
By N.K. Jemisin
Orbit Books, USA