This review contains spoilers.
You’ve heard of The Fifth Season. If you know anything about current SFF, you’ve heard of The Fifth Season. It won the Hugo Award in 2016; it was shortlisted for the Nebula; practically every SFF critic on this earth seems to have read it and at the very least enjoyed it.
It’s set on a planet (a far-future Earth? an alien planet? or somewhere else entirely?) tortured by tectonic activity. Every couple of centuries or so a major earthquake or volcanic eruption will precipitate an extinction event; a so-called “Season”, which may last decades, during which crops and animals will die, water sources turn to poison, the weather and seasons become dangerously unpredictable. The society of the Stillness, the single vast continent on this planet, has developed a set of rules, of unbreakable laws, to survive these events – although a lot of people will inevitably die, the idea is that some will live. Jemisin’s worldbuilding in this respect is detailed and convincing without ever being overwhelming and clumsy: she hints at the systems of bureaucracy that keep all this running, the emergency procedures drilled into townspeople’s psyches, the hard choices that town leaders have to make to get their communities through a Season. Because the people of the Stillness deliberately don’t develop communications technology that’s vulnerable to natural disasters – although they do have hydroelectric power – the world feels very epic fantasy; but these details also give it a realism most epic fantasy doesn’t possess.
The people of the Stillness do, however, have a secret weapon against angry Father Earth (who is never named but to curse him): the orogenes, people who can shape and direct and use the power of the earth to keep the Stillness safe. But their power is dangerous – untrained orogenes have been known to kill entire towns along with themselves when frightened or angry. And so they’re hated and reviled by everyone else: young orogenes are taken from their parents (orogeny is hereditary, but it can also appear randomly in non-orogene families) to the Fulcrum, a place that pretends to be a school where orogenes can develop and refine their power for the good of all the Stillness, but which is actually a tool of control.
The novel follows three different women: Damaya, a child given up to the Fulcrum by her parents; Syenite, a skilled orogene who’s sent on a mission with Alabaster, one of the best orogenes in the Stillness, and ordered to conceive a child with him to further his line; and Essun, an orogene in hiding whose husband has found out that their three-year-old son is an orogene and murdered him. The novel is shadowed most by Essun’s story, in which a Season is just beginning, one that will last not the decades the Stillness has prepared for but hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. It is shadowed by the end, finally, of the world.
This is the way the world ends. For the last time.
The concept at the heart of The Fifth Season is control; or, perhaps more specifically, the conflict between control and precariousness, the struggle to keep hold of something of one’s own. The orogenes of the Fulcrum are taught that control of their power is essential; any slip is met with punishment, or, if the transgression is great enough, death. (Remember: these are children.) And yet, the great irony: they have no real control over their own lives and fates and futures, where they go, what they do, who they sleep with. Syenite tries to gain some modicum of control, of autonomy, by collaborating with the system, doing what the Guardians of the Fulcrum tell her, so she can rise in the ranks; the higher-ranking orogenes get better privileges. But Alabaster’s situation reveals how wrong-headed her thinking is. He is the highest-ranking orogene we meet – the highest-ranking orogene Syenite is ever likely to meet – and yet all his privileges, astonishing as they seem to Syenite (he can travel on his own, refuse the sexual partners the Fulcrum assigns to him, enjoy greater privacy than anyone else), only conceal the fact that he has no real agency, no good choices. His life is just as subject to the whims of the Fulcrum, just as precarious, as any other orogene’s. The idea that it is not is of course just another tool the Fulcrum uses to control the orogenes.
So: The Fifth Season describes systems of physical and psychological control, and the (usually doomed, always destructive) struggles of the oppressed to wrest some of that control back. But it also enacts problems of control at a textual level – and that’s what I found most exciting about the novel (if “exciting” is the right word for a book that contains so many terrible things, which I’m not sure it is). It resists passive, complacent reading; it is combative. Essun’s chapters, for instance, are narrated in the second person, an unusual choice the main effect of which isn’t, I think, identification – or, at least, it isn’t straightforwardly identification (or Jemisin would have written in the first person, surely). Although Essun doesn’t make the hardest choices of the women in the novel (that dubious honour goes to Syenite), she is the one most obviously fighting for emotional and physical survival. She is the most free to choose of everyone in The Fifth Season, and her choices are consistently hard. So that second person pronoun, that “you”, is confrontational: it forces us to take the burden of Essun’s choices, and in doing so it forestalls judgement. In some way it takes away our right to judge Essun, because she is us. It upsets the control we think we have as readers over the narratives we consume.
Another such strategy that’s worth mentioning – and the reason for the spoiler warning above; look away now if you wish to remain unspoiled, and take it from me, you probably do – is how those three narratives coalesce, delightfully but also horrifyingly, into one. Damaya, Syenite and Essun are all one woman. And yet each of their narratives feel complete. This is one woman who loses everything three times over; who lives, in effect, three separate lives. Again, this disrupts our sense of control over the text, as well as, neatly, enacting the sense of precariousness that all the orogenes – and, in a wider sense, everyone on Jemisin’s troubled planet – face: multiple worlds end in The Fifth Season, emotional and physical ones.
The Fifth Season‘s discussion of control is, obviously, rooted in real-world strategies of oppression. (The novel has other contemporary contexts, of course: climate change and the idea of a world suddenly turning hostile is a major one.) But it’s never directly metaphorical: in fact, one of the best things about the novel is that the axes of oppression at work in the Stillness are completely different. Queerness is tolerated, impressively for a society in which reproduction might be vital for the survival of a community during a Season – Alabaster sleeps with men by choice, a woman flirts with Essun in the very first chapter, and there is a bisexual polyamorous pirate. (Yes, you read that right.) Racism exists, but it seems to be based much more on facial features than skin colour. It’s an approach that throws into relief the arbitrariness of prejudice while being aware of the sheer extent of the structures that maintain it.
So The Fifth Season is that rare beast: a novel that actually lives up to its hype. It’s gripping, important, horrific, intricately imagined, confrontational, diverse and true.