Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Fifth Season

N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, a 2016 Hugo nominee, is excellent. It alternates between several stories of women in the land of “the Stillness”, so-called ironically because its continental plates are so mobile that the inhabitants’ architecture and social structures are centered around the common occurrence of earthquakes and other geologic activity. In the face of such disruption, society demonizes the few people who have the power to control seismic activity, since they have enormous destructive potential. The magic training school --- which inevitably exists, this is fantasy --- emphasizes both that it is difficult to learn to control this ability, and that certain magical potency is innate. Geomancers (not their actual nomenclature in the novel) are denied personhood, ostracized, killed, or collected as slaves and subjected to the cruel and often lethal regimen of the magical training school, then permanently enslaved by the government in service of providing geologic stability to politically-important regions.

This book was excellent. It reminded me of many other things, which I want to emphasize does not mean that it actually shared any deep similarities with them.

In giving women agency and the freedom to exhibit a variety of motivations and character traits, it reminded me of Le Guin's Earthsea series; also, of course, it featured a variety of not-particularly-Western people, often described by the color of their skin (almost none of which were "white"), coping with an uncooperative earthquake situation. Yes, there was magic. Yes, there was racism. Yes, family and social structures were highlighted and important. But whereas Le Guin's stories usually turn inwards, focusing on small-scale solutions and interpersonal conflict, Jemisin's story grew bigger and bigger, accreting import and severity as the characters (inevitably) levelled-up in magic and in their understanding of what is really going on with the social structure. The scope ballooned in typical fantasy style, and it did it magnificently.

There's always an interesting feature of reading a novel (especially digitally): the images conjured in my mind are completely my own, not even influenced by cover art. I appreciate that Jemisin consistently reminded her readers that her characters, and everyone in her world, was a shade of brown, lest our whitewashing imaginations run away with us. The geography --- unsurprisingly an often-described feature in a book about lethal geological activity --- was often described in magical-intuitive terms, as if one could sense the pockets of magma circulating below. Vegetation gets short shrift. This was okay with me, as it meant that my brain often substituted settings from From Dust, a video game where gameplay consists of reshaping geography by dropping lava and trying to avoid too much destruction of villages.

Describing a book by its magical system, and then by similar-but-distinct things that it reminded me of, is surely a disappointing and unsatisfying type of recommendation. The book was great. You should read it for yourself. I'm not alone in liking it; it won the Hugo award!

This post's theme word is sorb, "to take up and hold by ad/absorption." The soil can only sorb so much groundwater before a disastrous flood ensues.

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