Not even the most fantastic of fiction exists in a vacuum. The real world can’t help intruding into a writer’s work and her readers’ perception of it. This felt especially true as I read N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.
As I write this, a group of conservative writers and editors calling themselves the Sad Puppies, have, in the words of George R. R. Martin, “broken the Hugo awards” through an orchestrated campaign of “ballot stuffing” during the nomination process. According to Sad Puppies ringleader Brad Torgersen, the speculative fiction that wins awards today is “niche, academic, overtly to the Left in ideology and flavor, and ultimately lacking what might be described as visceral, gut-level, swashbuckling fun.” The Rapid Puppies are an allied group led by writer, blogger and editor Vox Day (the pen name of Theodore Beale). Day managed to nominate himself for two Hugos and scored eleven nominations for works and authors coming out of the small Finnish publisher of which he is lead editor.
In 2013, Day aimed his sights at Jemisin. He wrote, “it is not that I, and others, do not view her as human, (although genetic science presently suggests that we are not equally homo sapiens sapiens), it is that we simply do not view her as being fully civilized for the obvious historical reason that she is not.” He claimed “there is no evidence to be found anywhere on the planet that a society of NK Jemisins is capable of building an advanced civilization.” He concluded by calling her “an educated, but ignorant half-savage, with little more understanding of what it took to build a new literature by ‘a bunch of beardy old middle-class middle-American guys’ than an illiterate Igbotu tribesman has of how to build a jet engine.”
It is hard to imagine that this racist attack did not influence Jemisin’s writing of this book. Although she did not shy away from issues of race, gender, class and sexuality in her Dreamblood duology (2012) or The Inheritance Trilogy (2010-11, 2014), The Fifth Season is her most political work yet.
The novel takes place on a seismically unstable world, a land of quiet and bitter irony called the Stillness. While a normal year consists of the customary four seasons, a Fifth Season follows a major eruption that kicks up enough dust to prevent summer from returning for more than one year (much like the Year Without a Summer that followed the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia). The first of these Fifth Seasons toppled a highly advanced ancient society, now one of many deadcivs that weren’t able to adapt to the hardships of life without sunlight. Seasons returned every few hundred years, and those city-states or comms that lasted through multiple Seasons did so by accumulating survival strategies that became the quasi-religious body of knowledge known as stonelore.
The book features three protagonists, each of whom is an oregene, one born with the ability to manipulate seismic activity. Oregenes play an important rule in preventing Seasons, but they are just as able to cause a Season as prevent one. For this reason, they are widely feared—and hated—by stills, the majority of the world’s population who cannot practice orogeny.
Damya is a young girl whose parents discover her hidden talent and turn her over to the Fulcrum. In place of the family she knew, Damaya gets a Guardian, a man specially trained to contain orogeny and, if necessary, kill oregenes. She becomes a grit, an apprentice orogene who must learn to control her power or face death—or worse.
Syenite is a graduate of the Fulcrum, who has earned four rings to signify her proficiency with orogeny. She is sent on a seemingly routine mission with Alabaster, a tenringer of unprecedented power. But a hidden agenda underlies their mission, and not even the most talented orogene is immune to poison.
Essun has managed to hide her orogeny from her husband and the comm that took her in. All is well until her young son displays his own innate ability—for which his own father beats him to death. Essun must manage her grief while hunting down her murderous husband and hoping to rescue the daughter still in his clutches.
The discrimination faced by Jemisin’s fictional orogenes is clearly meant to echo that faced by different groups throughout our history. Orogenes are referred to derogatorily as roggas, which sounds awfully similar to a real-world racial slur. And as with that slur, some oregenes have appropriated “rogga.” Oregenes face two choices: service to the Fulcrum (which looks an awful lot like slavery) or death (often at the hands of a lynch mob). This book is a tale of their oppression, shown from three different angles.
In short, The Fifth Season is “overtly Left in ideology and flavor.” But it also provides “visceral, gut-level, swashbuckling fun.” Jemisin doesn’t sacrifice storytelling in the service of a broader message. She simultaneously enlightens and entertains. Why wouldn’t that make a sad puppy happy?
And as a postscript to the Hugo saga, the Puppies failed to win a single award. In the five categories in which the only nominees came from the Puppies’ slates, “No Award” picked up the most votes. Here’s hoping that next year we can focus on the quality of the nominees instead of the politics of the nominators.