SF of 2015: The Fifth Season (2015) by N.K. Jemisin

TheFifthSeasonBased on reviewer response so far, I expected this to be like City of Stairs, by which I mean it would be very popular within its subgenre, stir the passions of many a blogger friend, but have very little effect on me. Between last year’s insipid The Goblin Emperor and this year’s heft of shortlisted fantasy, it’s time I admit the unforeseen and reluctant truth that I’m just a sci-fi/realism reader now.

But it’s hard for even a fantasy detractor like me to not recognize good, solid fantasy when I see it.

Some might argue that the big reveal of The Fifth Season is that it is actually science fiction, not fantasy, and they would be correct insofar that our not-so-far future reality converges on Jemisin’s far-future cracked earth of instability and hierarchies. At a later point in the novel, the secondary twang is exposed for the primary reality that it is, and we find ourselves following what is actually a post-apocalyptic tale with the only thing epic being the extent of climate disaster. But even though it is technically more sci-fi than fantasy, the feel of fantasy just can’t be shaken off. (And we know so much of sci-fi is fantasy anyway, so.)

And I know, I know… these distinctions don’t really matter, but that’s the only reason I can think of why it didn’t quite connect with me. It is a very good story, for sure, and I probably would have adored it in my early days of exploring the subgenre.

For readers with a similar bias, The Fifth Season is still worth exploring. Sure, it still relies on those fantasy signatures that try my patience: hefty world-building, magic systems with arbitrary rules, and endless travelling to show off the world-building (and so you never know when you’re nearing the middle or the end, and makes you wonder why you can’t just drop in at the 70% mark and force-absorb the details for a possibly less passive experience). But it also includes these neat little interactive moments that invoke other powerful moments in SF and literary history: a Dune moment with the hand test; a Kindred moment with Alabaster’s apologism; a Beloved moment with the horrifically understandable emancipation of the child. By engaging with these moments, TFS inserts itself into a higher class of SF, touching upon real human issues by honestly and modernly engaging some of the most uncomfortable moments in literature in the way a jaded SF reader would respond and understand (and squirm). Granted, it isn’t immune to movie contract bait like over-heightened and pithy dialogue (“I’m not interested in your rusting history–” “History is always relevant.”), and there are also too many moments when sluggish description muddles up the mind’s eye during action scenes, including the narrative’s overreliance on “suddens” and “suddenlys” stalls the prose when just stating the action would be sufficient, but that happens in sci-fi, too.

All of that feels like nitpicking when considering the conceptual framework of the novel: the worldbuilding of TFS transcends common landscape descriptions, emerging as a ground-to-sky atmosphere, pulled through into the language and structure of the story, designing a clash-and-converge system of tectonic narrative threads. The use of slangwith all its “rusteds” and “Earth’s sakes” and “Earth, be damneds,” can get tiresome, but then moments of true playfulness and originality emerge: at one point, a simple comma removal gets to the actual fulcrum of the tale: “I’ve spent my whole life either training or working, for Earth’s sake,” and serves to illustrate the nature of this dry and cracking world derisively called “Father” Earth.

Also worth discussing is the use of second-person perspective throughout one of the threads. Usually relied on as a horror gimmick or solution to literary boredom, the first sign of this might induce eye-rolling, but it’s put to good use here. In a thread that depicts the very fresh shock of a grieving mother, first-person would be too unconvincingly verbal to effectively convey the PTSD, while third-person might be too distant to effectively grasp. The immediacy of the “You” forces the reader to internalize that sense of shock and gives that poor character a chance to retreat inward.

These are mostly technical comments and barely scratch the surface of what is a highly original secondary/primary fantasy world of metaphor, with touches of experimental slave narrative, as well as spurring meditations on sex, politics, motherhood, and the body; some subtle, some not so– as it should be. It’s still really not my thing, but it’s leaps beyond the trite and mediocre fantasy of last year’s Hugo ballot, and the passion surrounding it is valid, if beyond my full appreciation. Highly recommended for fantasy fans, even if newly-hatched, as they inevitably walk toward the elves and dwarves section of the library (as long as they are mature enough to handle the idea of threesomes).

(I do hope Jemisin will eventually skip out on the fantasy world and test her hand at some kind of surreal realism, because there’s a grim undercurrent, as well as a curiosity about people, that’s present in her storytelling, and comes off as too constrained in this imaginary mode.)

Snatch if you’re a fantasy lover. Avoid if you despise that pernicious B-52’s earworm classic “Love Shack” because it’ll follow you around for the entire week after. Tin roof! Rusted!

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25 thoughts on “SF of 2015: The Fifth Season (2015) by N.K. Jemisin

  1. bormgans says:

    Great, thoughtful review. It would be a (mildly) interesting debate wether just a future earth setting qualifies these days for a science fiction tag. A possible evolution of mental powers used to be believable, judging from what I’ve read from 50ies & 60ies SF, but it seems to me we’re beyond that. To me, the mental powers of some of the characters pushes this firmly in the fantasy genre – “future first world fantasy”, or something like that.

    I agree the Fifth Season has merit, but for me too it wasn’t a satisfying read: too obvious in its politics, inconsistent world building and too obviously an attempt at complexity – without a lot of complexity to show for. Maybe the sequel will make things a bit more consistent, but I’m gonna pass anyway.

    As I’ve written in my own review, I do want to try some other Jemisin, so I checked your author index to see if you’d reviewed some of her other works. That’s when I’ve noticed that you’ve consistently misspell Jemisin’s name. I know the feeling, I’ve had “John Abercrombie” up for months 🙂 The mind is a wondrous thing!

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    • “too obvious in its politics” — I’m usually okay with this when it’s stuff that needs to be loud
      “inconsistent world building” — I thought this was intention to foster a dreamy effect
      “and too obviously an attempt at complexity – without a lot of complexity to show for” — This, I think, is where it will lose some readers, but I think that’s the hang up with traditional, commercial fantasy.

      Thanks for the heads up on the misspelling; I hate it when people see something like that and don’t say anything. It could be that “the mind is a wondrous thing,” or I’m just terrible with names (and book titles) (of even my favorites!). I often wonder if it has to do with the fact that I mostly read ebooks now and I rarely have the book cover staring up at me to embed the name and title in my head. It may also have to do that my own first and last name have been misspelled and mispronounced my whole life, and my personal shrugging off has infected how my mind views names.

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      • bormgans says:

        I don’t think we’re talking about the same inconsistencies. I mainly meant the fact that the oppression of the orogenes seems rather implausible given their almost godlike powers.

        I guess that hang up for commercial fantasy still gains the books more readers than it might cost them. Seems to be part of the deal nowadays. That might be one of the reasons you’re becoming more of a sci fi/realist reader? Maybe not, as some scifi has the same problem.

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        • We should be careful when mentioning realism in SF.What do we actually mean by it within SF?A novel that superfically resembles a fairy tale,like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” can’t be called science fiction or even speculative fiction,since the premise hasn’t been realised,so could easyly be called fantasy,which isn’t supposed to contain anything like SF,that is realistic at the thematic or humanistic level.As you would expect from a literary novel,AF does contain these concerns,that lift it over the just above mediocre SF.How do we define realism that can be called SF in this case,when the two literary archipeligos appear to clash?I think I should also say,that the same applies to much that is published with the written genre and the movement called Magic Realism.

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  2. Tomcat says:

    Aaah, the heady days of 2015… *stares wistfully into the middle-distance*

    I don’t read/enjoy much Fantasy these days either (despite it being more or less 100% of what I read as a teenager), but I am liking Kameron Hurley’s stuff atm. “Mirror Empire” is really good, and kinda SF-nal. It’s about parallel versions of the same Fantasy World trying to invade one another. There’s also a big black planet which passes through the sky every thousand years or something and gives certain people weird powers. It’s good. 🙂

    Awesome review; you’re a really great writer, so good to have you back.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m feeling wistful about 2014. That was a good year for books.

      I’m about at the point where I think I’ll quit reviewing fantasy. I think I’m done with it. Tired of bashing books that are just doing what fans and publishers expect them to do. Plus, it’s just no fun to read anymore.

      Thanks for the compliment!

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  3. S. C. Flynn says:

    Welcome back, Megan. Very good review. “Love Shack” has now begun its three day residency in my head – thanks for that.

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  4. If it can be interpreted within a theory of structuralism,a clear definition between fantasy and science fiction doesn’t appear really possible.Certainly science fiction,as we know,can’t be positively defined because of it’s authors’ hetrogenous nature.There is an overlapping between what you might think are two distinct genres.Authors such as Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny,whom everybody recognizes as SF writers,could be said to have copius elements of what is called fantasy in their stuff.Gene Wolfe’s powerful vistas appear on the surface to be fantasy,but are clearly nothing of the sort,so the resemblance is only superficial.

    Separating what you seem to think of as two different ball games,lies in the codifying of conceptual ideas,the effects technology will have on society,and the humanistic,social and political themes in science fiction,that is lacking in what you call fantasy.It doesn’t necessarily depend on bland realism and technological devices to be good SF.The same remarks apply to the authors mentioned above,whose stuff defies labeling.What you call ordinary fantasy,lacks these qualities,as does much of what is within the written SF genre.A sharp definition,as I’ve said,doesn’t seem feasible.This is why I prefer to call most of it speculative fiction.

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  5. Very interesting discussion of The Fifth Season. I can’t say I recall much of the nitty-gritty elements of the world-building; I think the real strength of this novel was in the characters and those are the details I remember. I wasn’t really convinced though, why Orogenes shouldn’t have been ruling the world of this novel, with their awesome powers to manipulate earth energies and literally shape the face of the land. But I agree, this is miles above a lot of the shortlist offerings from previous years, I personally pulling for this one.

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    • I’m also pulling for this one.

      You point out a good plot hole, though I read the Orogenes’ oppressed status despite having unique powers as a metaphor for slavery and oppression, but I guess this is exactly why I never dig stories that involve magic; I can never suspend disbelief enough to really connect.

      I guess it isn’t so much world-building as it is atmosphere-inducing, which I much prefer, but I do suspect the book is bloated because there is a lot of pride in showing off that world/atmosphere– the essence of the quest novel.

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  6. Jesse says:

    Megan, with all due respect, I think you’re running the risk of judging all fantasy based on your experiences with epic/heroic fantasy. Like any genre/sub-genre, fantasy has its more and less ambitious works, the scale swung heavily in favor of the latter. As you’re well aware, science fiction and realism are crowded with shitty works, too. I know you’re interested in focusing this blog on sf, but there are a host of writers out there writing fantasy that would really engage more than just your snarkiness. 😉 Jeffrey Ford, Elizabeth Hand, Jonathan Carroll, Andy Duncan, Sofia Samatar, Kij Johnson, Tanith Lee, Kelly Link, Rachel Swirsky, Catherynne Valente, and the list goes on.

    If you’re interested, China Mieville delivered a good presentation at KU on why fantasy should be taken seriously as a literary form. Part I is here:

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    • Are you saying I’m reading the wrong fantasy writers? I’m sure you’re right.

      I initially replied to you with these two long paragraphs, but I think I arrived at a better response: I am put off by exhaustive detail and the pretense that I should care about fake people and what they had for breakfast (bread and cheese. I’ll bet it’ll be bread and cheese. Because they are probably traveling). Less is more? I dunno.

      I will watch your China Mieville video when I get some time. I do tend to like his work, even though it is very easy to make fun of, but I never get the sense that I’m supposed to be “drawn in,” like it’s a real place, or care about his fake people. So that annoying kind of pretense is pleasantly absent. There’s always enough going on to distract me (though sometimes to the book’s detriment). Even so, City and the City is easily my favorite, but it’s the least like traditional fantasy– it actually is a kind of SF realism. Iron Council is more in line with the fantastic, but had some real moments when it felt like it was starting to look contemplative and introspective, which is really what seems to make a book transcend the words on a page. Mieville could use more introspection, I think, especially after so many books that seem to be geared outward.

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      • Jesse says:

        I’m a bit confused by the bread and cheese comment… I understood you were bothered by tedious worldbuilding, so was that just a reiteration?

        Perhaps the most useful reference here is Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy. She breaks down fantasy into four basic categories, one of which is secondary world fantasy, and which seems to be the flavor leaving the bad taste in your mouth. Two others, intrusive fantasy and liminal fantasy, take the real world and impose the unrealistic, the latter in largely equivocal form. With the intrusive and liminal varieties, there is no call to support a secondary world with relative detail, which means the author can cut to the chase. (For the record, the fourth category is portal fantasy, e.g. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.)

        And regarding Mieville’s fiction, I think he would be the first to tell you that his early fiction is an attempt at writing strange entertainment, that is, not entirely literary in aim. I think it would be more useful to apply his arguments across the broader spectrum of writers.

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        • It may be mid-week brain atrophy, but it occurs to me that I have no idea how we got to what we are talking about. I may need to revisit these comments this weekend when I’m better rested. (August is a crazy time for me.)

          I mean, I’m not sure what I said that indicates I’m not aware that there are different varieties and purposes of fantasy. I’d rather go to Mendlesohn school than Mieville school (I dunno why. I really don’t dislike they guy but he’s just everywhere), but even the idea of “Rhetorics of Fantasy” seems tiring and, based on the categories you mention, obvious and beside the point.

          It’s really not just tedious detail that turns me off (I love Kim Stanley Robinson!) so much as the sense of artifice and arbitrariness. It’s a combination of things that maybe I’ll be able to nail down one day.

          On a related or unrelated note, I just read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and it was incredible and I think you’d enjoy it if you haven’t read it yet.

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    • Assuming you’ve read my comments,you’ll agree I think,that they’re very near to your own.There’s elements from each genre in both realms,that leads to an overlapping effect,creating an indistinct line inbetween.You can’t really have pure genres,anymore than you can have pure air.

      The written SF genre,is made-up of uniquely individual authors, whose works are often only superfically alike.It’s significant in this case,that they can’t be compared,making it difficult to ascribe them to either realm.I think what is contained within the science fiction genre,is a literature of forms,rather than a genre.Generally,this has become known as speculative fiction,which can comfortably contain elements of both realms,which don’t need catergorizing.Their merit can be judged upon what you read.

      One of the very best examples of a novel that crosses the boundaries between what you call science fiction and fantasy,is Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood”.It’s supernatural setting and emphasis on forgotten folklore,seems to recall vintage fantasy,but it’s concerns with human predicament,inner space and ancient ancestral memories that conjure the visions of our past selves,can be compared to the themes of modern SF.As Brian Aldiss says in his SF history,”Trillion Year Spree”,”It’s subject matter-those primal folk images of the human psyche-is no less science fictional than telepathy or much of the magic masquerading as science in space opera”.

      Novels as diverse and as far removed as Anna Kavan’s “Ice” and Angela Carter’s “Heroes and Villians”,with their realistic, devastated landscapes and human concerns,seem far outside what we call science fiction and fantasy,but their nightmarish strangeness and collapsed world orders,recalls much of what we’re familair with in both divisions.They can be slided easyly through the cracks between they separate the two realms.

      Caution should be exercised when exactly defining them.

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      • Sorry, Richard. I am behind on replies to your comments.

        Yes, I think we do agree and I am being overly simplistic when I categorize like this, but then again, I do think there quite a lot of popular SF authors enter the genre with nothing but a simplistic sense of the genre in mind and no intention of complicating their own works… or complicating them with more detail, some overt political message, and not much else.

        So, yeah, caution should be exercised when talking about those rare and intriguing books you are talking about– Kavan and Carter are high on my own TBR — but the stuff I stumble across on these mainstream shortlists… I think you’d be the saying the same things I’m saying.

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        • It’s okay.It isn’t long for me,and probably don’t see them until the next day.There’s a difference in the time zones.

          Those authors you mention,who haven’t set their sights on anything ambitious,obviously aren’t the most talented,and are only repeating what is expected of SF.This I assume means the same whether they’re writing what you call fantasy or SF.There will be those that lack those qualities of course,that make SF a literature of substance,or fantasy for that matter.I don’t see why we should marginalise categories just because of the conceit of some lesser authors.

          What are we really worrying about?We know that the roots of SF were far different long before they evolved into the modern genre.There was traditional Gothic modes,that are the source of both SF and fantasy,that split off to allow for a literature that explored the mysteries of our existence,but they are like estranged siblings.The “new wave” movement was supposed to have dissolved any restrictions created by the old patterns of how you were supposed to write.They embraced a mixed blend rather than a specific type of fiction.

          We shouldn’t be concerned about what seems like retroactive activity,that’s splitting the written genre into greater factions that threatens to divide it.

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          • “What are we really worrying about?”

            I hear ya. I’m not so much worrying about anything as I am just trying to figure out what works for me and what doesn’t and why.

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          • I just read what I find within what we call the genre,and judge it upon it’s own merits,not what brand type it is.They have evolved though in a unique way,unrestricted by orthodox methods,that couldn’t have happened anywhere else.

            Categories were invented.They never really existed.

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    • okay, I listened to the first two parts, but it’s getting late, so i’ll have to watch the rest tomorrow. I have Suvin’s Metamorphosis and I refer to it regularly, so I’m familiar with what he’s talking about.

      And I get that the categories are restrictive, but they are also being reinforced by publishing and writerly comfort zones.

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  7. […] annoying “Movies on Mute,” which I said I wasn’t going to apologize for but did, a few last minute book reviews, and then August SF Book Awards Extravaganza began. I blogged my opinions […]

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