N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season has one of the strongest opening lines of any book I have ever read. It begins with the fantastically doom-laden:
“Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.”
The rest of the novel lives up to the promise of this opening with a powerful story of people struggling to survive in a hostile world.
The reader feels the sadness that is the core of the story. At the start of the book, both the protagonist’s internals world and the actual Earth itself are broken, perhaps beyond repair. This makes the reader highly invested in the characters as we learn how they have suffered in this dangerous and volatile world.
In the first chapter, we get a gut-wrenching description of a mother's grief as she discovers the body of her young son, murdered by her husband. In the early stages of the novel we meet a woman forced to have sex against her will by a hierarchical organisation that controls her. We also meet a small girl taken from her family because she is different, who is then hurt by the person she thought would protect her.
Oppression and the many forms it comes in is a theme of the novel. In this world those with the ability to move the Earth, the Orogenes, are hated and feared by those who can't, the Stills. In a world where the Earth beneath your feet is a constant danger, having a connection with it is a dangerous thing. This is a world that is hostile to the Orogenes. It is because her son is an Orogenes that he has been killed in the opening chapter. It because she is an Orogenes that the child is taken from her home and given a harsh lesson in discipline. Throughout the novel we feel how much the Orogenes are hated and what they have to do to survive.
Science fiction describes the world we live in better than it describes the future or fantastical alternative realities. What does The Fifth Season, a portrait of a turbulent and oppressive world, says about our world? It shows what the social dynamics of our world would be like in a world where the environment was more hostile. It shows how we will turn on the weak and minorities in times when resources are scarce. It does not show our future in a world of environmental disaster, it shows our present social structures imposed onto a world of environmental disaster.
Although the world of The Fifth Season is alien to us, with its constant earthquakes, creatures made of stone and giant obelisks floating in the sky, deep down we know that this is our world. We know that when we are pushed as far as the people of the Stillness have been pushed, we would turn on each other as the Stills have turned on the Orogenes. Our world’s divisions are along lines of race and gender, these will be the faults along which we will tear the human race apart if we irreversibly break our Earth.
The Fifth Season has a complex narrative that is set over a long period of time and has several staggering revelations along the way. I won't spoil them now, because you should certainly read this book. The events of The Fifth Season take in the whole world of the Stillness (or at least a significant part of it) and show how it came to be the way it is - not just in terms of the natural disaster that have befallen this world, but also the root of its social structures and systems of oppression. This is fully-realised world, in terms of social science as well as natural science.
Jemisin has clearly done a lot of research into the geology and physics of her world (as well as its social structures). Despite it being a book about people who can move the Earth with their mind, it is hard to categorise this book as clearly fantasy. The degree to which the physics are worked out show a level of scientific research that goes beyond a lot of science fiction novels. The Orogenes are more believable than the hyperdrives or aliens in a lot of science fiction. Ultimately, this book is a bit of both genres, which is something we also see in the writing of Ada Palmer, whose novels touches on issues of divinity as well as social science.
Whether it is a sci-fi or a fantasy novel doesn't matter, what matters is that it tells a powerful story about a broken world and people struggling to live on it. It also tells a story about human nature. About how we turn on each other and hate each other when under pressure.
A book about humanity plagued by earthfire and hatred has a lot to say about how we hate each other in our world.