WIRED Book Club: We Can’t Stop Talking About The Fifth Season
We’re two-thirds of the way through N.K. Jemisin’s Fifth Season, and fire-under-rusting-Earth there’s so much to talk about it. Just like last week, read our thoughts below, then shake things up (HEYO) in the comments. All thoughts welcome, so long as you don’t spoil the final third of the book—if that happens, you’ll be iced with extreme prejudice. (Or we’ll call the Guardians; your choice.) Until next week, that is, when we’ll meet back here to chat about the ending. Because this is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends.
What Should We Make of the Interlude?
Sarah Fallon, Senior Editor: This feels like a gun put on the mantle piece to me. The author is setting you up to know how this world thinks (or doesn’t think) about islands and celestial bodies so that—I assume—when we inevitably encounter an island or a celestial body, we know a little bit about how they fit into this world. So it’s a plot device. But also, it seems like a note to the reader that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” In other words, we readers assume we know all about the world, and we may, indeed, know a great deal about what’s in front of our faces. But we know less than nothing about worlds (sociological worlds, perhaps) that we have not even considered.
Katie Palmer, Senior Associate Editor: Once I hit the interlude, everything started making more sense to me—and I started noticing the artful lack of knowledge in the world. We have biomests and geomests, but astronomests are looked down upon. The attitude toward those scholars started to stick out to me. Accused of being a geomest, Tonkee becomes either defensive or enraged: “I am not … I know better than to pay attention to those fools at the University. I’m not stupid.” Is that because scholars appear to know so much, making them another class of other, or because they actually know so little?
Jay Dayrit, Editorial Operations Manager: The interlude elucidates a way of thinking, this population’s version of the Dark Ages. Less willful ignorance, more the kind of narrow focus necessary in the face of disaster, of which there’s no shortage in The Fifth Season. Pattern recognition is key to survival, and for the people of the Stillness, academic disciplines that have little to do with earth sciences and the patterns therein are a luxury they cannot afford. The excitement of the Interlude is the allusion to what may lie beyond the ocean’s horizon; “How fortunate, then, that there are more people in the world than just humankind.”
Peter Rubin, Senior Editor: I admit that the interlude was a rare clunker for me—not because it didn’t help contextualize that Dark Ages-meets-Renaissance thing that the Stillness has going on, but because it felt like a needless fillip. After the opening throat-clearing, we entered the book’s world without a headlamp, and let the characters’ own wisdom (or lack thereof) guide our way. Anyone still reading had signed that contract; we were content. Disembodied Omniscient Narrator teasing us of a world beyond the Stillness when we we were still mid-grok was tantamount to sticking their head in the door and reminding us that it was time for bed—when all we want is just one more chapter.
Can We Please Talk About the Node Maintainers for a Minute?
Fallon: This horrifying scene where they arrive at the node and find this child that has been tortured and sacrificed and permanently sedated to serve “the greater good.” I have not been able to get over it. And the way Alabaster shifts into using the rogga, and the way Syen finally gets what he means: “Not people at all. Not orogenes. Politeness is an insult in the face of what she’s seen. Rogga: This is all they are.” And then you realize that this kid is his child, and you realize that what he has been doing as he walked along the high road is expend every extra bit of energy he has to relieve the distant suffering of these kids, if only for a short time. It’s just … it’s hard to confront.
Dayrit: Gruesome, yes, but not without purpose. We’re privy to the covert enslavement of hapless orogenes who lack precise control of their power and perhaps even to the fate of Crack, who vanishes at the end of Chapter 11. The cruelty of this scene justifies, in part, the impending destruction of the system that allowed it to exist in the first place. I may also have a high tolerance for the horrific.
Rubin: I can’t believe I’m admitting this in print, Jay, but you pointing that out is the first time I’d confronted what happened to Crack beyond “oh hey exile too bad kid BACK TO THE STORY.” Well, no one ever accused me of being of the Innovator use-caste.
Are the Main Characters the Same Person?
Fallon: The line “It will be many years before Damaya understands that when the instructors kill an errant student, it is meant not as a goad, but as a mercy” is especially resonant in light of what’s happening at the nodes, and does suggest that Damaya and Syen will intersect.
Kehe: Then we have this in an Essun chapter: “You could become some new, maybe. You’ve done that before; it’s surprisingly easy.” Is it possible Essun is Syen is Damaya? That she’s “become someone new” at different points in her life? I wouldn’t be mad about it, but I must say the characters seem so different—mentally, emotionally—that I’m not ready to accept their sameness. Of course, it could be that the self-transformation is so complete each time. Much in the way the Stillness radically changes after a Fifth Season. Essun even says, “You’ll jigsaw [the broken pieces of yourself] together however you can, caulk in the odd bits with willpower wherever they don’t quite fit, ignore the occasional sounds of grinding and cracking.” It’s a powerful, powerfully sad idea: that an orogene’s body, her identity, is as fractured, endangered, and turbulent as the land itself.
Dayrit: It’s looking more and more like they’re the same person. They are all women in three different stages of life. The ashfall and mass migration in Essun’s chapters are surely the direct result of the destruction of Yumenes, which remains intact as Damaya enters her training at the Fulcrum. Meanwhile, Syen is at that tail end of her training. Too much continuity to be a coincidence. Speaking of which, “Damaya at the fulcrum of it all” is my favorite chapter! It’s like Hogwarts meets the first third of Full Metal Jacket, with a little bit of ’80s John Hughes for good measure. Also, there’s almost no magic in this chapter, over which I still have not yet been able to fully suspend my disbelief. OK, I stop beating that drum.
How Does Sexuality Play Into Fifth Season
Fallon: There seems to be fun sex in this world, but so far we haven’t seen any of it—just this frank, perfunctory activity. We know that people do have nice sexy times, because at the end of this section, Alabaster is looking for someplace to be alone with his mentor. But so far, it’s all pretty meh.
Kehe: Queerness, let’s point out/celebrate, is pretty incidental. (You’d think that would be fairly typical for a genre like fantasy, where literally anything is possible, but it’s not.) Like, remember in chapter 1, when Essun/you say, in the briefest aside, that “the butcher probably knows your name because she likes to flirt with you”? Then, of course, there’s the “penis somewhere amid” Tonkee’s naked body, and that’s that. Not to say there’s zero discomfort—there does seem to be a bit of evasiveness at times—but there’s a casual willingness to look past sexuality.
Fallon: Which is interesting, because some themes, of course, Jemisin is grabbing you by the shirt collar and shaking you and saying, “Here, this is a thing you really need to think about! Forgot to think about it over there? Think about it over here!” But queerness, it’s just a given, like you say. And that’s as much of a political statement in its own way as her grabbing you by the cheeks and turning your head in the direction she wants you to look is in another (equally powerful) way.
Palmer: Still, those judgements don’t disappear—they just manifest in a different form in this world. I was surprised, after the passing acceptance of Tonkee, that Syen stumbles over the gender-bending appearance of a stone-eater. “All the books say that stone eaters are neither male nor female, but this one resembles a slender young man formed of white-veined black marble …. Its—his?—limbs, marbled and polished, splay as if frozen in mid fall.”
Fallon: I wouldn’t say that the its/his thing is the aspect that gives humans trouble in this world. It’s the quality of the stone-eaters’ movement that people find unsettling. It’s their stillness.
Dayrit: Homosexuality, bisexuality, gender identity, transgenderism, all the issues that bog us down in our society are given little weight in The Fifth Season, perhaps because the moral code of the Stillness is rooted in actual hellfire and brimstone from the ground, not from some patriarchal god floating somewhere in the sky. Jemisin has already established that her characters pay no mind to the heavens, not even the weird obelisks that drift about in the clouds, seemingly without purpose. As Sarah says, the sex is not particularly fun, at least the sex we get to see. In fact, some people are called Breeders, a classification that sounds terribly utilitarian. No matter; I don’t yearn for erotica here—gay, straight, or anywhere in between.
Is the Stillness a Security State?
Kehe: Just when you think, “this is a pre-digital society, so at least the government can’t further disenfranchise certain people by monitoring their private communications,” Alabaster reveals to Syen that he believes some of his enslaved progeny at the nodes could have the power to hear through walls. “Is that what he fears?” Syen wonders. “Is the Fulcrum like a spider, perching in Yumenes’s heart and using the web of nodes to listen in on every conversation in the Stillness?” Orogenes turned against orogenes, orogenes turned against society. The Fulcrum, the very institution that supports and nurtures orogenes, is, in fact, the architect of their oppression. No wonder Alabaster’s crazy. It’s enough to drive someone to, oh, destroy the world….
Dayrit: Certainly does feel like a security state, particularly in regards to the Guardians, a shadowy crew who mysteriously lord power over even the strongest orogenes. Who are these Guardians? Are they born into this caste, conscripted, both? I’d read a series based on them. Ah, the beauty of world building!
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