N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season (2015)

M. Keith Booker, University of Arkansas

After decades of domination by white men, science fiction in the twenty-first century has featured dramatically expanded contributions from women, especially women of color. Writers such as the African American Nisi Shawl, the Nigerian American Nnedi Okorafor, and Jamaican-born Canadian Nalo Hopkinson have taken science fiction in exciting new directions, often mixing it with fantasy, but in ways that are powerfully relevant to real-world problems concerning race, gender, colonialism, and other loci of oppression and domination. The most successful of all of such writers is the African American women writer N. K. Jemisin (1972– ), who won the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Novel for all three novels in her “Broken Earth” trilogy (2015–2017), thus becoming the first African American author to win that award at all, and the first author ever to win the Best Novel Hugo in three consecutive years, as well as the first to win for all three novels in a trilogy. All of the novels of this trilogy mix science fiction with fantasy to explore a number of important themes, with the most obvious of those being related to environmentalism and climate change, themes that are already well established in the first novel of the sequence, The Fifth Season (2015), which also anticipates the rest of the trilogy in its exploration of themes related to race and gender, as well.

The Fifth Season provides a crucial introduction to the trilogy, not only because it introduces the trilogy’s central themes and makes clear its generic orientation, but also (and more importantly) because it performs the heavy lifting of the impressive world-building that is so crucial to the sequence. This first volume introduces readers of the sequence to a planet whose inhabitants call it “earth,” though it is most assuredly not the earth we all know, even if it is very clearly designed to comment on our earth and on the damage human beings have done to it. Because of irresponsible management of the planet’s natural resources in the distant past, the earth of the trilogy is a harsh and hostile place, regarded by its inhabitants as evil and as an enemy to resist, rather than a nurturing home, a characterization that is perhaps indicated in the way they consistently refer to the planet as “Father Earth,” rather than the “Mother Earth” designation to which we have all become accustomed. Meanwhile, this earth is inhabited by a variety of races of “ordinary” humans who seem completely unconcerned with their own racial differences from one another in favor of an all-encompassing racist fear and hatred of the “orogenes,” a race of gifted mutants who are the central focus through most of the trilogy[1].

The Basic Planetary Scenario

The Fifth Season takes place on a planet with one giant continent, known as the “stillness,” which can be relatively habitable for long stretches of time, even though the seismic activity that is such a crucial characteristic of this planet always makes life precarious. Then, in occasional outbursts of increased seismic activity and radical climate change, bitter hardship—accompanied by widespread death and destruction—is visited upon the planet, often for many years at a time. These dark periods are known as “fifth seasons,” which can last for many years during which life is devoted mostly just to the attempt to survive. Even in between fifth seasons, much of the life on this earth is devoted primarily to the preparation for the next fifth season, which is sure to come.

In its emphasis on the unique properties of this particular planet, The Fifth Season and the trilogy that it begins clearly participate in the traditional science fiction subgenre of planetary romance, in which the cultures and ecologies of entire alien planets are described. Early examples of the planetary romance include Jack Vance’s Big Planet (1952), Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity (1954), and Poul Anderson’s The Man Who Counts (1958). Frank Herbert’s sf classic Dune (1965) is one of the best-known planetary romances, though its numerous sequels expand into the galactic scale more typical of the space opera proper. Among numerous later examples of the planetary romance, Brian Aldiss’s sequence Helliconia Spring (1982), Helliconia Summer (1983),and Helliconia Winter (1985) stands out as a particular high point that is particularly forward-looking in tis emphasis on the impact of climate change. One particularly unusual example of the planetary romance (mixed, in this case, with other genres) is the 1968 film Planet of the Apes (based on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 French novel La Planète des singes), famed for its ending plot twist in which the planet of the title turns out to be a future version of our own earth, made nearly unrecognizable by nuclear devastation.

The Fifth Season employs a version of this same conceit. Thus, obvious deviations from any concept of realism aside, it is possible to see the hostile earth of The Fifth Season as a sort of far-future, post-apocalyptic version of our own planet, irretrievably changed by humanity’s own actions. Three quarters of the way through the novel, we are introduced to a story from the planet’s folklore (“stonelore”) which suggests that Father Earth was once far more nurturing and hospitable to life—until humans damaged the planet so extensively that they became thought of as the planet’s enemies.

“Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth. They poisoned waters beyond even his ability to cleanse, and killed much of the other life that lived on his surface. They drilled through the crust of his skin, past the blood of his mantle, to get at the sweet marrow of his bones. And at the height of human hubris and might, it was the orogenes who did something that even Earth could not forgive: They destroyed his only child” (267–68).

It is not at all clear what is exactly meant by this legendary memory of the orogenes destroying the only child of Father Earth, but it is easy to see, in context, that this element of the legend might simply be a racist addition, somewhat along the lines of the antisemitic characterization of Jews as the killers of Christ. It is certainly clear that this distant, almost Edenic time is not well remembered, or even described in any reliable historical records. It is more the stuff of legend, and poorly understood legend at that. And, while it is tempting from such passages to read those who damaged the earlier, more hospitable earth as analogous to the people of our own era, with the broken earth occurring in our future, there are also ways in which any attempt to parallel the history of the novel’s earth to that of our own earth force us to locate the action of the novel far back in geological time, before even the creation of the earth’s moon, which possibly occurs at the end of The Fifth Season as part of the attempt of the powerful orogene Alabaster to quell the seismic violence of earth once and for all (though it ultimately becomes clear that Alabaster has more likely just disturbed the moon’s orbit in a way that is designed to cause it to collide with the earth). Indeed, the ending of the novel seems to suggest that Alabaster has used his immense powers to initiate one last cataclysmic sequence of seismic events that will lead to the final erasure of all that humans have wrought, thus placing the action of the novel in the ancient geological past if one wants to read this earth as analogous to ours—something that clearly shouldn’t be done too literally.

The Basic “Racial” Scenario

One of the central themes of The Fifth Season is racism, and one of the central social facts of life on its earth is the way in which individuals of different races are perceived and treated differently. Like many fantasy and science fiction novels, The Fifth Season features a number of different sentient groups, including what seem to be relatively “ordinary” humans like the ones that populate our own world, as well as decidedly non-human sentient species, such as the “stone eaters,” who have immense power and can travel as easy through stone as humans can travel through air. The ordinary humans, meanwhile, are themselves divided in various ways, the most basic of which is perhaps the division between those who are members of “comms” (communities) and those who are “commless,” wandering about without a permanent home. Those in comms, meanwhile, are divided according to professions that become a key part of their identities (and even names). These professional groupings, known as “castes,” are rather hierarchical and are analogous to class differences in our own world. For example, the “strongbacks” who serve essentially as manual laborers, are less valued than other castes, and might even be expelled from comms when food shortages arise. There is also a special group of humans known as Guardians, who have a special ability (the nature of which is a closely guarded secret) to turn the powers of orogenes against them and are tasked with keeping the orogenes under control. They oversee the Fulcrum, the institution that is tasked with training the orogenes and putting them into service in the interest of humans.

The orogenes are quite widely despised and regarded as not being fully human, though the “ordinary” humans of this planet are perfectly willing—in a situation that quite directly comments upon the legacy of slavery—to take advantage of the capabilities of the orogenes in pursuit of their own ends. As Kim Wickham notes, the Broken Earth trilogy can be considered a slavery narrative of sorts that pursues a “project of not only remembering but also piecing together a self that has been fragmented by the trauma of slavery” (396). In The Fifth Season and the rest of the trilogy, Jemisin effectively describes an entire world-system built on the forced exploitation of the labor of orogenes, who are hated and feared by “ordinary” humans partly because they are so powerful but also because those humans know (and resent) just how necessary orogene labor is to their own existence.

It should be noted that, while the orogenes seem to serve as a fairly straightforward sort of allegorization of the experience of African Americans, the allegory is abstract enough to have significantly broader applicability as well. Thus, Sanchez-Taylor argues that Jemison’s trilogy ultimately “becomes an allegory for many colonized peoples of color, who are forced to survive in Eurowestern-dominated societies that justify their enslavement or class status through themes of genetic essentialism and scientific racism” (68). Meanwhile, one of the most striking aspects of the world of the Broken Earth trilogy is that, however familiar the racial fear and hatred directed at the orogenes might seem to Jemisin’s readers, it is unfamiliar in the sense that it is based on a genetic variation that has nothing to do with skin color or other easily observable physical characteristics of the kind that we, in our world, are accustomed to thinking of as markers of racial difference. This motif has been used before, as when it provides a central premise of the X-Men comics franchise, in which mutants of various kinds become the objects of racism because of their differences from ordinary humans.In this way, Jemisin defamiliarizes the notion of racial difference and asks us to view it with different eyes, while also broadening and generalizing the significance of her allegory. Moreover, she arguably does so in a way that is far more effective than the similar strategy pursued in the X-Men comics and films, partly because she does a more compelling job of linking the oppression of orogenes to slavery and other parallels in our own world.

One particularly effective strategy used by Jemisin is to provide (as any novelist might) details concerning things such as the hair and skin color of her characters but to do so in an offhand way that makes clear the fact that the people on this earth, no matter how racist they might be, do not tend to judge people according to characteristics such as skin color or to think of such superficial physical differences as primary in defining the identities of individuals. Thus, in most of the narrative, it is very difficult to even remember what the skin colors of the characters are—and if one does remember, it doesn’t really seem particularly relevant to the narrative. In so doing, Jemisin is able subtly to place characters of color in crucial positions of agency and authority within the narrative in ways that make it seem simply normal to do so, while at the same time making important points about the arbitrariness and irrationality of racism, which causes people to have such strong feelings about issues that really shouldn’t matter at all.

In addition, one of the most important contributions of Jemisin’s work is the clear way in which the basic geological scenario of her trilogy and the basic racial scenario of the novels are closely intertwined. As María Ferrández San Miguel suggests,

“the main issues at play in the Broken Earth trilogy are the representation of structural oppression against a marginalised minority, on the one hand, and the foregrounding of the possible consequences of extreme exploitation of the environment, on the other. It is my contention that Jemisin’s work draws a connection between the subjugation and exploitation of certain groups (racism and coloniality) and of nature (the Anthropocene), framing both as traumatic phenomena. Yet, the story allows for a possibility of regeneration in the figuration of the posthuman being and the promotion of a posthuman form of ethics. In short, as this article attempts to prove, the Broken Earth series considers the past, interprets the present and offers a cautionary tale about the future that makes a strong case for the hopeful practice of posthuman ethics” (473–74).

This notion of a structural parallel between the racist exploitation of specific groups of people and the environmentally damaging exploitation of the natural world, both of which are based on an ideology of oppression and domination built on lack of respect for the Other, is one of the trilogy’s most important messages. Ultimately, then, the political critique that is integral to the trilogy is aimed not just at environmental irresponsibility and racism but at the general ideological structures that make these things possible.

The Characters of The Fifth Season

Given the sweeping epic scope of The Fifth Season, the novel actually focuses on a relatively small number of characters, most of whom remain major characters throughout the trilogy. But it focuses on these characters quite powerfully, making them come alive with a vividness that characters in science fiction have seldom done. Through most of its length, the novel appears to consist of three different plots strands, which appear to be taking place under different conditions and thus during time periods relative to the fifth season of the title. Each of these plot strands also features a seemingly separate protagonist, each of whom dominates her plot sequence. These characters include the following:

Damaya is a young girl whose horrified parents discover that she is an orogene and send her away to receive training at the Fulcrum, after first locking her in their barn like an animal. Damaya has considerable promise but is also something of a free spirit, a quality that is strongly frowned upon by at the Fulcrum and that could potentially lead to an undesirable assignment or even to extermination. The Fulcrum treats its charges less like people than like tools, or weapons, as Damaya tends to think of it, and weapons that cannot be effectively wielded tend to be destroyed to prevent them from doing harm.

Syenite is a young orogene woman of considerable talent in service to the Fulcrum. She has achieved four rings and seems fated to achieve more, given her talents. (Rings are assigned to mark levels of achievement, with ten rings being the highest level ever achieved.) Early in her segment of the story, she is assigned to a ten-ring orogene by the name of Alabaster, who is to serve as her mentor—and with whom she also understands that she is to mate as part of the Fulcrum’s program of producing gifted orogenes they can control from infancy.

Essun is an older orogene, approaching middle age. She has retired from service to the Fulcrum and has taken refuge in the “little nothing town of Tirimo” (19), where, as the book opens, she has lived for ten years, working as a teacher and marrying a man called Jija, while passing for human, even to her husband. In the book’s shocking beginning, Jija has murdered their small son Uche, having discovered that Uche was an orogene. He has absconded with their daughter Nassun, who is also an orogene, though it is not clear whether he realizes that Nassun is an orogene. (Their story will be continued in The Obelisk Gate, in which Nassun eventually uses her orogene powers to turn her father to stone, given his vicious hatred of orogenes.) Essun leaves Tiromo to search for Jija and Nassun, on the way acquiring the fellow travelers Hoa (seemingly a young boy, who turns out to be a powerful stone eater) and Tonkee (seemingly an old woman who turns out to be a transgender “geomest,” essentially a scientist). Hoa will turn out to be extremely important in the subsequent volumes and eventually emerges as the apparent narrator of the entire sequence.

The second volume of the trilogy, The Obelisk Gate (2016), advances the story of Essun and Nassun as they attempt to negotiate the apocalyptic fifth season initiated by Alabaster. In The Stone Sky (2017), a number of twists and turns illuminate and clarify the previous volumes, including the apparent identification of Hoa as the narrator of the entire trilogy, with Essun, eventually reborn as a stone eater herself, as the intended audience. As the trilogy ends, Hoa and Essun set off to use their stone-eater powers in an attempt to save the planet.

Note that the plot of The Fifth Season relies on one central “twist,” in which we eventually discover that Damaya, Syenite, and Essun are all the same person, presented to us during different phases of her life. This development, however, is far more than a gimmick. In particular, it makes important points about identity and about how each of us can occupy different identities over the course of a lifetime, especially if we find ourselves living in dramatically changed circumstances.

Essun’s narrative is related in second person, which highlights the question of identity that is so central to her narrative, though it will ultimately be revealed by the third volume of the trilogy that this mode of narration comes about primarily because Hoa is speaking to Essun as he tells the story[2]. This rhetorical situation, however, does not negate the other significance that can be attached to this second-person narration, highlighted in passages which Hoa addresses the question of identity directly: “You’re still trying to decide who to be. The self you’ve been lately doesn’t make sense anymore; that woman died with Uche. She’s not useful, unobtrusive as she is, quiet as she is, ordinary as she is. Not when such extraordinary things have happened” (38).

The Genre of The Fifth Season

In order to understand The Fifth Season properly, it is useful to understand the multiple genres in which it participates. The most obvious of these are the science fictional planetary romance and the planetary fantasy, as I have already mentioned. This mixture of science fiction and fantasy follows important recent trends, while also breaking significant new ground. To understand these trends, it is useful to look back to the 1970s, when theoretically sophisticated criticism of science fiction received a big boost from the insights of Darko Suvin, who employed a fundamentally Marxist perspective (with a dash of structuralist methodology) in developing a serious theorization of the genre. Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, published in 1979, compiles and summarizes his work of the decade. For Suvin, science fiction is “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment (7-8). In short, science fiction places readers in a world different from their own (made so by specifically identifiable drivers of change, or “novums,” such as technological advance) and then challenges them to examine and critically analyze those differences. Crucially, for Suvin, this cognitive process has a potentially powerful political impact in that it encourages readers to reexamine assumptions about their world and to realize that even the most fundamental things about their world might have been different. Science fiction thus emerges for Suvin as a key utopian form that helps readers to formulate challenges to the status quo and to imagine the possibility of alternatives.

Suvin’s notion of cognitive estrangement in science fiction, derived from the Russian formalist notion of defamiliarization via the Marxist theories of Bertolt Brecht and Ernst Bloch, would have numerous important implications going forward, including giving the genre of science fiction a privileged place in Marxist discussions of cultural politics. Meanwhile, Suvin’s work appeared even as American Marxist criticism itself was awakening from a decades-long slumber caused by the repressively anticommunist climate that prevailed in the United States during the peak years of the Cold War. It could, therefore, be argued that Suvin’s comments on science fiction directly contributed to the re-emergence of American Marxist criticism by giving Marxist critics a topic on which to focus that was, at the time, not taken very seriously by others in the academy, making Marxist commentary on it seem relatively unthreatening. However, Suvin provided a theoretical framework for the analysis and discussion of science fiction that played a founding role in the growth of a body of sophisticated academic criticism on that genre even among non-Marxist critics, criticism that almost invariably appeals to his notion of cognitive estrangement as a crucial principle.

On the other hand, if Suvin’s elaboration of this principle served as an important impetus for serious critical consideration of science fiction as a genre, his corresponding dismissal of fantasy had a chilling effect on the critical exploration of that genre, especially in Marxist criticism. Indeed, Suvin uses fantasy as a sort of straw man to help clarify his vision of cognitive estrangement in science fiction, characterizing fantasy as a genre that creates estrangement of a noncognitive sort by placing its readers in unfamiliar situations but not asking them to think critically about the differences between the world of the fantasy and the readers’ own worlds. For Suvin, then, fantasy is essentially the political opposite of science fiction, a genre that is apolitical at best and reactionary at worst, with the specter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s notoriously conservative Lord of the Rings (1954-55) looming over the genre to prove his point.

Perhaps Suvin’s most important direct influence was on the work of Fredric Jameson, who, as the 1980s arrived, was already beginning to formulate his now-famous notion of the loss of utopian energy in postmodernist culture while at the same time suggesting that science fiction may be an exception that retains a vital utopian power, even if it is only through a demonstration of our waning ability to imagine a genuine utopian alternative in the postmodern era (“Progress” 153). In the meantime, Jameson published The Political Unconscious (1981), one of the most influential works of literary theory of the latter half of the twentieth century. This work, a vigorous defense of the power of Marxist theory for the analysis of literary texts, also marked the beginning of the emphasis on the importance of utopian thought that would characterize Jameson’s career from that point forward. This emphasis culminated in the publication of Archaeologies of the Future (2007), which includes a long theoretical rumination on the topic of utopia, with a focus on its relevance to science fiction, as well as an extensive collection of his earlier essays on science fiction, primarily from the 1980s.

One crucial chapter of The Political Unconscious addresses the topic of “magical narratives,” otherwise generally referred to in the chapter as “romances,” but also closely related to what I am here calling fantasy. In this chapter, Jameson asks the question of why, in our modern, rationalized, high-tech world, such narratives continue to retain a certain popularity. Jameson here notes Northrop Frye’s vision of romance as, in Jameson’s words, a “Utopian fantasy which aims at the transfiguration of the world of everyday life in such a way as to restore the conditions of some lost Eden, or to anticipate a future realm from which the old mortality and imperfections will have been effaced” (Political 110). Ultimately, though, Jameson concludes that the most important function of modern romance, and the key to its ongoing appeal, is a negative one. The “most authentic vocation” of romance, then, is “its capacity, by absence and by the silence of the form itself, to express that ideology of desacralization by which modern thinkers from Max Weber to the Frankfurt School have sought to convey their sense of the radical impoverishment and constriction of modern life” (135).

Despite this suggestion that fantasy is rooted in utopian longings for a richness in life that is denied by modern capitalism, Jameson remained among those most dismissive of the political potential of fantasy through the next decades, though by the time of Archaeologies of the Future, he was basing his rejection less on fantasy’s difference from science fiction in terms of estrangement and more on the reactionary implications of such structural features as “the organization of fantasy around the ethical binary of good and evil, and the fundamental role it assigns to magic (Archaeologies 58). There is no doubt that this good-bad binary comes about largely because the genre of fantasy, through the second half of the twentieth century, was dominated by the conservative Christian fantasies of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, though that domination was broken at the end of the twentieth century by radical British novelists such as Philip Pullman and China Miêville, who have used of fantasy as a progressive political genre.

The three volumes of Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy (originally published in 1995, 1997, and 2000) feature an anticlerical presentation of the church as an oppressive, dystopian force in the alternative world that dominates the first volume and challenge the ideology of Christianity throughout, using John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) as its most crucial subtext. Even more powerful a challenge to the supremacy of the Tolkien tradition in fantasy fiction was the publication of Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000), the first volume of his “Bas-Lag” trilogy, which would ultimately also include The Scar (2002) and The Iron Council (2004). In this astonishing and spectacular sequence, Miéville employs a wide range of generic currents to produce a powerful, politically charged fantasy world that for many, such as Freedman (“Speculative”), feels more like science fiction than like fantasy.

This kind of generic uncertainty is a key characteristic of Miéville’s work, which includes a healthy dose of horror and other genres as well as fantasy and science fiction, sometimes residing most clearly in one genre or another but always drawing upon other generic traditions as well. Miéville’s fiction has played a leading role in the recent extensive critical reevaluation of the political potential of fantasy, with Jameson himself (inspired by the work of Miéville) leading the way by declaring that works such as Perdido Street Station suggest the possibility of “radical” or “materialist” fantasy, of a fantasy form “capable of registering systemic change and of relating superstructural symptoms to infrastructural shifts and modifications” (Radical” 280).

Miéville has remained perhaps the key figure in this reevaluation of fantasy, partly because of the sheer literary quality and intellectual complexity of his fiction and partly because he himself has become an important critic and commentator, as well as fiction writer. Miéville, a sophisticated Marxist theorist in his own right, has become perhaps the leading critic of the Marxist tradition of seeing fantasy as the feeble other of science fiction, at least in a political sense. For example, in his essay “Cognition and Ideology,” which serves as the afterword to the collection Red Planets (2009), co-edited with Mark Bould, Miéville directly addresses Suvin’s influence on the Marxist reception of fantasy fiction, arguing that science fiction and fantasy are actually quite similar genres that can both produce cognitive estrangement in useful ways.

Jemisin’s work extends Miéville’s fusion of science fiction and fantasy in important new directions, employing both genres in the interest of an environmentalist narrative of a kind to which some readers might be unaccustomed[3]. To understand this aspect of The Fifth Season, it is important to understand the important environmentalist concept of the “Anthropocene,” a term that essentially indicates the geological period in which humans have been earth’s dominate species, ultimately remaking the planet to fit their agenda. Bould, in a fascinating study that seeks to demonstrate that Western fiction has long been informed by an awareness (often unconscious) that human domination of the earth is a fairly recent (and possibly temporary, due to human-initiated climate change) phenomenon, provides a very helpful summation of the notion of the “Anthropocene”:

“The Anthropocene is derived from Anthropos (‘human’) and cene (‘recent’, as in the current geological era, the Cenozoic, dating from 66 million years ago, and its several epochs: Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, Holocene). It describes the period in which human activity has disrupted significant geological conditions and processes, and/or in which traces of human activity can be discerned in the geological record. The term is usually attributed to either the biologist Eugene Stermer, who used it in the 1980s, or more commonly to the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who independently re-coined it in the late 1990s” (16).

Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, then, can be read as a sort of post-Anthropocene (or possibly pre-Anthropocene) narrative set in a time when humans do not dominate their planet, possibly because human activity has so damaged the earth of the trilogy that it has been made inhospitable to humans in ways that are beyond their control. It then serves as a cautionary tale that warns us of the potential disastrous consequences of the damage currently being done by humans to our own planet, asking us to imagine the trauma of living on a planet that is as inhospitable to human life as the one in the trilogy. To the extent that this tale relies on actual possible consequences of real-world human activity, the trilogy can be read as science fiction. To the extent that Jemisin’s vision goes beyond scientific verisimilitude in order to make its cautionary points more powerfully, it can be read as fantasy. In Jemison’s case (as in Miéville’s), though, the two genres are inextricably fused, so it is never really a case of choosing one of the other.

Meanwhile, it is also useful to consider some of the secondary genres in which the Broken Earth trilogy participates. For example, Jemisin’s portrayal of Father Earth essentially as an agent that takes active revenge on humans for the damage they have done to the natural environment in the past participates in the so-called revenge of nature narrative that has, in recent decades, become an important element of modern culture, acting as a subgenre, in some ways, of science fiction, but functioning even more prominently as a subgenre of horror. Evenge-of-nature films have included some extremely prominent examples, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), both of which feature animals turning on humans. There are also films—such as Carter Smith’s The Ruins (2008)—that feature killer plants turning against humans, while some films—such as M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008)—feature a sort of generalized warning that all of nature is fed up of with being ravaged by humans. And finally, other films, such as Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) adopt a disaster film format that partly captures the violent and traumatic nature of the climate upheavals that are central to Jemisin’s trilogy.

Reading The Fifth Season alongside such films is useful partly because it calls attention to the element of horror that permeates the world of this text—in ways that go well beyond the typical revenge-of-nature theme (and in ways that are again reminiscent of the fiction of Miéville). Indeed, one of the crucial themes of Jemisin’s work has to do with the trauma of living on a planet made hostile by human abuse of nature, and she drives home this trauma theme in a number of ways (in addition to the basic hostile-planet motif)[4]. For example, The Fifth Season begins with the gruesome murder of Essun’s son Uche at the hands of his own father, who has only just discovered that the boy is an orogene, thus demonstrating the tremendous depth of the racial hatred that the “ordinary” humans of this world feel toward orogenes. The battered body of this innocent young boy looms over the rest of his mother’s life, as well as the rest of the narrative of this novel.

Perhaps the most visually striking horror image of this novel, meanwhile, also involves the horrific abuse of orogene children. The Fulcrum maintains a network of “node stations” in various locations, where orogene children are assigned the task of helping to keep down local seismic activity. What is not generally known, however, is the truly monstrous nature of these assignments, which Syenite discovers in the course of her travels with Alabaster. Entering one of the stations, she and Alabaster come upon a wire chair holding the orogene child (apparently Alabaster’s own child, produced as part of the Fulcrum’s breeding program) assigned there, and the scene they encounter is a grotesque one that would be very much at home in the genre of horror (perhaps especially in horror film, given its highly visual nature:

“The body in the node maintainer’s chair is small, and naked. Thin, its limbs atrophied. Hairless. There are things—tubes and pipes and things, she has no words for them—going into the stick-arms, down the goggle-throat, across the narrow crotch. There’s a flexible bag on the corpse’s belly, attached to its belly somehow, and it’s full of—ugh. The bag needs to be changed” (104).

As horrible as this image might be, the text also indicates that these unfortunate children suffer even more abuse than is encompassed by this image. Rendered helpless and immobile, for example, they are systematically abused by the local humans, including sexually. As Sanchez-Taylor notes, this complete control and exploitation of the physical bodies of these children can be read as one of Jemisin’s key echoes of the treatment of the bodies of slaves: “The node maintainer description takes the concept of slavery to its most extreme level. The orogene in the chair becomes a living battery, a body with no autonomy whatsoever” (71).

Finally, it should be noted that Jemisin’s work has recently been read by some within the context of the “New Weird,” a genre of which Miéville and such figures as M. John Harrison and Jeff VanderMeer have been identified as leading practitioners. Indeed, the term “new weird” seems to have first been used by Harrison in his introduction to Miéville’s 2002 novella The Tain.The New Weird (as distinguished from the “Old Weird,” a genre typically seen as dominated by H. P. Lovecraft). VanderMeeer and his wife Ann provide a capsule definition (or at least characterization) of the genre in their introduction to the anthology The New Weird, the genre is “a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping-off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.” Indeed, the multigeneric nature of the New Weird is one of its crucial characteristics, while the genre of horror should also be added to science fiction and fantasy as genres that typically inform the New Weird. Another key feature of the New Weird is that its sometimes extravagant imaginative constructions are always related to the real world in identifiable ways that make the fiction relevant to real world issues and concerns.

Conclusion

N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (and the other novels in the trilogy it initiates) is an impressive effort at imaginative world-building, though the environmentally damaged fictional world it imagines bears very real and important parallels to our own world. To an extent, the trilogy functions primarily as a cautionary allegorical tale that warns us just how inhospitable our planet might become if we continue to damage it in irresponsible ways. Importantly, though, Jemisin also delivers a second important layer of allegory concerning racism and slavery. This aaspect of her narrative also has obvious implications for our world, both because of our own racist legacies and because of the subtle way Jemisin builds her narrative in ways that suggest that the same kind of lack of respect of the Other that fuels racism also fuels the irresponsible and disrespectful treatment of nature. Moreover, Jemisin makes a powerful case that mistreatment of racial Others and of the natural environment is ultimately damaging not only to the mistreated but to the mistreaters.

Works Cited

Bould, Mark. The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture. Verso, 2021.

Bould, Mark, and China Miéville, eds. Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2009.

Ferrández San Miguel, María. “Ethics in the Anthropocene: Traumatic Exhaustion and Posthuman Regeneration in N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy.” English Studies, vol. 101, no. 4, August 2020, pp. 471–86.

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Notes

[1] The label “orogenes” is derived from a real geological phenomenon. Though it differs somewhat from the orogeny of the book, “orogeny” on our own earth refers to the process of formation of mountains when moving tectonic plates collide, causing the material at the interface to be pressed upward.

[2] See Wickham for a discussion of the ways in which this second-person narration contributes to a project of “transformative identity formation” of a kind that is frequently pursued in fantasy narratives featuring traditionally marginalized groups (392).

[3] Critics are just beginning to explore the points of contact between the work of Miéville and that of Jemisin. See, for example, Ingwersen.

[4] For more on the trauma theme, see Ferrández San Miguel, María.