Tuesday 1 March 2016

The Fifth Season - N K Jemisin

A review in two parts.

PART 1 (read the book!!!!!)

First if you haven't read The Fifth Season you should. I do like fantasy - China Mieville's Bas Lag trilogy, Joe Abercrombie, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Holdstock and Mervyn Peake but don't read it often. I've tried the odd bit of commercial stuff - Martin, Canavan, etc. but always found it tedious. 
But Jemisin's novel is being praised for all the right reasons. Look for instance at Ana's review over at the Book Smugglers and, though somewhat critical, Kate Schapira on Strange Horizons is essential reading. Jemisin's novel is political, sophisticated and gripping - a very well written novel indeed. It has three narrative strands, one in the second person, that focus on three, intriguing female characters, Damaya, Syenite and Essun. It's set in a world where severe seismic disturbances can cause massive damage to the planet, and in the aftermath smoke clouds and gases stop anything growing. This causes long 'seasons' where humans must hunker down in their walled cities and communities to last years or decades. It's full of drama, great worldbuilding and great set pieces - there's a moment about a third of the way in when Hoa, one of Essun's companions fights a fierce creature and her reaction is "Wow" and that's what I kept thinking throughout. Wow. This is like being 11 again and watching the BEST Sword and Sorcery film ever. It's the most fun I've had reading a book in ages. If that sounds like faint (or patronising) praise it's not meant to be at all. That eleven year old LOVED those films and watched them again and again - and to reproduce that feeling in ye olde Gareth requires an amazing imagination plus an understanding of colonialism and oppression, history and climate change. If the second volume in this Broken Earth Trilogy were already out I'd already have started it. And that's coming from someone who is generally really, really grumpy about trilogies - why can't you fit your story in ONE book ffs!

So yeah, read it.

PART 2 (with mild spoilers - thus, read the novel already and let's have a debate - because as usual I'm just debating with myself and that gets CONFUSING and I'm often wrong)

So, you've read it? There is SO much in The Fifth Season. It's a book that wants you to see clearly and see everything - go on it says, have a proper look at the world with its child slavery and it's child prostitution, it's hypocrisy and it's cowardice, it's refugee camps and it's wars. Have a look at the consequences of slavery and imperialism. It's a novel that can be hard and cruel, usually in all the right ways. It's righteous and angry and unflinching. Maybe that makes it sound like a hard or unenjoyable read - it's not. It's easy to read, compelling and will grant you a great deal of pleasure.
Structurally it's daring too: not many authors use the second person and make it work this well. And how much do we trust the narrators? Are they unreliable in ways that are interesting or in ways that are too obviously telegraphed. I also love the snippets from historical texts that end each chapter.

And there's this.....
So you've seen the film or read the book. Usually they are rubbish. It's the one where the baddie is intent on destroying humanity. He or she is mad or an evil genius or a broken nihilist who can see no hope and when pushed, finally and inexorably, revenge is the only thing left. Sometimes it's about rebirth - Earth has another chance at getting it right. Sometimes humans have fallen too far and can't be saved: humanity is a pox on the Earth. Etc.
But what if that mad, genocidal baddie was the most human character in the whole damn book or film or seven season TV epic. And what if the main character is a mass murderer too. What then? 

Part of me loves this book SO much.


Part of me wonders if it falls into the traps that so many other plot driven books fall into to. Because that IS a genocidal mass murderer and that is another mass murderer and does the text gloss over all that death and destruction? And it's not that the text doesn't show you that Alabaster, Syenite and Essun are damaged and fucked up, products of a system that causes them to hate and hate themselves. That Jemisin succeeds in making them as as interesting and worthy of our empathy as she does whilst giving you the reasons in the text to reject their decisions and conclusions is fantastically well done. My problem rather is that it doesn't show the suffering that their victims have to endure and it doesn't show people resisting in different ways, thus it's more akin to action film violence. Also with all the clever thinking that Alabaster does (and the text's insistence on Syenite believing him crazy until that last sentence IS rather annoying), that he can't see different possibilities and beyond his pessimism is, well, a narrative choice that bothers me a lot. People are broken all the time but find ways of organising and fighting back. Yes the ruling class in the novel is shown to be having its internecine conflicts - excellent - but I want the whole picture.  

And furthermore it's a novel about dangerous superheroes (and supervillains), however damaged and oppressed, that can wield serious, awesome power, and though I think the whole X-men representation of oppression had its glorious day I'm not sure that's good enough any more. And its not that I want allegory or simple mapping of one thing onto another. But do these metaphors work? Not sure - not sure they get us seeing and imagining differently in The Fifth Season.

Jemisin's novel has nothing to say about resistance or revolutionary transformation through struggle. That's true of most novels of course but when something is so good and understands oppression so profoundly I guess I want it all. I feel like the novel is madly enjoyable, brave, radical, singular, praiseworthy - yes, all those things - but in the end is it still a thoroughly bourgeois novel that focuses on individuals with power and that hides or ignores important social relations? This might seem wrong - is that not asking for a different book you might ask. Maybe, and maybe I'm being too harsh - though I'd be very happy for it to win The Kitshies Red Tentacle even so. But if I am being harsh it's because there aren't too many novels that try this hard or where the stakes are so high. The story you decide to tell has consequences for the kinds of ideology that seeps through or remains hidden and thus places fetters on how we can imagine and act to find a better way of living.

I'm hoping the other books in the trilogy might address some of these questions and the ones Schapira outlines in her discussion.

Still Margaret Atwood to read for the Red Tentacle.
But first, Tade Thompson's Making Wolf.

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