Thursday, April 28, 2016

Chicago Nerds- The Fifth Season

For April's book club discussion, the Chicago Nerd Social Club read "The Fifth Season" (2015), the latest by N.K. Jemisin. And we really liked it!

The novel takes place on a planet wracked by periodic geological upheavals; human civilization only survives through a combination of disaster-preparation & rigid codes, known as "stonelore", as well as the intervention of "orogenes", a small minority of humans with the ability to sense and control seismic phenomena. Despite this rather obviously advantageous ability, "roggas" are hated and feared by the general population, and typically killed if they are not trained and licensed by a government body, the Fulcrum.

"The Fifth Season" follows three different viewpoints: Essun, a covert orogene attempting to find her daughter after her husband murders their other child; Damaya, a young orogene being trained by the Fulcrum; and Syenite, sent to train under a powerful senior orogene, who winds up having a pretty far-ranging adventure.

There's also lots of much weirder stuff going on: a possibly sentient-and-malicious Father Earth, some kind of intelligent stone-based life-form, sometimes-functional remnants of some high-tech civilizations, and, no spoiler, it's the first sentence: the end of the world. (Not to be confused with last month's Weird & Wonderful selection). Definitely some other major spoilers below, though:

Not to be confused with the
Fairport Convention album.
So, first off: we really liked it! Pretty universal approval rating, which is unusual for the Chicago Nerds. A few of us compared it to Jemisin's earlier work, the "Inheritance" trilogy and "Dreamblood" duology--CNSC read "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms" a while back--and felt that her writing style has really developed. In particular, characterization and description is very well-done in "The Fifth Season", while I felt like "100k Kingdoms" suffered from a real lack of detail. We really praised the worldbuilding here; more on that below.

Lots of comparison to other epic fantasy, notably George R.R. Martin and Raymond E. Feist. We also had a brief comparison to Addison's "The Goblin Emperor" (2014), which we read last year, for its approach to race & worldbuilding.

I have to say, despite blurbs declaring this "epic fantasy", I'm not entirely sure, generically, this fits very well into fantasy. It's more naturalistic (that is to say, science-fictional), and feels like it owes more to the oppressed superhero genre (à la X-Men) than to magical traditions. A few supporting points:
  • Orogeny relies on physical, biological sensory & manipulatory organs, which can be surgically modified.
  • Observation of mass/energy conservation in rogga abilities. This more than anything says "non-supernatural" to me.
  • Presence of clearly high-technological artifacts and practices, like the Guardian implants and the obelisks.
Okay, spoiler time, no avoiding it: our three protagonists are in fact one, at different points in their life. Which was a well-done reveal, we thought! Not telegraphed super-early, and also not a "gotcha!" twist.

Also not to be confused with the sadly-
discontinued polyester clothing line.
Some folks argued that the revelation of how the three threads are related is the real story here, but I have a gripe: why can't we get get something like a satisfying arc, some kind of semi-complete chapter, within this novel? I'm sure that, as the series continues, the plot will progress. But I can't help feeling that this novel is kind of an auto-prequelizer, if you will: the story opens with Essun finding her dead son, and setting off to find her husband & daughter. Two-thirds or more of  the novel, then, proceed to fill in her backstory, and we end with her...still not having found her husband or daughter. Furthermore, the novel sets up all these big cliffhangers and unanswered questions--the deal with the stone-beings, the obelisks' relation to the Guardians,  and OH YEAH THE MOON--without then exploring them at all.

Perhaps I've been overly-traumatized by "abramsitis", when story-tellers set up serial tales without knowing how they end, so you get a lot of these very frustrating loose threads. And, also, I'm continually frustrated by the "bloat" affecting a lot of genre fiction, with an increased focus on quantity & serialization über alles. We got into a long discussion/debate about this, that I wish I'd recorded more faithfully--basically talking about this trend in fiction, whether or not it is a trend or a problematic one, with constant comparison to modern television series and how they're coming into their own as they embrace their serial nature.

Let not my gripe detract from the truth: I think "The Fifth Season" is a really marvellous piece of work, and I look forward to reading the next. I guess I'm just always hoping that that at least the first novel in a series will be somewhat self-contained or able to stand on its own.

Thinking of the next books in the series-- "The Obelisk Gate" is slated for an August publication--we wondered how they are going to work stylistically, as the "three-but-really-one-POV" probably isn't a repeatable technique. We compared this to other works that shifted styles in sequels, such as Simmons' dropping the Chaucerian framing from the "Hyperion" sequels, and the increasing tone and POV shifts in VanderMeer's "Southern Reach Trilogy" which, incidentally, has replaced "Hyperion" as "that book we always nominate but never quite pick".

Also it should be noted that while a few of us applauded the experimentation with second-person voice (Essun's chapters use "you", putting the reader in her place), none of us loved it, and a few folks found it really offputting. Second person is tough to pull off at length.

We liked the three different ages in the different sections, and talked about how that affected our reading. Particularly thanks to Damaya's chapters, this work feels almost YA-ish at times, although the violence and extreme sexy-times elsewhere probably preclude that classification. We had an interesting comment on how one's age on reading a book changes over time, and modulo the age of the protagonists--compared reading "Ender's Game" (1985) at roughly Ender's age to reading the Bujold's Vorkosigan books at roughly Miles' age.

Other stuff!
  • We really liked how this was playing with "deadciv horror" trope, and how that played into the "stonelore". Oddly reminded of McAffrey's Pern books, once again--the cyclical periods of destruction, the highly-structured survival techniques.
  • Talked for a bit about how a lot epic fantasy is essentially regressive, longing for a mythical better, earlier time. So it's cool to read fantasy that is progressive in a number of ways, and that backs that up in-world.
  • Some Tolkien digressions here, imagine that! And we also noted that, as in "Dreamblood" and "Kingdoms", Jemisin has once again crafted a really solid world not out of the usual pseudo-Medieval, pseudo-European stock. Delightful.
  • Cool conversation about the stonelore and fake histories. Very cool critical stance that Jemisin cultivates via Essun & others: acknowledges the importance of passing on information, but also pointing out that it can be misconstrued, lost, or used to maintain oppressive power structures.
  • Also talked about race relations here. There's a wonderfully rich and nuanced appreciation of ethnicity here, with no "purity" but lots of clear traditions. We particularly liked the recognition of culture-specific attractiveness depending on how Sanzed (the dominant empire) one is.
  • It's a cross-race issue, but we also talked about the orogeny/rogga discrimination as a pretty potent, pretty clear parallel to modern race relations. Well done.
  • Talked for a bit about Binof/Tonkee and trans inclusion. Wasn't initially sure what was going on with some of the transgender issues here, but after Essun/Damaya's stories are connected and we can see the character over that span of time, we liked how Jemisin handled that.
  • We liked the way the caste systems were discussed/critiqued. The general inclusion of the strongback, resistant, etc. group was one of the things that felt kind of YA-ish to us. We wound up spending some time talking about untouchable/unclean castes, like the Dalit in India and burakumin in Japan, and how they often perform essential tasks that are nonetheless looked down on by society. Apparently, knowing about burakumin adds a layer to watching Kurosawa's "High and Low" (1963). And we also talked about how we still tend to devalue certain types of necessary labor, such as janitorial and garbage-removal services.
All the time I was reading this, I had this vague feeling that "The Fifth Season" was somewhat video-game influenced, but I had a hard time pinning it down. The Chicago Nerds to the rescue, though: it's "Dragon Age"! Specifically, the orogenes/Fulcrum/Guardians map very well to the mages/Chantry/Templar, and there's some similarity in the handling of race and class relations, as well as the periodic upwelling of disaster from underground. I also wonder if there might be some Bethesda influences here--thinking of the Dunmer adaptation to a volcano-dominated agriculture & landscape (and some other motifs from the Elder Scrolls), and the mixed-tech-level, post-apocalypse landscape of Fallout. Jemisin talks about Dragon Age and many other influences in a recent Lightspeed interview.
Anne also showed us a picture of Pele's hair, which is pretty cool, and very likely the name-source for the "ashblow hair" of some people in this world.

Speaking of volcanoes! I have, not a gripe, but an...interesting quandary. Reading this, particularly as I found it to be not whimsically magical, but pretty grounded and realistic, I had to do this odd kind of juggling of disbelief-suspension...because if my "realism expectation" dial is turned up high enough, I find it blatantly unbelievable that humanity would survive on this planet. Stonelore and cannibalism aside, these are recurrent, biome-destroying disasters, and no amount of vulcanism adaptations among the plants and animals will convince me that complex human civilization could survive multiple rounds of this.

This didn't in the least interfere with my ability to enjoy the book--I just kept my hand on the dial, as it were--but I'm also fascinated by this question, how realistically do we think about human civilization's fragility re: the biosphere. Feel like a broken record saying this, but I really love the conversation coming out of Stephenson's "Seveneves" vs. KSR's "Aurora", both of which address the issue of how well technology and ingenuity can keep us afloat without a supportive ecology. The more optimistic may not be the more needful of the two views.

I should also take this time to encourage listening to Island's catastrophe-fixated pop-rock opus "Return to the Sea":

Not to be confused with...
My comments aside, I should note that we liked that this is "climate fiction" without the climate-based moralizing, as there is an awful lot of that going around right now. We also talked about the Earth Father (as opposed to mother), and the Medea Hypothesis--that, rather than being nurturing, Earth periodically tries to kill us all off.

This was a really, really good read, and a great discussion. Furthermore, congratulations are in order: "The Fifth Season" made the shortlist for the Hugo! The Chicago Nerds also recently read and enthusiastically thumbs-upped "Uprooted", too. Perhaps this will finally tip us into reading "Seveneves" in time to vote? We'll see.

For next time, though, we're reading "The United States of Japan" by Peter Tieryas.

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