Our May reading group book was The Fifth Season (2015) by N. K. Jemisin, which we discussed over Zoom on Monday 4th May from around 7 until 8.30 pm. As with previous events that we have held in the last few months over video platforms, the event was well attended and the discussion was lively.
The novel follows three different characters in three separate narrative strands. Each character is used to explore a particular facet of the life of an ‘orogene’—people with the ability to manipulate thermal energy—in a world in which the instability of the planet’s crust constantly threatens the lives of the humans on its surface.
We began with some darkly humorous observations as to the resonance between the apocalyptic lockdown of communities in The Fifth Season and our own situation of isolation during the current Covid-19 pandemic, before forging on to discuss a wide variety of topics. The following summary attempts to cover as many of those as possible, with some serious spoilers (just a warning!):
Our first topic for discussion was the theme of borders, anchoring the book initially within our overall theme for the year. It was suggested that the clearest borders were those of character and narrative. The three different characters of Essun, Syenite and Damaya are separated by different chapters, and by different narrative voices. The Essun chapters are told in the unusual second person address of ‘you’, while the Syenite and Damaya sections are told more traditionally in the third person. It is revealed later in the book that all three are the same character at different points in their life. A single character is radically split and compartmentalised in the narrative, both in terms of time and identity.
This boundaried self was mapped onto the geological concerns of the novel. The unstable plate boundaries of the planet, which determines so much of the plot, can be seen as a metaphor for identity formation. Rather than identity being stable and unitary, it is stratified and volatile. And so this geological structure reaches from plot, to planet, to subjectivity. It was pointed out that Damaya chooses the name Syenite specifically because it is a rock formed under high pressures, at the borders of tectonic plates.
In this novel the ‘nation’ is an outmoded form of state organisation, due to the constantly reformulating landscape. Instead, organisation is based around survival of geological activity. The ‘comm’—small town/city—is therefore the most important social formation, geared towards planning for particularly powerful geological events, though these are ultimately tributaries to an Empire. The only lines on the map provided at the front of the novel are those of plate boundaries, not of civilizations or nations, and these extend beyond the single continent into the sea.
All identity is formulated as unstable and subject to violent change, reflecting the topography and geology of the world setting. It was pointed out that this, on the one hand, makes identity formation particularly violent and traumatic, while at the same time undermining the ideology of static identities based on race that we find in our own world. Though there are clear racial/ethnic groupings in the novel, such as the Arctics, Sanzed and Coasters, characters are never quite able to place others completely within one category.
Essun’s agency as a character is ambiguous. She is represented as an outsider, continually in a tense relation to community. While she constantly attempts to take action, the violence of institutions and the planet appear in many respects to determine these actions in advance.
Questions of agency led us on to the relation between History and Geology in the novel. One of the vexed questions of the discipline of History, it was outlined, was the relationship between human development and geography. To what extent does geology and geography determine the course (or our understanding) of history?
In The Fifth Season, though there appears to be individual agency, action is overdetermined to a large extent by geological activity, while the structure of society in both the present and past are similarly based on such geological events.
Though this determining structure of the planet robs individuals of agency, it was seen as a way for Jemisin to challenge the myth of historical progress in the West, especially around the idea of a linear history developing by an ever increasing technological sophistication. Further, the concentration on geology as the process of history refocuses our vision onto the relationship between ecology/geology and society.
Building on Jemisin’s implied critique of the linear model of history, we discussed technology in the novel. The society has sophisticated technology despite using no metal, undermining the orthodoxy of the West that society inevitably developed from an unsophisticated stone technology to one based on metal. This was linked with the exploration of technology in Samuel R. Delany’s Nevèryön series, which similarly describes a sophisticated ‘low-tech’ civilization.
We moved on to consider the ‘orogenes’ as a technology for controlling geological activity. ‘Orogenes’ are brutally trained and controlled by the Guardians, and are formed into mechanisms for manipulating the planet. This was compared with the way in which racialised groups have historically been used as technologies of labour, especially that of slavery.
From here a critique of Naomi Alderman’s The Power (2016), in which gendered hierarchies are reversed due to women gaining super powers, was issued. Jemisin, it was argued, pushes back against the idea that ability, strength, or talent determines domination and freedom. Though the orogenes are the most powerful group on the planet in terms of their ability, they are manipulated and subordinated to Imperial power.
The treatment of children, it was noted, was markedly different from the way children are formulated in our own society especially in the West. Rather than being a symbol of the future, subordinating present needs to continual progress of linear history in the name of the child, the children of The Fifth Season are a commodity to ward off the threat of historical apocalypse. With destruction constantly on the immediate horizon, children’s survival is the only guarantee of any continuation of human society.
The treatment of the child in The Fifth Season was linked to Jemisin’s critique of Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas’, in her essay ‘Those Who Stay and Fight’. Rather than either accepting the compromised utopia of Le Guin’s text, or choosing to walk away, Jemisin suggests fighting in the present to transform society.
Alabaster’s children are used as ‘nodes’—untrained orogenes—who hold the world together, and must endure continual pain and suffering in consequence. Jemisin highlights the way in which the world we live in already relies on (in our present and past) racialised child labour and slavery. Rather than producing a utopia, it merely perpetuates and structures an unequal and brutal world system.
Though the group generally agreed that the book was quite pessimistic, attention was drawn to the utopian pirate society of the island of Meov. The pirates are able to live a relatively equitable and easy life. However, the narrative suggests that this Utopian society is only possible because it is situated off the coast, and therefore suffers far less geological upheaval.
We discussed the anarchist concept of ‘Mutual Aid’ and how it related to the novel. There appears to be a fair amount of Mutual Aid in the community of Meov, and the ‘comms’ appear to function using Mutual Aid to a certain extent. However, during ‘Seaons’ it appears that such aid is jettisoned at least in part for a more ‘survival of the fittest’ model of society.
This pull between community solidarity and individual survival linked with discussions of agency. Essun refers at a number of points in the novel to ‘comms’ or previous societies who were destroyed during ‘Seasons’ and how in consequence, their examples should be jettisoned, thereby suggesting a history based on individual/social choice. At the same time, the violence of the planet is so great and unpredictable, that human agency is void in the face of such volatility. The scale and power of the geological determines and obliterates human time and agency.