The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

N K Jemisin‘s Hugo winning novel The Fifth Season (the first in the Broken Earth series) is a tour de force about the marginalised, the exploited and the abused.

In Jemisin’s world, humanity lives on a continent riven by regular geological events.  An earthquake, a volcanic eruption or something similar can result in a ‘Fifth Season’, where the natural flow of the seasons is disrupted for a period of time.   Humanity survives these episodes through rigid adherence to survivalist doctrine ( “stonelore”), the protection of communities and the stockpiling of supplies.

A Fifth Season can be civilisation-ending, returning humanity back to primitive subsistence living, surrounded by the relics of predecessor civilisations.  But the Sanzed Empire has survived a number of these seasons.  It has done so through the ruthless exploitation of orogones: a group of people with the skill to control and manipulate geological events.  Because of the threat they pose, those with the talent live apart in the Fulcrum.  Treated as a near-slave class and widely despised, they live a strictly controlled existence, their talents used to maintain and preserve the Sanzed Empire.

The Fifth Season is a braided novel, following three interconnecting storylines that slowly converge.  Essun is an orogene who lives in hiding in a remote village, concealing her power.  She sees her son murdered and her daughter stolen by her husband.  In the wake of a major geological event that is bringing on a new Fifth Season she goes in search of her daughter.  Syenite is a young orogene, still in training and working for the Empire.  She is sent on a mission to clear coral from a harbour with Alabaster, an older, more powerful and much more experienced orogene.  She is expected to conceive a child with him during that mission, as part of the Fulcrum’s breeding programme.  And Damaya is a young child.  As a newly discovered feral orogene she is taken from her family to the Fulcrum to begin her training.

Told from the point of view of the orogenes, this is a story about the oppressed and what can happen when they are pushed beyond breaking point.  Normally in fantasy fiction the conflict is black and white, with a Great Evil being responsible for the world-threatening event our heroes are set to tackle.  But in Jemisin’s novel, the geological event Essun is fleeing was an act of terrorism triggered by one of their number to end the centuries of abuse the orogenes have suffered at the hands of the Sanzed Empire.  And for all that it is bringing armageddon to Sanzed we cannot but come to be sympathetic with that action.  The emotional and physical abuse that Damaya experiences as she leaves her fearful family is intensely chilling, as is the complicity of many orogenes in the self-governing structures of the Fulcrum that control and restrict orogenes.  Jemisin leaves the reader in no doubt about the risk and danger of the geological events threatening her world, but she is also clear that the threat does not justify the appalling treatment of those with the skill to neutralise it.

Jemisin builds a rich world and uses it to tell a genre-busting story that gives us a glimpse of how the world could be different if only we had the courage to stand against prejudice and value the talents and contribution of us all.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Snow Queen – Joan D Vinge

For a 35 year old novel, Joan D Vinge’s The Snow Queen still feels relatively fresh.  But that doesn’t stop it reeking of the 1980s from every pore.  The novel is very loosely inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale of the same name. But Vinge moves the setting to the colony planet of Tiamat in the far future.  Tiamat is nearing the end of its 150 year ‘Winter’ season, which will lead to great change.  As Winter changes to Summer, and the planet moves too close to its nearby black hole to enable safe interstellar travel, the interplanetary Hegemony (which has a monopoly on all technology) will withdraw, leaving the planet’s inhabitants to revert to a pre-industrial society for a further 150 years, until Winter when the Hegemony can return again.

Like in Anderson’s original story, Vinge flips fairy tale tropes on their heads.  Her female lead, Moon, is the one on a quest to rescue her lover, who has fallen under the sway of Arienrhod, the titular Snow Queen.  The redemptive power of love lies at the heart of the novel.

But Vinge overlays on that, some very contemporary concerns, informed by her background as an anthropologist.  She examines the tension between nature and nurture.  Moon is a clone of the Snow Queen, part of Arienrhod’s plans to buck Tiamat’s apocalyptic tradition of Change.  The queen hopes that by training her successor she can break a pattern that keeps the planet under the control of the all-powerful Hegemony.  But Moon is raised by the pastoral Summer people.  Kept away from the cynical politicking of the Winters, she may share Arienrhod’s charisma and intelligence, but she is raised to become a kind and generous person.

Gender politics is a theme running throughout.  In the interview printed at the end of my copy, the author talks about her frustration with late 1970s feminism.  In her view it was falling into the trap of perpetuating patriarchal gender roles of women as ‘naturally’ caring and nurturing.  This involved painting science and technology as inherently damaging, and advocating a pastoral, matriarchal utopia as the ideal.  Vinge presents an alternative vision, closer to the original ideals of feminism: that women are just as capable of carrying out the same roles and tasks, and are not inherently predisposed to the domestic.  The senior police officer Jerusha PalaThion is frustrated by the conservative gender stereotypes of the Hegemony.  She is promoted to please the Snow Queen, but – despite her obvious competence – has to bear the attempted sabotage of her career by her colleagues.  The tech-smuggler Elsie has escaped from a cloistered existence, but at the expense of personal dishonour and severed ties with her family.

There is also a strong ecological thread running through The Snow Queen.  Vinge does not shy away from showing us the impact of the Hegemony’s technological development.  The planet of Kharemough became nearly uninhabitable from industrial pollution.  Production has been moved off-world, enabling the planet to recover.  Tiamat is starting to show the signs of damage from pollution.  And the slaughter of the sea-creatures known as mers, to make an immortality drug has led to their near extinction.  Tiamat depends on its long Summers to enable the planet to recover its equilibrium.

All of this makes The Snow Queen a vintage piece of 80s “science fantasy”.  It’s easy to see why it won a Hugo at the time.  The novel has long been out of print (I vaguely remember reading it as a teenager), but has recently been republished with a new introduction from the author and other additional material. It’s well worth tracking down a copy if you’ve never read it.

Goodreads rating: 4*