My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
One frequent criticism of the X-Men comic books (don’t worry, you didn’t click the wrong link, this IS a review of The Fifth Season) centers on how writers use them as a social parable for disenfranchised minority groups. While giving superpowers to the disenfranchised minority might appear to be an uplifting message, the argument goes, it complicates the issue, because it reinforces stereotypes of minority populations being particularly dangerous. The X-Men may be “mutants” who use their powers for good, but many villains they fight are also mutants, albeit ones who generally come from backgrounds of physical or emotional deprivation. And, if an impoverished childhood, or the lack of a responsible parent in one’s life, or desperate economic circumstances are enough to make a person a danger to millions, isn’t the only responsible option to heavily monitor and police them, in the way the comic’s other bad guy, the government, is constantly trying to do?
I’m starting my review of The Fifth Season with this rather esoteric argument about the fictional world of the X-Men in part because author N.K. Jemisin has created her own fictional world that asks a similar question, but approaches the answer from a completely different angle. Like the Marvel comic, she has created a world in which superpowered beings have evolved, capable of controlling the movement of their planet’s tectonically-hyperactive crust with their minds. This power has caused them to be feared and relentlessly persecuted by the general population, (as they could theoretically split the earth open with a thought), but it also makes them capable of saving lives, using their mind to calm or mitigate the tectonic activity that leads to frequent extinction-level events in this world. The fear that leads to their persecution and enslavement is the same fear of outliers, of people who grow beyond the control of any authority: What if one of them is raised in poor circumstances, and becomes desperate? What if one of them is raised in malignant circumstances, and becomes evil?
Rather than arguing against the basic logic of this line of thought, Jemisin leads us to question the assumptions behind it: why do we take it for granted that there will always be marginalized children? Instead of saying “what happens if someone becomes desperate?” why do we not instead make it a priority of our society that no one faces complete economic desperation? What kind of society do we live in where we blithely accept that children will be abused, or that people will be forced to make immoral decisions in order to survive? Doesn’t such a society, on some level, deserve to be tormented by whatever monsters its neglect happens to create?
Because despite the above criticisms, the central truth that The Fifth Season, the X-Men, and other similar narratives reach is that it is remarkably easy for one human to become an outsized danger to others. One mentally-unstable man who believes himself to be wronged can, for example, kill dozens of people by steering his van onto a sidewalk. A group of people that forms 10% of the population could commit 40% of all violent crimes, were that group sufficiently oppressed, persecuted, and denied the opportunities to improve their lot. We are all mutants, all capable of great destruction in the wrong circumstances, all capable of great accomplishment in the right ones…and, collectively, we have the capacity to alter those circumstances for the people around us. The only question is whether we, as a society, have the will to help the people in bad circumstances, or whether we try to punish and degrade them further, in turn creating further violence.
It’s important to mention at this point that the novel is no political parable, and that you won’t see these points emerge from the mouths of these characters or become enshrined by their actions. The most admirable thing about Jemisin’s writing, and the thing I’ll most want to study when I re-read this, is how it leads you to a point without forcing you there, how she is able to get you moving along a certain line of thought, and trust that you’ll be able to see the conclusions she is pointing toward, whether or not you agree with them.
For example Jemisin’s novel begins by giving a specific reason for the cruel nature of its people: the planet, with its frequent earthquakes and volcanoes, is hostile to intelligent life, which generally needs a steadier biome to thrive. This has led to a single dominant society, the Sanzed Empire, that only preserves the most useful people, exiling anyone who cannot contribute to them in a positive way. It’s also used to justify the enslavement of the orogenes, people with the genetic ability to control tectonic motions with their minds. Such a power, it is argued, is so important for the continued survival of the society, and its abuse so potentially disastrous, that there is a moral imperative to control anyone capable of wielding it.
(Spoilers follow from here.)
But later, we encounter an island society that exalts orogenes: they have realized on their own that the orogenes can stop earthquakes and tsunamis, and by simply including a small number of orogenes in their society, it has been stable for thousands of years.
The island is Jemisin’s masterwork: the number of ideas she’s able to suggest with it would fill a book of post-colonial analysis. But the first question I had, and I expect most readers have upon encountering the island is, if societies can survive like this, how come other societies aren’t structured the same way? If it’s possible for orogenes and “stills” to live in harmony, why is the only significant civilization we see on this planet in this weird, schizophrenic state of hating and fearing the orogenes, while simultaneously enslaving and selectively breeding them in order to survive?
Now, by this point the parallels between the Sanzed treatment of orogenes and the American legacy of slavery and racial discrimination have already been made clear in the text. But Jemisin isn’t just creating a parallel with American history in her book: she’s providing an explanation for why racism and colonialism continue to be perpetuated, despite the destruction they create.
And when we get to the island, and one character wonders aloud who is actually in charge in the Sanzed Empire, everything clicks into place: The Empire needs to control the earth, and therefore the orogenes, in order to stay in power. And what better way to control the orogenes than to convince everyone that the orgenes need to be enslaved for their own good? What better way to ensure that the outer reaches of the Empire don’t become independent (like the island) than by convincing them that orogenes are dangerous, and must be killed or shipped to the imperial capital? The resulting government is too heavily centralized to do a good job of protecting everyone, and forces the outer reaches, especially, to live with earthquakes and tsunamis that then force them to make brutal choices. But it ends up being good for the Empire.
That’s a long example in an already-too-long review, but I think it’s necessary to point out how much of this realization occurs in the reader’s head. Jemisin doesn’t resort to the tactics of easy political parables, or have characters represent abstract ideas, or beat a moral into us with a mallet. Instead, our understanding is driven by the normal process of consuming science fiction. We all know the initial rush that sci-fi and fantasy novels can provide, the pleasure of gradually understanding how these fictional worlds function. The great accomplishment of The Fifth Season is how, in the process of learning about this fictional world, we are granted a new understanding of our own.
This is already 1300 words long, and I could easily write three times that amount on all the stuff I haven’t touched on: the narrative structure, the takes on industrialization, technological advancement, the book’s sexual politics, the Manichean religious belief system, questions about the origins of the “broken earth,” various nitpicks (there’s one moment that comes across as an “idiot ball” moment when it doesn’t necessarily have to). But, having written too much about one part of the novel, I’ll leave you to discover the rest. If you are looking for a book that will give you plenty to think about, this is the one.
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