Monday, September 05, 2016

BOOKS | The Fifth Season

I just finished reading N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season, and am working my way through the second book in the series, The Obelisk Gate. It's been a wild ride. Grand world-building, with a world built on people, known as orogene, or rogga, as they are also called by those with little reason to love them. It is difficult to explain how the orogenes' powers work, but in a nutshell, they are able to harness the energy in the physical universe, and part of it includes harnessing sesmic forces - they are able to cause and redirect earthquakes, air and wind currents, heat and other types of energy. They are born with their powers, and their race has been vilified for their potentially destructive powers. It's a story full of a lot of hate, and death, as it begins with a father's murder of his son, after he realised his son is a rogga, inherited from their mother. The mother returns to find the battered body of her son, and her husband and older daughter, gone. Oh, did I also mention it also begins with someone setting out a massive sesmic rift that brought forth a type of apocalypse? Yeah, there's a lot of death and destruction in just the first few pages.

The story unfolds with multiple point-of-views, and I was curious how these different plotlines and characters will converge later. The beauty is they do eventually fold unto each other seamlessly, like stacking up Russian dolls, until there is only one grand doll left. Jemisin patiently builds up the intrigue, in the nature of her world, and the characters. There is a grand mythology at work, and you are left with a nagging sense at the back of your mind that the history and lore in this world is never the truth, and there's always something that was forgotten, or lost and misinterpreted through time and memory, or manipulated by those who in power. From the beginning, you are told this:
This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say "the world has ended." it's usually a lie, because the planet is just fine.
The Fifth Season was one of the few books lately that made me stay up all night to try to finish reading it, because the story was so compelling. Not just in the world she creates, but also in the themes, and the social consciousness inherent in her stories. In the Foreword of The Fifth Season, it says:
For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question.
Which reminds me of the recent debacle of the Sad Puppies and the Hugo Awards, where some "aggrieved" people (I'm not sure if I want to call them "fans") are trying to manipulate the results of the Hugo Awards. Jemisin by the way, won this year's Best Novel Hugo Award with The Fifth Season. (The Atlantic spoke with Jemisin after she won, and she is both articulate and thoughtful about her books, and what drives her as a writer.)

For me, what's interesting about Jemisin's stories is her narrative on power - how we would seek to control those with power, because we fear them, and because we seek their power to serve us. In The Fifth Season, the orogenes are brought up to be trained in controlling their powers, and to serve the Fulcrum - the faceless authority in their world. However, those who are not able to control their powers are taken away. Brutal brain surgery were performed on them to reduce them to a zombie state, strapped to a wire chair, and sent to node stations across the country, so use their powers to repel earthquakes etc. It is one of the more disturbing part of the book, but so powerful as it set up the motivation for the characters later, as this is a cruel, unjust social system that needs to be broken, so that one might build something better.

I love her stories that dare says, we cannot look away from a cruel, unjust system, and we need to have the courage and the strength to change it, for something better. And I love that her universe is populated by people of different races, of various shades of colours, and sexual orientation. Her stories do not look away from differences, and prejudices - but acknowledges them as part of the world as it is. That, is something beautiful.

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