There is a rhetorical rule of headlines that if they are phrased as a question then the answer is actually “no”. Strictly, I also have to say “no” but only because we can only declare a novel a ‘classic’ retrospectively, after years in which its influence and critical impact have occurred. However, I’m posing the question because I feel that the answer that will come 10 years, 20 years, 30 years down the line is “yes”. I think this is a book that will shape authors and will be studied and will be cited by many as their favorite SF book. I suspect in 20 years time when people are moaning about the books nominated for the Hugo awards not being as good as the books in the past, people will point at The Fifth Season and say ‘there is nothing this year that is as good as that’.
However, I know that is a hard position to defend. So I’m going to go off on some tangents. Bear with me. Readers should also be aware that the book deals with themes of violence and physical abuse, some of which will be discussed below.
In 1650 an earthquake struck the colonial city of Cuzco. The city had literally been built on and out of the ruins of the former panther-shaped capital of the Incan empire – stones shifted from the temples of one religion to the temples of another. Amid the terrifying shaking the people gathered around a holy image and prayed for redemption. The image was the most central one of Catholic iconography, a life-sized depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus made from plaster. As people prayed for salvation the shaking abated and the crucifix was given a new name: Taytacha Temblores in the indigenous Quechua language or Señor de los Temblores in Spanish, the Lord of Earthquakes.
Señor de los Temblores connects modern Cusco with colonial Cusco and the figure in turn echoes depiction of pre-colonial dietiy Viracocha, traditionally depicted with his arms outstretched to hold two staffs adorned with snake heads. Señor de los Temblores can be both a standard depiction of Jesus or a depiction of the plight of a deity stripped of his staffs and persecuted by an invading empire. Either way the figure is a reminder that the movement of the Earth in the form of earthquakes or volcanic eruption or slow orogeny of the mountains surrounding Cusco is something that humanity have seen as the domain of the gods.
On April 17 in 2016 an earthquake struck Muisne in Ecuador, shaking not only the town but impacted the capital city Quito as well as Ecuador’s second largest city Guayaquil. Over 600 people were killed. Our natural fears of earthquakes are hardly unfounded. They kill people, in countries like Nepal and in Ecuador even in technologically highly advanced nations such as Japan. Even a geologically dull nation like Australia has had its own mass fatalities (all be it not on the scale of other nations).
Violent geological events are hardly the only thing on our planet that are beyond our technological control, things that we can only mitigate through technology not manipulate, but unlike climate or evolution or fragile eco-systems, they are events that happen at speed that count as ‘events’ in human consciousness and culture. Nothing else acts in quite the same way as a sudden, deadly and destructive reminder that the planet we live on is a destructive one that, despite our self-deception, we don’t actually own or control.
N. K. Jemisin’s novel imagines a world in which there are people who can reliably perform the miracle ascribe to Señor de los Tremblores. The ‘orogenes’ or ‘roggas’ of the world called ironically The Stillness have the power to disperse earthquakes and quiet volcanoes. Via special sense organs these gifted individuals can sense shifting fault lines or magma chambers on the verge of exploding through a volcano. This psychic (or perhaps magical power) is not strictly limited to geology but acts as kind of general ability to rechannel latent energies.
This is what takes us to Jemisin’s first layer, the layer that is most apparent from the dust-jacket or the Amazon summary page. This is a book with super-powered individuals in it. That is not a particularly original conceit, especially now in our current golden age of cinema super-heroes. Earth controlling super-powers are not an overdone trope but it is an easily recognized one whether we think of the ‘roggas’ as Marvel mutants/Inhumans or ‘earthbenders’ from Nickleodeon’s Avatar series. But familiarity here is a trick.
The second layer follows naturally from the first. Mutant powers? We know that story too. A world that fears and hates them? Sure. That is a story that is cosy and Hollywood comfortable – the plucky mutants who keep saving the world despite time and again being spat and treated like scum by the rest of humanity? No, this isn’t that story because we all know that story doesn’t actually make sense. The X-Men uses comic book logic to only touch on the ideas that is symbolizes. It fails as science-fiction in so far as it skirts around asking ‘what if?’ and following through.
The Fifth Season follows through. It creates a world in which the ‘roggas’ are an absolute necessity to the continued survival of a hegemonic society – a quasi democratic civilization that dominates the other cultures of a single world continent. This society centered around the capital of Yumenes has evolved out of an imperial past of planet wide conquest. However on the geologically unstable world of the Stillness, the magnificent city can only exist by virtue of the continued efforts of state-controlled ‘roggas’ to keep the Earth quiet. Yet, by their very nature, the ‘roggas’ are dangerous individuals. Their powers often appear in childhood but expressed as an emotional reaction to sudden danger. That reaction is one of instinctive self-preservation – a reaction that might save a town from an earthquake or might suck the latent heat from a schoolyard bully, flash freezing them to death.
So the people of The Stillness hate the roggas and fear them. Jemisin doesn’t dance around this, she makes it quite clear that even though this hate and fear expresses itself irrationally and as standard forms of societal prejudice, the fears and hatred is not unwarranted. Roggas really are a danger, untrained they really can kill you in a moment of anger. They have the power not only to quell an earthquake but to precipitate one. They are, each and everyone of them capable of sudden, unthinking and dreadful violence.
The roggas are like the planet on which the people of The Stillness sit. They are like our planet, powerful, dangerous, apt to kill and destroy with no notice but on which we utterly depend. So the people of The Stillness have to treat them either as gods or as slaves, and they choose to treat them as slaves.
The Fifth Season of the title refers to periods of advanced tectonic activity. When the earth becomes sufficiently destructive civilization stops. We know this story as well – this is the disaster movie story, the post-apocalyptic movie where the survivors hunker down in bunkers while the earth re-aligns or the comet hits or the seas erupt. This is Seveneves or Deep Impact or that awful 2012 with John Cuzack. Jemisin takes another familiar story and adds it as a layer and then, once again, follows that story through.
Below the modern cultural hegemony centered on the capital Yumenes with its new wonders of hydro-electricty, asphalt roads and buildings with balconies, the world Jemisin creates has older cultural layers. Of these some are the remains of past civilisations (‘dead-civ’) but more persistent and continuing is the Stonelore. Stonelore acts as the collective memory for all communities in how to survive a Fifth Season. Every little township is a kind of culture-savvy community that collectively has learned the lesson of a thousand post-apoclayptic movies: Recruit useful people! Have strong walls! Store food! Jemisin’s world has Doomsday Prepping built into it.
Which is good news for many of the characters we meet, because near the start, the world ends.
Santorini or Thera is a picturesque Mediterranean destination for cruise boats. A Greek Island with an Italian name via layers of shifting cultural dominance in the naval highway of the Eastern Mediterranean. The distinctive half-moon shape of the island is actually the edge of a caldera – a vast volcanic crater. The people of The Stillness avoid building communities on islands and the towns of Santorini themselves were evacuated in 1956. At the center of the caldera a newer volcanic vent warms the sea around it – a reminder that deep underneath is a chamber of magma.
At one edge of the island is the archeological site of Akrotiri. If we were a society with out own stonelore, then this is perhaps where we would find the first inscriptions of it.
Akrotiri was an offshoot of Minoan civilization that flourished until around 1627 BCE. It was at that point that Minoan civilization and indeed all of the region experienced a Fifth Season.
The volcano under the island erupted catastrophically, essentially blowing away the greater proportion of the then disc shaped island. The chamber below collapsed resulting in the water flooding into empty space. Ash poured into the sky, tsunamis struck the surrounding coasts. Summer would have failed, the winters would have been deep, people would have starved. Minoan civilization foundered.
Centuries later, Plato incorporated a myth into his political writing. Whether his myth of Atlantis was based on the explosion of Thera/Santorini is impossible to say. The parallels are obvious but I tend to imagine most of the details arise straight from Plato’s imagination. Plato’s story is hardly the first apocalyptic destruction in world literature (flood myths are older and more universal) but it is one that have worked its way into the imagination of Western Europe and its cultural hegemony.
Part of the hook in the imagination is that Plato’s myth was tied to his vision of society. Plato tied his story to his utopian imaginings via his societal/governmental treatise The Republic.
Plato was not the last intellectual to become enamored with the proto-fascism of Sparta but he is one of the oldest and most influential. He hated what he saw as the chaos and arbitrary nature of the quasi-democracy of Athens (a democracy built on slave labor and one constrained only to men – so not one we should get too romantic about but shit, still better than Sparta). Plato wanted a more ordered world, a one in which people would sit in the neat categories that he wanted them to sit in.
In creating his utopian vision, Plato inadvertently created the first dystopian framework. It took the Twentieth Century’s struggles with fascism for people to truly grasp how inherently horrifying Plato’s vision was but post-war, through dissections such as Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies and the fictional horrors of Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World, the repressive nature of Plato’s legacy became clear.
If Atlantis was a myth of Plato’s utopia, it is easy to be happy about the notion of the earth blowing it sky high and wiping it off the face of our maps. Yet this notion keeps persisting: a society in which each one of us has per-ordained role, a job which DEFINES us and which it is somehow sinful to deny as our destiny.
Together Plato establishes an early bridge between four arms of speculative fiction:
- The Utopian
- Through to the Dystopian (inadvertently)
- Through to the apocalyptic or eschatological (how the world ends)
- To the post-apocalyptic (surviving in the aftermath)
Because this last aspect hold out hope (in some cases) of rebuilding a better world, these form arms form a cycle that connects one with another. However, I don’t know of a book that does all of this and it is hard to imagine how somebody could write a story that brings all this together without it becoming bloated an unwieldy. Well, I didn’t know of a book that does all that, but then I read the Fifth Season.
The society of The Stillness is a Platonic model. Everybody has their caste and a role in society. The caste determines your surname, your career, your chance of elevation but also your role in the event of a Fifth Season. The roggas have a strictly defined (and semi-outcast) role but the tight societal oppression is not confined to them – it extends to the their persecutors as well and the sickness of the society (which expresses itself most horrifically in the manner in which the roggas are dehumanised) is all pervasive.
So the potential of sudden, brutal, horrific violence that we fear from the earth in the form of earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and which is mirrored in the powers of the roggas is expressed early in the book by neither. We learn of it through the second person strand of narrative that runs through one thread of the book, as a mother mourns the murder of her child – a child that has been brutally bashed to death by his father.
The Fifth Season has all of the themes I’ve discussed so far, plus others (social class, race) but it isn’t about those themes. Rather it is about three women and the end of the world. That is why I think it is a classic because I’ve written all of this and I still haven’t really touched on the essence of the book.