The Fifth Season: Thoughts

Posted: August 12, 2015 in Critical Hit
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Warning: spoilers.

When I first sat down to write a review of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, all I managed to produce was a narrative about my own queerness. This is my second attempt, and even now, I’m struggling not to make it personal. I feel – defensive of queerness, I think, or maybe just tired. A few months ago, I finally realised I was genderqueer as well as bisexual, which epiphany I’m still fully processing, and it’s left me feeling raw. It’s disorienting to suddenly look back over nearly three decades of your life and realise, with a sort of belated weariness, how hella fucking repressed you’ve always been – how repressed you still are, in fact, because identifying your own reactions doesn’t magically change them – and as such, I’m on something of a hair trigger as regards queer tragedy in narrative.

It doesn’t help, of course, that there’s a lot of queer tragedy going around these days. I loved Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs, but I could really have done without the dead queer man at the finale. Being queer and a fan of Supernatural is an exercise in masochism at the best of times, but then Charlie Bradbury winds up slashed to death in a bathtub, and you start questioning your choices all over again. I was looking forward to The Traitor Baru Cormorant for ages, but I couldn’t even get through the first two chapters without screaming internally.

And now there’s The Fifth Season, and I just –

Look. This is a really hard review to write, okay? Because I fucking love Jemisin’s books, and in terms of technical execution, The Fifth Season is her strongest yet.  The worldbuilding is phenomenal; ditto the characterisation, the writing, the plot. Her decision to write Essun’s sections in the seldom-used second person immediate is a stylistic gamble that absolutely pays off, forcing the reader to not just identify with, but to be addressed as a complicated, powerful, competent woman of colour – a woman mourning the murder of her son, no less – and if I have to explain to you why that’s an inherently radical thing right now, then clearly, you haven’t been watching the news. I devoured the whole book python-style, and even as we speak, I’m still making mental grabby hands for the sequel. The Fifth Season is very expressly a novel about oppression; about the monstrous things people do when they stop believing this group or that is fully, truly human, and why you cannot collaborate with or usefully work to change from within a system that’s fundamentally predicated on your inborn inferiority. In the world of the Stillness, orogenes – magic-users who control seismic activity – are both feared and hated, either killed outright for their differences or brutally enslaved, and right from the get-go, zero punches are pulled. The story begins with a mother, Essun, reacting to her husband’s murder of their three-year-old orogene child, and throughout the story, the ways in which children especially are brutalised, abused and dehumanised by a system that deems them monstrous from birth is depicted with a chilling internality: the descriptions aren’t graphic, but then, they hardly need to be.

Far more insidious than overt displays of physical violence are the ways in which such children – and, by extension, the adults they become – are taught to fear and hate themselves. Essun often thinks of herself as a monster, as less than human, and whereas Seth Dickinson, at the start of Baru Cormorant, failed to convince me of how and why a homophobic culture could so thoroughly and swiftly indoctrinate children into mistrusting their own loving families, the orogene self-hated of Jemisin’s world is utterly believable. It’s not just evident in the cruelty and intolerance of the pervading culture: it’s that trained orogenes are denied a full understanding of their magic, not just intellectually, but linguistically, constantly struggling to articulate core parts of themselves for lack of a language tailored to their experiences. Though Jemisin’s world is racially diverse and, in some ways, egalitarian – both men and women can be designated Breeders or hold Leadership positions; trans individuals are accepted in some castes, but not in others – orogenes are slaves, and though they might lie to themselves about it, accepting what they’re taught, that doesn’t make their oppression any less vicious.

Which is, I suspect, why the treatment of the queer characters rubs me so raw. Being orogene is metaphorically representative of various forms of systematic oppression; but as queer characters in this setting still explicitly suffer for and with their queerness as well as for being orogene, it’s much, much harder for a queer reader to maintain a healthy degree of emotional distance. And thus, the problem of Alabaster: a queer man repeatedly forced to have sex with women as part of, effectively, an orogene breeding programme. All his past relationships with men have ended, it’s either implied or stated outright, in tragedy. Not, of course, that any orogene in this setup is exactly free to choose their partners, but whereas Syenite, with whom he’s asked to produce his latest child, is coerced into sex she doesn’t want only by dint of being orogene, Alabaster is additionally coerced to act against his own sexual orientation – a fact of which Syen, and therefore the reader, is initially unaware.

Which leaves me torn: because, on the one hand, it’s important that Jemisin has acknowledged the additional, heteronormative burden of sex in these circumstances – that is, where two parties are being forced to produce a child at someone’s request, regardless of their own desires – as imposed on queer orogenes; but on the other hand, it means you’ve got queer characters being subject to an extra layer of oppression. And if the story ended differently, then I’d be applauding right now, because genrewise, The Fifth Season is arguably a fantasy dystopia, and I am 9000% done with the recent trend in sexually coercive dystopias that are too solidly fixated on magical straight romance saving the day to even bother acknowledging queerness at all, let alone prominently.

But.

Alabaster just broke my fucking heart. Which isn’t to say the rest of the story didn’t move me; it did, powerfully so. Jemisin doesn’t flinch from dark subject matter, and being as how The Fifth Season is the first book in an apocalyptic series, it was hardly going to end on a cheerful note. Nobody in this novel gets a happy ending, partly because the narrative hasn’t actually ended yet, but mostly because there’s nothing happy about it. Essun’s son is still dead, her murdering husband has still absconded with their daughter, the world is still ending, and orogenes are still hunted and feared. I wasn’t expecting Alabaster to prove the exception to the rule just because he’s a queer man, you know? I just didn’t want him to suffer in ways that are explicitly related to – inextricably bound with – our narratives of queer tragedy. He could have suffered in parallel to his queerness, rather than because of it, or in ways that were compounded by it, without compromising the thematic integrity of the story.

But this is what happens instead: his lover, a bisexual man, is brutally murdered, his family is destroyed, and when he shows up at the finale, we’re told he’s dying, physically incapacitated by a sort of magical illness-slash-transformation that’s steadily turning parts of him to stone, leaving him in excruciating pain, and I just – that is the fucking essence of queer tragedy, you know? Dead lover, no family, physically debilitated, terminally ill. And I know, I know this is a book about oppression, I know it’s literally Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies all round, but nobody else in the novel suffers explicitly racist, explicitly sexist persecution in the same way the queer characters experience explicitly queer persecution, like Tonkee being kicked out of her family for being trans or underage Jasper being publicly shamed and outed and punished for enjoying it (we’re told) when an older man touches him sexually: everyone else is persecuted just for being orogene, and while we’re never explicitly told that queerness is bad, we’re never shown any positive iterations of it that don’t end in tragedy, either.

So: The Fifth Season is a powerful, important novel with a lot of intelligent, lamentably relevant things to say about structural violence, bigotry, dehumanisation, colonisation, historical erasure and systematic oppression. But as much as I love the rest of it, I can’t overlook the queer tragedy elements; because in a novel where every ugliness of persecution is being put under the microscope and subversively examined through the lens of orogeny, it stands out that this one trope still holds true. And from the bottom of my poor queer heart, I really wish it didn’t.

Comments
  1. Kelly says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Jemisin’s new book. I haven’t read the review properly, because spoilers, but I look forward to revisiting this once I actually get a chance to read the book.

  2. e2thec says:

    Spoilers: I appreciate your post, though I view the Alabaster/Syenite situation as both of them having absolutely no choice, or at least, not until they both got to know Innon. Both Syenite and Alabaster are slaves – cf. the child at the Node station. Neither is free of that yoke until they end up out on the island. I feel for Alabaster, being forced to breed over and over, knowing that his children would be used in that way. For the women, the same.

    As for the child who is being sexually abused, that is yet another subject. All of this speaks of coercion – that kid is a *kid,* ergo, he could not have consented even if he was free, which he isn’t. That he might have been seen and heard having an orgasm does not mean that he liked being abused, only that his body reacted to the sexual stimulation. To have a classmate (fellow slave) publicly taunt him with it – !!!

    I have to admit that I think you might have missed some of these points, just as I missed some of the points you’re making when I read the book, because I am a straight woman and do not see things as you do. But i appreciate the points you’ve made here, and will keep them in mind when I do my own re-read.

  3. e2thec says:

    Re. Tonkee, I think her family’s rejection is about many things. Her being trans is a part of it, but by no means the sole reason. She asks too many inconvenient questions, she is too smart, too rebellious – too outside social norms on many levels. Finally, she comes far too close to a secret that her family (and the other ruling families) are hell-bent on hiding.

  4. Callan says:

    and whereas Seth Dickinson, at the start of Baru Cormorant, failed to convince me of how and why a homophobic culture could so thoroughly and swiftly indoctrinate children into mistrusting their own loving families, the orogene self-hated of Jemisin’s world is utterly believable.

    I’d think that’s what it’s trying to convey by having this magic make believe power – that oppression can come simply from thinking gays send out bad gay beams that ruin everything. Thus oppress them. You can’t see the reason for oppression because the idea of someone else thinking you send out some kind of bad gay karma doesn’t occur to you (because it’s pretty stupid, for one), whereas the orogene clearly can shatter continents or whatever their geological powers can do, then that bad karma power is made clear and present.

    • Vivi says:

      Except that discussing real world oppression by way of supernatural metaphor is an old and overused trope, and one that needs to end. Because in the real world queer people or people belonging to (formerly) enslaved ethnicities aren’t actually any different and most importantly don’t actually have any dangerous powers that somehow justify their oppression. Thus, the metaphor and the moral aesop of the story breaks down. (This is especially bad with for example “True Blood” with its “God hates Fangs” anvils. The vampires actually are superpowered serial killers, even if some of them want to be good and assimilate after “coming out of the cascett”, so the suspicion and hatred of the human characters is perfectly understandable.) That sort of shit just reinforces the fear that the majority has of the ‘other’.

      • Callan says:

        The moral, I think, is to see it from the other persons eyes/perception, not your own – no matter how absurd their position is.

        I’m assuming forming an understanding is a priority of some sorts, until told otherwise.

  5. […] also, a good thing to know about about tragic queerness in NK Jemisin’s latest book, The Fifth Season, before you start reading it (featuring […]

  6. Vivi says:

    I don’t quite get your point here. Isn’t it good that the author doesn’t act like “oppressed because dangerous superpowers” is a valid stand-in for “oppressed simply because different”, but that both would be in effect at the same time? I mean, it’s not like queer people of colour or queer people who are poor don’t suffer particular difficulties in real life compared to someone who is queer but otherwise privileged. So it feels like it’s a good idea to me to represent that layering of oppression. (Though I’m kind of side-eyeing your implication that rape is somehow worse if it happens to someone who would never be interested in the gender of the proxy the rapist chose, as opposed to rape involving a proxy that the victim ‘just’ isn’t attracted to in that particular case. I mean, it’s a breeding programm, awful for everyone involved, not a corrective rape programm specifically targeting queer people, right? You could just as well assert that it’s worse for the woman because she’s got the pain and health risk of pregnancy and birth to deal with on top of things.)

    Also, I would actually have a problem believing a society that is deeply oppressive in one direction (say, race or class), but not in others (i.e. sexuality or gender or both). If you’ve got a system that privileges one group and abuses and dehumanizes another to support the privileged class, then there will be more and more exclusivity going on in that top group. And the various -isms influence each other, e.g. homophobia and transphobia are to some part based in misogyny. (I.e. A trans woman is worse than a trans man because the former is seen as a traitor to the privileged status her birth sex gave her. And one definition of homophobia is famously “the fear that another man will treat you the way you treat women”.)
    Of course, if the only other oppression in the book other than that of queer people is the enslavement of the magic-users (who genuinely have superpowers it makes sense to be afraid of), but not race or gender, then that really does feel arbitrarily cruel.

    Or is your issue more with tragedy solely caused by authorial fiat? I mean, tragedy resulting from social oppression in a fictional society – that serves a purpose, even if it is a very overused trope by now. But, like, if a queer character’s lover dies by accident or he gets sick for entirely unrelated reasons, then yes, that feels unnecessary and over-the-top, even if the author probably didn’t intend it in the early-20th-century “queer characters can’t ever have a happy ending” sort of way that kept the novel “Maurice” from being published until the 1970s.

    I reiterate my recommendation of the show “Sense8”, by the way. You seem in dire need of a queer-tragedy-free antidote.
    I also recommend “Sing the Four Quarters” by Tanya Huff which is kind of utopian high fantasy about highly valued people who have elemental magic, with a bisexual female protagonist (who is pregnant by a one-night-stand but has an open and very loving long-term relationship with a woman) and her rather stereotypically camp gay and blind BFF. There’s one character who has been traumatized by having suffered similar abuse in a neighboring society as you describe happens to magic users in this book (it’s only vaguely implied in Huff’s novel), and he gets the kind of rescue you were yearning for.
    And I also recommend “Luck in the Shadows”, “Stalking Darkness” and “Traitor’s Moon” by Lynn Flewelling, a “cloak and dagger” type high fantasy series about a pair of male spies / rogues-with-a-heart-of-gold who turn out to be bisexual (and at least the older, more confident one of them is very good at going undercover in full drag) and who become a couple by the end of book 2, which is not a problem since the their country of choice (not origin) is fairly egalitarian and queer-friendly enough to have colour-coded brothels. The books have a tone similar to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies – e.g. fun, but occasionally dark and gruesome for supernatural reasons. (There are 7 books to this series, but I hated book 4 for character assassination / continutity error / rape culture reasons, and haven’t read further.)
    And then there’s “Carnival” by Elizabeth Bear, a dystopian eco-scifi novel, which had me headdesk a few times in the science department and which has some problems in the feminism department as well (basically there is a matriarchial culture based on the idea that all straight men (and only them) are rapist brutes and thus need to be controlled, and this is never proven wrong; also, the worldbuilding of said society only works if you assume trans women and bisexual men don’t exist), but the protagonists are a gay couple who manage to trick their own (patriarchial) society’s brutal oppression of queer people, and to get their happy ending.

  7. […] The Fifth Season at The Book Smugglers. Renay’s review of The Fifth Season at Lady Business. The Fifth Season: Thoughts by Foz Meadows at […]

  8. JoanoArc says:

    Hiya. I appreciate your review – thank you. Was considering gifting this. I wonder if you could possibly/hopefully recommend a well-written trans/queer-positive novel appropriate for my 15 year old highly literate and sophisticated reader son, who identifies as trans and queer. He has gone from being an obsessive reader to reading much less often (other than fan fiction) due to the lack of positive representations, and he’d be right on board with your sadness around the trajectory here (he’s still sad/bitter about Supernatural). Many thanks if you have some ideas🙂

    • fozmeadows says:

      Sure thing! Aside from my own book, An Accident of Stars, there’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, Not Your Sidekick and Seven Tears at High Tide, both by CB Lee (who started as a fanfic writer), Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, Swordpoint by Ellen Kushner, The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater (though the queer characters aren’t revealed until book 2), Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, Ash and Huntress by Malinda Lo, and that’s just off the top of my head. There’s more if you look for it!🙂

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