Reading Commentary: The Fifth Season

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Reading Commentary:

The Fifth Season

N.K. Jemisin’s 2010 debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, swept that year’s Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre awards and positioned Jemisin, in the ahistorical rhetoric particular to American arts and letters, as an overnight sensation. (Never mind that “overnight sensations” almost invariably have behind them decades of unrecognized work; never mind that Jemisin spoke and speaks candidly about the struggle of writing while holding a full-time day job for access to health insurance and subsisting in a large American city.)

It’s Jemisin’s second book this socialist feminist recommends to you now. It’s also a book that smashed the typically impenetrable boundaries between “genre fiction” and “serious literature” established by, and so profitable to, institutional publishing. The Fifth Season is the first book in the Broken Earth trilogy, and the dedication reads, “For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question.” Like Ursula and Octavia before her, Jemisin did not come to the fantastical to play nice. Escape is not on the agenda.

In The Fifth Season and its sequels, we are in a speculative future, long past the damages done to our known world by climate change. “This is how the world ends—for the last time.” In this world, beyond any conception of known political economies, structures of inequality persist, and those most exploited are those least informed. Fulfilling the best of the promise of Le Guin and Butler, Jemisin’s “fantasy” is in imagining not merely the dystopian futurist injustices but the anti-hierarchical, democratic, and communal points of resistance. In any world, our greatest conjurers of possibility tell us, life is only life when social relationships are valued above individual power.

Which is not to suggest conflictless utopia: Jemisin’s extraordinary narrative achievement is revealing the rifts in one’s one communities, the tensions innate in people, messy and impulsive and primal as we are, attempting to survive together. What matters, for that imperative pursuit beyond survival and into life, is how those tensions are acknowledged, responded to by the community. When violence—physical, political, sociological, diagnostical—is the motive for social organization, no community will ever know equality, but communities can overcome structural violence by recognizing and truthfully confronting those impulses. Difficult, perhaps even impossible, work—but therein lies the revolution.

Haleh Roshan is an Iranian-American writer and DSA member in New York City.
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