This review appears in Issue 1 of The Seelie Crow.
“This is the way the world ends.”
This is our introduction to an elseworld dystopian story that’s firmly grounded in the Black experience. Through that line and subsequent ones, Jemisin creates a world and history that puts us, the reader, back into the experience of being a child. There’s an established language (slang and formalized), culture, and caste system that we’ll only begin to understand as we make our way through the chapters of The Fifth Season.
In this world of Jemisin’s creation, the Earth as we know it is on the cusp of being uninhabitable, and it is dangerous for all life. There are frequent volcanic activities, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other near-cataclysmic natural phenomena. Therefore, to survive such an unforgiving and seemingly vengeful home, the inhabitants have been forced to adapt and evolve. Jemisin cleverly pulls inspiration from the animals of our world having an innate skill to sense those geological changes that are precursors to a natural disaster; think birds flying away from wetlands en masse prior to a hurricane. She takes this concept and asks three questions that form the basis of the novel:
What if certain humans had the ability to sense or ‘sess’ the tectonic shifts that occur within the Earth’s crust? And what if this ability evolves into a power to control and influence those shifts? How would society respond to and treat these humans?
We begin to get our answers to these questions via a tripartite story structure centered around three characters – Damaya, Syenite, and Essun. Through the lens of our central characters we learn that these humans – called Orogenes – with those special skills are not lauded, nor loved, for their talents. They’re in fact feared, hated, and vilified (it’s a dystopian tale y’all, so sunshine, daisies, and happy feelings were always going to be few and far between). Our leading ladies’ experiences also aid us in understanding the “whys” for the maltreatment of Orogenes within this society, and how this society is structured to keep those with such fantastical powers on the lowest rung of the social ladder.
The society in The Fifth Season, known as Sanzed, intentionally and explicitly created a caste system, and all useful members of Sanzed are sorted into a “use-caste”. Naming a few, we have Strongbacks (general laborers), Innovators (scientists/inventors), Leadership (diplomats/politicians), and of course Orogenes. The use-caste and its connection to a Sanzed’s identity provides hints to the rigidity and coldness that undergirds this society, since a Sanzed’s identity is composed of their given name, their use-caste, and their community/village – designated as “comm”. Sanzed’s use-caste also establishes a sense of predeterminism since a Sanzed is born into their use-caste which doubles down on Sanzed’s singular focus of its citizens’ utility.
However, there is a wrinkle within the use-caste system that’s demonstrated by those who are born Orogenes. There are no obvious indicators at birth that a Sanzed is an Orogene, however upon the manifestation and triggering of their power it becomes apparent that person is an Orogene since the triggering event typically has traumatic and tragic results. Through Damaya, we learn how soon after birth an Orogene’s power can manifest, what triggers that power, and society’s general hostile response to that power. Also through Damaya, we learn Sanzed has ingeniously and cynically established an institution that co-opts an Orogene’s power (and the Orogene) into the service of society at large by presenting this institution as the best path for a newly discovered Orogene to live a good life.
Now, again, this is a dystopian tale so we’re primed to believe that this path for an Orogene to have a good life will be rife with obstacles, tripwires, and repressive acts. This assumption is confirmed by the experiences and the (philosophical) responses of our leading ladies. As Damaya moves through this world we see her develop the stance “If I keep my head down and always follow the rules, then no trouble will come my way.” Through Syenite – “I can’t escape this system, but if I play the game – and play it better than most – I may just come out ahead”. Essun’s many adventures lead her to realize the system has been rigged from the beginning and that she is powerless to enact any wholesale transformation. Therefore, she decides to keep her head down, minimize herself and her abilities, to survive. For those of us from marginalized communities, these are philosophical stances and responses we’ve regularly encountered in our own world; stances many of us have adopted as we grew to understand our society at large.
The journey Jemisin takes us on with Damaya, Syenite, and Essun doesn’t afford us the luxury of escapism. It grants us an arm’s length of separation, just enough separation for us to rediscover how childlike naivety can give way to youthful anger and disillusion, to late age hopelessness and resignation. However, just as the Earth’s tectonic plates shift, so do our leading ladies’ stances (and so can ours) as their world (and ours) always presents an opportunity, however slight, for hope.
Be sure to snag Issue 1 of The Seelie Crow “Foundations of Fantasy” to read more pieces like this! Follow Wilson on The Power of You In Fiction.