There are as many worlds as there are ways to end them. Essun's son is dead. His father killed him. She found him. That is the end of the world. Some miles away, someone with an incredible power to sense and move the matter and energy of the earth—a power Essun shares, and that her son shared—has ripped apart the substance of the continent. That is the end of the world. People who don't live at the site of the rift, though, will only start to feel its effects over time: the sulfur clouds, the dead waters, the cold of a blocked sun. That is (will be, but also already is) the end of the world.
What is the world, then, if it ends all the time, and how does it begin again? In The Fifth Season, the world is the Stillness, tectonically volatile and stricken with periodic catastrophes called Seasons that claim many lives, destroy ecosystems, and curtail civilizations. The Stillness, and the air above it, are strewn with relics of past cultures that its present inhabitants are mostly too grimly intent on surviving to explore or question. They fear not just tremors large and small (which many of them can sense with special organs at their napes), not just people living wild outside walled communities, but orogenes, people who can do what Essun can do. Some use this power to still the tremors in their vicinity. And some kill ordinary people when they use their orogeny instinctively or in anger, drawing energy from the air and earth and living beings around them when they can't draw it from the uneasy motion of the earth itself.
With this as its excuse, an organization called the Fulcrum takes orogenes from their homes, and breeds them to each other—the verb is deliberate—on its own grounds. Guardians teach them to control their power, and to be controlled, in the name of stability, which in this world is literal. The Fulcrum is a training ground, a punishment house, and the site of a power—from a previous civilization? from an aspect of the earth itself?—that the Guardians did not make, but that they hide and fear. Outside specific interactions, it can be hard to tell who really has what power, but this is true in our world as well.
Is the Stillness our world? When a character thinks, "Better that a child never have lived at all than live as a slave. Better that he die," I heard echoes of Sethe's voice in Beloved, and of Margaret Garner, Sethe's historical counterpart. A powerful orogene named Alabaster says, "Orogenes built the Fulcrum . . . We did it under threat of genocide, and we used it to buckle a collar around our own necks, but we did it. We are the reason Old Sanze grew so powerful and lasted so long, and why it still half-rules the world, even if no one will admit it" (p. 418), and it's hard not to substitute more familiar nouns and empires. He goes on to say, "We're the ones who've figured out just how amazing our kind can be, if we learn how to refine the gift we're born with." Father Earth, whose name is an expletive now, was not always so cruel and violent, we are told; his anger is a result of the actions of humans, and maybe more specifically of orogenes. Stonelore, the Stillness's historical record and survival guide, is vague and fractured on the subject. In her Big Idea column on worldbuilding and voice, Jemisin stresses the strangeness: "Nothing in this world could resemble anything in our own world," she writes. But we bring our worlds with us wherever we go, even after someone has destroyed them again and again.
The Fifth Season takes a deeper dive into time than many narratives do, through references and relics and through the list of previous Seasons at the end of the book, which covers roughly 12,000 years. The hint of a time before Seasons, the legend that "Father Earth did not originally hate life" (p. 379), suggests that humans go back further than that. Ancientness, persistence, are substantive presences, reminding us of the differences between time we know about and time we experience. When the main action of the book begins, it's been many generations since a Season; the narrative travels and alternates somewhat in time and perspective, but not very far. It opens for us scenes of sickening cruelty and strange, grand beauty. More rarely, it shows us scenes of humans (including orogenes) sustaining one another, rather than using one another. There's an interlude, a step out of the story, where someone says to Essun, "There passes a time of happiness in your life, which I will not describe to you. It is unimportant. Perhaps you think it wrong that I dwell so much on the horrors, the pain, but pain is what shapes us, after all" (p. 361). It's a character speaking, but a character who stands closest to where the story itself stands.
What to do when you disagree with a major element of a novel's thesis, in a novel that has one? I reacted strongly because there's much here that I agree with the story about: I find unjust and cruel the things it finds unjust and cruel, and I appreciate its matter-of-fact inclusion of human variation that is, also, a matter of fact. I disagree, vehemently, that only pain counts. But you can't fight a notion with fists; you can only fight it with more notions. For one thing, what about the people pain destroys? Were they not worthy of being shaped? Were they not strong enough? What if they had no respite—without the glimpse of possibility that the person at the center of this story has, would her shape truly be the same? Would she survive as long as the end of the story, or be as poised as she is, as willing to listen, when the story ends?
We read most of the novel with the knowledge that the people of the Stillness are not prepared, could not have prepared, to survive this Season: their stores, their stonelore, are set up for twenty or thirty years of cold and poison and deprivation, not the few thousand we're told this one will last. "This is the way the world ends," the book's prologue intones. "For the last time" (p. 14). But the book's ending points outward, into space, away from the worlds we have seen so far. It offers, after all, a possibility for life, for some; the failure, for some, of the world to end—the possibility of elsewhere. When I read its last sentence, I thought of Ursula K. Le Guin's comment on her own space-station story: "I really do think we have to take our dirt with us wherever we go. We are dirt. We are Earth." I thought, too, of the visionary Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler's The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents: "The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars."
We can read the possibility of elsewhere in AfroFuturism's dreams of space marronage: space is the place where you're free when the place you left behind is ruined by your lack of freedom, where you don't trust your ability to change it, except destructively, or its ability to be changed. We can read it as similar to Ashon Crawley's Otherwise, where you're aware of your history but not destroyed by it, where you can live because you can imagine living. We can also wonder, as I do, what of the old world comes with you into the new one. We can even wonder what the vision of elsewhere offers those of us who have only one world to work with, those of us who would prefer to learn how to live on it without either destroying or being destroyed. We can wonder about the people stuck in the Stillness as it chokes and chills and dies, people who were not powerful, not earthshakingly special. Maybe that's a defect of a novel's qualities: the story can't be about everyone, so all you can do is move the center.
Essun has been a warrior and a murderer with her power; she has loved around it or in spite of it. When she sees that orogeny need not be destructive, can add to the world rather than hoping at best for damage control, she is beyond dumbfounded: this isn't how the world works. "You've never heard of anyone doing anything like this with orogeny. It's not for building" (p. 332). Will Essun be able to "presume that whatever we have is not all that is possible"? Will she and the other orogenes be able to make the leap, not only off the surface of their planet, but away from the Fulcrum in their heads, from their certain knowledge of themselves as monsters and Earth as enemy?
We may find this out, because this is Book One of a trilogy. In our own still relatively short era of human-made mass death and ecological disruption, enslavement and misuse of power, I read more and more not to escape in the often derogatory way that word is used, but to slip the limits on my own habitual knowledge of what is possible, to think of ways of living and, yes, even dying that I could not have thought of on my own. The Fifth Season, most of all, sets up the urgent need for such ways; I hope the next book begins to map them out.
Kate Schapira is the author of four books of poetry: The Soft Place, How We Saved the City, The Bounty: Four Addresses, and TOWN. Her 11th chapbook, Someone Is Here, just appeared with Projective Industries. She lives in Providence, RI, where she teaches writing, coruns the Publicly Complex Reading Series, and offers Climate Anxiety Counseling.