Not with a whimper but a bang

The Fifth Season — N. K. Jemisin
The Broken Earth, book 1


The unfortunates in 2015’s The Fifth Season live on a world almost as active as Jupiter’s moon Io, a world constantly rattled by tremours and reshaped by volcanoes, a world where geological and historical timescales are the same.

Embracing whimsical gallows humour, they call their single landmass “The Stillness”.

Any particular community on this world can be certain that, in time, it will be wiped out by earthquake, tsunami, acid rain, or abrupt climate change. Humanity as a whole survives on the Stillness because until now, no calamity massive enough to kill absolutely every human has happened.

Thanks to the forward-thinking social policies of the Sanze Empire, humanity’s run of luck is about to end.

The Sanze have spent millennia running a large chunk of the Stillness and influencing the rest. Some of this was luck (their founding warlord picked a good time to launch a campaign of conquest), some of it has to do with implementing well-thought-out long-term disaster-mitigation policies, but an awful lot of their success is thanks to their ability to turn a widespread virulent prejudice into an imperial asset.

Orogenes are rare individuals with seemingly supernatural abilities to shape and control various forms of energy—in particular, geological forces. Orogenes can start an earthquake OR stop a falling mountain from crushing a town. An inexperienced Orogene, a child perhaps, could all too easily annihilate a community; hence the common folk of the Stillness see the Orogenes as more of a threat than a possible protection.

This is extremely convenient for the empire. It claims to protect the general population by sniffing out the Orogenes, who are then enslaved. After a brutal conditioning process, the Orogenes are set to work for the empire: clearing harbours and suppressing quakes. There are secretive forced breeding programs aimed at maintaining the population of enslaved Orogenes. The slaves are policed by a force of Guardians, who are fanatically dedicated to empire and immune to Orogene abilities. And if conditioning and policing aren’t enough of a deterrent to slave revolt, the Sanze have even worse punishments in reserve.

The book begins with catastrophe: an Orogene and his allies crack the Stillness in two like a brittle plate. Previous Fifth Seasons (the local name for the aftermath of extinction events) have lasted decades; this aftermath will last for thousands of years. Worse may yet come. As the narrator helpfully explains near the beginning of the novel:

But this is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends
For the last time.

Clearly something has gone slightly awry with the Sanze system for controlling and exploiting the Orogenes. A series of flashback narratives—a mother whose husband murdered one child and stole the other, a young girl enslaved, an adept dispatched on what should be a routine assignment—explain how the empire finally pushed its slaves to revolt and break a world.


Perhaps this is not entirely the most upbeat and life-affirming book I have read this year. It is notable as the only fantasy [1] novel I’ve read this year in which geology plays such an active role. Pity that I know so little about geology.

But I do know a bit about catastrophes (ahem). The recoveries from the various Fifth Seasons mentioned in the text seem to happen inexplicably quickly. The sundering that starts off the book is going to cripple the local ecosystems for thousands of years and that is bad. However, ”thousands of years”, as bad as that is on a human time scale, is a brief time compared to how long recovery from something like the Siberian Traps. I think it took something like a hundred million years for life to fully recover from the End Permian extinction. The geology in this novel may have been dialed up to eleven, but so has the speed of the recoveries [2].

Of course, there may be an Anthropogenic Principle effect at work. Every living thing on this world has evolved in the context of its remarkable geology. While, for convenience sake, I call these people humans, the text makes it clear they’re not precisely like us. If life weren’t able to bounce back, if all life had died out millions of years before, then odds are that their descendants would not be taking part in this novel. Still, I kind of expect an ecology composed of survivors like ferns, mosses, and cockroaches….

It makes one wonder if everything in this, from the geology to the ability of life to survive it, was engineered.

The book is dedicated to “all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question.” Unsurprisingly, the main method the empire uses to control its slaves is to convince them that universal respect is something the Orogenes need to work themselves to death to earn; the game is rigged to ensure that that is virtually impossible [3]. The empire is built on uncompensated labour extracted from people whom the empire tries very hard to convince are privileged by their exploitation.

Some readers may have an issue with the tone certain Orogenes take when it comes to expressing their desire for freedom. Others may think breaking the Stillness is something of an overreaction, that perhaps the discontented Orogenes should have turned their efforts to negotiation rather than direct action. The empire is built on Orogene labour which is not just uncompensated and unacknowledged, but which has to be uncompensated and unacknowledged for the system to function. The system cannot be reformed; it can only be destroyed.

Granted, killing all life of the planet may extend the post-disaster recovery period some.

I suspect that what Jemisin is writing about here isn’t what the slans will see when… or if they read this. However, I suspect the main thing preventing fans of a certain tendency from gleefully appropriating this as the modern Harrison Bergeron is that the people I have in mind don’t knowingly read books by women or POC.

I’ve been a big Jemisin fan since I was sent her first novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I liked The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms enough to nominate it for a Hugo. Too bad I did so in a year when it was ineligible [4]. The Fifth Season is considerably stronger than The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Jemisin does a masterful job of creating a world where the Orogenes are driven to strike back at their masters with an End-Permian-level event, and one where they are right to do so.

The Fifth Season is available from Orbit.

1: I spent a certain amount of time looking for something in the text that would let me unambiguously classify Orogeny as psionics, in which case this is science fiction, or magic, in which case this is fantasy. I found it; the author calls the book fantasy in the afterword, so this is a fantasy novel. I have to say it feels more like SF.

2: Although if that’s true…. it didn’t take long for an advantageous trait like lactose tolerance to spread through the milk-drinking population of Europe. How old is the Orogene trait? Why hasn’t it been spread by strong selection?

3: Some powerful Orogenes are allowed the illusion of autonomy: they can sometimes say no to assignments. This is a sham; even the most powerful of them can be killed out of hand for reasons that will never be explained.

4: I forgot that the copy I read was a preproduction ARC, which I saw months and months before it was in print. I should have waited another year to nominate it according to the rules.

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