In the early years of this blog I may have written once or twice about my frustrating relationship with science fiction. Or speculative fiction as it's often now called. Or fantasy, its, what, sibling? Whatever you call it, for most of my reading life I've wished to love books of this genre. And my wish has gone almost entirely unfulfilled. Time after time, I've turned to a new novel, a new writer, having heard that this is the one. The one with actual original ideas. The one with genuinely creative concepts. The truly new story. The beautifully written, literary, gripping thought provoker. The politically progressive, socially relevant, maybe even radical one that contributes something to the literature of struggle. Only to be, time after time, disappointed. Stale reworkings of tired old tropes. Uninteresting non-ideas. Pedestrian language. Now I know it's wrong to dismiss an entire genre simply because my own experiences have been lacking. No doubt I've simply not found the right writers. And so, revolutionary optimist that I endlessly urge myself to be, I keep trying. Again I read a review or hear a recommendation. Again I'm told that no, really, this one is different. This one will blow you away. Again I steel myself, prepared for the inevitable letdown.
No letdown, not this time. All praise to N.K. Jemisin! I've just read her novel The Fifth Season and I'm squirming and squealing with delight. I've found it--a great sci fi book. I've found her--a brilliant sci fi author. All hail! And let the breathless countdown to the August 16 publication date of sequel The Obelisk Gate, second in the trilogy begun with The Fifth Season, begin. In fact I've just pre-ordered it, something I don't believe I've ever before done.
What is it that has me so over the moon after reading The Fifth Season? Well, everything whose lack has bummed me out so many other times. The world Jemison has built with this story is unlike any I've encountered in all my 56 years of reading. She's had a new idea! She's imagined a truly different world! Yet at the same time she's fashioned a story, built upon the foundation of her original idea and utterly true to her new world, that resonates powerfully with the realities of our own real, deeply damaged world. On top of all that this novel is powerfully free of the constricting archaic constructs of race, sex, and gender from which very few writers successfully liberate their fiction. Or even try.
At the same time, precisely by breaking free of heterosexist and racist norms in the pages of this brilliant story, Jemisin makes us think about the real world, the racist sexist anti-LGBT society in which we live. She makes us think about bigotry, about inequality, and also, in this story of literally earth-shaking cataclysms that drive epoch after epoch of the creation and destruction of civilizations, about the current international crisis of mass migration caused by war, occupation, poverty, imperialism. About what community is, what humanity is. About unity and divisiveness and about what can be accomplished with joint effort. There are echos of it all in this novel. And on top of that, there is, in an unbearable plot development at the end, an homage of sorts to Toni Morrison's masterpiece Beloved. A sad, bitter necessary nod to the only kinds of choices oppression offers.
Jemisin is a very fine artist. The Fifth Season is packed with delicacy, lyricism, passion. The characters are multidimensional. The story drives forward relentlessly. It involves you utterly. It challenges and stirs you. Who could ask for anything more?