Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Stone Sky by NK Jemison

When I read The Fifth Season a couple of years ago I was blown away. It’s a masterpiece of worldbuilding; science fiction disguised as and mixed with fantasy. It’s a far future Earth wrecked by tectonic shifts on a scale we have never experienced. There is now a single continent around the equator and there are humans still, but who have long since forgotten several of the civilizations that follow ours. Technology exists, but is a weird remnant of the past for most people. Origenes (or ragas in the hateful slur used against them by “stills”) are people who can sense, and to varying degrees control or displace, tectonic activity and are feared, needed, and hated for their power. People live in communities with a rigid caste system. What government there is controls the origenes in order to prevent or at least mitigate fifth seasons, times in which the tectonic activity makes the world even more inhospitable to people than before. There are obelisks that float in the sky, repositories of a mysterious power left over from an ancient civilization that come heavily into play in the second and third books. There’s a lot more to the world, but that first book sets it all up brilliantly. It begins with a powerful origene triggering the mother of all Fifth Seasons, and whose motivation plays out over the course of the first and second books. Everyone goes into survival mode and things play out from there. The first book is so cleverly structured that it made me like second person narration, which I usually dislike.

The Stone Sky is a worthy capstone to the trilogy. Essun, the main character of the series, who, among other things, is trying to repair the Earth and stop the seasons for good while finding her estranged daugher, has an amazing arc. I don’t want to go into too much detail so as not to spoil the first novel, but suffice to say she goes from a government trained origene to an outcast hiding her power and that of her children, to climate refugee, and further. Her power grows as she learns more and more of what has been hidden for her. In the second two books as the task she has taken on becomes broader and clearer on a worldwide scale, it simultaneously becomes more personal as her daughter is also gaining power and is working to a counter purpose.

The books are very smart about class and race. It is unflinching in the depiction of the fact that years of oppression have consequences. And yet it leaves room for personal decisions as well. The origenes have had their power and decisions shaped by outside forces, and there is no getting around that. The range of choices the characters have is extremely narrow. But Jemison somehow finds a way to give them agency within that range and holds them responsible for what they do with that agency. Both society and the individuals in it are culpable for the wrecked planet. It ties ecological catastrophe and cultural repression together in a very convincing way.

But that’s not to say that the books are sermons. These themes collide on a very personal field in a compelling story. The Fifth Season is a masterpiece, and if I liked the sequels slightly less, it’s only because exploring the world comes with slightly less surprise than in the nearly perfect opening volume. The story moves along at the right pace. The prose is excellent. The created vocabulary is easily decipherable from context, and it doesn’t take long before it flows as well as the standard English. The varying tenses and persons used to differentiate which characters are being discussed is distracting at first, but absolutely justified by the ending of the trilogy. I haven’t read the competition (certainly not all of it), but I have no qualms in saying that all three are worthy of the Hugo awards they received.

Highly Recommended. (Canon Worthy for the first volume)

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