At the risk of having my geekdom revoked, I should admit something right up front: I don’t read very much sci fi. I thought, for a long time, that I didn’t like sci fi, which is an even more egregious offense. It turns out, though, that what I don’t like is the overarching white maleness of the genre as it’s presented in mainstream culture. But sci fi written by women, queer folks, and people of color exists, and it’s as diverse and enlightening as you’d expect.
The Fifth Season, the first book in N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, is no exception. Jemisin creates a postapocalyptic world in which humans—of various races and geographic communities, called “comms”—exist in a universe where the physical Earth seeks to destroy them with volcanoes, earthquakes, and other seismic activity. Sometimes, the volatile Earth causes a “fifth season,” during which there is an extended winter and everyone is more susceptible to the unpredictable physical environment. The Earth can be held back or controlled by orogenes, people who can use their abilities (called orogeny) to locate and subdue seismic activity before it becomes destructive.
The novel centers around this orogeny and those who practice it, particularly Jemisin’s protagonist, Essun. Over the course of the novel, we see Essun as a student of orogeny and witness her coming of age and receiving assignments that put that her abilities to use. Jemisin’s world is inventive, and at first I was nervous that I would be lost in terms and ideas that were unfamiliar, but her text is sound. She also, quite helpfully, includes a glossary at the back of the book for reference.
It’s easy to be captivated by Jemisin’s world creation, but equally interesting for me is her exploration of race and sexuality. For example, orogenes hold an immense amount of power simply due to their skills, but they are also feared by non-orogenes and often subjected to a derogatory slur, “rogga.” Often, orogenes have to keep their abilities secret to live among the general public or risk being run out of their comm. The exploration of dissonance between the fear for orogenes and their power to, essentially, save the world is a deeply human aspect of the novel and serves to ground it in a kind of reality.
Jemisin also makes efforts to show various types of sexuality and relationships in The Fifth Season. Essun engages in a relationship with two other men: Alabaster, who is only attracted to other men, and Innon, who is bisexual. While they are all physically affectionate, Alabaster and Essun do not have a sexual relationship, and Innon has sex with both of them. Jemisin shows Essun musing: “And what do they even call this? It’s not a threesome, or a love triangle. It’s a two-and-a-half-some, an affection dihedron. (And, well, maybe it’s love.)” Presenting nonheteronormative relationships and sexuality in sci fi is valuable and fun to read about, and Jemisin pulls it off commendably, without shame or judgment.
The Fifth Season is a heady mix of invention and human relationship exploration and ticks all the boxes for enjoyable sci fi. Luckily, too, it ends with intrigue, and all you want to know is what happens next. The Broken Earth trilogy continues with The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky.