Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Notes (mostly to self) on N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season

(Technically spoilers ahead)

* Assured, immersive, easeful, affecting, solid, a sense of being timely, up-to-date, "core." Colloquial. Ambitious without feeling strained. Makes it look easy (sprezzatura).

* The methods are obvious: good storytelling, good worldbuilding. Of course that's just the beginning. What does The Fifth Season teach us counts as good storytelling, good worldbuilding? What is a 'story' and/or a 'world' at this precise moment in history, at this particular textual nexus? (Could I go so far as to say 'strong characterization' or even 'relateable characters'? What does that consist in?)

* So very distant from Tolkienian epic fantasy. And yet finds ways to rekindle its pleasures?

* The conceit that ecological catastrophe can be averted and/or fixed through the power of the imagination (in the book, 'orogeny'). And/or: the conceit that ecological catastrophe can be averted/and or fixed through worldbuilding (cf. normal sense of orogeny, mountain-making). Comforting. Reflexive. (Surely we all fear climate change now. Perhaps the deniers most of all).

* Do storytellers only speak to their listeners? Or also for their listeners? What are the stories we most desire to hear? Are they the same as the ones we most desire to speak? Are they the stories we cannot find the words or images or names or skill to express? Are they what we fear to say, or are too traumatized to say, or rightly know we should not say?

* Anything to say about pronouns & POV?! Second person really works, especially when strands come together at the end. Cf. Banks Feersum Enjinn (structure wise) and (pov wise) Okorafor's Lagoon and Phoenix, Banks' Complicity, Leckie's Ancillary.

* A protagonist who commits massacres. "They will not realize for weeks that you killed the town in this moment" -- the town, ambiguous between object and humans. The realization "I killed Uche" rather than the realization "look what I've literally just done, look who I've killed, look who I may have killed though there is perhaps still time to do something about it." How do we think about "problematic" in relation to that huh.

* To generalize ahistorically a little about what "great storytelling" is ... could it sometimes be figuring out how to "have things both ways"? In Fifth Season I sense these are "my" politics and yet they are owned more expertly, more luxuriously than in real life: they aren't fraught with the same dangers, there is no sense of self-denial on political principle. Yes, there is conflict, there is estrangement ... but the fit between myself and the politics embodied here, that feels natural, comfortable, inevitable. Cf. story sludge.

* How much concern is there with subjectivitybuilding, i.e., how much is the strangeness of the world reflected in the strangeness of the personality types? I think not much. Just slightly though. For the most part these people, despite it all, are us. (Becky Chambers's Long Way as an example of taking it even further. Definitely contemporary personality structures projected into the future).

* A premium on educational capital. The book feels like it esteems education. Hard knowledge work.

* That extended subplot about getting the kind of respect they deserve. Could it seem weird and petty? The fact that it doesn't, is that because of cognitive estrangement / allegory? There is no mistaking it for something that is merely in the story-world. It is 100% about a certain style of brutally brazen interpersonal racism. Episode makes sense because it is interwoven in some way with the real world. We know this isn't just about fictional identity characteristics, fictional decorum, fictional formal equality, fictional regimes of rights. The intensity of that connection managed upward and downward in different episodes and aspects. We KNOW what word is behind the word "rogga." At other points, particularly the more institutional / systemic persecution of the orogenes, less of a one to one correlation?

* Just btw: it's one of those books where by convention the characters are assumed to literally play host to the words that are "from" their "POV." E.g. "what made her think 'ready'"? (Not exact quotes here).

* A sustained downgrading of the concept of "the end of the world." The world ends all the time, it's nbd. A sustained play on the shared planet we all live on and the (capitalist individualist?) personal world, as in "my whole world shattered that day" or "my son was my whole world" (really? Did he have an atmosphere? Arable lands?) Cf. in its many variants, "nowadays it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism." Question: how does this book make me feel, in the end, about ecological catastrophe? More anxious or more comforted? And what else? And does what it makes me think align to what it makes me feel?

* Stone people. Cf. Pollock's and especially Pratchett's (trolls and golems)? Lithic agency!

* Not happy about the Malthusian edge. And the quasi-authorial interjections about what "matters." Cf. 'Farnham's Freehold' etc. Of course again, super skilled handling of a core strand of sf, albeit an evil one.

* A lot of quiet kink. Fulcrum obviously abusers, but also the faint logic of BDSM. And the "shut up I'm here to fuck you" breeding programme stuff (although that does lead to some genuinely seriously unsexy zero enthusiasm "sex"). But a lot of the time, hard to say why exactly, but it's kinda hot. " I can't tell if this novel is flirting with me or not and the hottest part of it is that I can't even tell."

* So, HOT.

* Does it throw you in at the deep end? And then reward you for sticking it out, 100 pages or so in? At the same time it's not exactly a steep learning curve. Or at least you're I in no doubt iit is going to make sense eventually.

* The final chapters quietly virtuoso in giving the reader a lot of what it is rumoured to most like. Sex, big fights, death of reasonably major characters, a sort of structural twist (of the engineered-by-withholding kind -- cf. e.g. Banks's Use of Weapons and Feersum Endjinn -- which I find nonetheless gratifying), a show-down with a nemesis, a sort of motive twist (last word of novel, saw it coming btw, cf. Feersum again), a coming-together-of-two-storylines, a controlling gaslighting abuser resisted with a defiant existential self-assertion, horrific "sacrifices" (hmmm & cf. Ringworld), action sequences fragmented around interposed aphorisms/horoscopes ("There are moments when everything changes"), apocalypse(s), a special power leveling up, etc. Oh and a glossary!

* Title. Box sets.

* What happens when two characters merge? Cf. marriage. Cf. rightsizing, Mergers & Acquisitions. Cf. how it plays out within the folk poetics of relateability. (What if you like one character and hate the other, and they turn out to be the same?)

* Interesting thing with "you" turning out to be in the other story. Because in another way, of course you the reader had to be there all along, to bring it to life.

* Cf. the powerful and persecuted protagonist of Phoenix. One very distinctive thing: Fifth Season has a sense of record-breaking. I.e. this is something that speculative fiction often does, and here a new record has been set for doing it in a particularly difficult and intense way. (Jemisin makes it look easy, of course). One thing in particular. That is the reconciliation of being special and powerful and magical with being persecuted and oppressed and abused. Jemisin reconciles an extraordinary level of power with an extraordinary level of persecution. "Gods in chains."

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