World Building: N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season

jemisinI find myself at something of a loss about how to respond to The Fifth Season. The bottom line, I suppose, is that it didn’t work for me: I felt frustrated from the outset at the barrage of unexplained particulars, and though I think the advice that I got from more proficient readers of SFF to just read on and let the logic of Jemisin’s world and its inhabitants emerge from the action was good advice, and it more or less worked (by the end I did, as promised, have a reasonable grasp of the various terms and elements), the process of getting there–the struggle to understand those crucial building blocks of the story–proved too great an obstacle to my engagement with the novel’s drama for me to get much pleasure out of it. I got intermittently caught up in particular scenes, especially towards the end, but they were never sustained long enough for any momentum to build–and then the final, quite intense, scenes were cut short in the kind of open-ended cliff-hanger that seemed obviously meant to sell the next book in the series. Perhaps that is considered fair play in a genre that seems dominated by series that are cumulative rather than simply sequential, but I felt frankly resentful that after the effort of getting to that point I was not given any satisfactory sense of closure for this installment beyond its having finally (and it really did feel like finally! to me) brought the dispersed parts of the novel together.

scoundrelsI have had bad experiences before when stepping into unfamiliar genre territory, and I am very aware that reading something well–which doesn’t necessarily mean liking it, but rather knowing how to deal with the kind of book it is–requires recognizing the conventions and norms and expectations that it is dealing in. (At any rate, this is true of genre fiction, which typically relies on a kind of reciprocal proficiency between writers and readers–for me, at any rate, this is one of the ways I define “genre fiction.”) I thought Lord of Scoundrels was ridiculous the first time I read it, and now I thoroughly enjoy it (and have even taught it twice); what happened in between that initial reading and later ones was a gradual education in romance conventions and an evolution in my own reading taste. I was braced for a similarly clueless initial experience with The Fifth Season but I hoped and expected, from what I’d heard about it, that I would find its narrative drive or characters compelling enough to compensate for the difficulties. In the end, though, I just didn’t: at this point, I have no urge to read the rest of the trilogy, though of course that might change, just as I came back to Lord of Scoundrels and found we had learned to get along after all.

elaine-fake-gifIt’s not that The Fifth Season didn’t give me anything to think about. Probably what preoccupied me the most, though, was not thinking about the issues of identity and social order and oppression (and geology) that I take to be central to Jemisin’s project so much as wondering why the unreality of her world grated on me in ways that the equally artificial fictional worlds of other authors don’t. It’s not as if the town of Middlemarch isn’t also made up; it isn’t (to go with a more apt comparison) as if the souls of the unwillingly departed really lingered in the cemetery where Lincoln’s son was interred and intervened to change both his fate and the course of history. I learned to deal with vampires, werewolves, and witches in Joss Whedon’s universe, and, prompted by puzzling over what didn’t work for me about The Fifth Season, I just started rereading The Hobbit for the first time in decades and was immediately delighted.

Dunnett-New-CoverWhat makes the difference? Is it that Saunders and Whedon–to go with the ones who clearly aren’t offering “the nearest thing to [real] life”–are not completely replacing our world but adding a dimension to it, so I am still anchored in familiarity, and as a result the application (if that’s the right word) of their fantastical elements to my thinking about the world I actually live in is more straightforward? Though I am sure Jemisin’s work is meant to reflect on our reality in some way, it’s so complex and elaborate on its own terms that it seems an awfully long way around. (Also, a big part of the point of a book like The Fifth Season is presumably that world building on its own is something readers can simply take an interest in as an alternative reality; maybe my realist habits of mind are precisely the problem.)

hobbitOr it might be, thinking about how much I’m enjoying the The Hobbit, that it’s not in fact the genre elements of The Fifth Season that kept me at a distance but something that can be a problem for me in any genre: its style. As is trendy these days, it’s almost all in close third person (or, a bit awkwardly, I thought, close second person), with little contextual information from a knowledgeable narrator. Another bit of advice I got for coping with Jemisin’s world building was to think of it as similar to historical fiction, but the historical fiction I typically like best (though there are some exceptions, to be sure) is dense in exposition–what I called in the context of A. S. Byatt’s remarkable The Children’s Book, “fearless pedantry”–or, as with Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, intimately personal in point of view but still driven by a propulsively linear narration. Dorothy Dunnett is a consummate world builder, but her plots and characters are rendered in extraordinarily strong colors that stand out against the stunning detail of her exposition. All of these novelists, too, are splendid prose stylists; Jemisin’s prose seemed mostly workmanlike and unexceptional. Her most dramatic moments often turned on what seemed like the narrative equivalent of special effects: I thought they were pretty cool in the moment, but for me, the minute I’m noticing something as a cool special effect, the effect itself is rather ruined.

henry-jamesI know there are readers who are as unmoved by Dunnett as I was by Jemisin. As Henry James said, the house of fiction has many windows! I don’t like to preemptively close any of them: I have long thought I must be missing out on a lot of good reading because I don’t read SFF (I haven’t even read Ursula Le Guin-don’t @ me!). I’m not necessarily giving up, on the genre or on Jemisin. If I keep reading around, maybe, as happened with romance, I will find my footing, at which point perhaps I would reread The Fifth Season and find, as with Lord of Scoundrels, that I’m able to appreciate it in a way I can’t now. On the other hand, there are just so many other books and authors I haven’t read that seem likely to engage and excite me without my having to struggle quite so much just to get it that I’m not sure how much of a priority to make that attempt. As James also said, “nothing will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it.” I didn’t like The Fifth Season, and maybe for now that will have to be enough.

9 thoughts on “World Building: N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season

  1. Jeanne November 18, 2018 / 1:44 pm

    I read science fiction and fantasy all the time, as you know, and I’ve never found a Jemisin book I liked.

    • Rohan Maitzen November 18, 2018 / 6:51 pm

      I looked to see what you’d written about her but didn’t find a post: maybe that’s symptomatic! I think maybe I’ll try something like The Left Hand of Darkness next time I venture into this territory.

  2. Teresa November 18, 2018 / 5:54 pm

    The only Jemisin I’ve read is Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and although I appreciated what she was doing and thought the world was fascinating, I didn’t care about it enough to read more in the series. I keep thinking I ought to give her another try. I heard a cool interview with her a while ago where she works through the process of world-building: https://art19.com/shows/the-ezra-klein-show/episodes/34703ccd-ae41-4d54-9197-344acd5699af

    As I mentioned on Twitter, a lot of the pleasure of fantasy for me is similar to that of historical fiction–the whole sense of being thrown into a new environment and having to figure it out as I go. But, like you, I generally prefer fantasy and science fiction that is in or adjacent to our world.

  3. banff1972 November 18, 2018 / 11:56 pm

    As you know, I liked this book a great deal. (Though I totally agree with you about the close second person: that didn’t work IMO.) But I learned more from this review than from the many paeans to the book I’ve read. If Jemisin ever read it, I’d like to think she’d appreciate how much thought you put into grappling with your response. For me, the book’s central conceit/metaphor makes up for any deficiencies. Regardless, I think you give yourself the best possible advice: keep trying some other SF texts but also don’t feel you need to like or appreciate anything.

    • Rohan Maitzen November 19, 2018 / 9:09 am

      Thanks, Dorian. I am really committed to the idea that reading is or at least can be about a learning process, so I try (at least when I’m reading something I have grounds for thinking is good of its kind) not to simply be dismissive if I don’t enjoy it. Actually, in spite of the James quotation I closed with here, I think that “fashion” of liking or not liking may be instinctive but that response can also change. I find conversations about books that rest only on taste pretty uninteresting.

  4. Bill from PA (@BillFromPennsy) November 21, 2018 / 10:29 pm

    I find myself more sensitive to style when reading fantasy than other fiction. Perhaps it’s because the words on the page, other than the ubiquitous up-front maps, are the first thing the reader encounters when entering the world the author has created. I think that with my favorite works fantasy it is the style that does a lot of the work of world building.

    In this regard, I’d recommend reading Ursula Le Guin’s essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” in the collection The Language of the Night where she talks about the importance for fantasy of getting the style and language right.

    I should add that I read almost no modern fantasy, mainly because I’m unwilling to commit to a series. I find the kind of experience you had at the end of this book very disagreeable.

    • Rohan Maitzen November 26, 2018 / 8:27 pm

      I got Le Guin’s collection from the library today: thanks for the tip! And the post of Adam’s that Tom links to is also a rich resource for a beginner like me.

      • Bill from PA (@BillFromPennsy) November 28, 2018 / 1:08 pm

        I enjoyed Adam Roberts’ history of SF very much, though maybe as much for his idiosyncratic take as for the history. Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree (née Billion Year Spree, the form in which I read it) is probably considered more standard.

        In some ways I like reading about SF more than reading the product itself. I don’t find that’s true of fantasy, perhaps because, other than Le Guin, I haven’t found any writers about fantasy I’ve enjoyed reading.

  5. Amateur Reader (Tom) November 21, 2018 / 10:55 pm

    I used to read a fair amount of fantasy in its various forms. Still do, I guess, since Kafka counts, but I have the same problem as Bill when it comes to much of what is shelved as “Fantasy” – I have to commit to 1,500 pages? Forget it. In Ye Olden Days, much more fantasy was originally printed in some form in magazines, which resulted in shorter novels and complete stories, even in series with recurring characters.

    I do not have much patience for worldbuilding as such, and value fantasy mostly for what Adam Roberts calls “transport” and which I would call imaginative invention pushed to the author’s limits. Stuff that makes me say “wow, cool.”

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