This post will have tons of spoilers for The Fifth Season. If you want to read this book (and again, I suggest you do!), it’s a good idea to skip this post for now, and maybe come back when you’re done.
OK, let’s continue.
There are a number of moments that really stick to me. When young Damaya is told the foundational myth of their culture, and is swelling with pride and excitement about how she’s going to be just like the hero, and then is told in no uncertain terms “You are the villain. You are the monster we are defending ourselves from. You are Other.” The punch of being forced into the role of the hated enemy is visceral. And it allows us to feel empathy for this culture, and the things it must do to survive. That will be handy, since our protagonists are the villains of this world, and we will have this touchstone of learning to fear and hate the villains to come back to, established from very early on in the story.
Honestly, starting out the story with Alabaster destroying the world and wiping out humanity was an equally genius move. It tells us right from the start that this culture’s fears are justified.
Of course what makes a Tragedy a Tragedy is that the Tragic Figure (in this case, the Sanzed Empire) brings about their own destruction. Fifth Season portrays this beautifully, showing us exactly how Damaya is turned from a normal, spirited child, to the very monster that their society so fears. Much of the book is dedicated to showing this process, so I won’t restate every case of it, but my favorite is when she and Alabaster are forced to breed more children. In the initial scene, she comes to the realization that Alabaster is more traumatized by this than she is. He fears it more, and hates it more, and that fear is partially reflected as fear of her. And she LIKES this. She’s no longer entirely a helpless victim, this gives her a measure of delicious control. She is more the aggressor in this rape than he is, and that is a comfort. That sort of “the abused comes to embrace dealing out abuse of her own” is the type of detail that makes this novel so moving. Not because Jemisin thought to include it (something to this effect is required in this sort of story), but because she made us feel it too. We felt that measure of joy and relief in getting to be the powerful one, this one time, even if it does make us monsters. That is good writing.
But what really sealed this for me, and why I found this book so effecting, is a scene very early on. After the mayor of her town helps her to quite an extant – and does so without hedges or questions or compulsions! He puts himself at some personal risk to use his power to help her, because he is a genuinely good person and believes that is the Just thing to do – she is forced to kill him (and at least a dozen other innocent people near her) in order to fuel the magic to defend herself. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. Because he is part of this society. She just saw her husband murder their son, out of fear and hatred. And:
“The kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you.”
The internalized revulsion that leads a good man, a man she loved, to this sort of hate-murder of his own children, is not a flaw in a single man. It is not an incidence of mental illness. It is the well-known (and at least partially desired) result of this society. It cannot live in one man. It is the product of all of society, of everyone who participates in it, who accepts it, and does nothing to change anything about it. EVERYONE is complicit, and EVERYONE is equally deserving of condemnation for participating in and profiting from it. So when the complicit, even the friendly ones who smile and shake your hand, are caught up in the cycle of death they helped create, they are only getting exactly what they deserve. Very similarly to this excerpt from The Woman’s Room:
“Like a Jew just released from Dachau, I watch the handsome young Nazi soldier fall writhing to the ground with a bullet in his stomach and I look briefly and walk on. I don’t even need to shrug. I simply don’t care.”
Perhaps we’re bothered by this scene, occurring as it does very early in the novel. This scene is letting us know where we’re headed. Because the thing that this novel does is take us from the point of being just another average reader, to embracing that the world must be destroyed.
I spoke of this in Episode 7 of The Bayesian Conspiracy (“Kill All Humans?”), but if you haven’t heard it – when I was in college, I was pro-annihilation-of-mankind. Because all life is suffering. On net, existence is more pain than joy, and the most moral thing to do is end it all as quickly as possible.
I feel a lot better about life now, and no longer hold these views.
But a part of me still feels that. A part of me looks at the sealed box of Neon Genesis Evangelion DVDs on my shelf and thinks “Maybe I should watch that again…” A part of me suspects maybe I’m just in a local-maximum in my life right now, and eventually things will revert to misery, and that’s the natural and inevitable state of all human life.
This novel guides the reader to that place. It takes an entire novel to do it, because you can’t do it in less words than that. But it shows anyone who is willing to read it how one can come to that conclusion. No, not just shows – it makes the reader feel it as well. It brings understanding of that emotional state, on an emotional level. It allows others who read it to be, however briefly, Broken in the same way that I am/was Broken. And I appreciate that deeply.
I assume not everyone will get quite there. And I’m not sure people who have never felt that state in their past will feel as strongly about this book as I do. But to me, it was absolute perfection. That’s why I loved it so much. I hope others do too.
[EDIT: prediction time – since Alabaster has already doomed humanity to extinction, but *still* wants Essun to make it worse, his ultimate goal isn’t just the destruction of humanity. I’m thinking he has a plan for restoring/recreating a moon, which requires this level of destruction to make it happen, and he can’t do it alone. So even in this, he’s still trying to heal the world. :) ]