What I’ve Been Reading, June 2018

Currently I’m catching up on all the issues of Asimov’s that I wasn’t reading while I was over in Spain, and other short stories. As far as books, I’m mostly reading them via audiobooks, but I am still reading them.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin — Boy am I late to this party. The Fifth Season is the first in the Broken Earth trilogy, which in itself holds two Hugo Awards for best novel and one Nebula Award for best novel, not to mention three nominations for each of those awards—and it may just clutch a third Hugo Award this August. So yeah, I am late as fuck to a hell of a party.

The accolades are earned. The Fifth Season takes place in a world (Earth?) periodically ravaged by tremendous apocalypses, called “Fifth Seasons” or simply “Seasons.” These global catastrophes usually originate from seismic activity, though grow out of control from there (e.g. an erupting volcano can cause years of winter, a fissure in the earth can release hallucinogenic gas causing a “season of madness” …) The only bulwarks against these Seasons are the orogenes, a subsection of humanity gifted with the ability to sense and quell tremors in the earth, among other things. This first book in the trilogy is split into three narrative strands, each focused on an orogene at a different point in their development, the oldest of which is actually living through a Season, trying to find her daughter.

I won’t talk much more about the story/stories of Fifth Season, because I think it’s the book’s weak point—in as much as healthiness is the weak point of a cake. Fifth Season isn’t really trying to tell a ripping yarn, at least not throughout all of the book. Later on, plot developments start to thicken, but the first half of the book is largely focused on exploration of the world, and of the interior of these characters. In this, Fifth Season excels.

A concept I’ve heard Jemisin discuss in a few interviews is the fact that, “Depending on who you’re talking to in our society, we are in a dystopia right now.” (Science Friday.) Too often, the oh-the-horror element of dystopia is just something that already happens to oppressed groups, but now it’s happening to middle-class white people!!!!!! Honestly, the brilliance of Fifth Season is that it’s not dystopic. The brilliance of it is that things are pretty bleak during the Season and before it, at least for the orogenes. Dystopia usually accents its bleakness by posturing itself against modern times, or maybe against an idealized past slightly before modern times. Look how far we’ve fallen, it says. Look where the road we are on will lead usThe Fifth Season seems to say, Look at where we are. Although there are some allusions to an ancient civilization that poisoned the natural world, enraging Father Earth and causing the current state of instability, this is hardly the greatest source of misery as presented in the book. The real big bad is a kind of systemic, institutionalized segregation and exploitation of orogenes.

An added layer of brilliance is that none of the classism or bigotry of the Sanzed Empire (the dominant hegemon of this world) maps perfectly onto real world racism and classism, yet it all rings so. fucking. true. Every atom of the power structures at play in Fifth Season is recognizable, yet their combination is uniquely organic to the world and magic system Jemisin has created. In this way, it is an incredibly powerful portrayal of institutionalized oppression that gets at how these structures persist, and how they manifest in the psyches of individual people. The book does an excellent job showing the difficulties in navigating a world of conflicting social pressures: orogenes are the only thing holding back apocalypse, but they are also the source of all apocalypse. Orogenes can gain power and status, but only if they conform to the propriety politics of the upper castes of imperial society. Orogenes have to present themselves as non-threatening, but also can’t undersell their power. And I’m not even talking about the caste system or the commless population, or the gender politics of the world.

Jemisin’s ability to individualize enormous, societal systems, and the intersections of multiple systems of oppression, is on a par with Morrison or Baldwin—but it’s fantasy, and, although I haven’t even talked about it, the magic system is super inventive too!

It took a few chapters for me to really get invested in it, but the book only picks up more and more steam as it goes—both in terms of narrative pace and depth of world-building. I can’t wait to read the next two—or listen to them, as I did with this book, which I can highly recommend. The narrator, Robin Miles, is fantastic, adept in performing the narration and various voices/accents of the novel.

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick — As the subtitle says, this non-fiction book tells the story of “The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” which sunk in 1820 after being attacked by a sperm whale. This unprecedented occurrence (sperm whales never purposefully attacked ships) caused a sensation in the early 19th century, and served in part to inspire Melville’s Moby-Dick. Following the sinking of the Essex, the crew boarded their smaller whaleboats and set sail for South America—but their journey would be beset with hardship after hardship, and leave just eight survivors in the end. Though maybe saying “just eight” is unfair, considering how frequently in the narrative it seems that no one will make it out alive.

If this book were just the narrative of the survivors of the shipwreck, it would be a captivating read. However, what I found so enthralling about it was the amount of context Philbrick brings to surround this core event. The first chapter, for example, is a fascinating portrait of Nantucket society, an island world all of its own, leading the whaling industry in the 18th and early 19th centuries. But as the Essex sets off, then meets its fate, and as the survivors strive to get back to land, Philbrick branches out to bring in even more of his research to round out the narrative. Reading this book, I learned about whaling, about the Pacific Ocean, about severe dehydration, about coping mechanisms in the face of calamity, about cannibalism, and much more.

The book is well worth a read, and the audiobook is well worth a listen.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robison — Between The TerrorIn the Heart of the Sea, and Aurora, I’ve been into lots of survival-on-ships stories these past few weeks—though the survival in Aurora is obviously very different, and not as extreme and grim as either of those other tales. Kind of. In other ways it’s more extreme.

Aurora is about the inhabitants of a generation ship sent to colonize the moon of a gas giant 12 lightyears away from Earth, and what happens as they approach and eventually reach that moon—which they name Aurora. Knowing this basic set-up going into the book, I expected a pretty basic plot, where the ship would reach the moon and colonization would commence. KSR would identify a few key players, charismatic crew members who would in some way shape this new society (in this my expectations were somewhat met—though I was unprepared for one of those key players to be the AI of the ship itself) and colonization would progress more or less as planned. We’d get to see weird experimentations with government, maybe some interesting scientific discoveries, and the beginnings of the next generation following in the footsteps of our key players. My thinking was, Oh, look, Robinson has created this perfect little isolated world, a controlled environment, where he can really take a look at radical new versions of society and government, without all the muck of Earth getting in the way. I mean, he does that a little in his Mars trilogy, which I love, though mainly towards the end—so I expected an expansion of that here.

But that’s not what this book is. Rather than going smoothly, things go poorly as the ship sends its first landing party down to Aurora, and then go worse, and then go a lot worse. That’s where those themes of survival come into play, as well as civil strife. Present throughout the book are questions like, What happens when a plan that was set in motion almost two centuries ago doesn’t work out perfectly?, What happens when people who have lived in enclosed spaces all their lives step out into a ceilingless world?, Is it even ethical to create a generation ship?, and, a question for the colonists, What were our ancestors trying to get away from? A great deal of the tension of the book comes from that conflict between the massive inertia of expectations which comes with a generation ship setting off to colonize a new world and the realities that must be faced upon arrival. One quote that I adore is:

“There are ecological, biological, sociological, and psychological problems that can never be solved to make this idea work. The physical problems of propulsion have captured your fancy, and perhaps they can be solved, but they are the easy ones.”

Which feels like an indictment of the whole idea of generation ships, so, yeah. This book is cool. And props to the narrator of the audiobook, Ali Ahn, for performing a book that is mostly narrated by an artificial intelligence without having it become boring. I wasn’t a huge fan of The Years of Rice and Salt or New York 2140 (I know he’s written other books, but that’s all I’ve read since I finished Blue Mars), but this book has reconvinced me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s greatness. And god damn do I want to reread the Mars trilogy now.

So that’s what I’ve been reading. I also recently read Ursula K. Le Guin’s No Time to Spare, which is delightful and thought-provoking, if a bit scattered (it is all from blog posts after all [that’s a self-dig]), and Night by Elie Wiesel, which is great, though I don’t feel like I have much to say about it that hasn’t been said. Read_it.rtf.

Blog housekeeping: The blog will be on hiatus until August 3rd, at which point it will resume with weekly posts—probably with the second half of The War of Paraguay. And I’m sure there’ll be a few blog posts in the mean time, just not weekly posts.

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