Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SF/F literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the members of an industry trade organization who are the professional peers of the award nominees—the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are seven nominees in the best novel category this year, and Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize, before the winners are announced on May 14th.
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N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season starts with the end of two worlds. The first apocalypse happens when a man raises his hands and cracks the world open with magic. The capital city of Sanze, an empire that spans the one and only continent on this planet, sinks into the earth in a cataclysm that can be felt hundreds of miles away. Earthquakes ripple out across the continent of Stillness–an ironic name for such a geologically active place–a harbinger of another Season. Seasons are extinction level events that happen with geological regularity in this world. A hundred years may go by, two hundred, before a tsunami swamps the single, massive continent, or a decades-long damp causes mold to grow everywhere, choking out all other life. Sanze has managed to survive multiple Seasons thanks to the government’s system of rigid, systematic lore, allowing enough of the population the skills and knowledge they need to rebuild after the worst happens. But this Season is going to be different: It will be a millennium, not a decade, before the dying time is over.
The other world’s ending is more personal. A woman sits on the floor of her living room with the body of her three-year-old son. He had manifested the powers of an orogene, a person with the ability to affect stone, to still earthquakes or create them. The fearsome power of the man who killed the capital city marks him as an orogene. It is precisely because of the potential for that kind of power that the orogenes are feared and mistrusted, mistreated and used. When the boy was marked as one, his father kicked him to death, and then left with the boy’s sister. His mother, Essun, now sits by the body, unable to move from her child’s side. It is the end of her world.
Essun is an orogene too. She was found out at much the same age, turned out of her town, abandoned by her family to be raised in a tightly circumscribed citadel for orogenes in the capital city. Wild roggas (the derogatory term for stone workers) are rare. Mostly, orogenes are bred like cattle in their captive city, used by the empire to manage the ever-moving landscape of Stillness. Orogenes are treated cruelly, like chattel, useful for the same qualities that cause them to be shunned. A world on the brink of apocalypse can justify many things; it is in the lore.
The Fifth Season follows three characters through the continent of Stillness, from inside the orogene’s citadel, to an island ruled over by pirates. The three threads weave together in unexpected ways. When the stories finally joined together, I was floored by the mastery of Jemisin’s writing, the way everything slides together with a nearly audible click. This is the first in a series, and I’m dying for the next installment.
Why it will win:
There are many similarities between The Fifth Season and last year’s Nebula winner, Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer. Both VanderMeer and Jemisin have been writing for a while, putting in their dues, so to speak, which definitely counts for something in an industry award. And I think both novels showcase their authors as they turn a corner in terms of craft and skill. I’ve been reading Jesimin for a while now. I’ve always liked her style. But with The Fifth Season, something has changed. She is fully in control of her prodigious craft, and it’s just a pleasure to read something so tight, so effective.
There are other odd convergences too. Both The Fifth Season and Annihilation have sections written in the second person, a stylistic choice that, like the first person present, gives readers something to argue about: can it be done in a way that’s not trite or hammy? Certainly, from the pens (or keyboards?) of less gifted authors, both tools can be wielded carelessly. But not so here. Here, the second person works seamlessly, unobtrusively, to draw you in and make you identify so strongly with that character. You are the one sitting next to your murdered son’s body. You are alone in a world that lays dying.
I cannot stress enough what a well written, imaginative, and layered novel The Fifth Season is.
Why it won’t win:
The Fifth Season is an epic fantasy novel. If you scroll back through the list of previous Nebula winners, you’ll note a clear preference for science fiction among Nebula voters. When a fantasy novel does win, it tends to be set in a contemporary world, with a twist (American Gods, Among Others). If it’s more straight up, ye olde fantasy, set in a less technologically advanced world-that-is-not-our-own, winners almost universally share a last name with Bujold or Le Guin.
Although, to rough up this observation a bit, I discounted Annihilation for exactly this same reason last year, and look where that got me. Both Annihilation and The Fifth Season defy easy labeling. Sure, it’s functionally magic, what the orogenes can do, and Essem is accompanied on the road by a magical rock creature, but so much of the tale recalls Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Strange obelisks hang in the sky, and every night is a moonless night.
Of course, the odd similarities between last year’s winner and this novel could be a strike against it as well. The Nebula voters seem to award in the best novel category via a changing set of criteria, depending on the strengths of the nominees at hand: well-established writers or first novel upsets, strange fantasy or comfortable sci-fi, a mix of all those things and none. As the first book I’ve considered in this year’s Nebula nominee series, I don’t have a basis for comparison yet. But if they’re all this good, man, am I looking forward to the next six.