truth, delusion, paradigm shifts and power in The Fifth Season

Plato’s cave?
Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

There is power in fiction to illuminate themes operating IRL that would be too difficult to digest if they were articulated directly in forms like non-fiction or journalism. Fiction gets into our subconscious in ways that more-direct narratives would block by causing us to constrict in fear, shame, resentment, et cetera.

*some spoilers below*

In the last two posts about The Fifth Season I reported my progress up to where Essun had picked up with Hoa, Damaya had been broken into line by Schaffa and Syenite had begun to encounter the corruption and perversion at the heart of Yumenes’ exploitation of orogenes.

The themes were on point and building around the shift in narrative we need in our culture if we’re to survive the demise we are facing as a species:

  • all civilisations/empires eventually fall and we might be watching that happen around us IRL;
  • earth-centric traditional societies with immense power/wisdom and ancient traditions are feared and hated as the unknown, and simultaneously exploited as an illicit “use-caste” by imperial/colonial/European force;
  • by creating (or at least encouraging) fear of the other, the leadership have a divided people, which is much easier to manage manipulate and control for nefarious purposes than a united people (by creating a problem, the leadership can swan in and be seen to solve it);
  • the problem of the masses being educated solely for the purpose of making worker drones;
  • the ideology that the people are unable to manage themselves and therefore need government (and that they need protection from a threat manufactured by encouraging fear of the other – fear-mongering);
  • the gross immorality of a Big Brother state, with Yumenes surveilling the people through the node-maintainer stations;
  • the power of the elite to manipulate the telling of history – the treatment of stonelore in the Stillness seems very Orwellian;
  • the State in its hubris is catalysing its own collapse.

In light of this laundry list of disturbing themes, the radical resistance glowing in Alabaster is encouraging. Despite my reluctance to foretell plot developments, I suspect he is the unnamed man who caused the shake (the Yumenes Rifting) at the start of Essun’s narrative and the end of everyone else’s. His influence on Syenite, “making her question all the assumptions she’s grown up with”, is the most inspiring theme for me, and seems to flag the presence of a motive for such a resistance as violent as that shake.

A massive part of the Kokoro 心 Heart project is about questioning the half-buried beliefs and narratives that dictate our thoughts, feelings and behaviour, in the hope that we can rewrite a better future than our past seems to foretell. For me, such a project is the ultimate hero’s journey. And Alabaster might turn out to be the man who caused the shake, but Damaya:Syenite:Essun is obviously the hero in this trilogy, and I’m thrilled to be in the audience while she performs the role of this archetype through investigation of truth and reality rather than through the brute force represented by numpty Marvel “heroes”.

As her reluctant guide and mentor, Alabaster is leading the way by trying to reconcile what he knows about his potential compared with what he has been told by society is his purpose. He has a access to a capacity and potential for orogeny that no one in the Stillness even knows about, let alone understands, about which he says:

I don’t even know what I’m capable of, Syen. The things the Fulcrum taught me … I had to leave them behind, past a certain point. I had to make my own training. And sometimes, it seems, if I can just think differently, if I can shed enough of what they taught me and try something new, I might …”

And then “He trails off, frowning in thought”, which I find endearing because it romanticises how much time I spend doing the same face 🤔 What he is learning about his own capacity, along with the role of stone-eaters in the mystery unfolding in the Stillness, has to do with a “new” but-actually-old and progressive worldview that has long-been supressed by the power elite, but is emerging to challenge the narrative of the Stillness’ dominant scientific paradigm.

Sound familiar? There’s a parallel here with all the “new” sciences emerging today: the new physics, the new biology, the new mathematics (but not New Math?). By today I mean the last half of the twentieth century, but these things take time and a half-century is still just a blip really.

I love the overall metaphor that’s operating in The Fifth Season, and the awareness of what such metaphors catalyse in the subconscious of readers. IRL we know that the age of Western industrial capitalism cannot sustain itself indefinitely – that the greed engendered by its ideologies will eventually cause civilisation to eat itself unless a true civilisation emerges through the cracks, in the same way so-called weeds emerge through the cracks of dystopian pavement. The orogene are the “weeds” in this case.

And I don’t mean that in a disparaging way at all: I love weeds! And there’s no place, in our globalised economy that was always a global ecology, for denouncing one “plant” (read: human) over another because we humans believe we know better than Earth about where plants (or humans) should or shouldn’t be. There’s no place for denouncing one anything over any other anything, considering the limited capacity for perspective in the ream of ordinary human consciousness.

Demeaning orogenes at the same time as exploiting them for their other-worldly power is just the classic repugnant hypocrisy of elite power-mongers who must belittle and control others to feel good about themselves. It’s pathetic and we know this from our own experience of power-elites in Western culture, but what do we do about it?

One thing we can do is work on our own internal narrative to inoculate ourselves against the argument from the will to power: learn to cultivate self-worth and self-compassion, so that we don’t take our pain out on others or exploit them or the planet for the pleasures that would distract us from suffering; empower ourselves through interior cultivation of virtuous faculties, so that we are less tempted to play the elites’ power-games and less susceptible to their manipulative devices (e.g., advertising).

And if this process of inner-change feels painfully and frustratingly slow to the point of being futile, too-little too-late, we can take inspiration from Alabaster, whose fictional journey to overhaul his conditioned beliefs is the real work he’s doing in the Stillness. And we can rest into a faith that Gaia knows what she’s doing (this is where the concept of faith begins to make sense to me – not faith in some personal god or even in the teachings of a humble buddha, but in the machinations of a cosmos inhabited by Gaia).

In The Fifth Season, Father Earth knows better than the Fulcrum why the orogene have the power that they do, and the antagonist we most need to fear (in my reading of the metaphor so far) is our own ignorance of holistic planetary and cosmic systems that we so blithely fuck with in our hubristic anthropocentric way. And Father Earth is angry!

Do we live on “a planet that wants nothing more than to destroy the life infesting its once-pristine surface”, or does it just seem that way because our meddling is causing the planet to react in the same way a human body would react to an organ gone cancerous? Or the way an orogene reacts instinctively when threatened! Either way, I appreciate the reminder in this book that “human beings are ephemeral things in the planetary scale”.

These are the kinds of themes that lead us to the shift in narrative we need around our culture if we’re to survive the collapse we’re going through as a civilisation. The political elite in society pursue power and control because they are deluded in the belief that their worldview should be imposed on others, unaware that laws of karma and the machinations of the cosmos around them are unfolding a process they could never comprehend – the will to power arises from a deeply existential insecurity and inferiority complex, a deep frustration that we might never know the truth so we are better off manufacturing and propagating a truth that serves our deluded interests. I’m not even joking. When we understand this, we can begin to feel compassion for those who wish to exert power over others, knowing this wish is essentially psychotic.

So that’s where I left off with my last post about this excellent and (truly) epic sci-fantasy novel, which I am reading as slowly as possible because I want to savour it, imbibe those themes, steep myself in what the story is saying about the narratives we need to look at in our society. (I didn’t cover the whole psychosis idea in my last post, but this is the reading that’s beginning to emerge for me from The Fifth Season.)

Since my last update, Essun has been following Hoa’s lead south to find Nassun and they have picked up with Tonkee, the commless Seventh University trained transgender geomest who seems to be tagging along because of her fascination with Hoa. In the process of meeting Tonkee, Hoa has proved himself to be the most-bad-arse kid in the Stillness by turning a kirkhusa into crystal.

underground cities of Cappadocia in Turkey

They have continued south and bumped into Ykka, who is harbouring the Stillness’ largest comm of orogenes and stone-eaters, underground in a network of old mineshafts that reminds me of the sandstone underground cities of Cappadocia in Turkey, and yet more mystery is being alluded to – apparently orogeny can be used to build, maintain and power systems of infrastructure, not just keep the fault-lines of Yumenes stable. This hints at the potential for benevolence in the orogenes’ power, though prior to now in the history of Sanzed the unknown force of orogeny has been feared and therefore loathed as malevolent. Ykka seems to know otherwise, and is making a stand to demonstrate this.

And Hoa has found a friend – the stone-eaters are fucking wicked, to allow myself the use of a term from 90s Adelaide boganalia. Ykka has manipulated him to acquiesce at the orogene comm, by threatening to reveal what the stone-eaters are up to if he doesn’t accept her command and authority. I suspect the stone-eaters’ plan is something like the aliens in The X-Files 😉

Syenite has encountered a stone-eater as well, in a development of epic proportions that I found hard to put down even though it was past midnight when I was reading these sections. Her and Alabaster have arrived in Allia, where Alabaster gave a deputy governor a very gratifying dressing down for her blatant bigoted rudeness. He nearly got poisoned to death, probably not for this act of conscientious subordination, but probably for his connection with the obelisk in the harbour – he’s still speculating about this himself. Through witnessing how he used supplemented orogeny to extract the poison from his body, Syenite has learnt something she didn’t know she’d need to know about connecting orogeny to the deadciv obelisks.

While Alabaster was out of action, Syenite has managed to raise the damaged obelisk, replete with embedded stone-eater, from the harbour of Allia’s caldera. This unexpected development has raised alarm bells among the Fulcrum’s Guardians and perhaps the stone-eaters are curious as well, because now Syenite and Alabaster are on an island, thanks to Alabaster’s stone-eater friend, Antimony. An island that’s not only independent of Sanzed but run by orogenes. This is like a dream come true for the revolutionary Alabaster, but I suspect it’s the precocious Syenite who is going to be the one to own the dip-shit Fulcrum incumbents because the age of elitist tom-foolery slash blatant unscrupulous exploitation of the Other has come to an end.

As Syenite and Alabaster approach the community on this island, they discuss their confusion and uncertainty about the role of stone-eaters in the paradigm shift underway in the Stillness, and Syenite thinks:

A stone-eater is a thing that defies reason – like orogeny, or deadciv artefacts, or anything else that cannot be measured and predicted in a way that makes sense.

They can “move through rock like it’s air”, which makes me think of how little I understand about Einstein’s spooky action at a distance.

But it’s not really the Fulcrum incumbents that are the problem – the ~shadow government~ of Guardian factions are the ones with the real power, which they are guarding well by keeping secrets behind a loose brick in the Fulcrum.

Which brings me to Damaya, who has passed her first year at the Fulcrum and we’ve seen something of the “order to life” in that institution: the pecking order and the social politics (synonyms?); Maxixe, Jasper and Crack have had their come-uppance for bullying Damaya. To be honest, the chapter where this unfolded was anomalous in my opinion, out of place and dictated more by the author’s need than by the narrative’s need, but then, who is one reader to say a narrative needs this or that? Which is more important when it comes to reading a text: the author’s intentions, the reader’s interpretation, or the narrative itself? The narrative, I would say: the author’s need and the reader’s desire for meaning mean nothing alongside the life of its own that a narrative assumes once it is loose in the wild.

What am I trying to say here though? Simply that this chapter felt contrived compared to the way the author has unveiled the rest of the narrative. This chapter, in trying to establish the socio-political world of the grits at the Fulcrum, broke the fourth wall for me. It made me realise I was being told a story, where previously I had felt like I was encountering an alternative universe where themes related to our IRL issues were being played out. It’s an exposition problem, essentially, but I don’t want to unpack that here because this is a progress report not a critical essay. There are exposition problems elsewhere in The Fifth Season but they are fewer and less problematic than so much other sci-fantasy, so at this stage the text still falls for me in the category of literary-genre fiction, which is where I like my reading to inhabit. So that’s good!

Damaya has noticed Binof and they have transgressed to find the hidden space at the heart of the Main building. They have been caught by Timay, who has been killed by Schaffa because she slipped a gear and started wigging out, I think because she neglected to maintain her connection with her orogene charges. There is something mysterious being alluded to here and I like that – the suspense, I suppose you could call it, but I feel that’s a bit vulgar when we’re talking more about skilful world-building than we’re talking about a well-plotted (but otherwise vacuous) thriller. The murky political role and purpose of the Guardians is coming unveiled in the Syenite narrative as well. There are secrets that may have been forgotten since those who knew them are long-dead. But up-starts and underdogs will discover the truth and undermine the elite whose power is built on the sandcastles of delusion. Even Binof, a child of the Leadership, has clued on to the fact there are dubious holes in the history of Sanzed, and secret decisions that might have been adaptive in antiquity, but have now become maladaptive. And Damaya knows that something is off about the way she’s being treated during her “education” at the Fulcrum.

I can’t explain it better than that – that’s just a sense I have about the themes being articulated between the lines of fiction here.

I spoke to an old eccentric guy at the book section of an op shop during the time I was reading the chapters I’m reporting on here, and we talked about the power of fiction to illuminate themes operating IRL that would be too difficult to digest if they were articulated directly in forms like non-fiction or journalism. Fiction gets into our subconscious in ways that more-direct narratives would block by causing us to constrict in fear, shame, resentment, et cetera. I’ve written about this before in reference to books like The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín and The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar and it’s one of my favourite things ever, the way fiction does this.

Damaya seems to have been rescued by Schaffa, but she must now pass the first-ring test to prove that she is useful enough to justify her being retained at the Fulcrum despite her potential for rogue volatility that could jeopardise the delusion of the elites’ power. And she has chosen her “rogga” name Syenite, so that’s unfolding.

I made the mistake of glancing at a fan wiki early in reading The Fifth Season and someone mentioned that Essun, Damaya and Syenite are all the same person, but I’m yet to read when Syenite takes on the name Essun. Essun has mentioned her aptitude for assuming new identities, and I know she was someone else prior to the ten years she spent at Tirimo, but I’m not rushing to connect the dots with her and Syenite’s trajectory – I like to experience the author’s expertise at doing this to me, the dear reader, and I wouldn’t want to deprive you, dear authors, of the thrill of wondering when the penny will drop.

Overall I’m enjoying the novel very much. One insignificant short-coming is that for me I’d like to see more of how the Season of Essun’s narrative is impacting the world. It is said that “the all-encompassing horror of the Season is still a shock that no one can cope with easily”, but apart from the kirkhusa turning into carnivores and a stream of now-comless refugees on the roads, the horror of the Season has not really been illustrated. It may be that the Fulcrum fell along with Yumenes during the Rifting in the north, and this will likely result in the demise of the human race, but we only suspect this through Essun’s deductions.

This short-coming doesn’t detract at all from how much I am enjoying the book – it’s just something I would enjoy reading more of. The main thing is that the themes are on point: the age of Western imperialism is coming to an end, and we can facilitate the transition from an exploitative to a collaborative culture by cultivating inner narratives that go against the grain of the overculture’s self-interested ideology.

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If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to comment here or wherever you found the link, and share if you think others will be interested. I write here for love and sanity (and coffee money!), any engagement from readers such as your fine self is immensely encouraging.

For more post updates, find me on Twitter, on WordPress at the follow link below, or sign up for my little mailing-list newsletter here. I’m also on LinkedIn and Unifyd.

I wasn’t going to drop an affiliate link until I had finished it and could confidently vouch for it, but I’m going to take a punt: The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin.

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The affiliate links in case you missed them in the post and would like to purchase anything you’ve read about here:

The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín, an almost literary genre-thriller about fairies seeking vengeance for being exiled from Ireland.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, a brilliant magic-realist novel about the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and “a family caught in the maelstrom of post-revolutionary chaos and brutality that sweeps across an ancient land and its people”. I have a review I wrote somewhere on another computer, which I will publish here soon.

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