Home > Clement's Game > Fantasy Round 47: The Fifth Season

Fantasy Round 47: The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season just won the Hugo Award for best novel, and it’s well deserved.

It’s good enough and unique enough that I’m going to throw in some literary commentary along with the science nitpicking — at no additional cost!

Also, I strongly advice against reading this review until you’ve read the book.  The novel is worth reading fresh.

I’m also writing this without having yet read the sequel, The Obelisk Gate, so if you’ve read the first book but not the second, everything below is all either in the first book or my own speculation.

I read the novel, but I still don't know what this piece of sculture or architecture on the front is about.

I read the novel, but I still don’t know what this piece of sculture or architecture on the front is about.

Point of View

The Fifth Season is an unusual book in that much of it is conducted in the second person, and in the present tense.  It’s exceptional; I can’t think of another book I’ve read outside of the choose-you-own-adventure genre that uses it so extensively.

Certainly, there are passages (in this book and others) where the “you” being referenced is “you, the reader, listening to this story”; this is not that.  This invites you to step into the protagonist’s head, and feel as though you are living her terrible, tumultuous life.  It makes the horrors just a bit more visceral.

The other interesting POV trick is that the three main characters — Damaya, Syenite, and Essun — are all the same person at different points in her life.  This becomes apparent quickly, as the dramatic beginning of the worst Fifth Season on record begins early in Essun’s story, but never happens in the stories of the others… implying that they occurred earlier, but not too much earlier.  It’s a fun puzzle in the form of non-linear storytelling.

Finally, it’s also clear that many of the “long ago” and ageless commentary comes from Hoa, the mysterious stone eater.  I look forward to learning more about what’s up with him…

Eighter, Niner, Tener

Is there really enough energy?

I’m assuming that these words are derived from the magnitudes describing the amount of energy released in a given earthquake.

On Earth, the biggest recorded earthquake was the quake centered near Valdivia, Chile in 1960, at a magnitude of about 9.5.  And, according to Wikipedia, only a handful of quakes in recorded history were above a 9.0.

On the moment magnitude scale, a 9.5 earthquake releases about 2×10^23 Joules of energy.  For comparison, the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan during WWII had about 10 kilotons of TNT each, which is about 4×10^13 J, or almost 10^14 times less.  Even the biggest H-bombs didn’t get more than 1000 times more energetic than the earliest ones…

In short, earthquakes are big and scary.  But, there’s a limit: they can’t get much bigger than a 9.5.  Why?  Earthquake size depends on the size of the fault that’s slipping to cause the quake.  The longer and deeper the fault, and the more area involved, the more energy can come out of the quake.

And on Earth, the biggest fault line… is the one that caused that Chilean quake in 1960.

So, on our present-day Earth, a “tener” is never going to happen.  There are, of course, ways to get around that, by changing the planet, or going to a different one, but it all boils down to two options: make the fault line bigger, or make the underlying tectonics more energetic.

Option 1 is easier on a bigger planet, since it’s harder to get much longer fault lines than Chile’s without having something that goes across half the world.

Option 2, adding more energy, requires either really screwing up the Earth somehow, or not being on Earth.  Io, for example, is enormously volcanically active due to tidal heating of its interior by Jupiter.  Another planet elsewhere might have more radioactive isotopes in its rocks, increasing the amount of interior heating and making its mantle more volatile.  A large number of large asteroid impacts could also… have an impact, so to speak, but I would have expected to see some evidence of craters in that case.

Or, you could get just your super-quake by throwing orogeny (i.e., magic) into the mix.  So, there’s that option.

What Happened And Where Are We?

These questions still unanswered at the end of the book.

Oh, sure, the basic answers are there — the continent Stillness on the planet called Earth or Father Earth, deep inside a hidden community.  The bigger ones are less obvious: is this intended to be a distant future of our own Earth?  And what happened to the Moon?

An attentive reader will notice a mention early in the book that astronomy is no longer practiced much, and that people watch the ground more than the sun and stars, and have forgotten what used to be there.  Moons are… conspicuously absent from the story until Alabaster mentions the word at the very end.

Thus, the question becomes: If this is Earth, what happened?

The easiest theory to consider is suggested by the old, oral story of why Father Earth is now so “angry”: somebody killed his son, implied to be the Moon.  The possibility here is that, sometime in the now very-distant past, some overpowered orogene or high-tech person decided to steal the Moon, or destroy it, or something similarly foolish.  If you blow up the Moon, and drop enough chunks of it onto the Earth, that could heat up the Earth… a lot… and also make it very geologically active, as in the impact scenario I mentioned earlier.

After its surface cools down from the level of molten slag, that is.  The main problem I have with this theory is that I don’t see how anyone or anything could have survived a Moon-hits-Earth level event.  We’re not talking dinosaur-extinction level; we’re talking Late Heavy Bombardment.  That kills everything.

To make this work, we need humanity to have moved to space stations for a long time, and then come back to Earth, with appropriate amounts of stored supplies and plants and animals.  Or have done some technomagical thing to live somewhere extremely deep underground, safe from all the ridiculous heat.  (Perhaps this could relate to the big geode in which the Castrima comm is hidden…)

Just stealing the Moon — throwing to somewhere far away, turning it into a giant deep-space generation ship, or whatever — wouldn’t actually change the Earth’s geology that much, aside from the new lack of lunar tides, so we’d need some other explanation for the Earth’s suddenly volatile geology.

Regardless, once that issue’s taken care of, the rest is straightforward.  The organ now used by humans to “sess” tremors, or by orogenes to control them, is clearly the result of genetic engineering combined with selection.  The stone-eaters could be artificial lifeforms — perhaps computer related, given that Hoa refers to the stones he eats as being him and also an “efficient storage medium.”

What all this has to do the with mysterious obelisks… I don’t know.  And I also don’t know why Alabaster apparently thinks it’s a great idea to open up a gigantic rift, and then make it worse.  I can only imagine that he wants to make a new Moon to appease Father Earth (and maybe chill out the seismic activity)… which could be awkward for everyone concerned.


  1. michaelbusch
    2016/09/05 at 12:31 pm

    Two comments:

    (1) I suspect that the planet that hosts the Stillness is not actually Earth. Jemisin has done interesting fictional worlds before – such as a world that was the habitable moon of a gas giant: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Killing_Moon_(book) . But I don’t know what secrets she has plotted and not yet revealed.

    (2) It is just barely possible to get a magnitude-10 quake on Earth; if the entire Peru-Chile Trench were to rupture all at once. But that’s not going to happen unless someone magically controls the plate motion… Also; simply increasing the heat flow can give more quakes, but not necessarily _larger_ quakes; because quakes require rock that is rigid and not plastic.

  1. 2016/09/10 at 9:29 am

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