The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin boasts one of contemporary fantasy’s great first lines: “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.”
I could go on about what works in these two sentences. I can wax—and indeed have waxed, in earlier drafts—tedious about all the little hows and whys that make Jemisin’s opening gambit effective. But what’s ultimately interesting here has less to do with things like character, or tone, or the narration’s self-reflexive attitude toward storytelling. What matters here instead is the implicit challenge, the casual middle finger, that the novel tosses off at the rest of the genre.
After all, for much of classic fantasy, and high fantasy especially, the end of the world is a destination—a moment of culmination, an instance in which climax and apocalypse get to coincide. For C.S. Lewis, it is the end of the world as we Pevensies and fauns, beavers and centaurs know it that brings The Chronicles of Narnia to a conclusion. For J.R.R. Tolkien, meanwhile, and Peter Jackson too, it is inevitably at the walls of Minas Tirith, or the slopes of Mount Doom, or the threshold of Mordor’s Black Gates, where the “doom of our time” must be decided. In so many classic fantasy stories, the end of the world, or the possibility of the end, is what drives the plot. But in Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, the end of the world is merely where we begin.
I’m teaching Jemisin’s 2015 novel at the end, appropriately enough, of a course on contemporary fantasy literature, in a unit titled “Imagining the End: Fantasy and Apocalypse.” The story’s a good fit. For all that its opening line assures us that the novel’s interests lie elsewhere, The Fifth Season does not skimp on the spectacle of apocalypse. Set on a fantasyland-supercontinent called the Stillness, The Fifth Season imagines the catastrophic consequences of a sudden, thunderous slippage of plates tectonic. In the first dozen pages alone, rocks grind, magma plumes, and in the wake of an eruption that would dwarf even the supervolcano slumbering beneath Yellowstone National Park, millions upon millions die. And millions more perish in the fallout. As ash and gas heave skyward, settling thick and heavy in the atmosphere, temperatures drop. On the horizon, the still-convulsing earth reflects redly against a gray underbelly of cloud. The Rift, as The Fifth Season terms it, is a disaster the size and duration of which the narrator can express only at the level of the planet. “Plants everywhere,” the narrator states,
will die, and the animals that depend on them will starve, and the animals that eat those will starve. Winter will come early, and hard, and it will last a long, long time. It will end, of course, like every winter does, and then the world will return to its old self. Eventually. . . .
Eventually meaning in this case in a few thousand years.
And in the meantime, against all this death and destruction, the true heart of the story—the “more interesting” thing, as promised in the novel’s second sentence: a mother, mourning her murdered child.
I confess that in class I’ve done a poor job of replicating The Fifth Season’s stated preoccupations. But I try not to blame myself too much. In our world, the real world, where the window for halting climate change at +1.5° Celsius constantly narrows; and where species extinguish at an alarming rate; and where the possibility of catastrophic sea-level rise and mass migration, of war and xenophobia transforms, it seems, inexorably into a certainty; it’s hard not to think apocalyptically. Unethical, perhaps, to do otherwise. And so, through The Fifth Season, I have encouraged my undergrads to think about the end, to think about what it means to imagine the good life in a way that differs radically from the one that their parents and their grandparents have prepared them to imagine. To think about the emergence of a world in which human vocation exceeds the narrow confines of a job, or a nuclear family, or yet another contribution to that idol of futurity, the 401k.
Of course, I don’t tell my students all this, not in so many words. Maybe I should. But to their credit, my students have played along; they’ve thought about what I ask them to think; and, beyond that, they’ve continued, same as always, to prepare for the more immediate inevitability of their next exam.
For students, it’s hard to get around the demands of the semester. Same for me. Same for anyone, really. Faced with an endless influx of papers to grade, books to read, and articles to write, I struggle for perspective. I suspect it’s this want for perspective that, paradoxically, makes apocalyptic fantasies like The Fifth Season so attractive. Confronted with the end, we find our hands forced.
Confronted with the end, we have no choice but to imagine otherwise. To imagine bigger.
The harder task by far, I think, is to imagine what change and responsible action looks like now, in the midst.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.