Saturday, December 10, 2016
Tectonic Fantasy, Part Two: The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin
The Obelisk Gate is a sequel as complex and interesting as its predecessor, the Hugo-winning The Fifth Season.
First, the relatively minor issues. There's a bit of second-book-in-a-trilogy syndrome here. That new universe smell has worn off to some extent. The pace is a bit slow for much of the first half of the book. As with the first book, occasionally all that complexity and subtlety made it difficult to follow.
Despite these issues, there's a lot to love about this book on account of the world building, characters, and all-too-timely expansion of the social themes of the first book.
This world continues to be really cool. I love the Stillness, the sarcastically-named, highly tectonically active continent that provides the setting. The apocalypse that began in the first book has gotten worse. This "Fifth Season" threatens to be much, much worse than others, maybe an extinction level event. Essun and friends end up living in an underground geode for shelter from the beautifully-written terror of ash falling from the sky and general environmental mayhem. Things for humans have gotten a lot worse, creating the fantasy version of post-apocaylptic dystopia. Communities go into stark survival mode as old institutions die out. The plants and animals even get nastier as they adapt to their new environment. There are some particularly nasty bugs that play an important part in the story. The orogeny system from the first book is further explained and expanded in an interesting, if confusing, way (as more of a science fiction fan I'm always confused when fantasy authors get too deep into their magic system, so take my confusion with a grain of salt). There are other really cool big developments with the world, but I don't want to spoil them.
The two main characters of this book are Essun (one of the main characters from book one) and her daughter Nassun (who is on the run elsewhere). They're both complex characters whose bad assery is mixed with plenty of emotional nuance. There's also Alabaster, a surprise character who gets a lot of time, a few of the minor characters from book one (my favorite is Tonkee), and some new characters.
One of the strengths of the series continues to be its diversity: we meet humans of all shapes, sizes, colors, sexualities, and so forth. Women are full human beings who are often in charge. (See here for why I think diversity is a good thing for science fiction and fantasy). It's refreshing to read a fantasy epic that's not about a young white man saving the day in a vaguely medieval European setting. Jemisin continues to show that fantasy can do more than re-hash Tolkien without Tolkien's genius, thus side-stepping my typical complaint about the fantasy genre.
The Philosophy Report
As I noted in my review of the first book, one of the major themes of that book was the complexity of living in an unjust society that might simultaneously benefit and oppress the individuals within it. This theme gets an interesting complication in the second book as the institutions from the first book have dissolved, leaving the characters to find their ways in new social dynamics that nonetheless carry the scars of past injustices.
The biggest example is the continuing prejudice against the orogenes (or "roggas" in the derogatory parlance). Although the apocalypse has erased the old social structures that both privileged and controlled the orogenes, the bigotry against them still remains, often dangerously so. At one point the rights of the orogenes to exist within a community are put to a vote and ... well, I'm trying to keep this spoiler free, but it raises one of the major issues in theories of democracy: the tyranny of the majority. Majority-rule democracy may be a good thing, but what if it's used to persecute hated minorities?
I'm just going to come out and say that reading The Obelisk Gate a few weeks after the election of Donald Trump here in the US and amid the general resurgence of blatant bigotry around the world in recent years made these themes cut a bit deeper. Quite frankly, the more I think about this book the more I find it unsettling and disturbingly relevant. This is not escapist fantasy. Far from it.
Both our world and the world of The Broken Earth series face similar exigent issues. How can we live together when some segments of the population hate and fear others, when old bigotries are unleashed in new forms like the so-called "alt-right" or Rabid Puppies, an example all too familiar to Jemisin herself? Can we learn to embrace the diversity of humanity that has been with us all along, or will the tribalisms and injustices of the past reassert their dominance? How will we survive the stark possibilities of our own impending climate apocalypse?
I don't know how to answer these questions. Reading this book won't answer them, either. But if there are answers to these questions - and that's a big if - facing them squarely and thinking clearly and creatively will be essential. And there Jemisin may have something for us.
See also my Goodreads review, which precipitated an interesting discussion on the political elements of the book with the author of the excellent blog, Weighing a Pig Doesn't Fatten It.