Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Tectonic Fantasy, Part Three: The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin is the third in the trilogy following The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate.  As both of this novel's predecessors won the Hugo for Best Novel, there were a lot of expectations for this one.  How does it hold up?

The world building is still excellent, but for some reason this conclusion of the trilogy didn't feel quite as amazing as its predecessors.  Still, it has some good points (we learn more about the world, the story wraps up, etc.), so it's worth reading if you enjoyed the first two.

The Fifth Season (see my review) was a ground-breaking (literally) work of fantasy or technically maybe "science fantasy" (i.e., fantasy for people who usually like science fiction).  It was unique in its world building and innovative in its structure and writing style (particularly in making present tense, second person somehow work in fiction).  The second volume, The Obelisk Gate (see my review), did less with the world building but more with the themes of oppression and living within an unjust system.

This third volume does more with the world building than I was expecting, including quite a bit of back story of how the world got to be the way it is.  I don't want to give any spoilers, but it's really cool.  We even find out what the deal is with the Stone Eaters (sort of) as well as the Moon.  Some of this is a bit tricky to piece together, but I thought it was worth the effort.

Unfortunately, the cool stuff doesn't really come together right away.  I found it hard to get through some of the first part of the book, which maybe went on a bit longer than necessary.  Jemisin is also expecting the reader to remember a lot of the details from the previous books.  Maybe I'm a bad reader, but it's been over a year since I read book two.  It sometimes took me awhile to remember who was who or why they were doing what they were doing.  Occasionally I couldn't tell if I couldn't remember something or if it was deliberately mysterious.  I still enjoyed the book, but I can't say I completely understood everything.

It does come together in the end (mostly, anyway; all the orogeny/magic stuff remains pretty hazy for me).  Some of the seemingly odd stylistic choices will make sense in the end (one in particular I'm super tempted to spoil, but I decided to keep this spoiler-free).

The Philosophy Report

Philosophically, there's a lot one could say about a trilogy this complex.  Would a volatile world like this change human nature?  Is a Stone Eater a person?  What is the line between science and magic? Let me concentrate on two related issues: one explicitly discussed in the book, another that Jemisin has discussed in interviews.

The character Nassun comes to believe that she must destroy the world, because a world with this much suffering and injustice is simply not worth it.  This sets up a confrontation with her mother and ... okay, I was keeping this spoiler-free.

You don't have to do more than glance at the news to see that our world, too, has a lot of suffering and injustice (thankfully we don't have anything quite like Fifth Seasons ... although a super-volcano, a meteor, or anthropogenic climate change could easily change that...).

If you had the power to destroy this world, would you?  Or is there enough good or potential for good for the world to be worth saving, as some of the characters in the book think?  Shifting to somewhat less theoretical terms, is our social and political world irredeemably corrupt such that a withdrawal into cynicism or indifference is justified?  Or is there hope for redemption or at least slight improvement?  Is social and political involvement worthwhile, or should you focus on personal cultivation in your one precious life?  One way to dramatize this is in terms of Hellenistic philosophy: Stoics advocated political action whereas Epicureans preferred to withdraw from politics.  Can Jemisin help us think through these issues in the world of this series that is all-things-considered even shittier than our world, Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, and all?

This question points, I think, to a theme from the book that didn't crystalize for me until I encountered some interviews with Jemisin (this one from NPR's Science Friday is an example).  She points out a basic problem of believability in the kind of dystopian scenarios that have become all the rage recently:  In these stories it is often the rogue loner who is willing to do anything, who sheds the oppressive tenets of morality, that survives.  But if you look at human history, we have always survived in groups through cooperation.  We, as the Beatles might say, get by with a little help from our friends.  The fantasy of the rogue loner makes absolutely no sense.

I would go so far as to say that this fantasy represents the kind of hyper-individualistic theory of human nature that you find in Thomas Hobbes, many contemporary economists, Ayn Rand libertarians, current US Presidents, etc.  What's odd about this theory of human nature is that it touts itself as "rational" when it resolutely ignores all evidence of human history and human nature: namely, that we naturally care about each other and cooperate for the greater good.  No wonder countries like mine (the US) have such identity crises: we are social beings convincing ourselves that we are anti-social.

This isn't to say that humans always get along in blissful harmony.  Jemisin is pretty clear about that, often brutally so.  But she's also clear that the characters need to cooperate to survive, as hard as that can be.  This comes up again with the choice between destruction and attempting improvement.  Although the last installment of the trilogy wasn't my favorite, you need to read it to get a sense of how the trilogy as a whole sheds light on these questions.  I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say that Jemisin gives some food for thought on who we are, who we want to be, and what sorts of difficult choices we face here in this world.

Rating: 88/100

See also my Goodreads review.

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