Reading: N. K. Jemisin — The Fifth Season

Another one I’d finished a while ago and haven’t gotten around to writing anything about. And I should probably reiterate — if I haven’t already — that even though these posts were supposed to be about why I was reading a particular book, too often I’m writing after I’ve finished, and it becomes something of a review.

So, I’ve heard about N. K. Jemisin a lot, and her name stuck because she’s been on the Tiptree Award Honour and Long Lists. As for why someone I’ve heard about so much has not been read until now, well, she’s written a lot of short stories, and that form isn’t my gear unless I already like an author a lot; and her novels are all series, and I’m not so into series, I don’t enjoy feeling obliged to buy another book if the preceding one finishes on a cliffhanger, nor going back years or decades in time to start at the beginning.

The Fifth Season is the first of a new series, and published in 2015, so as far as not banging up against my “Series? Fuck off!” monster, it didn’t. I quite liked it too, it’s all geology and geomorphology and plate tectonics, and volcanos and igneous provinces, and earthquakes, and supercontinents, all totally my gear. And the three-fold story of the same person across half a lifetime who is one of those few on this planet with ability to control geology.

It’s fantasy-ish, though could almost be sci-fi of the ‘augmented bodies who don’t know it because their civilisation forgot’ type, reminds me of Alastair Reynolds’ third in his Revelation Space trilogy, Absolution Gap, where the geology of the planet is as much an active participant and character as any of the people. Come to think of it, there’s quite a few writers I like who’ve done this: Charles Stross in Saturn’s Children, Kim Stanley Robinson in 2312, Iain M Banks in (among many) The Hydrogen Sonata or The Bridge, and I am totally up for this.

About now I would be writing how much I liked this and all, but there’s an elephant in the room, a transgender elephant. A trannyphant. Cisgender sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction writer writes ‘trans woman’ character in the 2010s, cringes ensue.

I think the fundamental reason why I’m reduced (or elevated) to monosyllabic swearing instead of proper eloquence and dispassionate analysis is I’m tired as all fuck of bullshit writing, and Jemisin’s attempt at a tranny character for me is that. And if right about now you’re all pissy over the word ‘tranny’ you can fuck right off. That’s Australia’s hectic and shining contribution to gender studies and it’s shitloads better than trans-fucking-asterix.

Jemisin proposes a planet in which gender is unremarkable, yet when the main character arrives at geoengineering training school and jumps into her first communal shower, she’s remarking on the trannys and their genitals, and then telling us how it’s unremarkable. Later, a main secondary character in one of the three sections is revealed to be a trans woman by reference to hormonal withdrawal mood swings, facial hair, and more penises. If only she’d thrown in some big hands. Obviously it’s not that she wrote a trans woman character that I’m frustrated about, it’s that she resorts to tropes or descriptors that aren’t so removed 1990s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective fuckery. I get the feeling it’s supposed to be a sensitive and caring portrayal of a trans woman, but it comes off as yet another cis writer who really doesn’t understand how little she gets it. When the majority of genitals discussed in a novel belong to trans women, it’s probably a problem.

What also frustrates me is how many hands and eyes this book (and others with the same issue) would have passed through and yet this is the best we got. Either no one went, “N. K., mate, yeah, we might wanna discuss this,” or if they did that presupposes a earlier version even more dodgy.

I’ve been reading sci-fi/fantasy solidly for over a decade now, and this recent need for cis writers to throw in a tranny character almost universally comes off like I’ve eaten something foul. Which is a shit, cos I want to read Iain Banks levels of skiffy with main characters whose identity I can feel an affinity for (and parenthetically, Banks’ imagining of gender in the Culture remains one of the most consummate and accomplished I’ve read, fiction or non-fiction).

I enjoyed The Fifth Season enough that — anti-series monster and all — I was up for reading the second part due in a month. I lay in bed devouring it, loving the geological life, the travelling through such landscape, the lives of the main character. But the withering look I must have had when the penis reveal rolled around, I dunno. Not sure I can.