Refugees in a World of Climate Change and Injustice
Interviewed about his recent study projecting that as many as 3.5 billion people may within the century live in extreme heat zone, scientist Martin Sceffer notes, “and it turns out that if climate change remains on the current track, then a lot more will change in the coming 50 years than have changed in the past 6,000.” Indeed, in both the near and far future, climatic variations threaten to create new environmental challenges, as well as to exacerbate old ones, making large portions of the planet uninhabitable. The result will be millions, if not billions, of climate refugees, and a world of perpetual instability.
Jemisin invites us to imagine these scenarios throughout The Fifth Season, as we watch comms fragment alongside the world beneath them, offering a study in the causes and effects of climate crises — and the human dimension, in particular. And in many ways, those projected to suffer from the worst of the climate crisis — due to extreme heat and rising sea levels, particularly in the global south — inhabit worlds as distant to the reader as The Stillness itself, at least for those in the developed world positioned to prevent the worst.
The Fifth Season, then, invites us to imagine a world very much our own, as well as to consider the fundamental questions that will prove critical to humanity’s survival. That is, how can communities cope with radical instability and uncertainty? What kinds of civilizations can endure the coming climate context? What kinds of responsibilities do those in power have toward those most afflicted, and how does “apocalypse” take on a compound meaning in situations of political and environmental injustice? As new — and devastating — studies continue to pour out, these questions could not be more urgent, and speculative fiction can play a critical role in addressing them.
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Problems and Progress in Sci-Fi and Fantasy
Sci-Fi and fantasy has, like much of the broader publishing industry, long been a white boy’s club. But the sci-fi and fantasy community stands out in the degree of its institutional racism and sexism, home to a decades-old culture of animosity toward black writers, and black women in particular. Tensions erupted with the “Puppies” controversy, led by several leading writers in the genre, a “protest against the fact that nominees for the Hugo awards have become substantially less white and less male,” as The Guardian has put it. The Puppies — whose leader, Vox Day, a writer in the genre, at one point called Jemisin a “half-savage” — ultimately sought to rig the Hugo Award nomination process, to the exclusion of writers such as Jemisin.
Jemisin broached these matters directly during her keynote speech at the Continuum convention in Australia, pointing to a “ten percent” in the genre as responsible for the genre’s more harmful, and shameful, moments: “But scale up again. Imagine if ten percent of this country’s population was busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges, not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.” Nor did she exempt the “enablers,” or those who sat, and continue to sit, in passivity.
Thus, as more women and writers of color begin to emerge in the genre, sci-fi and fantasy finds itself at something of an inflection point, and Jemisin is at the center of it. As she notes in the speech, “It is time that we all recognized the real history of this genre, and acknowledged the breadth and diversity of its contributors. It’s time we acknowledged the debt we owe to those who got us here — all of them.” As in her fiction, Jemisin proposes a cautious optimism about the genre’s future, one that she will surely continue to occupy a central role in.
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Political Hope and Revolution in American Politics
Reporting on the 2020 Democratic Party primary, the Washington Post noted, among black voters, “a sense that past political engagement has been met with broken promises and little progress for struggling communities.” As the reporting — and later, the primary election results — revealed, the black Democratic vote was motivated not by the promise of revolutionary hope and change, embodied by Bernie Sanders, but rather a pragmatic strategy to oust Donald Trump, seen in Joe Biden. Indeed, many voters described an exhaustion with political hope, having lost faith in the promises for racial justice advanced, often by Democratic politicians, for decades. This debate has manifested elsewhere, at the popular-intellectual level, in the contrast between Barack Obama’s political hope and the more sober, sometimes pessimistic tone found in author and former Atlantic correspondent Te-Nehisi Coates.
In other words, political hope and the possibility of change — topics explored in detail throughout The Fifth Season — remain salient subjects in American political discourse, as competing views of revolution and possibility dominate the 2020 campaign. We see many of these stances represented in the novel, and Jemisin herself engages with the subject directly during interviews. Of political change, Jemisin notes that “incremental change means a lot of people suffering for a very long time, mostly so that the people in the status quo can be comfortable longer. The people pushing incremental change aren’t the ones who are suffering. And sometimes a revolution is necessary; sometimes you do have to burn it all down. I wanted to depict realistically what that’d be like.”
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Caleb Owens 2020