Further Research

Hope, Imagination, and Civilization on a Warming Planet

Learn more about:  Amitav Ghosh on climate change.

In his seminal critical work, The Great Derangement, novelist Amitav Ghosh pits the novel in its Modern historical context, writing that “the novel was midwifed into existence around the world, through the banishing of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday” (Ghosh, 17). The novel, he argues, and its prescribed form cannot be extricated from the bourgeois world of order and regularity in which it arose. That is, the modern novel — in its attention to the ordinary, its essential slowness — seems almost fundamentally incapable of grappling with true atrocity and perpetual improbability. “Exceptional” events must be introduced only sparsely and tentatively; engaged with only inasmuch as they conform to novel’s restricted scope of believability. Thus, the novel, Ghosh contends, seems uniquely unable to conceptualize the reality of climate change, a reality at once present and foreign, rationally comprehensible but imaginatively inconceivable, occurring at a scale that exceeds the novel’s formal limits, and requiring unprecedented inventive creativity. And Ghosh is often dismissive, or at least dubious, of the ability of science and speculative fiction to compensate, particularly in their “other-wordly” abstraction, acknowledging the problem and even amplifying it, but from a secure distance. Jemisin’s Fifth Season may pose a formidable challenge to this diagnosis, and may even strike the sort of compromise Ghosh seems to seek, as it toggles often between conventions of literary fiction — particularly in its dialect and single-character emphasis — as well as the fantastical. 

Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. University of Chicago Press, 2016.


Learn more about:  Lear’s Radical Hope in our time.

Lear’s Radical Hope advances a compelling framework for interpreting and reconceiving hope in contexts of civilizational collapse, looking in particular to the destruction — and eventual survival — of the Crow Nation. He points, in particular, to an ostensibly idle comment from Plenty Coups, a Crow leader, following the destruction of his way of life: “But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened” (Lear, 2). After the last of the buffalo died, Lear contends, the symbolic order of the Crow Nation ceased to be, their former contexts of choice and possibility annihilated. This, according to Lear, forces a predicament of “radical hope,” wherein hope must take something utterly unrecognizable and radically reimagined as its object. The Fifth Season explores this civilizational precarity in a world of constant destruction, with moments of hope that may indeed be radical. Whether Lear’s framework applies to the novel, and situations of climate-induced civilizational collapse in general, is an interesting and important question. 

Lear, Jonathan. Radical Hope. Harvard University Press, 2006.

Politics, Literature, and the Afro-futurism Debate

Learn more about:  Womack’s introduction to afrofuturism.

In her authoritative, upbeat overview of the afrofuturist genre and aesthetic, Natasha Womack writes that “The ideal society that the nameless many have fought and died for is a world that many can’t imagine” (Womack, 41). Yet Womack seems to express optimism in art — whether fiction, literature, or even memes — as creative inspiration, capable of transcending horizons of possibility and overcoming systems of oppression, and racism in particular. Indeed, she notes that “The imagination is powerful. The narrative of hope that spews from change agents working for social equality is no accident” (41). Jemisin herself figures into Womack’s book-length survey on multiple occasions, placed firmly in the context of afrofuturism. Whether or not Jemisin’s work deserves this attribution, owing either to her thematic explorations or, aesthetically, her unorthodox conceptions and applications of technology, serves as a subject for rich debate, and Womack’s books offers an excellent starting point for situating Jemisin within or outside of discourses on afrofuturism. 

Womack, Natasha L. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Learn more about:  Octavia Butler’s pessimistic prescience.

Comparisons between Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin, though a source of ambivalence for Jemisin herself, are recurring and unavoidable. While Jemisin’s ambivalence points cynically — and correctly — toward a superficial comparison between two singular black female authors in the sci-fi and fantasy genre, the comparison may have deeper merit at the thematic level. In particular, Jemisin often appeals to a contingent and conditional optimism about the black condition in particular, and social change more generally, neither rejecting the possibility of revolutionary change nor investing hope in it. This stance — embodied, perhaps, by Essun in The Fifth Season — approximates what Justin Mann coins “pessimistic futurism.” According to Mann, “These oscillations between certainty and skepticism exemplify what I term ‘pessimistic futurism.’ Pessimistic futurism couches the prospects of tomorrow in the uncertainties conditioned by the past and present” (Mann, 62). In particular, he points to Octavia Butler’s Dawn, and in turn provides a potential inroad for a comparative study between Jemisin and Butler, a comparison that must be taken seriously. 

Mann, Justin Louis. “Pessimistic Futurism: Survival and Reproduction in Octavia Butler’s Dawn.” Feminist Theory, vol. 19, 2018, pp. 61-76.

Learn more about:  Political hope in black American politics.

“Ultimately, we must hope for the end of political hope,” concludes Calvin Warren in his bracing assessment of the black American condition (Warren, 245). In his historically informed, philosophically weighty analysis, Warren aims to resurrect a formidable concept of “black nihilism,” a sobered and aware notion that “expresses discursively what black bodies endure existentially in an anti-black world” (224). Thus, he attempts to resurrect black nihilism as an apt philosophy for contemporary black America — the product of centuries of violence, the sustained “pulverization” of bodies — drawing a stark contrast with the political hope so often appealed to as a way forward. Warren argues convincingly that political hope has itself become an instrument for the reproduction of oppression, even a necessary condition of it, liberation therefore requiring, perhaps counterintuitively, that hope be eliminated. While, as noted, Jemisin’s own work seems to fall somewhere between afro-futurism and Womack’s “pessimistic futurism,” Warren’s basic view runs deep throughout The Fifth Season, best exemplified by Alabaster, who suggests that only when the political system is completely destroyed can a better world be possible, and that hope in anything else is misplaced. 

Warren, Calvin. “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope.” The New Centennial Review, vol. 15, no. 1, Spring 2015, pp. 215-248.


The Fifth Season’s Homepage

Caleb Owens 2020

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