SFF in Conversation Smugglivus

N. K. Jemisin: “So what would you do if a Fifth Season happened for real?”

It’s no secret we love N.K. Jemisin‘s work a whole lot. Most recently, we read and loved The Fifth Season and its sequel The Obelisk Gate. As such, it’s a great pleasure to welcome N.K. Jemisin to the blow today with an essay answering the question: So what would you do if a Fifth Season happened for real?


A Runnysack Moment

I often get asked, “So what would you do if a Fifth Season happened for real?”

The Fifth Season

In order to answer that question, I have to tell you a quick story first. As You Know Readers, one of my faaaaaavorite things to do is research stuff that I might want to write about. And I get into it. Ohhhh, do I ever. If you ever venture over to my Tumblr, you’ll find that — among the silly anime/gaming memes and politics — there are a lot of pictures of rocks and geological sites of interest. That’s because researching geology while working on The Fifth Season turned me into a lifelong geology nerd. Did you know rocks were awesome? I think rocks are awesome.

This became sort of a double-edged thing with the other topic that I researched deeply for the Broken Earth, however, which was prepper communities. I needed to get into the mindset of people who literally believe that civilization is going to end at any given moment. So to that end, I watched some episodes of the TV show Doomsday Preppers, I bought a few issues of Offgrid Recoil Magazine, and visited some prepper forums online. Now, I normally would want to visit and get to know any group of people that I’m researching in person, because it’s hard to get a sense of what human beings are like from text alone. However, there are enough prepper communities that have some… hmm, some disturbing ideas about People Like Me, let’s just say, that I was a little leery of trying to set up anything more up-close and personal. Note that there was a huge surge in prepper communities, businesses, and media interest after the election of President Obama, in response to fears of an imminent race war. So, yeah, that’s a thing. Wonder what they’re up to now.

Now, I did end up meeting some people who live with the perpetual belief that civilization will end, and who have had rather more actual societal experience of Fifth Season-like events than most preppers. When I went to Hawai’i’s Big Island a few years ago, I met both some native Hawai’ians and more recent comers who happily talked to me about what it’s like to live on top of an actively erupting hotspot that could turn into an Extinction Level Event at any moment. Their philosophy was markedly different to that of the prepper communities I’d previously studied — much less stress and fear, a greater emphasis on preparing through skills and handed-down wisdom, and a general feeling of hey, if Pele’s pissed off, there’s really nothing you can do but deal with it in the moment. It’s foolish to try and anticipate a goddess, after all.

The Obelisk Gate

Personally speaking, the latter philosophy made more sense to me. I saw prepper communities spending ridiculous amounts of money on tools that were only likely to be useful in the rarest of circumstances — and worse, I saw many prepper communities choosing to live in fear. That just didn’t seem healthy or productive to me. So while I tried to incorporate a little of both groups’ philosophies into the societies of The Broken Earth, in my personal life I decided to try the Hawai’ian way, not the prepper way.

The one exception to this is that I keep a go bag — or a runny sack, if you’d rather call it that. That’s not a bad idea for anyone, and it’s actually something recommended for New Yorkers (where, if you’ll remember, we’ve had a few city-stopping hurricanes and blackouts and things like that in recent memory). Anyway, I found myself refreshing the bag recently for no particular reason. My flashlight batteries were dead, so I got the bright idea to hop online and replace it with a solar or crank flashlight. I’d seen some really cool examples of those in the prepper magazines.

But when I hopped online to buy the flashlight, I saw a link to mylar emergency blankets. And another link to LifeStraws. And another link to…

I only bought the flashlight. But remember my little problem with research addiction? I’m discovering that this is another way that it manifests. I suspect this is how quite a few preppers got started — trying to prepare just a little, which snowballed into preparing a lot. Fear is contagious that way. And the most frightening part of this is that during that almost-shopping-binge, in seconds, I found myself discarding my “just deal with it” philosophy, and instead occupying a huge chunk of my day with worries about the apocalypse.

This isn’t healthy. It isn’t even useful. To shed my fear, I had to go back and re-read my own book: People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. I had to remind myself that the world always changes. The best way to prepare for that change is to just live your life, and be ready to change with it as needed.

So here is what I really need to do more of, to prepare for any possible Fifth Seasons in my future. I’m going to speak more to my elders, many of whom have been through more hardship than me, and learn what I can from them. I’m going to improve my personal skill-sets — I’ve always been the sort of person who will intervene rather than be a bystander during moments of crisis, but I need to practice deescalation and deflection more. I’m working on getting physically fit again — not because I think I’ll need rock-hard abs in the Mad Max future to come, but simply because I used to be a hiker and I hate that I’ve lost the agility and strength to do that safely. I’m working on that so I can go hiking again.

I’m going to live my life, in other words. And be ready to change as needed.


N. K. Jemisin is a Brooklyn author whose short fiction and novels have been multiply nominated for the Hugo, the World Fantasy Award, and the Nebula, shortlisted for the Crawford and the Tiptree, and have won the Locus Award. Her website is nkjemisin.com and she tweets at @nkjemisin.


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