Off the Bookshelf: The 5th Season, Salvation Lost, Recursion

Nuketown’s 2019 Summer Reading List is finally complete. After beginning in May 2019, I finally finished the last book on the list – The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin – in February 2020. That left me free to get in a few new books before brainstorming my (probably much shorter) 2020 summer reading list.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

A few years ago, my friends and I did a playtest of Monte Cook’s Numenera, a science fiction RPG set a billion years into Earth’s future. Multiple civilizations rose and fell, leaving behind technological detritus that the current inhabitants of the planet could use, but not understand. Numenera’s kitchen-sink approach to future tech – and the inability for us to create tech of our own – led us on to other RPGs.

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (Amazon) shares a similar premise to Numenera. It’s set on a far-future Earth, so far into the future that the continents have drifted and re-merged form new shapes. One such continent is ironically called the Stillness. Its people build their communities and live their lives according to ancient “stone lore” written on tablets. Stone lore collects generations of best practices for building houses that can survive earthquakes and surviving the disastrous fifth seasons. A single great city, Yumenes, dares to construct bigger and more complex structures than anywhere else because it’s built on the only stable bedrock on the continent.

Within the book, there is a group of mutant people known as orogenes, who wield elemental earth powers. Feared and hated by the people of the Stillness, they are organized into a group called the Fulcrum. This group finds and trains orogenes, and is in turn watched over by lethal “protectors” known as guardians. Through the Fulcrum, the orogenes are tamed and their tectonic powers channeled toward serving the common good by quelling earthquakes or using their powers to re-shape the landscape.

The book opens with the destruction of Yumenes – and with it, the Fulcrum – by a powerful rogue orogenes. From there, the novel follows the lives of three women set in different time periods, all converging toward a single point at the novel’s end.

I wish it had been the first book on my summer reading list, rather than the last, simply because it was such a satisfying, enjoyable exercise in world-building. The narrative itself can be difficult to get your head around – one of the three women’s perspective is written in the second person, and it’s … odd … to read a book where someone is describing “your” actions – but it works. I’m looking forward to Book 2, though given its end-of-the-world storyline, I might save this one for the end of my summer reading list. With the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m looking for more positive, popcorn-style books to kick off my 2020 summer reading list.

Salvation Lost by Peter F. Hamilton

Another book about the end of the world, Salvation Lost (Amazon) is the middle book in Hamilton’s Salvation Sequence trilogy. The initial book saw humanity make first contact with an alien species who arrive in the Sol system on a great ark ship. The ship is journeying to meet the “God at the End of Time”. The aliens stop to refuel their ship and are more than happy to sell humanity advanced biotechnology in exchange for antimatter fuel. The first book was an anthology of short stories told in different time periods, building toward a climax that reveals the aliens weren’t quite what we thought they were.

Salvation Lost has a more cohesive tale split between a near future fight with extraterrestrial invaders and the far-future consequences of that fight. Like Salvation, Salvation Lost tends to wander a bit – it’s not as tight as Pandora’s Star and Hamilton’s other Commonwealth books – but it’s a decent enough read. I do have to say that the world-wide lockdown featured in the book struck a little too close to home (even if it was the result of an alien invasion, not a virus outbreak).

Recursion by Blake Crouch

Yet another book about the end of the world, though I had no idea that would be the case when I started reading it. Recursion starts off with a police officer investigating cases of “False Memory Syndrome”, in which people wake up to find they have faded, black-and-white memories of previous lives. This drives some people to mental illness, and even suicide, as they are unable to reconcile the different memories in their heads.

As the investigation unfolds, we quickly learn that these memories aren’t fake, they’re just echos of previous timelines. And those echos are getting worse.

Recursion is a fast-paced book in which the action (and the characters) get increasingly desperate as it nears its conclusion. I started the book well before the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent stay-at-home orders in Pennsylvania and the larger country. Although a good book, I wouldn’t recommend reading it during the current environment; it’d be a better read at the beach, with a bright sun overhead and the waves crashing on the shore.

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Cover art from Peter F. Hamilton’s Salvation Lost. Credit: Pan Macmillan

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