A few months ago my friend lent me The Fifth Season, the first book in The Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin. The writing was beautiful; the chronology, fascinating. Jemisin’s world-building was woven into the story smoothly. Turns out, a lot of other people agree: Jemisin was the first author to win three consecutive Hugo Awards (2016, 2017, 2018) for this trilogy.
It’s sci-fi, set on a world with only one continent. Since the main characters start pretty far inland, islands aren’t mentioned until pretty far into the first book. That’s a fairly obvious hole—at least in my view—and while I was reading I kept waiting for an explanation: why just one continent, had that always been the case, did islands exist? Surely a skilled writer like Jemisin wouldn’t have let such a prominent detail in so many worlds slip out of her story with no explanation.
Finally after earthquakes and flash freezes, an interim chapter of just two pages addressed this gap, discussing how hard absences are to notice. In the case of islands: traveling at sea is dangerous because of how unpredictable the waves are, etc. This topic becomes significant later on, and fits well into the context of a book about fifth seasons, irregular times of mass catastrophe. But this chapter mentioned another missing piece of this world, the moon. That one shocked me. The moon seems to play such a big role on Earth both symbolically and in controlling the tides (another reason islands are difficult in this series). And it hadn’t crossed my mind.
Although I really enjoyed the whole series, that interim chapter was perhaps my favorite. In just two pages, it so neatly dealt with the topic of holes and how difficult it is to define what is missing, which is one of my favorite topics.
From long walks and discussions with my dad about how gaps in knowledge can lead to creativity, to endless notes about metaphysics, or to loving the color orange (Who thought it could be a favorite color? When someone told me it was theirs in 2019 I was quite surprised)—it’s so much harder to be creative, to come up with something completely new from an empty space, to define what doesn’t exist already, or what is subtly left out. The moon is not a new idea, but it was so quietly left out of the book without my realization.
For example, at the same time as reading these books I was working at a small canoeing camp, which is completely disconnected from the rest of the world. Because of COVID, this was my first year working there instead of being a camper, and so I got there a week early to help set up the tents, move canoes, wash the dishes, etc. Reading this book at the same time kept my focus on holes, and I noticed that I had never seen so many sticks around camp before. Of course, in the middle of the woods there are bound to be loads of sticks on the ground after two years with no people. I spend a good portion of my time at home hiking and bushwacking, so I’m very familiar with sticks and underbush. For some reason, in my mind I just never associated that with camp because they were always moved before camp started; it was easy to accept and adapt to their absence in that setting.