You know not the meaning of the word

A third of the way in, and The Fifth Season is getting its hooks deeper into me. I’m not all the way convinced yet that N.K. Jemisin is going to pull off the X-Men riff she’s working — i.e., powered beings depended on to save a world that hates and fears them — but judging by the strength of the writing so far, I’m not going to bet against her.

The X-Men have been championed as a metaphor for the baseless persecution of the other ever since Kirby and Lee created them back in the sixties. No matter which persecuted group you try to view through the X-prism, the metaphor has never borne very close scrutiny, but then again it arguably hasn’t needed to. But even if we might be waiting in vain for it to ever grow up, the superhero genre is growing older, and through the staggering popularity of the movies based on the comics, its concepts and ideas are reaching more and more people. Which means more and more people are thinking and talking about this stuff.

And if you really start thinking about the X-Men as metaphor, the first thing that starts to stick in your craw might be the fact that unlike just about every other persecuted group there actually is a legitimate reason for Marvel’s mutants to be persecuted. Superpowers are inherently dangerous, and even if you do realise that great power comes with great responsibility, you still might end up hurting someone. In the real world, it is nigh-on impossible to get rid of the notion that the persecuted actually deserve the prejudice, hate, discrimination and violence directed towards them (you won’t have to look very far on Twitter or Facebook this very minute to find someone using arguments like that about race in the U.S., for instance). Might not the X-Men be doing more harm than good as a parable if the stories — however inadvertently — strengthen our cultural impulse to blame the victim?

So N.K. Jemisin isn’t making things easy for herself in diving right into the same type of metaphor. Still, she is as unflinching in her depiction of the institutional bigotry put in place to deal with what this fictional society sees as walking WMDs, as she is in portraying the reasons for the fear that feeds the bigotry, and it gives me hope that she’s going somewhere really special with The Fifth Season and the rest of her Broken Earth trilogy. Somewhere the corporate storytellers of the X-Men have rarely dared to go in over fifty years of comics.


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