02/15/2019

SciFri Book Club: ‘The Fifth Season’ Draws To A Close

34:51 minutes

illustrated stack of books with text "scifri book club"This story is part of our winter Book Club conversation about N.K. Jemisin’s book ‘The Fifth Season.’ Want to participate? Sign up for our newsletter or send a voice memo to voices@sciencefriday.com.

illustration of gray and white swirling tunnel full of geodes
Original artwork by Dawline-Jane Oni-Eseleh

A planet wracked by earthquakes, volcanoes, and other tectonic tumults. A group of people, brutally oppressed, who can control the geophysical forces of Father Earth. And a woman whose young son is murdered just as the rest of the world seems to be ending.

Thus begins N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, the first in a trilogy about a world called The Stillness, and the SciFri Book Club pick for this winter’s reading.

In this final installment of the winter Book Club, we wrap up a winter of exploring The Stillness, learning how volcanologists research lava flows and crater tremors, and even diving into the center of the earth. Ira joins Science Friday SciArts producer Christie Taylor, Caltech seismologist Lucy Jones, and University of Colorado disaster sociologist Lori Peek to talk about the power of earthquakes, volcanoes, and other hazards that shape societies. We also talk about how a natural hazard becomes a human-scale disaster—and who suffers most when a community is insufficiently prepared.

Learn all about how volcanic winter has influenced real art movements and shaped history and culture in a SciFri feature timeline.

Plus, listen to final thoughts from some of our listeners (and readers):


Further Reading

  • Listen to listeners’ and readers’ thoughts on The Fifth Season. 
  • Take look back in history about how volcanic winter has shaped art movements, culture, and society in a SciFri feature timeline.
  • Calling all teachers! Investigate different types of volcanic eruptions and linear equations with your students.
  • Read an argument on why there’s no such thing as a natural disaster.
  • Listen to Lucy Jones discuss how we can prepare for “the big ones.” 

Stay up to speed with the SciFri Book Club Newsletter!

Segment Guests

Lori Peek

Lori Peek is author of Behind The Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11 and Children of Katrina. She’s professor of Sociology and director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder in Boulder, Colorado.

Lucy Jones

Lucy Jones is the author of The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them) (Doubleday, 2018). She’s also a seismologist at Caltech and the Founder and Chief Scientist of the Dr Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, based in Pasadena, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If your home were destroyed tomorrow, would you be ready to get out and start all over again? Would you be prepared? 

That’s a question the people of NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season grapple with daily, as they live on a planet wrecked constantly by volcanic winter, devastating earthquakes, acid rain, and even shifting magnetic poles. And while some of those people called orogenes have superpowers. They can control the energy of earthquakes and volcanoes. 

Everyone is reeling from what may be the actual end of the world. That’s where we kicked off a month ago with our SciFri Book Club reading– The Fifth Season. And today, we reconvened to talk about it. 

And here to steer the ship, SciArts producer Christie Taylor, chief bookworm and wrangler of this Book Club. And if you want to get in and talk about the club, please, we’re inviting you– 844-724-8255. 844-SCI-TALK, or you can tweet us @SciFri. Hey, Christie. Take it away. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, thank you so much. I want to say welcome back. By the way, it’s good to have you back behind the host microphone. 

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Did you finish your reading? 

IRA FLATOW: Actually, I did. All that time away allowed me to read the book. It’s a long book, but I got through it. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Great. Well, while you were gone, we learned a lot about geosciences to celebrate or acknowledge the geoscience disasters of this book. So we learned about volcanoes. We learned about researchers who make lava in their labs. 

We learned about scientists who record teeny, tiny vibrations that you can’t even hear in craters to figure out what the magma the lava lake under the volcano is doing. We talked about the Earth’s core and what that has to do with our very important magnetic field. We learned a lot. 

IRA FLATOW: So to coin a pun, you really dug deeply. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thanks, Ira. I appreciate that. Yeah, and so when we’re talking about this book, one of the big terms I think we need to get to first is what is a fifth season? This book is called The Fifth Season. What is a fifth season? 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because that’s the first thing I wanted to know. And when you assign the club, I said, we know four seasons. What is the fifth season? 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Right, well, in Wisconsin, where I’m from, we also only have two seasons, which is winter and road construction season. Yeah, in this book, the fifth season is usually a volcanic winter. So you have this idea that volcanoes spew ash into the air. 

They cloud the sun. It distorts what agriculture can do. You have famine, et cetera. 

So that is the season. You have changed the climate of the Earth. And so in this book, you can have a fifth season from volcanic winter or any other major disaster that disrupts the way the world works for a period of time. 

And then, of course, you have these people– the orogenes– who can control earthquakes, help them stop, help them further. And we have one person, in particular, who has kicked off what may be a completely world-ending fifth season, where we may see ash in the air for hundreds of years. And how is humanity going to survive that? 

IRA FLATOW: So what’s on the docket for today? How do we get started? 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: We’re going to talk about some of those geophysical disasters, for starters– so earthquakes, volcanoes– and how they do affect societies. And surprise, surprise– we’re also going to talk about how people prepare for and respond to disaster– who suffers the most, how societies and individuals are affected, prepare, respond. And we’ve got two guests to help us talk about that. 

So first of all, we’ve got Lucy Jones, a seismologist at Caltech and author of The Big Ones. And she’s the director of the Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society. She joins us from Pasadena. Hey, Lucy. 

LUCY JONES: Hey. Good to be here. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, thanks for coming. And then we also have Lori Peek, a professor of sociology, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. She’s the author of a couple books too– The Children of Katrina and Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans After 9/11. Hey, Lori. 

LORI PEEK: Hi, Christie. And hi, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: Hi, there. And let me just remind our listeners, the number is 844-724-8255. You can join our conversation. And you can also tweet us @SciFri. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So to kick off the conversation, this is a book club. We’re going to talk about the book. What did you like or maybe not like? Ira, I’m going to start with you because I think you had some quibbles. 

IRA FLATOW: The book was very interesting. I never read a book where the heroes– supposedly the heroes of the book– I mean the orogenes, who can basically move heaven and Earth, are the bad guys. They’re the people that most people fear instead of being the superheroes that we all want to help us out. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. 

IRA FLATOW: I was surprised by that. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, we’re going to dig into that a little bit more later. Lucy, what were your thoughts? 

LUCY JONES: I shared some of Ira’s things. This is sort of weird to make them feared. But maybe that does connect with how people are so afraid of disasters and the suddenness of it. So it makes us not very rational in how we think about it. 

I had to get over a little bit of geologic realism. I had to just suspend it and accept it. And that part was a little hard. I really liked the delving into the idea of what would much higher level of disaster do to society and social norms because I spent a lot of time thinking about how people react to the disasters. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Lori, I know you do that quite a lot as well. What were your thoughts on this book– just sort of big picture? 

LORI PEEK: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I was really interested in this question of what happens to the social order when people are born into a world in a perpetual state of disaster. I also love that she invites every reader to think about equity and social justice and what happens to people when those key elements are missing during times of great catastrophe. 

IRA FLATOW: You’re talking so much about catastrophe in this book. I thought of it as a dystopian book. I wanted to know if you all thought that this was also an apocalyptic dystopia. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, I think one thing is also is this fantasy or science fiction? So it seems very fantastical that people can control earthquakes. But then you also have all these references to a past higher-tech civilization. 

So maybe this could be like a future of a high-tech world. But yeah, I really liked– I guess it digs into this question of do we want to save the world. At the very end– spoiler alert, by the way, for anyone who hasn’t finished it– one of the main characters says, help me finish destroying the world. And I really like being asked that question of is it worth it? Lucy, Laurie? 

LUCY JONES: I also saw it as dystopian. There’s something odd of this turning on the people who could be making a difference and not embracing that. It wasn’t to me so much as destroying the world as revenge– the dystopian aspect of the social corruption in a turning on a group of people and letting that go to the end. That’s actually part of what human beings do faced with disasters. 

We need to find somebody to blame. They’re being blamed for causing the disasters, even though, in fact, they don’t. 

IRA FLATOW: I have a call-in– 844-724-8255 if you want to participate. A call from Amy who says the– well, I’ll let her say it. Welcome to Science Friday. 

AMY: Hi, how are you? 

IRA FLATOW: Fine, go ahead. 

AMY: I am relatively new to the genre of science fiction. So I’m not quite sure I’m quite getting all of the book. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. 

I really like the story. I thought it was very interesting. My thing– the thing that kept hitting me over and over– was the walls. Walls were supposed to keep cities safe. 

And oh, look. They didn’t. And toward the end– and I hope this isn’t a spoiler– but when the wall is raised up out of the water, it didn’t keep them safe. And so that struck me as being quite prescient. 

Also, I liked the character development. I thought it was very interesting. And also, the whole thing with the societal equity– how these people who had such power at one time had been kind of in charge of things but then were shunted to the side and were made to be evil. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I actually have a quick question for you, Lucy, sort of on the back of that when we talk about real world earthquakes and volcanoes and disasters that have shaped societies. This book is talking about the fifth seasons. A lot of the time, that’s volcanic winter, ash clouding the sky, blocking sunlight, killing crops. How often and how badly does this actually happen in real life? 

LUCY JONES: It’s more common than people think. That seems world ending. In fact, you get around it. So the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 caused a cold year around the world. There was another one in the early 19th century that had the year without a summer. 

And 1783, the Laki eruption in Iceland– millions of deaths are attributed to it because of famines around the world. Cooling of the earth disrupts the monsoons, which then led to drought in India and Egypt. And I actually– speak of dystopia– I find that an important lesson to give people that what seems like a small change in, say, the global average temperature can lead to these major famines and disruption of systems because of the complexity of atmospheric circulation. 

IRA FLATOW: Our number– 844-724-8255. You can phone us in– 844-SCI-TALK or tweet @SciFri. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And I actually wanted to also move on to Lori. When we’re talking about disasters, there are more than just geophysical disasters. Hurricane Katrina jumps to mind is one of those big questions of equity and social disaster sort of compounding natural hazard. Are there other instances like that that you can think of or that you’ve worked closely with? 

LORI PEEK: Yeah, absolutely. And this was something that I loved about the book is that she really centered these social questions. And I think that is one of the fundamental insights of decades of social science disaster research is that these events are not equal opportunity events. Instead, disasters tend to reflect our pre-existing social order. And so when societies are highly unequal, when there are many vulnerable people, we tend to see bigger, more destructive disasters. And I think that is one of the big lessons and insights of this book. 

IRA FLATOW: I want to get a tweet in here. [? Kayla ?] [? Moseman ?] says, “It’s always a good sign of good writing when an antagonist can be drawn entirely in shades of gray.” What do you think about that? Because the book– when I think about the book now, you’re right. I’m thinking of very little color in this book maybe because of the ocean a little bit. But I’m thinking, so much of it is about rocks and volcanoes and drawing the powers to use those forces that I’m really thinking in shades of gray here, besides personality of a shade of gray. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I guess I really saw a lot of red too, like anytime you had lava being talked it out. But it did feel like there was a lot of lava– not necessarily. I don’t know, Lucy, there were a lot of volcanoes and earthquakes in the same spot. And I don’t know if that I felt realistic, necessarily. But it felt dramatic. That’s for sure. 

LUCY JONES: So the idea that they come in the same place, that’s actually quite real. And she brings in a subduction zone. And that’s a place where, because of repeated earthquakes, you’re actually melting rocks and creating the volcanoes. 

So that aspect was good. This was sort of like a where the tectonics had gone into overdrive. You take what we have as a natural process and try to move it up by a couple orders of magnitude. 

And in that sense, it was realistic. There were some parts of it that she didn’t really get, which she kept on talking about shakers creating land, for instance. And that’s not true. 

The earthquakes move one piece of land past another. And volcanoes, when they create the new land, don’t have a huge– there aren’t a lot of earthquakes associated with it. So there was part of it where the science wasn’t quite right. But why am I trying to make science of a place where people would have magic powers to control the earthquakes? 

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of magic powers, this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking about The Fifth Season, that’s our book of choice this week. And we’re talking about it with our guest, Christie. Go ahead. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, well, this is a question for Lori. You work primarily on natural hazards and disasters, which are not the same thing. But when you look at the society in The Fifth Season, they always seem ready for disaster. They have supplies packed. They build with earthquakes in mind. Are you looking at this and thinking, good job. Are you saying this is the way we should be ready here for earthquakes or floods? 

LORI PEEK: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think something that’s really interesting about the book is at the beginning, she opens, and she says that the people of the stillness live in a perpetual state of disaster preparedness. And I was thinking, that’s quite different than how we’re living right now. 

Studies show that about 2/3 of Americans do not have disaster plans and don’t have the recommended preparedness supplies and so forth. And so we’re not living in the same world right now. But she again invites us to think about what kind of a world would we be living in where people would be forced to live in this perpetual state of disaster preparedness and what would it take, what kind of resources, what kind of attention and focus would it take to move people into that state. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, and going also into recovery, one of our listeners, Marty, had some speculation about how she envisioned the technology or even living quarters of a population that’s constantly rebuilding. Namely, it might actually be pretty low or low-tech. 

LORI PEEK: Well, I would imagine in this era, when earthquakes and devastation are common, that people’s dwellings are very simple. There’s not a lot of technology available. They don’t have a lot of infrastructure. That affects the way people think and plan and create. 

LUCY JONES: I guess I don’t see it that way, in that essentially, all this damage could be prevented if we choose to do so. And what you see is that societies build for the common disaster. Sociologists like Lori will tell you about the normalization bias– that we think that what we’ve experienced is what we have to deal with. And so we don’t build for the 1,000 year tsunami. We build for the 50 year tsunami. 

And you’ll see that Japan, with essentially the same technological knowledge as us, chooses to build buildings that are a lot more resistant. And they had a magnitude 9 that killed 150 people because they’ve chosen to make those stronger buildings. So I think that with this level of disaster, you would end up building better buildings. 

You would reach to the technology. And they sort of have that in their main central city. They also use the orogenes to keep the shaking from happening there. So they sort of have that out that we don’t. 

But I actually think that we would build more. And then they still have their fifth season. So the really bad ones are still ones that they can’t cope with. 

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to take a break and come back and talk more about The Fifth Season with our guests, SciFri producer Christie Taylor, seismologist Lucy Jones, disaster sociologist Lori Peek, and your phone calls– 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @SciFri. We’ll be right back after the break with the Book Club. So stay with us. 

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re closing out the SciFri Book Club for the winter talking about NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. What happens when people with superpowers able to lift huge mountains with a single thought are the bad guys? I’m talking with SciArts producer Christie Taylor, two experts in various kinds of disaster, Caltech seismologist Lucy Jones, author of The Big Ones, and disaster sociologist Lori Peek, director of the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Center in Boulder. Christie? 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So one of the things I want to get us to right now is we’ve been talking sort of on and off about the equity and justice issues in this book and also the ways in which the author, even– NK Jemisin– has said this book is about the marginalization of people of color in the United States, to some degree, as well. These orogenes who control earthquakes, their lives are controlled. They’re often killed for no reason because people fear them. And we’ve had a lot of listener comments on that as well. So first, we have John, who has a personal story to share. 

JOHN: I grew up in a pretty oppressive Christian family. And I went to conversion therapy. And you really tell the story of everyone who’s oppressed– anyone who’s ever been in a system that was built to destroy them or control them. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And then another listener, Jamilah, said she saw direct parallels in our criminal justice system and other structural inequalities. 

JAMILAH: The criminal justice and education systems have been used in a way similar to the fulcrum to continually keep social and psychological control over these misunderstood groups. As with the Stillness in The Fifth Season, in our own society, these groups are often the most vulnerable of environmental injustices. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And now I want to bring in one of our callers– Ashley, in Portland– who has something similar that she wants to say. 

IRA FLATOW: Ashley, go ahead. Are you there? Oh, we lost her. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Oh, no. Well, I think Lori, Lucy, I think you got the point from those listener voice-mails. What is your take on how people are blamed in this story and how that comes out of the natural disasters in the world they live in? 

LUCY JONES: OK, I can start with that. I think that this idea that we face disasters by finding somebody to blame is one of the most constant features of the human reaction to it. And it does tap into our existing social problems. 

Lori’s got more details on the bigger picture of it. I think of anecdotes that you see in previous events that I wrote about of the Japanese earthquake in 1923, where in the next four days, 6,000 Koreans were slaughtered by their neighbors or our response to Katrina. In those first few days, all of the news stories were breakdown in social order– look at how horrible it all is– which was a way of feeling superior to the people who were caught there and saying it was their fault. 

In fact, when you go back afterwards and try to understand what happened, the biggest breakdown in social order was actually white vigilantes turning on their African-American neighbors. And actually, just today, there was one of the most egregious of them. What is it now, 14 years after the hurricane? And 10 years after he was first indicted, was finally convicted for having shot African-Americans for just coming near his property. 

And he told his neighbors anything darker than a brown paper bag coming up the street is getting shot. And it still took 14 years to convict him. 

IRA FLATOW: A lot of listeners– well, tweets are coming in faster than I can keep track of them. But I’ll see if I can keep up because they’re all very interesting. Let’s see. Will says, “There’s no such thing as a natural disaster. A tornado in an empty field isn’t a disaster. Disasters are caused by human failures in community preparedness, adaptation, and recovery.” 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Lori? 

LORI PEEK: Will, you’re absolutely right. And, in fact, there is a book called There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster. And I just want to echo what Lucy just shared and thank John and Jamilah for those comments because I think they’re really tapping into what is at the heart of this book. The heart of the book really is related to questions of inequality and oppression and what happens when societies are so unequal. 

Is it even possible to effectively prepare for, respond to, and recover from these events? And she writes in such a powerful way about these issues. And I think any reader is going to be able to draw these kinds of examples to both historical incidents but also to contemporary moments of blame and inequality. So I really hope that people are going to read this book and talk about this book because it is so timely and so topical. 

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of which, Ed tweets, “Remember that this series is written by a black woman. I don’t think NK sees the antagonist as ‘a bad guy’ but as a black woman’s struggle in a world that is against her.” 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So– oh, go one. 

LORI PEEK: I was going to say that earlier when we were talking about the destruction of the world and whether this is a dystopian novel. I sort of read it as a question. In order to have a more equal world in a world where everyone can truly be free, do we have to destroy the world? Do we have to destroy the structures and the institutions and totally recreate it? 

Is it possible to move forward in a new and different way? And I think she is a brilliant author. And she’s really raising these questions for the rest of us to grapple with. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And speaking of making it pertinent to our world now, one of the things I also see in this book is a metaphor for climate change. We have this fairy tale that’s told in the middle of the book that Father Earth did not always hate humanity. But humanity poisoned the rivers, destroyed all of the minerals, and then stole his favorite child, which we don’t necessarily know what that means because this is the first book in a trilogy. 

But yeah, Ira, I see this as planetary-scale disaster. All of a sudden, everything is worse than it was. And people are grappling with all of this way more often than they would. It seems like climate change. 

IRA FLATOW: It does. And it does seem like a lesson of these people have been preparing because they’re prepared for these disasters. We’re not prepared. We are unprepared for climate change. So maybe it is some sort of warning to us. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Lucy, can climate change actually make earthquakes more common? Or do you think that’s where the metaphor comes in. 

LUCY JONES: You’ve got to go metaphor on that one. Climate change– apparently such a small change. It’s a couple degrees of change in the average global temperature. 

That has no impact at the depth at which geologic hazards are happening but in the much more dynamic atmosphere is potentially shifting currents, changing wind patterns, the polar vortex as a response to extra heating in the Arctic and then pushing the cold air down. The climate systems are incredibly complex and incredibly volatile compared to geologic systems. I get to think about things that happen over 100 million years. 

IRA FLATOW: Here’s a tweet from [? Nana ?] [? K. ?] It says, “I mean I get the angle. But I think the approach does this book a disservice. 

Personally, it makes perfect sense that the orogenes could fix the world became the bad guys. See X-Men and heroes to name obvious examples.” 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I want to stay on that climate change angle for a second too. Lori, as someone who thinks about disasters and bracing for them all the time, are there any things that you see in the way– this is a culture that is braced for disaster. They have whole traditions of oral storytelling around how to build your house for earthquakes. And everyone has a backpack full of supplies. 

Everyone does. And you have a caste system so that everyone has a defined role. Community is stressed as really important. Are there tips in here for how a climate change world might be more resilient? Or are there things in here that make you say, neat. 

LORI PEEK: So I’d love to answer that in two ways. So the first thing that comes to mind is really about risk communication and what we’ve learned over the years about how to communicate risk. And I think a big movement that has happened in this area is moving away from you communicate about the threat– the volcano, the earthquake, the process. Instead, you communicate actionable information about what you’re supposed to do in response to that threat. 

And I think that’s something that really is woven throughout the book. And then I think the second bigger question that ties back to your climate change question, Christie, is really about what do you do beyond the runny sack. So all the people in this world, they have these little runny sacks that have water and clothes and a sleeping bag and so forth in their runny sack. 

But then communities are also grappling with questions of displacement. And are we going to have to move our entire community in response to a volcanic threat or a tsunami? And so I think that’s where she really dances between this level of individual preparedness and then moving into questions of what do entire communities do when they’re threatened by these kinds of potentially world-ending events. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Gabe in Minneapolis. Hi, Gabe. Welcome to Science Friday. 

GABE: Hey, it’s good to be here. 

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead. 

GABE: Oh, man. I absolutely loved this book. it came out of nowhere for me. But I’m a massive sci-fi fantasy fan. 

And just the world building– I think you guys have done a great job diving into the social critiques that this book brings up. For me, it didn’t feel forced in. It was very easy to understand the applicability to real stuff. 

But one of the things that really stuck with me was just how I loved the world-building. I loved talking about the capital city. They talked about the empire up in some weird pyramid thing. 

You get one paragraph on that in the beginning of the book. And then that’s it. You just get these great little drops that shows you how big this world is. I loved that it was very easy to have great social commentary, great representation. 

I think there’s really good breakdowns of emotions of being a mother and sexuality that come up in the later books as well. But the world-building, and I think what I really enjoyed especially was almost the brutality. I loved reading this book. 

It’s one of the first legitimate female authors I’ve read in sci-fi and fantasy just because they’re really underrepresented. And reading this book, you can stereotype it one way or another off an expectation. But I loved the depth of emotion but then also the pure brutality that you can get that just– I’m sold on this author. 

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m glad the listener brought up the idea of brutality in the book because that was the one problem I had with one scene in the book. 

And that was the guardian breaking a little girl’s hand. It was one of the orogenes. And it bothered me because this was inequality of somebody lording over a little girl. And he said it was good for her. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: It’s so difficult to read that. The whole book was so difficult to read. Lucy? 

LUCY JONES: That one struck me as that’s what’s necessary to convince those powerful people that they’re not powerful. And I actually saw that as really sort of an insightful thing that, as a white woman, I don’t experience so much of what is it like to be told that you’re– to have a whole society that convinces you that you’re powerless, which they would have to do to control these people. And we are a little less intentional about it in our society. But it’s clear that we do this to a lot of people. 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I have a question about whether people are good for all of you, just in terms of we see these disasters hitting this society in this book. We have our own disasters to contend with on Earth– Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Maria recently, those wildfires in California. Are people good to each other after disasters? Does the book capture this accurately? Do we have the right perception of it in real life? 

LORI PEEK: I think disasters obviously have the potential to bring out both the best in people as well as sometimes the worst. And we know that in the immediate time of disaster that oftentimes, people are courageous, and they are helpful, and they are kind in these incredible sorts of ways. But then we also know that disasters can really deepen already existing inequalities. 

And so I think this question is a really important one. And Lucy, it sounds like you have something you want to say about that too. 

LUCY JONES: I completely agree with it, Lori. But I think it’s also human beings are human beings. We’re both good and bad. 

And the thing about disasters is it brings out, in higher relief, where you are with that. And I found the book– I guess this is why I agreed with the dystopian statement– is it sort of emphasized the worst part– the idea that the communities would turn away the outsiders. They would only keep people that could help each other. It was a very selfish view of how you would respond to multiple disasters. 

And I can imagine why somebody– a black woman growing up in America– would have a more dystopian view of society in those realms. I hope the reality is that the good parts would be more predominant. And it probably really depends very much on the culture and where the norms are. 

And I think one of the problems with inequality is it creates the other. And so do we see the other– somebody else– as part of our community that we’re working together to help? Or do we see them as somebody who is a threat? 

IRA FLATOW: You’re going to have the last word on that because we’ve run out of time. You can see Lucy and Lori’s disaster prep suggestions on our website at ScienceFriday.com/disaster. Thank you so much, Lori Peek, sociologist director of the Natural Hazards Center University of Colorado in Boulder, Lucy Jones, seismologist and founder of the Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, author of The Big Ones in Pasadena, California. Thanks to you both for taking time to be with us today. Christie, is this the end of the Book Club? 

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Definitely not. We are actually having an event here in New York City on Monday night with author NK Jemisin herself plus geology puns, tons of interactive activities. And some volcanologists will be joining us as well. You can find out about that on our web page, ScienceFriday.com/volcano. Plus, our Facebook group discussion is still going strong. And of course, the Book Club will come back in the summer with a work of non-fiction. Stay tuned for that one. 

IRA FLATOW: And thank you all. Thank you very much, Christie, for all of your work on the Book Club– SciFri Arts producer Christie Taylor. And that’s about all the time we have today. Charles Bergquist is our director, and senior producer, Christopher Intagliata. Our producers are Alexa Lim, Christie Taylor, Katie Feather. 

We had technical engineering help from Rich Kim, Sarah Fishman, and Kevin Wolfe. We’re active all week on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all the social media. And if have a smart speaker, you want to hear us again, you can ask it to play Science Friday whenever you want. So every day now is a Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

Copyright © 2019 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producers and Host

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is an associate producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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