From superhero comics to children shows like Danny Phantom, America’s science-fiction and entertainment industries have thrived on the idea of giving humans (or humanoids at least) supernatural powers for decades. This trope has enticed people for generations, probably because it gives its audience a chance to momentarily escape from their troubles or simply from the normality of reality. By becoming engrossed in a world that uses humans as its subjects/heroes, the audience has the opportunity to envision the fictional setting as an alternate universe in which (maybe in another life) they themselves could have had a chance to live in.
Based on Jacques Lacan’s essay “The Mirror Stage,” Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” essay comments that there is a narcissistic pleasure that the audience experiences when watching film. According to Mulvey, the viewer is encouraged to identify with the image on the screen in the same way that a child identifies with their image in a mirror. As the viewer’s ego/character dissolves, the viewer finds their ideal ego on the screen, specifically with the hero/”star” as the focal point. The combination of this humanoid appearance and the audience’s narcissism allows the viewer to easily accept these characters without much explanation. However, N.K. Jemisin tests her audience’s level of acceptance with the stone eaters whose “humanity” seems to only be defined by their barely-humanoid features.
Jemisin never tries to sugar coat or romanticize the stone eaters as anything other another, albeit mysterious, race in The Fifth Season; making it clear how easy a stone eater often “surpasses graceful and edges into unnatural” (281). Despite Jemisin’s emphasis on the stone eaters as another race in her blog post “Creating Races,” most of Jemisin’s characters often refer to them as “monster” (189) or “creatures” (281) throughout the book rather than “human.” Rather than being aliens from space (with three heads, tentacles, etc.), the stone eaters are foreign in a different way in that I’m not even sure if they’re living creatures. Stone is inorganic and yet the stone eaters are able to eat and digest other minerals as well as have desires, communicate, and have personalities like the humans they used to be.
The only “organic” element that seems to be holding them together is the silvery “magic” (205) that is found in The Obelisk Gate to be coursing through every living thing. When Essun uncovers Hoa’s stash of geode crystals in The Fifth Season, Hoa identifies the crystals as a part of himself and that “Crystalline structures are an efficient storage medium” (396). Perhaps their stone compositions allow stone eaters to contain more magic in their being, therefore allowing them to have such extensive powers and abilities. Michee’s remark that stone eaters might prefer orogene stone for their “stone hearts” leaves me to wonder if the “stone hearts” that would be pumping magic through our human bodies make the stone eaters feel more alive by consuming more magic.
Thanks to the peritext (textual elements that are secondary to the main body) at the end of each chapter, the reader is told that there has never been any communication or knowledge exchanged between the humans and the stone eaters for the stone eaters to be “friendly neighbors.” In her blog post, Jemisin comments on her struggle with properly depicting the stone eaters by paralleling the stone eaters’ narrative with that of mythological creatures: “Without the cushioning effect of folklore, the [narratives of mythological] creatures become too alien and frightening, or pitiful, to embrace as fellow people.” The incredible powers but unnerving personalities of the stone eaters prevent me from being able to accept these characters as well as I accepted orogenes with open arms.
Although I hate to admit it, I do miss Hoa’s kid form more but whether that’s because of his cute behavior or because he wasn’t outwardly made of stone I’m not sure. As a result of this disconnection, the reader is not able to find the same narcissistic pleasure they usually get from the average, super-powered human hero. As readers, our biases have the ability to value one character over another based off of objective aesthetic standards in terms of their “humanity.” However, is it better to let these biases “naturally” develop in our own interpretation of the work or should we stay neutral and try to not have any biases at all?