N. K. Jemisin first introduced us to the horror of the node-maintainers’ existence in The Fifth Season with their presence serving as a representation of institutional oppression and a public dependency on that oppression. Mistreatment of children is always an emotional subject but the rendering of the node-maintainers into coma states and selling their bodies is closer to a Dr. Mengele experiment than it is to being simply upsetting. As an educator, the welfare of children is my business and so I was deeply disturbed by the Fulcrum’s solution to quelling shakes. The existence and perpetuation of the node-maintainer network was something that we looked at in class as a reference to earthquake and tsunami monitoring stations that form nets over seismically active areas. This certainly captured the preventative aspect of the node-maintainers use but separated them from the obvious injustice of making the humanity of a person inert. I’d like to offer a different reading of the node maintainers in the Stillness as conscripts of the Fulcrum and something similar to modern day child soldiers.
The conscription of children into armed service is considered a war crime and violation of international human rights. Within the last few decades the world has seen these violations in places like Africa and the Middle East due to the ongoing conflicts within those regions. My frame of reference has to do with the recruitment of children into military roles in African civil wars and is accessible through the memoir of Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone, and the Cary Joji Fukunaga directed film, Beasts of No Nation that bears great similarity to the suffering detailed in Beah’s memoir. I also find it important, if not simply interesting, to mention that A Long Way Gone is a book that was introduced to me through high school curriculum and is a book that is still assigned and taught today in high school classrooms.
The film mentioned is fictional and takes place within an invented setting, bur Beah’s memoir talked about his role in the very real Sierra Leone Civil War. Loss of humanity, brainwashing, and sexual exploitation are all experiences suffered by Beah and Agu (the main character from Beasts of No Nation). Both characters lose their families or are torn from them in one way or another. The violence inflicted on them is shared in the experience of the node-maintainers with their lack of agency an acceptable representation of the drug fueled brainwashing that child soldiers are portrayed as enduring. Jemisin’s Stillness is in essence a fantasy environment, yet similarities abound.
Similar to orogenes, there’s a ostracization from the larger society that child soldiers suffer from. In the memoir, Beah is feared by the villagers who encounter him even after his loss of his unit and sobering. There’s an innate danger that non-combatants assume whether or not the children are armed or have been conscripted. Militants use this fear when they conscript children into combat roles. When there is violence or mistreatment brought down upon the children it’s easy to be reminded of the common plight of child orogenes. The node-maintainers instinctual responses to earthquakes even mirrors why children trapped in between the sides of a civil war are feared. There’s a simple, yet horrifying truth, that as long as children have hands they can use firearms in a conflict. Similarly, as long as node-maintainers have the power of orogeny, their instinctual responses to seismic activity can still be used by the Fulcrum. To understand how instinctual use of magic transfers to child soldiers, I’d suggest starting with this article on the neuroscience of decision making. The minds of children and adolescence are still developing and will typically act on emotion due to those decisions being easier and faster to access. When they have been treated with violence, it may make sense to them to react in kind. If seismic activity is read as a violence of the Earth, the deconstructive wave interference that node-maintainers would have to output is in parallel with this concept of emotional decision making in neuroscience.
The final similarity that I’d like to point out is the systematic rounding up of children to become soldiers. In the Stillness, Guardians maintain strange relationships with their charges and are frequently manipulative towards them in order to shape them to the Fulcrum’s needs. We see this same relationship with commanders in armed conflicts when it comes to their child soldiers. Adding in violent rites of passage, breaking an orogene’s hand and Beasts of No Nations live burial scene as examples, there’s a strong likeness here that shouldn’t be ignored. Though node-maintainers are inert except for their instinctual orogeny responses, they fill in the spaces that are left open when trying to compare young orogenes and modern child soldiers.