The gift of orogeny, The loss of power

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is a beautifully crafted novel in which she lures her readers to explore a land called the Stillness and those who reside there. The inhabitants of the Stillness are comprised of individuals who are referred to as “stills” and those who are referred to as “orogenes.” Of these inhabitants, only the orogenes possess the gift of orogeny or “the ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events,” (462) as Jemisin states. The stills, however, were not gifted these abilities and are therefore powerless in comparison to the orogenes. With that being said, this dynamic in which only certain members of the Stillness possess these abilities, while the others do not, raises the issue of when, or if, this power should be controlled and to what extent. Throughout her novel, Jemisin examines this reality and explores how, on one hand, such power must be restrained in order to prevent destruction and turmoil, while also illustrating how this restraint and limitation can be seen as a forceful attempt to control one another, leading to the oppression of a whole community of individuals. Therefore, although the orogenes are powerful—in the sense that they possess abilities that give them the power to perform in ways others cannot—they ultimately experience a loss of power and are oppressed as a result of their orogeny. Thus, I am interested in examining the relationship between the geological gift of orogeny and the loss of power the orogenes experience as a result.

In regard to the aforementioned dynamic between the stills and the orogenes, Jemisin examines the reality of both sides throughout her novel through the use of the Fulcrum. In The Fifth Season, the Fulcrum functions as both sides of this power dynamic as it explores how the restraint of power, such as orogeny, is preventative, while also illustrating how this restraint can be forceful and oppressive to the orogenes who are being restrained. For instance, as Jemisin portrays the Fulcrum as a training facility in which the orogenes are brought to be trained in focusing and controlling their gift of orogeny, she is also illustrating how the Fulcrum functions as a restraint that prevents the orogenes from using their power as a means of destruction. Although, the orogenes are being forced to enhance their strength and their power through this training, they are being forced to do so in a way that will present them useful to the Stillness, not in way that will create turmoil. Therefore, in using the orogenes gift of orogeny for the benefit of the Stillness, the orogenes experience the loss of the power they have over themselves and their own bodies. 

Furthermore, in terms of the other side of the dynamic between the stills and the orogenes in which the limitation of orogeny can be seen as forceful and oppressive to the orogenes who are being restrained, the Fulcrum functions as a means of enslavement in which the orogenes are oppressed by their Guardians and Instructors. Once an orogene enters the Fulcrum, they are stripped of their power and their humanity. This is quite evident and prominent in Damaya’s experience at the Fulcrum in which she learns quite quickly that “if you make too many mistakes in the lessons, the instructors ice you” (297) and that “friends do not exist. The Fulcrum is not a school. Grits are not Children. Orogenes are not people. Weapons have no need of friends” (297). Therefore, the Fulcrum perpetuates these hierarchies and divisions that keep the stills in power, which is most apparent through the way in which the stills treat the orogenes as less than human. This oppression of the orogenes is rooted within the fear the stills have towards them, as they are taught to loathe the orogenes because of the abilities they possess. The stills use their fear to justify their treatment of the orogenes by dehumanizing them, stripping them of their power, and using them as “weapons” (297) to benefit themselves and the Stillness. Thus, the gift of orogeny comes with a cost for orogenes, the loss of power and control over themselves. 

As a result of this continuous cycle in which the orogenes experience the loss of power and are denied all forms of freedom, it becomes quite evident that there is an injustice within the system of the Stillness. Throughout the novel, Jemisin is quite transparent about the overt distinction between the stills and the orogenes. There are numerous scenes within the novel that portray this distinction and help to emphasize the oppression and dehumanization of the orogenes. For instance, there is a scene in which Alabaster and Syenite are discussing the Fulcrum and Syenite has a moment in which she is able to admit it to herself “that she is a slave, that all roggas are slaves, that the security and sense of self-worth the Fulcrum offers is wrapped in the chain of her right to live, and even the right to control her own body” (348). It’s not that Syenite was unaware of this previously, but she now has the knowledge to understand the true imbalance of power and justice within the system and the impact that has on her as an orogene. Thus, it becomes an urge to exact justice, but how? Orogenes “have no right to get angry, to want justice, to protect what they love,” (418) they only exist to benefit the Stillness. 

However, as the novel progress, the use of orogeny as a means to benefit the Stillness is no longer prominent and it becomes evident that the order to the life in the Fulcrum and the order to life as an orogene has begun to dissolve. Jemisin illustrates the dissolution of this order through Syenite and Essun, each of them disobeying the laws of the Fulcrum and using their orogeny as a means to exact justice for the loss of power they’ve experienced. Essun uses her orogeny, unexpectedly, to ice the entire town of Tirimo to exact justice for the death of her two-year old son, Uche. As for Syenite, she also uses her orogeny unexpectedly as way to exact justice for the horrific treatment and loss of power she experienced as a result of the Fulcrum and its Guardians. 

This reminded me of the discussion we had as a class, prior to reading The Fifth Season, about catastrophism in which Dr. McCoy stated that catastrophism is human caused as a direct response to injustice, which is evident in both of the situations regarding Essun and Syenite. Therefore, it seems as though orogenes can be viewed as catastrophes, in the sense that the use of their orogeny can be viewed as “sudden, typically unpredicted natural disaster that leads to abrupt changes in a culture or lifestyle that has been stable for a long time” as Nur and Burgess defines it. Orogenes have the ability to use their gift of orogeny to cause abrupt changes to the earth that often disrupts comms that have survived a few Seasons. This is illustrated in the novel when Syenite turns Allia into “a nightscape of red, blistering death” with “nothing left of the comm except the caldera ring that once cradled it” (381). Therefore, although the orogenes experience the loss of power and are oppressed as a result of their orogeny, they learn to use it as a way to exact justice and subvert the notions that their power is something the stills have a true chance of controlling. 

Catastrophism and the Need for an End

One of the key themes of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is systematic oppression. The novel focuses on several orogenes, people who possess the power to “manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events.” Despite their power, orogenes are at the bottom of the social hierarchy and are even treated as monsters amongst those who do not possess orogeny (the stills). The only way for orogenes to possess even a modicum of power is to gain rings from the system known as the Fulcrum. The Fulcrum trains orogenes to use their powers to aid the world and dispose of any they find to be a threat—fostering power in only those they have full control over.

We learn early on the degradation that orogenes within the Fulcrum have to endure in order to gain any sense of autonomy. When Syenite is told she must go on a mission and procreate with a ten ringer (the top of the Fulcrum orogene hierarchy) her focus is on the advancement of her own career. “With the experience and boost to her reputation, she’ll be that much closer to her fifth  ring. That means her own apartment…Better missions, longer leave, more say in her own life. That’s worth it. Earthfire yes, it’s worth it.” Despite being boiled down to a baby-machine, Syenite can only care about the better treatment she could receive if this leads to her gaining another ring.

The ring system is another form of social stratification, particularly within the Fulcrum. Those with more rings gain more privileges and thus more control over their own self. A great example is the fact that, as a four ringer, Syenite cannot deny having a baby while Alabaster, a ten ringer, can. The rings reflect the amount of power an orogene can use; the more rings you have, the greater your orogeny. Yet regardless of rings, an orogene is still always oppressed, always treated like the other, always treated as the monster.

The book begins with a catastrophic event that sends the world into shambles—a fifth season categorized by the end of civilizations and the erection of new ones. These seasons are clear examples of catastrophism, defined by Nur and Burgess as “the sudden, typically unpredicted natural disaster that leads to abrupt changes in a culture or lifestyle that has been stable for a long time.” Such large-scale events are essentially the destruction of some level of society leading to it being rebuilt in a new way. Nur and Burgess also posit that social systems depend on large structures and that the collapse of a building can be indicative of the collapse of a society. Each fifth season inevitably leads to the destruction of many Civs with a majority of those present having only survived one, if any at all. The seasons are thus a clear example of catastrophism.

An orogene causes the season that begins the book—a season that is expected to last millennia. While causing the destruction “he reaches forth with all the fine control that the world has brainwashed and backstabbed and brutalized out of him, and all the sensitivity that his masters have bred into him through generations of rape and coercion and highly unnatural selection.” He feels “his fellow slaves” through the earth and promises to “make their suffering serve a cause greater than one city’s hubris, and one empire’s fear.” The Season was not simply an act of Father Earth or the anger of a madman; the world came to an end because of the destruction its people wrought on their fellow human being.

With this end comes new beginnings. For the first time (on the mainland at least) orogenes and stills live side-by-side in the newly created Castrima. Before then such comradery between the two had only been found on the islands, far away from the inner workings of the continent. Castrima is led by an orogene, Ykka, whose goal is to create a safe haven for orogenes and stills alike from the doom reeking outside the safety of their geode. For once, orogenes are beginning to hold true power in the Stillness.

Now, I doubt that Jemisin is advocating for the oppressed to wreck catastrophic natural events onto the world in order to enact some modicum of social change. Rather, Jemisin shows on a grand scale what must be done in order for there to be any real change in the world. One of the key structures to fall, the heart of the Season, laid in Yumenes—the home of the Fulcrum. Yumenes was the heart of the empire that created the Fulcrum and thus the place responsible for the widespread and systematic suffering of orogenes.  The world of the Stillness, for orogenes, would never change so long as the Fulcrum and Yumenes stood.

Not all social structures are physical though, especially not in our world. But the ways in which they impact minorities is structural. Oppression itself is based within social structures. Thus the only way to destroy them is to take down the system as a whole and rebuild it from the ground up in a form that is truly equitable.

Geology’s Influence on Powerlessness and Power

The name of the continent that the story of The Fifth Season takes place on is, as the author N. K. Jemisin admits at the beginning of the book, quite ironic. It is the title of a land that is constantly barraged with natural disasters, many of which are so potent that they make the founding of a prosperous and long-lasting civilization practically impossible. However, Jemisin makes it very clear from early on that the people of the Stillness have many times tried to start civilizations, only to fail due to the chaotic nature of the land. These civilizations, referred to by many of the characters as ‘deadcivs’, have left artifacts across the land as bits and pieces of warning to the land’s current inhabitants; whether it be showcasing areas where it’s unfit to build through ruins or through the ‘Stonelore’ that had been passed down indicating how best to survive the slew of natural disasters the earth has to offer. And yet, despite their usefulness, it seems that many of the characters do not remember these civilizations, or worse yet have altered the history surrounding them for their own benefit. Though not much is known about many of these civilizations by the end of the first book, it is clear that much of their history has been taken away by the whims of the earth itself. And on a different note, there are also the orogenes to consider when it comes to the relationship between geology and power. Being able to manipulate the earth since birth, the orogenes are both feared for the powers that they wield as well as hated for being different from what is considered by the world to be normal. Despite having access to wildly destructive powers, orogenes are either murdered simply for existing or forced to serve under the Fulcrum, which trains them to use their powers as tools for a larger cause rather than letting them simply exist. Their access to this monumental power does nothing but turn them into targets, reversing the expected power dynamic one may think to see. In both the cases of the deadcivs as well as orogenes, the impact of geology impacts their place in the world of the Stillness, as well as how both are perceived. 

The remains of the deadcivs are a common sight along the roads built by the empire Yumenes. As Syenite, one of the narrators and central characters of the story, rides along one of these roads, she sees “Another ruin, and it must be truly massive if she can see it from here.” (123) Illustrated by the fact that seeing a huge ruin off in the distance from the main road is a common enough occurrence, the ruins of these civilizations unable to brave the conditions of the Stillness are quite common. Due to the fact that there are just so many ruins, it seems most likely that, over the years, many civilizations had tried and failed to properly establish themselves. The idea that civilizations like these can rise and fall so quickly relates one of the ideas presented by Amos Nur and Dawn Burgess in the intro to their book Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God. In this introduction they introduce the concept of ‘catastrophism’, which is “… a sudden, typically unpredicted natural disaster that leads to abrupt changes in a culture or lifestyle that has been stable for a long time” (2). This type of natural disaster that might cause changes to a culture are quite common in the world of The Fifth Season, and so it makes sense that such a disaster might bring an end to a civilization that wasn’t fully prepared. However, this may also at times mean that an entire civilization of people are wiped out in the process, with little agency in defending themselves from the earth’s rage. There is no right or wrong when a natural disaster wipes out an entire civilization, but the immense loss of life is, at the end of the day, inherently unfair. These disasters are unfair, and it is interesting to witness just how often the earth rears its head on the people of The Stillness.

In contrast to the unpredictability talked about earlier, the orogenes are able to predict and manipulate the earth in a much more direct sense. Having the ability since birth to manipulate seismic activity, the orogenes are seen as both incredibly powerful as well as chaotic beings by those without their powers, who are referred to by the orogenes as ‘stills’. And because these stills do not understand and fear these powers, the orogenes spend the majority of the book being hated and persecuted for simply being what they are. As one of the main characters, Damaya, discovers after her hometown of Palela finds out that she is an orogene, “The people of Palela want to kill Damaya. But that’s wrong, isn’t it? They can’t really, can they?” (40) This average town is so fearful of the orogenes and their powers that they’re willing to kill a child, even if she was acceptable up until her identity was discovered. Damaya herself is incredulous that the people she grew up with could turn on her so quickly, but it only goes to show how deep and unfair this hatred truly is. This fear of the orogenes stems in part from the fear of geological disasters, a fear that is well encapsulated in the LiveScience article “The Earth Breathes In Incredibly Creepy Video From Canadian Forest”. The article depicts a scene in which it seems the earth itself is swelling up and down, bringing trees with it. Though the article later clarifies that this phenomenon is in fact caused by wind, the fear that it inspires is real enough to get people’s attention, seeing how the video has ended up on Twitter. The relationship between power and justice in the case of the orogenes is rather strange, as although they are in possession of a much greater power than the stills they are still the ones treated the most unjustly. A fear that started with the earth is directed at those who manipulate it, even if they have done nothing to deserve it. 

These two cases represent two different, yet somehow similar relationships with the earth and what it is capable of. For the civilizations of the Stillness, the natural disasters that plague the continent strip them of their power as a people, wiping out their peoples and cultures until they are nothing but ruins. And for the orogenes, while the earth has granted them immense power through their ability to manipulate it, they are subject to the scorn of the stills and face wild acts of injustice. Though each group has its own distinct relationship with the ground they walk on, both of them face peril because of it. As the book often states, ‘Father Earth’ is angry. And by seeing the fates of these two groups, that sentiment speaks for itself.

Injustice and Unfair Power Dynamics related to Natural Disasters

There are many reasons one should look at both the scientific and ideas of power and justice with the world of The Fifth Season. There is no real way to completely disconnect the two ideals, as they are so interwoven throughout the novel. The Orogenes’ abilities and emotions, without proper training, can lead to earthquakes or other natural disasters, which becomes important when looking at the injustice and power difficulties they face throughout the journey. The power and justice and science behind some of the most destructive natural disasters are directly related throughout the story.

One of the main ways the audience can note this is by looking at the way the Fulcrum, and many other people, treat Orogenes. The humans and Guardians constantly look down, gawk at, and fear both the Orogenes. It has been so ingrained into society that these types of people learn to hide their true identities so as to not be taken away as once their secret comes to life, they are sent to the Fulcrum to be dealt with as the leaders see fit. This kind of treatment leads to a great power and justice imbalance as Orogenes are seen as nothing more than people needed to calm the quakes and do whatever the Fulcrum and their Guardian tell them to do. They seemingly lose all agency and freedom as soon as they are turned over to the Fulcrum, not even having a choice in their own procreation. The Orogenes are constantly oppressed and though they carry a gift or skill that cannot be taught, they are continuously looked at as monsters. One of the first things Schaffa says to Damaya, even, is “You’re a gift to the Earth– but Father Earth hates us, never forget, and his gifts are neither free nor safe,” then tells her that the only way she will become truly valuable and useful is if she comes to the Fulcrum and learns to control her power. From the start, the Guardian is striking fear and resentment into Damaya, teaching her that the Fulcrum is the only place she will feel safe, setting up the precedent for an unequal power dynamic and injustice. The Fulcrum also view their Orogenes as nothing more than objects, which becomes quite clear when looking at how they treat those who are not able to control themselves. The body in the node’s chair is described as “thin, its limbs atrophied,” as well as having tubes and things sticking out of it and a bag attached for it to poop in, which “needs to be changed.” If the Orogene is not able to control themselves, but their power is still useful, they are treated as objects, left in a half alive state until their body finally gives out. The Fulcrum holds all the power and ensures the Orogenes know what will happen to them if they choose not to be a part of the Fulcrum or if they cannot learn to control their abilities. There is an unjust system set inplace to ensure the power is maintained in the Fulcrum and that the Orogenes know they will always be considered “less than.”

The characters are directly related to the natural disasters themselves. Nur and Burgess write, “The depth of the earthquake focus also plays a large role; deeper earthquakes have lower intensities than shallow ones and spread out over larger regions.” The deeper the pain, fear, and injustice felt by Syenite, the more destruction she seems to cause. The audience can see this toward the end of Syenite’s conflict with the Fulcrum as they come to the island and try to take Coru back with them. Because Coru had been brought up on the island and there was little they could do at his age to train him the way they would have wanted to, Coru would have most likely become one of the children in a nodes station, being kept alive only for the needs of the Fulcrum. Syenite feared this truth and before anyone could stop her, “She opens herself to all the power of the ancient unknown, and tears the world apart.” Her fear of this unjust treatment for her child was so deep that she quite literally destroyed the whole world to ensure her child would not be kept alive in such a gruesome manner. This sense of destruction based on emotion can also be seen when Syenite tries to give Coru to Deelashat, another woman on the island, when she sees people from the Fulcrum trying to come onto the island. Jemison describes, “He clings to Syenite, screaming and kicking and– Evil Earth, the whole island rocks all of a sudden.” Coru has never learned to control his emotions and causes quales based on his emotional responses. The deeper the child feels, the more he rocks the island and though this does not relate directly to power or injustice, it circles back to the way earthquakes work.

The constant pressure placed upon Syenite, Alabaster, or any of the other Orogenes is also an important factor.  Alessandra Potenza explains in her article “Images of Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano Show the Destructive Power of Nature in Action” that as cracks begin to open and pressure begins to build, lava is able to come out from the Earth and spread around, causing death and destruction in its wake. She writes, “The cracks appear because the magma is building up lots of pressure underground, causing the land to fracture and the lava to flow out.” Just as the cracks begin to appear in the ground and allow magma to ooze out because the pressure of the Earth has become too much for the ground to take, so do the Orogenes succumb to the pressure around them and begin to break as well. They learn to control this power, but most Orogenes are found because they allow their emotions to get the best of them, like Uche, Coru, or even Damaya. If they cannot learn to control their emotions, and this internal pressure builds and builds and builds until there is nowhere else to go but out, the Orogenes will, unfortunately, cause more harm than good. Schaffa tells Damaya, “It’s common for an orogene to discover themselves by killing a family member or friend. The people we love are the ones who hurt us the most, after all.” When the boy at school pushed Damaya, she felt angry and scared and having no training, she did what an Orogene does and ended up killing the boy– not out of hate or disgust, but because “the power within you does not distinguish. It does not recognize degree.” In other words, whether Damaya faced a big threat, like someone wanting to kill her, or a little threat, like being pushed, her power would react the same. There is a pressure inside of her, begging to be released. The Fulcrum uses this fear of killing people against the Orogenes, reinforcing, once again, the unjust power dynamic and giving themselves the upper hand in the end. 

The reason the reader needs to focus on both the scientific ideas in the novel and the themes of power and justice is because they go hand in hand. The way in which the characters react to the injustice they face or the power dynamics that are against them expertly parallels the natural progression of volcanoes or earthquakes. To truly understand the complexities of the Orogenes and the injustices they face, one must look at the science behind the natural disasters to get the full effect of how their situation causes their reactions.

The Roles of Sociology and Biology as Social Science in The Fifth Season

Social Sciences, which Jemisin explicitly advocates “is science too” because of how often it is ignored, is the scientific study of human society and social relationships. It’s composed of several branches that include archaeology, anthropology, geography, history, law, politics, psychology, and sociology, to name a few. In my experience, many of these branches don’t seem to fit into the typical categories considered when someone brings up the sciences, as the biological, logical, and physical sciences are usually thought of first.

Jemisin uses this to her advantage, creating a story that has social science at its core, allowing her to deep dive into the experiences of minorities who have been marginalized, especially in the field of fantasy writing. This theory about the intentions of the groundbreaking novel are reinforced by Newkirk, who reviews The Fifth Season’s characters as “a slate of people of different colors and motivations who don’t often appear in a field still dominated by white men and their protagonist avatars.

A rupture of the science fiction genre is in the placement of exploited minority characters at the center of the story. Within the novel, there are three main characters with interchangeable perspectives each chapter. All three characters are girls and women who are described by Jemisin, in the appendix, to be a race known as “Orogenes,” which is classified by their “ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events.” While the Orogenes do not have visually distinct traits and can be from any region of the Stillness, the continent Jemisin explores in her world, the main characters are “Midlatter,” a multiracial group. The choice to create Orogenes as a race composed of varied peoples is likely influenced by readings Jemisin has studied about “the different sets of people who have been oppressed and the different systemic oppressions that have existed throughout history,” drawing on not only her “own African American experience, but…a lot of other stuff too.” These systemic oppressions are documented through all three narrators, showing the injustices towards Orogenes in different settings and also in a seemingly nonlinear timeline.

The injustice against the Orogenes has a long history. Jemisin describes that there’s “stonelore” that tells the non-orogenes and Guardians, those that train and control Orogenic people, that Orogenes are “born evil—some kind of agents of Father Earth, monsters that barely qualify as human.” Even though there’s no solid proof that Orgoenes truly are born evil, the non-orogenes and Guardians follow the stonelore closely, using it as justification for their severe mistreatment of Orogenes. In this society, Orogenes, as Jemisin outlines, “have no right to say no,” “have no right to get angry, to want justice, to protect what they love,” and are subject to private discipline from Guardians so that the non-orogenes do not see and generate “inappropriate sympathy” for the Orogenes. They are a race that are feared to be weapons of the Earth and are controlled to be mediators for seismic events, paired with an anguishing degree of suffering and even death, just to ease the lives of non-orogenes and Guardians.

However, focusing on just the sociology of the novel doesn’t consider the impact of social science as a whole. Geology is also a critical factor of Jemisin’s novel. Jemisin herself highlights just how important the geological aspect of science fiction is by discussing how “the boundaries of science-fiction and fantasy…are supposed to be about people…It was all supposed to be about the science” and yet “you would see dozens of people nitpicking the hell out of the physics.” In order to keep people from focusing on the physical attributes of science in the novel, Jemisin takes care to represent the science realistically, proving her research as she describes the effects of natural disasters. This tactic can turn the focus away from discussing whether or not the science is a true representation and turns it towards theorizing why these catastrophes happen and how they’re related to the social institutions in the novel. After reading the book, I think Jemisin wanted to show a world in which society exacerbates geological events, placing emphasis on just how dangerous injustice can be by giving it not only individual mental, emotional, and physical dangers, but also universal physical dangers that threaten even the privileged. 

The origin of increased seismic activity is recounted through folklore Jemisin creates, which explains that people “poisoned waters beyond even his ability to cleanse, and killed much of the other life that lived on his surface. They drilled through the crust of his skin, past the blood of his mantle, to get at the sweet marrow of his bones. And at the height of human hubris and might, it was the orogenes who did something that even Earth could not forgive: They destroyed his only child.” It is this vague action that seems to instigate the first Fifth Season, which Jemisin says, in an interview with PBS, is “similar to what we have had in our world, the year without summer, for example, where people have to learn to suddenly survive where they can’t grow food, they don’t see the sun for weeks, months on end.” 

The cause for this catastrophe in The Fifth Season consults two opposing viewpoints in Nur and Burgess’ “Introduction,” which states that “Some researchers deny that earthquakes, and, by analogy, other sudden natural events, may have played a bigger role in shaping history, simply because these sudden occurrences are not manmade” while the norm for “many modern historians, political scientists, and ecologists is to view major disasters in human history as resulting from man’s actions.” By mixing these two perspectives, Jemisin can make a point about how social injustice leads to natural disaster and then how this natural disaster leads to more social injustice, creating a cycle formed by rigid social structures that seem to worsen following catastrophes. 

After this initial cataclysm, it seems like select humans adapted to be able to practice Orogeny to protect society as a whole from the rage of Father Earth. Instead of being celebrated, they are enslaved and continuously injured and molested, seen to build tension until they erupt and bring damage to civilizations.

This concept is introduced in the very beginning of the book, when Jemisin introduces, “And then he reaches forth with all the fine control that the world has brainwashed and backstabbed and brutalized out of him, and all the sensitivity that his masters have bred into him through generations of rape and coercion and highly unnatural selection,” metaphorically holding the Earth in his hands before “he breaks it.”  It’s seen yet again when Essun tears apart the fault line and causes deadly destruction to the town, claiming that “The kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you.” It’s seen yet again when the readers are introduced to node stations where young Orogenes who struggle to control their powers are sedated and used to negate small tremors and fulfill sexual fantasies of perveted people. They meet the dead Orogene boy who had been held captive there, abused until he killed everyone within the station and himself. Once more, it’s seen “five days after Syenite shut down a volcano that she started, which killed a whole city, and eight days after she killed two ships full of people to keep her family’s existence a secret,” which occurs later in the book.

These situations build on the sociological aspects of the novel, of the continued social injustices, and it gives them physical repercussions. By continually pushing the Orogenes beyond their breaking points, we may see the entire world Jemisin fabricates brought to its downfall, caused by the prejudices of the very people who are desperate to save it.

The Fear of Change and Unpredictability

A note on Preparedness

Humans, by nature, cling on to preparation and planning. We like to know what to have, what to know, and where to go in case of an extremity. Before an ashfall, humans can turn to a written out list of what items to stock prior to the fall, in order to feel the most secure when catastrophe strikes. Preparedness makes us feel safe. Unpredictability makes us feel threatened. When something is unpredictable and unable to be prepared for, that is what society despises most and will try to contain at all costs.

“The people of the stillness live in a perpetual state of disaster preparedness.” (Jemisin)

Like the people reading that list, preparing for an impending volcano, the people of the stillness favor control over their safety. They have “runny-sacks” to bring their necessities with them while they try to survive the world-wide apocalyptic events unfolding. They contain those that have the power to be unpredictable, in order to feel safe.

Why does this matter?

My goal in this post is to start a conversation of similarities and purposeful parallels between nature, the society described to us in The Fifth Season and our own society. I have narrowed down their commonalities based on the idea of fear of unpredictability and the natural act of what occurs when pressure is built up over time. I think the way Jemisin is able to personify the forces of nature in a way that feels human and relevantly describes the built up anger caused by injustice is groundbreaking (literally). The first time I read this novel, many of these connections slipped past me, but now I can’t unsee them and they can’t go unnoticed. The unpredictability of change scares people, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t occur.

In Jemisin’s, in The Fifth Season, oregenes give off the same fear and unpredictability as a season does to the people of the stills (or in real life, a natural disaster). Damaya is born to a family who does not understand or withhold the same powers that she was born with. It is not genetic and it is not sourced from any specific point of origination, making it unpredictable. We can recall the moment we found out that most oregenes exhibit their first act of oregenic power in school, when they are unable to control their emotions and end up killing one of their classmates accidentally.

“Fear of a bully, fear of a volcano; the power within you does not distinguish. It does not recognize degree.”

This is one of the first comparisons I found linking oregenes to their natural urges to behave as the natural world does- unforgivingly powerful.

“That’s why people like these fear you, because your beyond sense and preparation” (Jemisin)

“What it actually means is they couldn’t predict you. You’re proof that they’ll never understand orogeny; it’s not science, it’s something else. And they’ll never control us, not really. Not completely.” (Jemisin)

Then I traced it further to quotes like these, coming from Alabaster in explanation of Syenite’s relationship with the other members in the fulcrum. This is where is all becomes clearer to her, she is different and she is feared.

This is where the connection comes in to play, how are the geological descriptions of the seasons and the oregenes similar? They are both feared by society and unpredictable by nature. These quotes expose us to why unpredictability is so feared and that is because you can not completely control something that is uncontrollable. When control means power, this becomes a concerning dynamic.

Although plastic wrap and torches can’t prepare someone enough to endure the injustice of a society who hates you for something you were born with.

A note to built up of pressure

The way we view and analyze a volcanic eruption purposely intersects with the powers of an oregene and the need for justice in our world. One act of hatred or injustice could create friction. Another occurence of inequality could create stronger tension. When it becomes a constance in the life of the person the acts are happening to, they might just explode.

“And you… shut down. You don’t mean to. It’s just a bit much, isn’t it? Too much. You’ve been through a lot, you’re very strong, but there are limits to what even you can bear.” (Jemisin) 

Acts of injustice built up over time and the pressure that rises slowly before an eruption connected in my mind in a very cohesive and logical way. Neither people or nature are invincible, they have a breaking point when they are put through too much devastation. Through our dimensional narrator, we are exposed to both the pressure that is built up and the breakthrough that occurs. Though, the pressures don’t seem as understood until the climax, where syenite finally understands the injustices she has been through and become aware of the need for change.

“Perhaps you think it wrong that I dwell so much on the horrors, the pain, but pain is what shapes us, after all. We are creatures born of heat and pressure and grinding, ceaseless movement. To be still is to be… not alive. ” (Jemisin)

A note on Catastrophism

Nur and Burgess describe catastrophism as sudden, typically unpredictable natural disaster that leads to abrupt change in a culture or lifestyle that has been stable for a longtime and furthers this definition by including that it is usually followed specifically with great adaption in societal, political, or military order. I think that this could be a connecting point or epiphany in my logic- why does Jemisin make these evident text based parallels between the feelings and qualities of oregenes to geological events and natural forces in general? Maybe it is because these catastrophes, though destructive and uncontrollable to human life, create change and disrupt the present stability of the once prevailing societal structure. That’s what the oregenes and this society needs in order to ensure justice for those who are being autonomically controlled and manipulated- catastrophic change.

A note on Prediction

I predict that in the sequel, The Obelisk Gate, Syenite will reciprocate the pressure she has endured back on to the unjust development that is the Fulcrum. Hopefully she will be able to promise a better future for future orgenes, possibly even her impending child, where they are able to live as humans and not as possessions of mere capability. Where the Fulcrum believed it was the oregenes that were the crack in the system, it was really their treatment of them that was the true danger to society. They were focusing on the wrong issues.

“Need to step back from the old model, worrying only about the larger and obvious faults and focus on the more problematic and subtle faults.” Earthquakes May Endanger New York

Thus, I traced these connections between the fear and treatment of both oregenes and nature made by Jemisin to be extremely relevant to social issues and the terror that comes along with disorder of what was once stability for some.

The Fifth Season: Can we escape scapegoating?

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season uses geological concepts to demonstrate how societies scapegoat the most vulnerable populations. Jemisin’s work showcases the notion that self-preservation is an intrinsic human urge. The characters in “The Fifth Season” are able to rationalize injustice because the power of personal fear outweighs the power of empathy. This is apparent through the treatment of orogenes, whose abilities give them powerful control over the Earth’s geological functions. In their book “Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God” Geologists Nurr and Burgess perfectly conceptualize the Stillness, writing “The earth’s convulsions nevertheless have had major influences on societies when they occurred at times of political or economic stress”. The Fifth Season universe exists in this perpetual state of political and economic stress, constantly teetering on the verge of collapse. Their society’s way of combatting collapse is by exercising a totalitarian rule over orogenes. Not only does the Fulcrum have an incredibly rigid and high-stakes education system, but it enacts a version of slavery over the orogenes. The Fulcrum perpetuates the idea that orogenes are dangerous ‘untouchables’. Alabaster tells Syenite, “With a comm destroyed in such a horrible way, the Fulcrum will need scapegoats to blame”. Scapegoats, at least for some time, quell the looming threat of another geological disaster.
The nature of ‘scapegoating’ is parasitic in every sense– not only are orogenes the sole receivers of blame, but they also have a crushing weight of responsibility on their shoulders. The Fulcrum is its own version of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), albeit one significantly more abusive and tyrannical. The USGS offers an early warning system for earthquakes called ShakeAlert®, and many people depend on this service to take protective measures in times of an impending geological disaster. In The Fifth Season, orogenes can take protective measures a step further by sensing and completely stilling earthquakes. This makes me wonder: if we had the ability to completely stop earthquakes, knowing it would require the exploitation and human rights violations we see in the Stillness, would we use it? In a world that capitalizes from cheap, inhumane, and child-abusive labor, I think we would. Orogenes are derogatorily called “roggas”, which Essun dictates as “a dehumanizing word for someone who has been made into a thing”. This deeply resonates in our society, where humans are simply valued as commodities. Jemisin writes of a harrowing truth, “Necessity is the only law, says stonelore”. In the context of both The Fifth Season and of existing society, this quote shows that the necessity of humanity’s survival will always trump the rights of individuals.

Instability, Community, and Catastrophism

The theory of catastrophism has fascinated me while reading The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. This idea, which Nur and Burgess describe as the “sudden, typically unpredicted natural disaster that leads to abrupt changes in a culture or lifestyle that has been stable for a long time”, is heavily debated by geologists, archaeologists, and other scientific professionals. Catastrophism, due to its nature, is a difficult concept to prove and to use to justify the collapse of societies. After talking about this theory in class, many of my classmates came to the conclusion that catastrophism definitely plays a role in the destruction of societal stability, but only because there was a factor before the natural disaster that was already causing weakness and vulnerability to collapse. How much instability is enough for a large-scale disaster to be the breaking point, and what causes this instability? There are places in the modern world that can easily recover and rebuild from events such as an earthquake, while other places, such as Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, take years to recover and are never truly the same. 

N.K. Jemisin takes this idea of catastrophism and twists it slightly, because the people in the world in which she has created expect this catastrophism to occur. Collapse of society, whether on a large scale or occurring in individual comms (towns), is always a possibility. This world experiences what Jemisin has named “Fifth Seasons”, which are essentially periods of apocalypse. Because all of these people are aware of this very real possibility that the world around them could shift at any moment, they are more prepared to handle this. They do what they can to survive, often resulting in violence and unrest. This concept has been difficult for me to grasp, because although they expect these “seasons” to occur, that doesn’t change the fact that this has incredible effects on their society and livelihoods. I began connecting this idea to areas that are prone to natural disasters. In many of these areas, there is a clear link between poverty and events beyond control. 

Jemisin explores the question: How does a LACK of justice lead to an increase in catastrophism? Additionally, how does power lessen the effects of a catastrophic event? One could compare a “Fifth Season” to a period after a natural disaster hits, as they are caused by seismic activity. The true problem, in the aftermath, lies within the leadership. When leaders do not have a solid plan, societies fall apart. Within the world of The Fifth Season, Jemisin makes the leadership feel almost mysterious. There are obviously people in power, but it is not obvious who holds the most power. This makes me think that when a season does occur, the comms with the best leaders are the only ones that survive. However, survival also is dependent on resources. Many of the people have “runny-sacks”, as Jemisin calls them, filled with necessities for the start of a season. This is on the individual level, however, and can be compared to people in our actual world preparing for a catastrophe. It is relatively easy to look at a survival guide, based on your physical location on Earth, and know what you need to prepare. However, having these resources readily available is difficult for many communities of people, especially people living in poverty. Not only is it difficult for people living in poverty to acquire these resources, but it is also difficult to communicate with them in the event of a natural disaster. On a larger scale, countries must have the resources to help the areas affected. Justice plays an important role in situations like these. Gerrymandering in America immediately comes to mind, as this system makes it incredibly difficult for minority groups to receive assistance during and after a natural disaster. There are groups established to help people leave their homes, but they are left helpless after it is over. 

Jemisin makes it obvious through one of the main characters that being in a comm during a season is crucial to survival. She states, “All of them had the look you’re starting to identify as slow building panic. Because everyone’s starting to realize what the shake and the redglow and the clouded sky all mean, and to be on the outside of a community’s gates at a time like this is – in the long run – a death sentence, except for a handful who are willing to become brutal enough or depraved enough to do what they must. Even those only have a chance at survival”. A stable society offers protection, and clearly the people of this world consider this incredibly important. Homeless people, in our world, are offered no protection from the elements and little is done to help them. From what I understand and have read about in the past, homeless shelters are often crowded and unhelpful. As far as infrastructure, many cities have put ‘anti-homeless’ architecture in place. With that being said, cities can possibly be considered unstable in of themselves, because of the (typically) large homeless population and large amount of people.

The Columbia Climate School states that an earthquake hitting New York City is not an impossibility. I believe that this would be a catastrophic event, as most New Yorkers are not prepared for this at all. This is interesting to explore, because I wouldn’t consider New York City an unstable area. So, maybe, it is not the degree of instability that matters when it comes to catastrophism. An unexpected natural disaster, like an earthquake, would hit everyone in New York City equally.  The ways in which people respond to it is determined by justice and power. The wealthy would be able to easily leave, while those living in poverty would have no choice but to stay. Wealthy people are able to “escape”, while the terrible effects of catastrophism, like panic and unrest, only affect those with no power. 

The severity of catastrophism is determined by many, many factors. Jemisin explores this theory of catastrophism by establishing a world in which disaster and ruin are heavily influenced by power and justice. People must take advantage of others in order to survive the season and lessen the effects of catastrophism. Does this happen in our world, too?

The Denial of The Doctrine of Uniformity

The Denial of The Doctrine of Uniformity

In the field of geology, there are two ways to see the fluctuation of the Earth’s crust and climate in general. One perspective is known as uniformitarianism. This principle is centered on the assumption that the natural processes we witness today have always been operating in the past and that there’s a certain level of continuity to the slow and gradual change of everything. These changes can be tracked over a great length of time and provide us with a sense of predictability and stability when looking forward to the future. We know what to expect and discount the severity of natural disasters as fundamental to the formation of our planet in favor of water erosion or the depositing of sediments. More information can be found here, here, and here. I highly recommend checking these sources out for yourself. Put simply, the Doctrine of Uniformity proclaims that there are recognizable patterns to natural movements and structures which govern the Earth and consequently civilization. For our purposes as readers of The Fifth Season, I am expanding this definition. There is a prevailing social order to life in The Stillness, a framework designed to control orogenes specifically. These guidelines follow the same logic as uniformitarianism in geological terms, the past is the key to the present and all citizens should put their faith in the traditional structures.

This is in direct opposition to the other perspective, catastrophism, which suggests that geological change occurs suddenly and violently. Catastrophism is unsettling because it comes pre-packaged with the “end of times” mentality as it attributes the majority of Earth’s features to cataclysmic events such as meteor strikes and major natural disasters, and not something that can be measured from a withdrawn distance safely. According to Nur and Burgess in their article titled “Introduction”, the catastrophism theory is most beneficial when detailing the collapse of a climate or landscape and thus civilization; “The social systems that created these structures may have depended on them for governance and stability, and so the physical destruction of these structures could lead to the collapse of the corresponding social orders.” (2) From this perspective, humanity and the Earth’s survival are at the mercy of the cosmos (or Gods…). One major destructive event has more impact on humanity than the last ten thousand years of erosion and sedimentary shifts. The key word I would highlight for us in association with this theory is disruption. More specifically, the disruption of long-standing social order rather spontaneously. As Dr. Giorgis mentioned during his time in our class, geological time is extremely sped up in this text despite its general accuracy in the description of geological events. This pacing of natural disasters does not stand on its own, it walks hand in hand with the upheaval of the conventional, discriminatory, apparatus that governs the orogenes. The catastrophic events we witness change both the landscape and position of orogenes in this fictional space.

That is the type of world that Jemisin creates, a world where we don’t get a break. But why? What is the purpose of embracing a hastened catastrophism theory as the core foundation of the story? How does the pattern of occurrence and termination concerning geological events relate to character power struggles in an unjust system? This seems to be a major theme after all. Consequently, what is Jemisin asserting when it comes to fighting against oppression? What’s the lesson here?

The Fulcrum prides itself on uniformity, that much is certain. When Damaya is first being indoctrinated into the system, she is aghast at the Fulcrum’s expectation for consistency in identity; “One cannot reasonably expect sameness out of so much difference, and it makes no sense for Damaya to be judged by the behavior of children who share nothing save the curse of orogeny with her.” (193) This sense of order provides a coherent structure to orogene management. And by orogene management, I mean the systematic denial of their natural rights as human beings. The only reason they are given degrees of comfort is that the owning class cannot allow them to cause massive amounts of destruction. Not surprisingly, this is not enough to prevent a pervasive feeling of servitude and inferiority.

 Scaling down the system, another example of uniformity is comms themselves. These are communities of people who have gathered together based on mutual interest and respect. Some are bigger than others, function differently, but they all maintain a uniform structure based on occupation-related hierarchies. They are havens of order during a season, where everyone has a role and works towards crafting something resembling security together.

Neither of these places works well with orogenes and it’s supposed to be their fault. Each social structure bases its beliefs off of Stonelore primarily, which illustrates orogenes as dangerous non-humans. We know that this is essentially an allegory for racism in our world. That being said, there seems to be a (somewhat) righteous pattern of cataclysmic destruction that follows two of our three main characters throughout the text and serves as a representation of their denial of despicable, yet structurally sound, institutions. 

Let’s start with Syenite and her part in the disruption of the traditional ways of the Fulcrum. Throughout her and Alabaster’s journey together, we see multiple tragic examples of the challenges that orogenes face within their line of work. One of Alabaster’s sons was tortured, they are refused to be given proper treatment when helping the coastal comm with their coral, and are forced to breed with each other as a science experiment. For all these reasons and more, it comes as no surprise when Alabaster refers to his people as “Gods in chains” on page 167, apparently quoting a text that serves a similar purpose as Stonelore but maintains a more unique perspective on orogeny, before passing out after a near-death experience. Syenite slowly starts seeing through the facade more clearly and with validation, but still feels stuck in the system and expresses her need for respect through being rude and short. That coping mechanism is no longer necessary when she accidentally summons a new obelisk and a Guardian attempts to kill her and Alabaster. Fearing for her life, she “becomes aware that she is angry. Furious. Duty be damned. What this Guardian is doing, what all Guardians do, is not right. And then- She becomes aware of the obelisk.” (261-262) This is a cataclysmic event that is almost entirely spurred on by the Guardian’s unjust actions and subscription to the idea that the “couple” are too dangerous to be kept alive. I would draw a comparison to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in order to emphasize the results of Syenite’s action even though the extenuating circumstances clearly differ. In both cases, it is a cleansing of sorts. Moving onto Essun, after she is given safe passage by Rask to leave Tirimo but is forced to destroy the community because of their hatred; “Perhaps he does not see the latter woman quickly shoulder her weapon and orient it on you.” (55) Essun is overcome with the human instinct to survive, coupled with their intolerance of her grief, and the results are just as cataclysmic as Syenite’s action albeit it on a more limited scope.

Tracking back to one of the major questions posed here, both of these cataclysmic events seem to lead the reader to the conclusion that true social change, in their world and ours, requires abrupt and irreversible action. My understanding of the text is that we must use our autonomy and potential to resist the powers that be, even at the risk of considerable destruction, in order to deflect their unfair agenda and avoid the gradual decay of identity and meaning associated with uniformity. 

The Effects of Geological Disasters on Populations in The Fifth Season

In my reading of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, I have come across a multitude of interesting facets that the novel has brought up in regards to social issues, particularly in how social issues can pertain to/stem from the world we live in. The novel has also addressed standardized fantasy and science fiction tropes in a way that is not usually seen—for example, addressing the standard all-white cast of most fantasy by leaning heavily into diversity, with white characters being few and far between. As this essay prompt has asked me to analyze how The Fifth Season uses geological concepts to get the reader thinking about power and justice, I would like to examine how the novel uses geological disasters to show both how richer classes are more likely to survive, and yet regardless, geological disasters (called Fifth Seasons in the novel) are the great equalizers of Jemisin’s world. I will then compare the disasters in the novel to disasters that have happened in the real world, and compare/contrast how they can affect social classes, and if they can equalize them.

First, starting chronologically at the beginning of the book, the character Essun is greatly affected by the most recent Fifth Season, as she leaves her home in search for her husband, who murdered their child. Though Essun did not need to evacuate her home due to a direct disaster, we see many people of lower classes who have been negatively affected by disaster on the road while Essun travels. “What you saw at the roadhouse were ordinary people, some still caked in filth after digging themselves out of mudslides or collapsed buildings, some still bleeding from wounds haphazardly treated, or untreated entirely” (Jemisin 80). There goes on the be a description of the commless, a group of people who have been cast out or had their comms (“communities”) destroyed—this group can be considered to be the lowest class in Jemisin’s world. The appendix at the end of The Fifth Season describes commless as “Criminals and other undesirables unable to gain acceptance in any comm” (Jemisin 459). Throughout Essun’s travels, commless are seen and observed, and are almost always described as having little-to-no hope of survival during a Fifth Season.

Moving on, though Jemisin does seem to take into account a kind of privilege higher classes have in regards to disasters in her world, she also appears to portray geological disasters as great equalizers. Again referencing Essun’s travels in the novel, at one point she comes upon a group who appear to have been wealthy at some point. “This lot have removed most of the flowing, uselessly pretty garments that people of the Equatorial cities used to consider fashionable…But each of them sports some remnants of the old life” (Jemisin 237). At this point, Jemisin makes it clear that it does not matter where each character originated, whether they had been wealthy or not—everyone has to fight to survive now that it is a Fifth Season. This scene also had a sentence I enjoyed in regards to this essay’s topic: “being aware of a geological event and knowing what the event means in the real human sense are two very different things” (Jemisin 236). Furthermore, in regards to the city of Yumenes, perhaps the most privileged people in Jemisin’s world, it is shown to soon be equalized with the rest of those struggling to survive during this Season. “Yumenes’s fabled vast storecaches are slag in a lava tube somewhere. Part of you mourns the waste of all that food. Part of you figures, well, that much quicker and more merciful an end for the human race” (Jemisin 274).

There are some garling exceptions in this comparison between the classes of the Stillness and the classes of people in our own world. People of different privileges are proportionally affected by geological disasters, but in Jemisin’s world, there is one class of people who exist outside of this—that being the orogenes. Though those who live in the Equitorials or those with money and standing may be better off during a Season, many times their money and power will be erased because of how long a Season can be, according to Jemisin. However, orogenes (the focus of this novel’s magic system) possess other-worldly power that appears to be bestowed upon them at random (or at least semi-genetically). Because orogenes can control geological events, they can save themselves during a geological disaster. Therefore, it is in this way that Jemisin escapes the reality-based results of disasters in her world, and adds a new element into the mix that does not have a real-world counterpart. Though Jemisin does use the orogenes to comment on other social issues (i.e. enslavement of people for use), it might be in this way that Jemisin actually lessens the message she is trying to convey about the effects of real-world geological disasters. We do see the effects enough, however, in The Fifth Season, so that the previous claim might just be moot.

On the topic of the effects of geological disasters on people in the real world, I am reminded of the sources our class examined geological events and how they can negatively affect populations. Specifically, the article “Buried in Volcanic Ash, Scenes from the Canary Islands” came to mind when I was thinking about people having to evacuate their homes and how differences in class can change the effect a disaster might have on a person. The photograph “Cristina Vera leaves her house covered with ash after collecting her last belongings in La Palma on November 1, 2021,” taken by Emilio Morenatti was what I envisioned, specifically. Seeing photos like that really aided my imagining of Jemisin’s descriptions of the ash-covered people Essun encountered toward the beginning of the novel. It also made me think about disparities our own world has between peoples of different classes—for example, one person might lose their house to ash or a volcanic eruption, but if one is rich enough, or born into a rich enough family, they might have a second house, and thus this loss does not affect them nearly as much. Pertaining back to my previous point made earlier on in this essay however, if the geological disaster is apocalyptic enough in scale, that higher class person might lose both their houses, and then be just as well-off as the person who lost their one and only house—thus making the geological disaster a great equalizer.

In this essay I discussed how Jemisin utilizes craft to convey messages about class in geological disasters and how geological disasters can be great (in scale) equalizers. I also elaborated on how Jemisin might have weakened these messages by including a more fantastical class of more fantastical people that can escape the effects of geological disasters. By recognizing that these people, the orogenes, are useful in communicating different messages than those attached to geological disasters, the value of their incorporation can be reestablished. I also analyzed texts from our class’s research on real-world geological disasters by looking at the effects of ashfall and how that compares its representation in The Fifth Season. In summation, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season successfully conveys realistic effects of geological disasters on different demographics of populations.