Balance at the Heart of N.K. Jemisin’s “The Fifth Season”

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season contains many interesting interpretations of power and justice through the use of geological concepts. The Fifth Season engrosses readers by exploring the relationship between power, justice, and geological concepts. Jemisin’s “orogenes” have the power to control the inner workings of the Earth. They can calm earthquakes, or “shakes.” 

If you think about it, nature is all just one big balancing act. Tectonic plates, for example. Plates of rock sliding around one another, up and down, disrupting the ground we walk on. Nur and Burgess write, “They are intimately related to the surface topography and deep structure of the earth through a process called plate tectonics, and they cannot be understood in isolation.” When the scales are unbalanced, how is it exactly that we are to survive?

When plates shift, there is an imbalance of power. Nur and Burgess write, “In fact, the overwhelming majority of earthquakes, known as tectonic earthquakes, are caused by motion on faults.” The ground is caught off guard, chaos can ensue, there could simply be a rumble and nothing more. Yet anything that shifts under our feet has the power to throw us off balance. It’s the same with power and justice. When things shift, for better or for worse, a ripple effect is created that could slam some people while completely missing others altogether.

While geological concepts are an obvious example of how critical balance is, power and justice should not be ignored either. The balance of power is so often and easily disrupted in both nature and politics. Ultimately, this is because balance is difficult to obtain. It requires strength. There is a reason young children are encouraged to shuffle precariously across the dreaded balance beam, it builds their core strength, but achieving balance and strength is easier said than done. It is easy to be swayed. One way or another.

I can’t help but believe that the underlying message of The Fifth Season is one of balancing the unbalanced. Pulling shelves of rock back into place. Ensuring that lives aren’t lost simply because people fear the unknown too much to trust it, or them, in the case of Jemisin’s “orogenes.”

To answer the questions: Why should I care about science when I care about power and justice? Or, why should I care about power and justice when I am focused on science? The answer is simple. Why should you really care about anything? People say that they don’t care anymore, I’ve heard it often. In fact, I’ve said it often. That I just don’t care about anything anymore. Everytime I say those words, I know they aren’t true. The fact of the matter is that we’re human. We are preprogrammed to care. Maybe you do care more about power and justice than science, that’s okay. What’s not okay is putting all of your eggs in one basket, which brings us back to balance. 

Perhaps science is not your passion, but that doesn’t mean that you can simply ignore it. Ignoring something does not make it go away. And that is why we need balance. We need to find the space between nothing and everything and settle there for a bit. Really thinks things through thoroughly. Find solutions, innovate. Do not simply look for scapegoats, as Essun, one of Jemisin’s narrators points out. This is Jemisin’s point. Do not treat orogenes like the scum of the Earth but expect them to save everyone when disaster strikes. Another one of Jemisin’s narrator’s, Syenite, has a moment in which she realizes, “We are the gods in chains.” The people preserving life are the ones treated the most terribly. 

Do not give one group all the power. Find a balance, create a balance, much like Ykka did. She found a place to be safe, for the time being, and created a community. The orogenes on Alabaster and Syenite’s island also created their own way of living. They were getting along fine (for the most part) until they were disrupted by the Fulcrum and its Guardians, who could not handle the disruption of their rigid, set-in-stone system. Jemisin writes, “The earth does not like to be restrained.” If I had to guess, I would say the earth would prefer balance over restraint anyday. 

Jemisin writes, in terms of Syenite pondering Alabaster, “Maybe it gives him comfort to think their kind has some purpose, however terrible.” Purpose is as good a driving force as any. Living a life with a purpose, a path, a focus– it must make it easier, right? Or maybe it makes things even harder. Because now there is expectation. And with expectation there comes the possibility of disappointment.

“Even the least of us must serve the greater good,” Jemisin writes. The greater good. That’s always what it comes down to. No matter how many people are hurt or used, those in power only care about their systems, their rules, and inducing fear. Nur and Burgess write, “An earthquake begins at a single point within the earth, where the two sides of a fault start to slip past each other, a location called the earthquake’s focus.” Conflict concerning power can begin with a single person, a single cause. People split. They choose sides. They “slip past each other.” Every disagreement has a focus as well.

I believe that we are a planet of progression. We are placed here, flawed people raised in flawed systems, to learn a lesson. To make choices. To grow. To find balance. Jemisin writes, “‘We pass down the stonelore,’ Alabaster says, sitting up, ‘but we never try to remember anything about what’s already been tried, what else might have worked.’” A classic case of history repeating because people don’t change, they read and repeat. History, or “stonelore,” tells a story. Every story has morals, conflict and resolution, and usually an ending. But stories also teach. History teaches. It is up to the pupil to listen and learn. Nur and Burgess write, “Though earthquakes are unpredictable, they are not strictly random; they shape and are shaped by the structure of the earth as a whole.” Very few events are 100% random. Something usually sets off a chain reaction. Something throws off the balance. 

The way in which Jemisin carved a story with a heart of issues concerning justice and the imbalance of power, but also created an entire world centered around geological concepts, is an impressive feat. Her characters and their flaws beautifully portray the effects of discrimination, strength, courage and perseverance. We all need our rock. Our home. Our core. Sometimes it just needs to be slightly shifted. 

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