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.

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