Cracking as a Function of Justice in The Fifth Season

In N.K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season, the use of ‘cracks’ in the Earth’s surface or otherwise seem to directly relate to justice and power. This is seen in many instances throughout the novel. First, if we direct our attention to the USGS volcano glossary, to the entry for the word “fissure.” This defines a fissure as “a fracture or crack in rock along which there is a distinct separation.” As such, the phenomena of ‘cracks’ in this novel is going to include fissures or fractures. In the same glossary entry, there is a photo of a fissure in Kilauea, Hawai’i.

In the Verge article we read, focusing on the same eruption, there are many photos and videos from Twitter of fissures in the ground and in roads, showing the differences in magnitude that fissures can have, from fissure eruptions to what appear to be just cracks in the road.

In The Fifth Season, these cracks are used to show justice (which may not be easily identified as a good thing), but also as a visible example of the harm that unequal power dynamics can bring about.

In the prologue of The Fifth Season, we can see the concept of a crack being used to show justice being served. A man, a slave, who has been controlled and abused all his life and whose ancestors were controlled and abused for theirs, is breaking free of the bonds, physical and hypothetical, that kept him yoked. “The earth is with him. Then he breaks it…. Now there is a line, roughly east-west and too straight, almost neat in its manifest unnaturalness, spanning the girl of the land’s equator. The line’s origin point is the city of Yumenes. The line is deep and raw, cut to the quick of the planet.” This is an example of a man claiming justice for himself and his peers, and taking it into his own hands. However, this act of justice will take a huge number of lives as suggested later in the novel. Very few of these people will be innocent, many being complicit in the structural abuse of the group of people to which that man belongs, and many will have actively perpetrated that abuse. Despite that structural power that has kept the man and his peers from freeing themselves before, this man holds within him a power that very few others do, and which very few others could match. This situation holds within it two very different unequal power dynamics, each one which puts a different group or person in a higher position. This is power and justice at work.

The crack in the earth is also timed as such that it almost seems like retribution for Essun’s loss as well. After her discovery of her son’s body and when she is getting ready to leave, she stops in her doorway and she can “sess that there are no open earth vents nearby-which means this is coming from up north, where the wound is, that great suppurating rip from coast to coast that you know is there even though the travelers along the Imperial Road have only brought rumors of it so far.” It seems as if this is the same crack that is spoken of in the prologue. Knowing that Essun is also an orogene, the fissure across the continent is a response to the same injustice that has plagued her entire life. As Essun is attempting to leave her comm so that she can find Jija and her daughter, the people around her seem to realize what is happening and what she is. A man attempts to shoot her with a crossbow, even though the town’s leader is escorting her out, and the attempt at her life makes her very emotional and reactive. “The kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you…. And then the valley floor splits open. The initial jolt of this is violent enough to knock everyone standing to the ground and sway every house in Tirimo.” This is retribution for her son, for the culture that made her son’s fate possible, and for all the related injustices up until Karra tried to kill her. Essun is able to create a rift in the earth and crack the town’s water supply in minutes, which would effectively mean the end of the town in the coming weeks. She obviously wields a great deal of power in being able to do this, but she is greatly outnumbered by hateful people who have a great deal of structural power. It is a very similar situation with similar power dynamics to the man in the prologue and the society which surrounds him. An important piece of the dynamic which we get in this situation and don’t in the one in the prologue is Rask. Rask shows Essun sympathy and gives her a chance to escape with her life, showing her kindness that it is clear that most in the community would not afford her. Yet, because he exists within this community and is within the proximity of those who very obviously wronged her, he is killed along with the rest of them. Rask gives this situation a bit more nuance, because he was obviously trying to do right by Essun and give her freedom and her life; he was working against what, societally, stills are supposed to be and do and how they are supposed to treat orogenes, he still get caught in Essun’s torus and is killed. This makes the idea of this justice a little more cloudy from a moral and ethical standpoint – it isn’t black and white.

In the context of geological cracks, the naming of a character who is with Damaya in school ‘Crack’ doesn’t seem to be a coincidence. This seems to be part of a series of events that liken the earth to an orogene in more than one way, throughout the novel. “Damaya wonders: Is Crack’s control really a problem? Or is it simply that her tormentors have done their best to make her crack?” The concept of tormentors causing cracks in one that is revisited in chapter 20, page 379. This is the story of Father Earth.

 “According to legend, Father Earth did not originally hate life. In fact, as the lorists tell it, once upon a time Earth did everything he could to facilitate the strange emergence of life on his surface…. Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth….it was the orogenes who did something the earth could not forgive: They destroyed his only child…. Whatever the words mean, the lorists and ‘mests agree on what happened after the orogenes commuted their great sin: Father Earth’s surface cracked like an eggshell.”

The violence of life on earth is what caused the earth’s crust to break and move so much. The very existence of the Seasons and the constant movement of the earth’s crust is, in a way, retribution for Earth’s “only child.” This also seemingly may have some consequence in what happens, constantly, to the children of the orogenes. They are taken, they are abused, they are killed. In a horrible way, the fate of the orogenes seems to be a kind of justice for Father Earth. The word ‘crack’ in relation to this also occurs when the Guardians find Alabaster and Syenite on Meov. “Everyone she loves is dead. Everyone except Coru. And if they take him- – Sometimes, even we…crack. Better than a child never lived at all than live as a slave. Better that he die.” In order to save her only child, Syenite must kill him. The use of the word ‘crack’ here seems very purposeful, in relating all of these emotional events to the story of Father Earth.

The use of ‘cracks,’ geological and otherwise in The Fifth Season is representative of justice and of power, in direct relation to the Earth and orogeny. 

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