N.K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season presents a complex and engaging narrative that seriously addresses issues of injustice and inequity through her studious worldbuilding. This was evident from the first moment I picked up the book. I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between the injustice experienced by the Orogens (enslaved people who can manipulate kinetic energy to control seismic movement) and the experiences of marginalized and oppressed groups from throughout the world, particularly the U.S. The Novel incited me to begin to examine the relationship between justice and geography in an interdisciplinary understanding, which for me led to some surprising realizations supported by Jemisin’s writing and related research. To put it plainly, it seems to me that Jemisin suggests that injustice and inequity can be exacerbated and even created by impartial geographical circumstances.
Before tackling the issues I believe Jemisin is proposing through her writing I will provide brief context for the novel as a whole. The story itself is set in a region of the world called “The Stillness” where the earth experiences destructive “seasons” that threaten to destroy communities and extinct humanity. In order to combat this unforgiving planet, the communities of the Stillness harness the power of Orogenes, who, as previously mentioned, are enslaved by the Fulcrum to use their powers to control the earth’s restlessness so it is less volatile. Communities construct “Nodes”, facilities where Node Maintainers (also orogenes) quell shakes for communities throughout the Stillness, ensuring no loss of life or destruction of communities. “In the Equatorials, the nodes’ zones of protection overlap, so there’s nary a twitch; this, and the Fulcrum’s presence at its core, is why Yumenes can build as it does” (119). Jemisin establishes that this is an unforgiving environment and the communities in this environment are only held together by the effort of the Node Maintainers and other orogenes. Every second of existence is a feat when one considers the how volatile the planet is. The power of the orogenes is all that keeps the balance. By establishing this fact, Jemisin also introduces the idea of geographically induced injustice.
When two orogenes named Syenite and Alabaster investigate one of the nodes in a place called Mehi, they find the corpse of the node maintainer. Much to Syenite’s shock and horror, the maintainer is a child. “The body in the node maintainer’s chair is small, and naked. Thin, its limbs atrophied. Hairless. There are things—tubes and pipes and things, she has no words for them—going into the stick-arms, down the goggle-throat, across the narrow crotch” (139). Not only is the maintainer– the person enlisted to control seismic activity in that region– a child, they are malnourished and abused. In the Stillness, orogenic children can and will be abused, tortured, and enslaved to ensure the safety of the greater society. The node maintainers stop any earthquakes that could result in massive destruction. Through this horrifying example of worldbuilding Jemisin seems to be establishing the case that injustice can often be caused or exacerbated by the demands of geography.
Luckily, there are other examples of this idea of geographically induced injustice in the novel to consider that are far less graphic than the abuse of a child. Later in the story Alabaster and Syenite are taken to safety on a relatively unknown island called Meov after having been attacked by a Guardian (a sort of soldier created to neutralize any rogue or dangerous orogenes). Syenite describes the island. “The island is nothing but rolling hills and grass and solid rock—no trees, no topsoil. An utterly useless place to live” (282). Agriculture is impossible on the rocky island, and keeping cattle is just as unlikely due to the size of the island and its lack of fertile soil. The topography and geography of this region makes it almost unlivable. So, how do the citizens of Meov get by? Well, due to the desperation of the topography, the islanders must use their seafaring ways and a little crime survive. “So Meov raids. They attack vessels along the main trading routes, or extort comms for protection from attacks—yes their attacks” (294). Here again I found that the geography of the regions in the Stillness create and exacerbate injustice, in this case injustice to the communities of the Stillness. What is interesting about Jemisin’s depiction of the issue of geographical injustice in this case is that both “sides” of the story engage in it. In the case of the communities of the Stillness their geographical survival is ensured by the enslavement and abuse of powerful children. In the case of the community of Meov, they ensure their geographical survival by killing Merchants, raiding communities, and taking what is not theirs. Meov must act unjustly to keep their people alive. Now, my interest is not to compare the degrees in which these actions are unjust or immoral, my only interest is to point out what I noticed, that Jemisin is clearly tying geography to injustice, and after looking at some relevant research presented in class, it is understandable why.
It turns out Jemisin seems so keen on pointing out the connection between geography and injustice because it is extremely relevant in the discussion of justice and equity as well as discussions in science. In an article published by the Columbia Climate School titled “Earthquakes May Endanger New York More Than Thought, Says Study”, authors Leonardo Seeber and John Armbruster discuss the risk that seismic activity has on New York City and other places located on minor fault lines, as opposed to major faults like near California and Japan. Their research found that New York City, although not a frequent hotspot for large earthquakes, could be susceptible to high amounts of damage due to the confluence of multiple smaller tremors. Seeber notes that the effects of these tremors would affect some communities in New York City more than others. “Earthquake-resistant building codes were not introduced to New York City until 1995, and are not in effect at all in many other communities. Sinuous skyscrapers and bridges might get by with minimal damage, said Sykes, but many older, unreinforced three- to six-story brick buildings could crumble”. Here, represented in data and research we have an example of real world geographically exacerbated and induced inequity. People from low income neighborhoods which often do not have the money to remodel buildings so they are earthquake resistant, will be disproportionately affected if a natural disaster like a strong earthquake should happen. The marginalized, minority communities which have been oppressed through systematic structural racism in housing communities will feel the ramifications of a natural disaster far more than a wealthier person in a newer, more expensive building. When geographical disasters take place the oppression minority communities face is only exacerbated. As I am limited in space, I won’t delve into the ways that geography was used to oppress communities in the U.S through redlining, gerrymandering, and other strategies, just note that they are there, waiting for discussion. What is evident is that due to structural inequality, when disaster comes, it is the oppressed communities that unduly feel the ramifications.
The final example of Geographically induced/exacerbated inequality and or injustice I would like to briefly discuss is a thought I derived while reading the “Guidelines on Preparedness Before, During and After an Ashfall” prepared by International Volcanic Health Hazard Network (IVHHN), Cities and Volcanoes Commission, GNS Science and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). While reading the preparedness guidelines, I noticed a recurring theme amongst the rules: a need for abundance. This can be seen looking at the first page of guidelines. “Enough drinking water for at least 72 hours – one gallon (3-4 litres) per person per day. Enough non-perishable food for at least 72 hours for family and pets…If cold, extra blankets and warm clothing. Extra stocks of medication for both family and pets…A small amount of money” (3). The guidelines state that in order to make it through an ashfall you should have extra clothes, food, medication, water, and even money. Can you think of how inequity might be exacerbated by an ashfall? Start by asking the question: how are people who are poor or oppressed expected to get this abundance of material? If one is to survive an ashfall one must have an abundance of these materials and the ability to stock resources, and until relatively recently the ability to stockpile resources has been a luxury, one not allowed to minority communities.
I am uncertain where the rest of Jemisin’s Broken Earth series will take me, or how my understanding of her commentary on geography and justice will change, but as it stands right now Jemisin has gotten me thinkING about how injustice is created and perpetuated by things as simple and as impartial as geography. This leads me to believe that an interdisciplinary approach to solving issues of inequality and injustice is essential in getting lasting, meaningful change. Jemisin is toying with the ideas that justice is a relative luxury, and that the need to live can override ideas of justice and equity. She makes this idea clear in her worldbuilding, survival outweighs the luxury found in the concept of justice. I am uncertain if Jemisin is simply challenging the reader to sympathize with unjust people (like the pirates who help our progatogists), or simply stating that the need to live comes before the need to live justly. It is not clear to me what the answers to these questions are, but I look forward to continuing thinkING about these concepts as I read further.