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.

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