Icing as Metaphor in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin presents a land called the Stillness, ironically named as it is anything but still. Populated by inhabitants who are always waiting for the next natural disaster, Jemisin follows a second-world apocalypse through the eyes of an oppressed middle-aged woman called Essun as she searches for her daughter. Essun is oppressed for her gift of orogeny, meaning she can manipulate kinetic energy to cause—or disrupt—seismic events. But these gifts come at a cost: in order to draw energy, she creates a controlled field of “ice” that condemns everything it touches to a frozen death. This direct power exchange raises interesting questions about the way power and fear work in tandem, and often without the governing hand of justice or righteousness. I am interested in investigating how fear coerces people into wielding their power without justice or discrimination through the metaphor of “icing.” 

Power exists in many forms. Soft power and hard power are both rampant throughout The Fifth Season, carefully relegated between social classes and human species. Of these, hard power is often showier, something Jemisin plays with through her cinematic writing, such as in the opening chapters of the text. Essun’s narration begins with grief. She is reeling from the death of her son at the hands of his father for his crime of being an orogene and so, buried under a twisted sense of justice and necessity—her daughter is missing—she tries to escape her town. In doing so, she is attacked and retaliates, causing a localized earthquake and icing anyone in her vicinity. This reaction is her own haphazard version of justice, ministered through her power. Her reaction is depicted as a dawning realization as Jemisin writes, “but the attempt on your life has triggered something raw and furious and cold …[T]he kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you.” Through her orogeny, Essun exacts justice by forcing the earth to punish the town around it, collapsing buildings and icing much of the town’s leadership. Essun uses her hard power of orogeny, specifically focusing on icing, in order to react to a wrong. Notably, this only occurs after Essun has been attacked by the people of her village, making her fear for her life. Her original goal of slinking out of the village without disturbing anything vanishes because of fear. 

In Essun’s case, fear caused her to use her power violently, even if she believed it just. The metaphor of icing helps illustrate that while power can exact justice, fear-driven decisions removes nuance from justice. As she ices her town, she does not differentiate between the people who attacked her and the people who helped her get as far as she has. Pulled from the same scene as earlier, Jemisin writes, “You aren’t just inflicting death on your fellow villagers, of course. A bird perched on a nearby fence falls over frozen, too. The grass crisps, the ground grows hard, and the air hisses and howls as moisture and density is snatched from its substance.” There is no selection, no thought process. Birds die in the same breath as would-be murderers and friends. Jemisin’s metaphor of icing demonstrates in a horrifying sequence that when fear, justice, and power intersect, it often creates a corrupt blend of wide-reaching, nondiscriminating, unilateral consequences. 

While Essun’s descent into violent justice is a demonstration of hard power instigated by fear, soft power instigated by fear can be just as damning. The Fulcrum, and to a larger extent, the Stillness, establish that in chilling order. The Fulcrum is the organization that trains people gifted in orogeny, such as Essun in her childhood up through early adulthood. Using a mix of dehumanizing and demoralizing techniques, the Fulcrum raises orogenes to consider themselves second-class citizens and uses its influence—its soft power—to ensure that orogenes remain persecuted and targeted throughout the Stillness. Unsurprisingly, but chillingly, The Fulcrum has done this because it is fearful of these powerful humans who can cause earthquakes and sink cities. It does not want their power threatened, in a way that is familiar to anyone who exists in any reality. The powerful do not want to become the weak. An example that might hit closer to home of soft power being used in fear to protect one’s status and wealth can be found in this United States Geological Survey article. Covering how overlooked downstate New York State’s earthquake risk is, the article spoke about the controversial Indian Point nuclear power plant. Like how the Fulcrum twists information and perception in order to continue to oppress and abuse orogenes to maintain power, the Indian Point nuclear power plant is alleged to have ignored new information about earthquake risk, instead choosing to focus on studies written before the 1980s. Understanding that the Fulcrum uses soft power as ubiquitously as Essun used icing is important for understanding how fear-driven decisions hurt more people, more widely. To that end, even the Fulcrum’s teaching on icing demonstrates how fearful and terrifying it considers that power. Back in Essun’s days at the Fulcrum, this is made clear. From that time, Jemisin writes, “Instructor Marcasite praised her for only icing a two-foot torus around herself while simultaneously stretching her zone of control.” The Fulcrum is obviously frightened of the orogeny side-effect of “icing” and does everything within their power to train its unwieldy, deadly reach out of orogenes. This training would only be possible through the oppression and control they have already exacted over the orogene population through their soft power. 

Between both Essun’s reaction to fear and the reaction of privileged oppressors of the Stillness’s society and the Fulcrum, a common denominator is made clear. When fear is a driving factor, power is used in such a way that true justice is an impossibility. To understand that, one needs to look no further than the concept of icing. In order to access power and commit huge, godlike acts of seismic activity, you must take from the life around you. When that power is driven by fear, the taking becomes an unruly, wild thing that grows in anger, even if, like Essun, that anger and fear is justified. It might be justified, but acting out of fear takes away that critical thinking and leaves only rash, violent decision making. Examining the intersection of fear, justice, and power through the lens of icing in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season leaves me with only one conclusion: fear-driven so-called “justice” doled out by power, be it hard or soft, only begets more fear. That is the consequence of uncontrolled icing and of the Stillness’s continued persecution of the orogenes.

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