The Denial of The Doctrine of Uniformity
In the field of geology, there are two ways to see the fluctuation of the Earth’s crust and climate in general. One perspective is known as uniformitarianism. This principle is centered on the assumption that the natural processes we witness today have always been operating in the past and that there’s a certain level of continuity to the slow and gradual change of everything. These changes can be tracked over a great length of time and provide us with a sense of predictability and stability when looking forward to the future. We know what to expect and discount the severity of natural disasters as fundamental to the formation of our planet in favor of water erosion or the depositing of sediments. More information can be found here, here, and here. I highly recommend checking these sources out for yourself. Put simply, the Doctrine of Uniformity proclaims that there are recognizable patterns to natural movements and structures which govern the Earth and consequently civilization. For our purposes as readers of The Fifth Season, I am expanding this definition. There is a prevailing social order to life in The Stillness, a framework designed to control orogenes specifically. These guidelines follow the same logic as uniformitarianism in geological terms, the past is the key to the present and all citizens should put their faith in the traditional structures.
This is in direct opposition to the other perspective, catastrophism, which suggests that geological change occurs suddenly and violently. Catastrophism is unsettling because it comes pre-packaged with the “end of times” mentality as it attributes the majority of Earth’s features to cataclysmic events such as meteor strikes and major natural disasters, and not something that can be measured from a withdrawn distance safely. According to Nur and Burgess in their article titled “Introduction”, the catastrophism theory is most beneficial when detailing the collapse of a climate or landscape and thus civilization; “The social systems that created these structures may have depended on them for governance and stability, and so the physical destruction of these structures could lead to the collapse of the corresponding social orders.” (2) From this perspective, humanity and the Earth’s survival are at the mercy of the cosmos (or Gods…). One major destructive event has more impact on humanity than the last ten thousand years of erosion and sedimentary shifts. The key word I would highlight for us in association with this theory is disruption. More specifically, the disruption of long-standing social order rather spontaneously. As Dr. Giorgis mentioned during his time in our class, geological time is extremely sped up in this text despite its general accuracy in the description of geological events. This pacing of natural disasters does not stand on its own, it walks hand in hand with the upheaval of the conventional, discriminatory, apparatus that governs the orogenes. The catastrophic events we witness change both the landscape and position of orogenes in this fictional space.
That is the type of world that Jemisin creates, a world where we don’t get a break. But why? What is the purpose of embracing a hastened catastrophism theory as the core foundation of the story? How does the pattern of occurrence and termination concerning geological events relate to character power struggles in an unjust system? This seems to be a major theme after all. Consequently, what is Jemisin asserting when it comes to fighting against oppression? What’s the lesson here?
The Fulcrum prides itself on uniformity, that much is certain. When Damaya is first being indoctrinated into the system, she is aghast at the Fulcrum’s expectation for consistency in identity; “One cannot reasonably expect sameness out of so much difference, and it makes no sense for Damaya to be judged by the behavior of children who share nothing save the curse of orogeny with her.” (193) This sense of order provides a coherent structure to orogene management. And by orogene management, I mean the systematic denial of their natural rights as human beings. The only reason they are given degrees of comfort is that the owning class cannot allow them to cause massive amounts of destruction. Not surprisingly, this is not enough to prevent a pervasive feeling of servitude and inferiority.
Scaling down the system, another example of uniformity is comms themselves. These are communities of people who have gathered together based on mutual interest and respect. Some are bigger than others, function differently, but they all maintain a uniform structure based on occupation-related hierarchies. They are havens of order during a season, where everyone has a role and works towards crafting something resembling security together.
Neither of these places works well with orogenes and it’s supposed to be their fault. Each social structure bases its beliefs off of Stonelore primarily, which illustrates orogenes as dangerous non-humans. We know that this is essentially an allegory for racism in our world. That being said, there seems to be a (somewhat) righteous pattern of cataclysmic destruction that follows two of our three main characters throughout the text and serves as a representation of their denial of despicable, yet structurally sound, institutions.
Let’s start with Syenite and her part in the disruption of the traditional ways of the Fulcrum. Throughout her and Alabaster’s journey together, we see multiple tragic examples of the challenges that orogenes face within their line of work. One of Alabaster’s sons was tortured, they are refused to be given proper treatment when helping the coastal comm with their coral, and are forced to breed with each other as a science experiment. For all these reasons and more, it comes as no surprise when Alabaster refers to his people as “Gods in chains” on page 167, apparently quoting a text that serves a similar purpose as Stonelore but maintains a more unique perspective on orogeny, before passing out after a near-death experience. Syenite slowly starts seeing through the facade more clearly and with validation, but still feels stuck in the system and expresses her need for respect through being rude and short. That coping mechanism is no longer necessary when she accidentally summons a new obelisk and a Guardian attempts to kill her and Alabaster. Fearing for her life, she “becomes aware that she is angry. Furious. Duty be damned. What this Guardian is doing, what all Guardians do, is not right. And then- She becomes aware of the obelisk.” (261-262) This is a cataclysmic event that is almost entirely spurred on by the Guardian’s unjust actions and subscription to the idea that the “couple” are too dangerous to be kept alive. I would draw a comparison to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in order to emphasize the results of Syenite’s action even though the extenuating circumstances clearly differ. In both cases, it is a cleansing of sorts. Moving onto Essun, after she is given safe passage by Rask to leave Tirimo but is forced to destroy the community because of their hatred; “Perhaps he does not see the latter woman quickly shoulder her weapon and orient it on you.” (55) Essun is overcome with the human instinct to survive, coupled with their intolerance of her grief, and the results are just as cataclysmic as Syenite’s action albeit it on a more limited scope.
Tracking back to one of the major questions posed here, both of these cataclysmic events seem to lead the reader to the conclusion that true social change, in their world and ours, requires abrupt and irreversible action. My understanding of the text is that we must use our autonomy and potential to resist the powers that be, even at the risk of considerable destruction, in order to deflect their unfair agenda and avoid the gradual decay of identity and meaning associated with uniformity.