The Effects of Geological Disasters on Populations in The Fifth Season

In my reading of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, I have come across a multitude of interesting facets that the novel has brought up in regards to social issues, particularly in how social issues can pertain to/stem from the world we live in. The novel has also addressed standardized fantasy and science fiction tropes in a way that is not usually seen—for example, addressing the standard all-white cast of most fantasy by leaning heavily into diversity, with white characters being few and far between. As this essay prompt has asked me to analyze how The Fifth Season uses geological concepts to get the reader thinking about power and justice, I would like to examine how the novel uses geological disasters to show both how richer classes are more likely to survive, and yet regardless, geological disasters (called Fifth Seasons in the novel) are the great equalizers of Jemisin’s world. I will then compare the disasters in the novel to disasters that have happened in the real world, and compare/contrast how they can affect social classes, and if they can equalize them.

First, starting chronologically at the beginning of the book, the character Essun is greatly affected by the most recent Fifth Season, as she leaves her home in search for her husband, who murdered their child. Though Essun did not need to evacuate her home due to a direct disaster, we see many people of lower classes who have been negatively affected by disaster on the road while Essun travels. “What you saw at the roadhouse were ordinary people, some still caked in filth after digging themselves out of mudslides or collapsed buildings, some still bleeding from wounds haphazardly treated, or untreated entirely” (Jemisin 80). There goes on the be a description of the commless, a group of people who have been cast out or had their comms (“communities”) destroyed—this group can be considered to be the lowest class in Jemisin’s world. The appendix at the end of The Fifth Season describes commless as “Criminals and other undesirables unable to gain acceptance in any comm” (Jemisin 459). Throughout Essun’s travels, commless are seen and observed, and are almost always described as having little-to-no hope of survival during a Fifth Season.

Moving on, though Jemisin does seem to take into account a kind of privilege higher classes have in regards to disasters in her world, she also appears to portray geological disasters as great equalizers. Again referencing Essun’s travels in the novel, at one point she comes upon a group who appear to have been wealthy at some point. “This lot have removed most of the flowing, uselessly pretty garments that people of the Equatorial cities used to consider fashionable…But each of them sports some remnants of the old life” (Jemisin 237). At this point, Jemisin makes it clear that it does not matter where each character originated, whether they had been wealthy or not—everyone has to fight to survive now that it is a Fifth Season. This scene also had a sentence I enjoyed in regards to this essay’s topic: “being aware of a geological event and knowing what the event means in the real human sense are two very different things” (Jemisin 236). Furthermore, in regards to the city of Yumenes, perhaps the most privileged people in Jemisin’s world, it is shown to soon be equalized with the rest of those struggling to survive during this Season. “Yumenes’s fabled vast storecaches are slag in a lava tube somewhere. Part of you mourns the waste of all that food. Part of you figures, well, that much quicker and more merciful an end for the human race” (Jemisin 274).

There are some garling exceptions in this comparison between the classes of the Stillness and the classes of people in our own world. People of different privileges are proportionally affected by geological disasters, but in Jemisin’s world, there is one class of people who exist outside of this—that being the orogenes. Though those who live in the Equitorials or those with money and standing may be better off during a Season, many times their money and power will be erased because of how long a Season can be, according to Jemisin. However, orogenes (the focus of this novel’s magic system) possess other-worldly power that appears to be bestowed upon them at random (or at least semi-genetically). Because orogenes can control geological events, they can save themselves during a geological disaster. Therefore, it is in this way that Jemisin escapes the reality-based results of disasters in her world, and adds a new element into the mix that does not have a real-world counterpart. Though Jemisin does use the orogenes to comment on other social issues (i.e. enslavement of people for use), it might be in this way that Jemisin actually lessens the message she is trying to convey about the effects of real-world geological disasters. We do see the effects enough, however, in The Fifth Season, so that the previous claim might just be moot.

On the topic of the effects of geological disasters on people in the real world, I am reminded of the sources our class examined geological events and how they can negatively affect populations. Specifically, the article “Buried in Volcanic Ash, Scenes from the Canary Islands” came to mind when I was thinking about people having to evacuate their homes and how differences in class can change the effect a disaster might have on a person. The photograph “Cristina Vera leaves her house covered with ash after collecting her last belongings in La Palma on November 1, 2021,” taken by Emilio Morenatti was what I envisioned, specifically. Seeing photos like that really aided my imagining of Jemisin’s descriptions of the ash-covered people Essun encountered toward the beginning of the novel. It also made me think about disparities our own world has between peoples of different classes—for example, one person might lose their house to ash or a volcanic eruption, but if one is rich enough, or born into a rich enough family, they might have a second house, and thus this loss does not affect them nearly as much. Pertaining back to my previous point made earlier on in this essay however, if the geological disaster is apocalyptic enough in scale, that higher class person might lose both their houses, and then be just as well-off as the person who lost their one and only house—thus making the geological disaster a great equalizer.

In this essay I discussed how Jemisin utilizes craft to convey messages about class in geological disasters and how geological disasters can be great (in scale) equalizers. I also elaborated on how Jemisin might have weakened these messages by including a more fantastical class of more fantastical people that can escape the effects of geological disasters. By recognizing that these people, the orogenes, are useful in communicating different messages than those attached to geological disasters, the value of their incorporation can be reestablished. I also analyzed texts from our class’s research on real-world geological disasters by looking at the effects of ashfall and how that compares its representation in The Fifth Season. In summation, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season successfully conveys realistic effects of geological disasters on different demographics of populations.

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