The Fifth Season: Can we escape scapegoating?

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season uses geological concepts to demonstrate how societies scapegoat the most vulnerable populations. Jemisin’s work showcases the notion that self-preservation is an intrinsic human urge. The characters in “The Fifth Season” are able to rationalize injustice because the power of personal fear outweighs the power of empathy. This is apparent through the treatment of orogenes, whose abilities give them powerful control over the Earth’s geological functions. In their book “Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God” Geologists Nurr and Burgess perfectly conceptualize the Stillness, writing “The earth’s convulsions nevertheless have had major influences on societies when they occurred at times of political or economic stress”. The Fifth Season universe exists in this perpetual state of political and economic stress, constantly teetering on the verge of collapse. Their society’s way of combatting collapse is by exercising a totalitarian rule over orogenes. Not only does the Fulcrum have an incredibly rigid and high-stakes education system, but it enacts a version of slavery over the orogenes. The Fulcrum perpetuates the idea that orogenes are dangerous ‘untouchables’. Alabaster tells Syenite, “With a comm destroyed in such a horrible way, the Fulcrum will need scapegoats to blame”. Scapegoats, at least for some time, quell the looming threat of another geological disaster.
The nature of ‘scapegoating’ is parasitic in every sense– not only are orogenes the sole receivers of blame, but they also have a crushing weight of responsibility on their shoulders. The Fulcrum is its own version of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), albeit one significantly more abusive and tyrannical. The USGS offers an early warning system for earthquakes called ShakeAlert®, and many people depend on this service to take protective measures in times of an impending geological disaster. In The Fifth Season, orogenes can take protective measures a step further by sensing and completely stilling earthquakes. This makes me wonder: if we had the ability to completely stop earthquakes, knowing it would require the exploitation and human rights violations we see in the Stillness, would we use it? In a world that capitalizes from cheap, inhumane, and child-abusive labor, I think we would. Orogenes are derogatorily called “roggas”, which Essun dictates as “a dehumanizing word for someone who has been made into a thing”. This deeply resonates in our society, where humans are simply valued as commodities. Jemisin writes of a harrowing truth, “Necessity is the only law, says stonelore”. In the context of both The Fifth Season and of existing society, this quote shows that the necessity of humanity’s survival will always trump the rights of individuals.

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