N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is a beautifully crafted novel in which she lures her readers to explore a land called the Stillness and those who reside there. The inhabitants of the Stillness are comprised of individuals who are referred to as “stills” and those who are referred to as “orogenes.” Of these inhabitants, only the orogenes possess the gift of orogeny or “the ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events,” (462) as Jemisin states. The stills, however, were not gifted these abilities and are therefore powerless in comparison to the orogenes. With that being said, this dynamic in which only certain members of the Stillness possess these abilities, while the others do not, raises the issue of when, or if, this power should be controlled and to what extent. Throughout her novel, Jemisin examines this reality and explores how, on one hand, such power must be restrained in order to prevent destruction and turmoil, while also illustrating how this restraint and limitation can be seen as a forceful attempt to control one another, leading to the oppression of a whole community of individuals. Therefore, although the orogenes are powerful—in the sense that they possess abilities that give them the power to perform in ways others cannot—they ultimately experience a loss of power and are oppressed as a result of their orogeny. Thus, I am interested in examining the relationship between the geological gift of orogeny and the loss of power the orogenes experience as a result.
In regard to the aforementioned dynamic between the stills and the orogenes, Jemisin examines the reality of both sides throughout her novel through the use of the Fulcrum. In The Fifth Season, the Fulcrum functions as both sides of this power dynamic as it explores how the restraint of power, such as orogeny, is preventative, while also illustrating how this restraint can be forceful and oppressive to the orogenes who are being restrained. For instance, as Jemisin portrays the Fulcrum as a training facility in which the orogenes are brought to be trained in focusing and controlling their gift of orogeny, she is also illustrating how the Fulcrum functions as a restraint that prevents the orogenes from using their power as a means of destruction. Although, the orogenes are being forced to enhance their strength and their power through this training, they are being forced to do so in a way that will present them useful to the Stillness, not in way that will create turmoil. Therefore, in using the orogenes gift of orogeny for the benefit of the Stillness, the orogenes experience the loss of the power they have over themselves and their own bodies.
Furthermore, in terms of the other side of the dynamic between the stills and the orogenes in which the limitation of orogeny can be seen as forceful and oppressive to the orogenes who are being restrained, the Fulcrum functions as a means of enslavement in which the orogenes are oppressed by their Guardians and Instructors. Once an orogene enters the Fulcrum, they are stripped of their power and their humanity. This is quite evident and prominent in Damaya’s experience at the Fulcrum in which she learns quite quickly that “if you make too many mistakes in the lessons, the instructors ice you” (297) and that “friends do not exist. The Fulcrum is not a school. Grits are not Children. Orogenes are not people. Weapons have no need of friends” (297). Therefore, the Fulcrum perpetuates these hierarchies and divisions that keep the stills in power, which is most apparent through the way in which the stills treat the orogenes as less than human. This oppression of the orogenes is rooted within the fear the stills have towards them, as they are taught to loathe the orogenes because of the abilities they possess. The stills use their fear to justify their treatment of the orogenes by dehumanizing them, stripping them of their power, and using them as “weapons” (297) to benefit themselves and the Stillness. Thus, the gift of orogeny comes with a cost for orogenes, the loss of power and control over themselves.
As a result of this continuous cycle in which the orogenes experience the loss of power and are denied all forms of freedom, it becomes quite evident that there is an injustice within the system of the Stillness. Throughout the novel, Jemisin is quite transparent about the overt distinction between the stills and the orogenes. There are numerous scenes within the novel that portray this distinction and help to emphasize the oppression and dehumanization of the orogenes. For instance, there is a scene in which Alabaster and Syenite are discussing the Fulcrum and Syenite has a moment in which she is able to admit it to herself “that she is a slave, that all roggas are slaves, that the security and sense of self-worth the Fulcrum offers is wrapped in the chain of her right to live, and even the right to control her own body” (348). It’s not that Syenite was unaware of this previously, but she now has the knowledge to understand the true imbalance of power and justice within the system and the impact that has on her as an orogene. Thus, it becomes an urge to exact justice, but how? Orogenes “have no right to get angry, to want justice, to protect what they love,” (418) they only exist to benefit the Stillness.
However, as the novel progress, the use of orogeny as a means to benefit the Stillness is no longer prominent and it becomes evident that the order to the life in the Fulcrum and the order to life as an orogene has begun to dissolve. Jemisin illustrates the dissolution of this order through Syenite and Essun, each of them disobeying the laws of the Fulcrum and using their orogeny as a means to exact justice for the loss of power they’ve experienced. Essun uses her orogeny, unexpectedly, to ice the entire town of Tirimo to exact justice for the death of her two-year old son, Uche. As for Syenite, she also uses her orogeny unexpectedly as way to exact justice for the horrific treatment and loss of power she experienced as a result of the Fulcrum and its Guardians.
This reminded me of the discussion we had as a class, prior to reading The Fifth Season, about catastrophism in which Dr. McCoy stated that catastrophism is human caused as a direct response to injustice, which is evident in both of the situations regarding Essun and Syenite. Therefore, it seems as though orogenes can be viewed as catastrophes, in the sense that the use of their orogeny can be viewed as “sudden, typically unpredicted natural disaster that leads to abrupt changes in a culture or lifestyle that has been stable for a long time” as Nur and Burgess defines it. Orogenes have the ability to use their gift of orogeny to cause abrupt changes to the earth that often disrupts comms that have survived a few Seasons. This is illustrated in the novel when Syenite turns Allia into “a nightscape of red, blistering death” with “nothing left of the comm except the caldera ring that once cradled it” (381). Therefore, although the orogenes experience the loss of power and are oppressed as a result of their orogeny, they learn to use it as a way to exact justice and subvert the notions that their power is something the stills have a true chance of controlling.
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