“Evil, Rusting Earth”: Tension and Power in The Fifth Season

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season begins with “the way the world ends… for the last time”. By beginning with the destruction of the grand city of Yumenes, described as “the oldest, largest, and most magnificent living city in the world,” Jemisin creates the unstable atmosphere that encroaches as the novel progresses while establishing herself as comfortable with subversion. This latter accomplishment is particularly important, as Jemisin’s world, ironically named The Stillness, is rife with people, places, and things that are not what they appear to be. Jemisin subverts many expected tropes of science fiction, including a closer focus on her character development and how global events impact individual lives. Because of this, the parallels she draws between the raw, churning power of the earth and the more insidious power of social stratification become clearer. The Fifth Season is plagued with tension; readers are constantly waiting for the moment that tension snaps.

           Denizens of The Stillness live a fractured existence. Their lives are constantly overshadowed by the threat of Seasons: geological events of devastating size, the effects of which last for unknowable periods of time. As the legend goes, the first Season was caused by Father Earth Himself: “nearly every living thing died as his fury became manifest in the first and most terrible of the Fifth Seasons: the Shattering Season […] It is only through sheer luck that enough of humankind survived to replenish itself afterward—and never again has life attained the heights of power that it once held. Earth’s recurrent fury will never allow that.” In The Stillness, Earth is conceptualized as male, and wrathful. Characters use “evil earth” and “burning earth” as curses, displaying their fear and discomfort with the very ground they live upon. At the same time, legend also suggests that the people of The Stillness deserve their fate: “people began to do horrible things to Father Earth. They poisoned waters beyond even his ability to cleanse, and killed much of the other life that lived on his surface. They drilled through the crust of his skin, past the blood of his mantle, to get at the sweet marrow of his bones.” In this passage, Father Earth’s personification is more pronounced; as a result, the Seasons are seen not as randomly occurring events but as the vengeful actions of a wronged Earth.    

            Nur and Burgess explain that the generally accepted theory of how earthquakes occur is called the elastic rebound theory. As two tectonic plates scrape past each other and get stuck, “the plates themselves warp, building up internal stresses. Only when the stresses exceed the friction holding both sides of the fault together does the plate boundary slip, releasing the energy stored in the strained rocks, like a stretched rubber band releasing energy when it snaps.” The energy released during this motion causes the earthquake. (Less exciting than an angry planet, but more scientific.) This understanding of earthquakes, while suitable in the real world, is not fully applicable in The Stillness. Although earthquakes do happen naturally, they can also be stopped, accelerated, or redirected. Individuals termed “orogenes” have control over kinetic energy, which allows them control over seismic events. The people of The Stillness hate and fear the Earth; they also hate and fear the orogenes. The novel’s protagonist, a woman whose story is told concurrently from three different points in her life, is an orogene who experiences first-hand how deep hatred can run. Her parents send her away as soon as her ability appears—they make her spend her last few nights with them in a barn. In a meeting with a deputy governor, she is told, “you must remember, though, that most normal people have never seen an orogene, let alone had to do business with one.” Her Guardian, assigned to monitor her progress and kill her if she steps out of line, tells her on the night they meet, “you’re a gift of the earth—but Father Earth hates us, and his gifts are neither free nor safe.” She is constantly told that she is dangerous and abnormal, someone to be feared; and there are several moments in the novel where she shows that power. In Tirimo, she collapses and destroys the comm she previously saved from the quake that destroyed Yumenes. In Allia, she raises an obelisk and later uses its power, destroying the entire harbor in the process. And leaving Meov, she uses the purple obelisk in a similar way to destroy the Guardian ships. However, all these events are acts of desperation; the protagonist is responding to life-or-death situations each time. She is shot at in Tirimo, threatened and nearly killed by a Guardian in Allia, and surrounded from all sides in Meov. Her use of orogeny is instigated by overwhelming tension; she snaps.

            Another prominent orogene in the novel is Alabaster, who serves as the protagonist’s mentor when she goes by Syenite. Alabaster has much more control over his orogeny than anyone else Syenite meets, but is still forced to work for the Fulcrum. As he reflects to Syenite, “you hate the way we live. The way the world makes us live. Either the Fulcrum owns us, or we have to hide and be hunted down like dogs if we’re ever discovered. Or we become monsters and try to kill everything. Even within the Fulcrum we always have to think about how they want us to act. We can never just… be. There should be a better way.” Alabaster hits the crux of the issue here; within the current system, there is no option for an orogene that does not entail some kind of misery. Even he, with ten rings and the ability to control obelisks, cannot combat the social systems that oppress orogenes.

            In an interview for The Atlantic, Jemisin discusses her perspective on character development in science-fiction. As she says, “social sciences are sciences too, and that aversion to respecting the fiction part of science-fiction; to exploring the people as well as the gadgets and the science never made sense to me. And that aversion is why it isn’t common to see these kinds of explorations of what people are really like and how people really dominate each other, and how power works.” Here, she makes a distinction between the “scientific” and “fictional” aspects of the genre, noting that she makes an effort to explore both. Her efforts are illustrated clearly in The Fifth Season as she connects the tension of the Earth’s crust to the tension of social positioning. In the same way the personified Earth bore human activity until He finally took revenge, the orogenes are subjected daily to sub-human treatment until they, like the protagonist, break away from the tension.

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