To Control What Breathes

Robert Byrne stated, “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” The notion of nature not being able to be controlled is a harsh reality (only supported by the rapid evolution of the current anthropocene). N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season brings light to this concept with her ‘orogene’ characters – beings capable of sensing the inner workings of the geosphere, while being able to use it to their advantage if needed. However, as both the natural world and orogenes are powerful forces within themselves, greater than the ability and strength of most other living things, they are both subjected to great degrees of restraint by individuals in power. Orogenes – under the watchful eye of a discriminatory society, the Fulcrum and their Guardians (if given the ‘opportunity’) – and the geological world – at the hands of law makers, large corporations, humanity, and capitalism – are both underestimated in their capabilities. One cannot simply put limitations on what can inevitably cause catastrophe (or stop it).

Restrictions aren’t the only issues pertaining to these forces of nature. The dismissiveness of their power is undoubtedly both a sign of disrespect and a threat to their environments. In disregarding the magnitude of their abilities, as well as their willingness to use them, people end up undermining their potential impact. In an article about the possible endangerment of New York as a result of nearby fault lines in proximity to New York City, it was reported that many old fault lines, discovered due to small clusters of earthquakes happening near or on them, were thought to be inactive and therefore not a danger to surrounding areas. However, earthquake researcher Lynn R. Sykes found that they were still very capable of generating damaging earthquakes. In fact, one of these fault lines can be found near a nuclear power plant just outside the New York City area. If an earthquake of high enough magnitude were to occur, it could potentially cause high structural and economical damage, not to mention affect the lives of several people. But the evidence of possible seismic activity was buried in the minds of people and corporations, too stubborn to realize the likelihood of the earth beneath them not caring about their lives on the surface. 

Similarly, the orogenes in Jemisin’s story experience their own kind of ignorant dismissiveness. In allowing her orogene characters to harness the grandiose power of the earth they stand on, she gives them an almost endless amount of abilities. Specifically when more experienced characters like Alabaster can sense sound waves and vibrations through rocks, as well as ‘quell,’ or calm smaller earthquakes with casual ease. In this particular instance, Jemisin draws attention to the immense amount of power orogenes can posses, all while being restricted by Guardians and people at the Fulcrum, where concentrations of orogenes learn how to control their powers as well as how to use them for the benefit of ‘stills’ (people who don’t possess their abilities). To stop even the minutest of earthquakes from happening is a task no one can do realistically, only showcasing the strength of orogenic power. Orogenes like Alabaster aren’t ignored in their strength; in fact, people all over their continent are well aware of their capabilities, channeling that knowledge into fear or intolerance. What stills and Guardians fail to recognize, however, is the will power each orogene can still obtain. Without forced teachings on how to control their abilities, orogenic power is based on instinct – when their mind and body are convinced they’re in danger, their ‘torus’ (the base of their powers) reacts accordingly. Naturally, it’s just a way for the body to protect itself. That instinct is still within them, it has only been suppressed by the abusive lessons at the Fulcrum. Stills and Guardians, much like companies and everyday people in relation to the earth, are so convinced that the power they hold over orogenes is so absolute and concrete, they would never expect them to act on their own accord, without direction or approval from the ones at the Fulcrum. Yet, much like how the earth doesn’t ask permission to commit catastrophic events, they are entirely capable of doing so – “‘They are gods in chains,’ Alabaster breathes… ‘The tamers of the wild earth, themselves to be bridled and muzzled,’” (167). 

It is through her convincing narrative in which readers can understand that, yes, a human being is capable of harnessing and controlling the force of the almighty earth, and yes, they can still experience ignorance, hatred, and torture for being born with something they did not ask for. In pressuring people (and geological phenomena to an extent) to suppress, change, or disregard their natural abilities and gifts for the sake of personal gain, or personal comfort, their value is minimized to the rest of the world, furthering them from a place of justice.

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