Power is a useful tool, both in its ability to create and destroy. And yet, power is not equal, and is often manipulated by those who have this mighty tool. The power dynamics, and implication of such is explored in N.K. Jemison’s novel, The Fifth Season. The Fifth Season creates a post apocalyptic world that while fantastical in its use of magic, intertwines destruction and justice in an all too familiar manner. The novel takes place in a world in which seasons reshape and restructure the future for generations to come. Seasons are not simply thunderstorms, but rather climatic events that have led to the creation of one single continent, coined “The Stillness.” The novel follows the perspective of Essun, who takes on the personna of three fragmented identities within different points of her life. The perspective of power and the implications that such power holds is presented in parallel with the occurrence of natural disasters. Just as pressure builds within the earth’s surface, ultimately leading to destruction, so too do the societal relationships in the novel.
The motion of tectonic plates within the earth mirrors the very friction of the societal order itself. Within this world, individuals are broken into two distinct groups, the Oregones and the Stills. The Oregones are able to control seismic events, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc. And yet, despite this power, Oregones are ultimately feared by those around them, and therefore, treated as “the other”. It is ingrained in society to fear Oregones, as Stills are told when there is a threat Oregones will do whatever is necessary to protect themselves, and “…people will die.” (Jemisin 37). Oregones have the power to change the world, and yet, they are treated as second class citizens. The notion of power is important to take note of when discussing The Fifth Season. After all, who truly holds the power? One might say the stills hold the power, yet even within this hierarchy, those who are commless are left to fend for themselves. The Comless have neither the resources nor the power to be prepared for the seasons, leading to fatal consequences. In this world that Jemisin has created, the ability to belong is vital to survival, and those who are left outside of the group are ultimately left to fend for themselves.
The earth, and those who have possession over it have become an entity to be controlled, thereby denying its own agency. Oregones are the very manifestation of nature itself, yet are controlled by those who have no first hand knowledge of their ability and connection to the earth. Oregones are taken to the Fulcrum, assigned guardians, and taught to control the nature that is intrinsic to their very identity. The guardians themselves have to touch the Oregone to create a connection that enables the control. In this sense, the guardians’ connection is fabricated, allowing not only a sense of control over the Oregones, but a false sense of knowing. Their identities are based entirely on the ideals of the fulcrum, mainly control, rather than unpredictability, creating an unity of sorts. They are taught what is deemed necessary by the Fulcrum, information that consequently allows the Fulcomes to remain in control. Ultimately, the very story of “The monstrous Misalem, who decided to declare war against a whole nation and off the Sanzed empire for no particular season” (Jemisin 416), is told to take away Oregon’s agency. Misalem had a reason, and this aspect is conveniently left out of the story as yet another way to control “the other”.
And yet, everything and everyone has a breaking point. According to author Leanoard Seeber, though small earthquake faults can not be seen “…when you add them up, they are probably more dangerous than we thought.” Essun has faced injustice after injustice in life, and no longer feels the need to contain her feelings, contain control. Essun’s breaking point comes when she loses everything she built her new identity around; Her children, her home, and ultimately, her loss of identity within her community. Essun’s identity is erased as “…A bird perched nearby the fence falls over frozen, too. The ground crisps, the ground growls hard, and the air hisses as moisture and density is snatched from its substance…but no one has ever mourned earthworms” (Jemisin 58). Just as Essun, earth’s plates build pressure, controlled underneath the surface, until this is no longer the case.
Throughout the novel, the reader sees the consequence of ignoring tension and stress, as well as, the potential disastrous result. Nehl Burg describes the resulting motions of tectonic plates as “a stretched rubber band releasing energy when it snaps.” At the end of the novel, we see Essun release the power the Fulcrum has tried so hard to control. It is evident that Fulcrum is no more as she “…opens herself to all the power of the ancient unknown and tears the world apart” (Jemisin 442). Essun has started a new season, one that will last for centuries upon centuries, and surely lead to the death of thousands. It is at this moment that she starts over. Essun has reached her breaking point, and as a result, there is death, both literally and figuratively. Individuals on both ends of the power dynamic are dead, and those who survive are left to find a home elsewhere. The end of the novel forces us as readers to ask an important question; What happens when the power structure breaks? Moreover, who survives and what does it take in order to do so?
The earth within Jemisin’s novel teaches us a very important lesson, that even today we still seem unable to grasp; When enough pressure builds, there will be a reaction. However, the implication depends on how much we resist the change. Jemisin shows us that such resistance will prove cataclysmic, that much is clear by the end of the novel. By continually ostracizing Oregones as “the other,” the conflict has escalated, resulting in unspeakable tragedy. However, what we are left to figure out ourselves is what happens when the system breaks. Who is left? Where do we go and what do we do? After all, a natural disaster is only manageable for those who have the resources to do so. What happens to those who do not have such resources?