When I think of power and justice, there are many images that come to mind. There are also many images that don’t (or didn’t) come to mind–images like earthquakes or volcanoes or other geological events. What N.K. Jemisin does in her novel The Fifth Season, is the tying together of these geological events with concepts of power and justice so that we can gain a better sense of what it means to have and use this power.
While I read this novel, one of the things that particularly interested me was the concept of power as it relates to the orogene’s abilities. Orogenes are able to manipulate energy related to seismic events, a power that makes those without this power, fearful. The power that orogenes have is truly awe-inspiring and powerful. One of the things that they can do is still earthquakes. I’m not entirely sure what this means exactly, but they are somehow manipulating the energy from these events to stop them. To stop literal plates of earth from moving. That is not only super cool, but seems impossibly hard. Aside from the physicality of their powers, there are also the underlying motivations for them to use these powers. I think this might partially be a reason why they are feared, but I will get to that later.
Another thing that orogenes can do is freeze the air around people, something that seems to occur when they are heavily emotional about something. This has proven to be dangerous, as many young orogenes have killed family members and friends by inadvertently doing this. That also seems to be another reason why the stills, people who don’t have the power of orogeny, are fearful of these powers. It seems like the unpredictability of motivation and usage of power leads others to be wary of orogenes, a fact that leads to the resentment and contempt with which they treat those who are different than themselves.
In the second chapter of their book, Nur and Burgess discuss how earthquakes happen. They say, “Though earthquakes are unpredictable, they are not strictly random; they shape and are shaped by the structure of the earth as a whole” (41). When I read this quote, I immediately thought of the orogenes. Yes, they may have unpredictable powers that have consequences, but they also are affected by what happens around them–something the stills and those in power somehow overlook. Unpredictability and uncertainty can be fear inducing for sure, but does that mean that orogenes should be treated as less than? Should orogenes be harmed in the process of training them to harness their powers?
When Damaya, the young protagonist of Jemison’s novel, is being taken to the Fulcrum to be trained, she gets her hand broken by her Guardian as a lesson. Schaffa says, “I am your Guardian now, and it is my duty to make certain that you remain helpful, never harmful” (93). This rubbed me the wrong way for many reasons. Who deemed Guardians the ruler over orogenes? Why can’t orogenes learn to control their actions on their own? How will hurting Damaya make her want to be helpful instead of harmful? How can breaking a young child’s hand (and spirit) be just? All of these questions keep surfacing and shifting to some of the awful things that orogenes have to endure throughout the novel. The quote from Nur and Burgess reminds me that the earth, the very thing that sustains us, is unpredictable. Why do we as humans get to try and push the earth into this box of predictability for our own benefit? We tend to forget that our own actions have consequences on the very forces that we believe shape us. Jemisin points out that, “Father Earth never forgets the debts we owe” (146). This line haunts me. The Earth in this novel has existed before humans, and although did not create humans, has a relationship with us where it both affects us and is affected by us. When we mistreat the earth, the earth remembers. When the orogenes are mistreated, they will remember by whom.
Nur and Burgess also talk about stress building at plate boundaries. They state that, “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” (45). This makes me think of the young orogenes discovering their powers and accidentally hurting someone they are in contact with. Obviously, if there is a build-up of pressure, it needs to be released eventually. The earth does it, so humans will too. I’m wondering if this intense reaction could be avoided if those with orogeny were not devalued in society. What if we taught young orogenes that they were special and had amazing powers that could do some real damage if left suppressed? What if instead of hurting orogenes to teach them lessons on who gets to be in control, we taught them effective ways to utilize their powers so they felt more in control? Clearly, the need for control and power outweighs any of the other possibilities from this situation. People want what they want and will do whatever they deem necessary in order to remain in power.
I feel as though Jemisin’s treatment of concepts like control and fear show us that sometimes, people will manipulate things as a means to benefit themselves without truly recognizing the scope to which this is harmful to others. People use and abuse the earth and the earth breaks apart. People mistreat groups of people they seem scary and unpredictable in order to maintain control.