“This is the Stillness, a land familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.”
Author N.K Jemisin poses many powerful and complex questions within the context of her Broken Earth trilogy, questions regarding what it means to have justice. Jemisin layers geological concepts within The Fifth Season with other issues including (but not limited to) institutionalized oppression/racism and freedom. Set within the Stillness, a world in which it’s people live in “a perpetual state of disaster awareness” (Jemisin 8) due to frequent geological devastation, there are certain people who have the ability to perform “orogeny” in order to contain shakes and perform maintenance for the Comms of the Stillness. While orogenes—as they are called in this world—are given this extraordinary power, they have become the victims of massive oppression and are controlled by the powerful organization known as the Fulcrum, alongside the Guardians who have the ability to negate their orogeny. From this control and oppression stems certain questions for reading Jemisin’s work: What is justice in The Stillness? How is Jemisin writing for justice? Whose justice is she writing for?
From an early point in the novel, the power that is wielded over Orogenes is shown through the viewpoint of Damaya, one of three narrators/perspectives in the book. Schaffa—Damaya’s assigned Guardian, who is assigned to watch over and “care” for young orogenes—explains to Damaya when he comes to take her to the Fulcrum that “The orogenes of the world serve the Fulcrum… your usefulness lies in what you are…From birth, an orogene child can stop a shake; even without training, you are orogene,” (Jemisin 34). Schaffa’s explanation of what orogenes are, and what their ‘usefulness’ is, seems sort of complex and nuanced. On one hand, Schaffa is telling Damaya just how strong and powerful she is and can be with the ability to perform orogeny. Even after the quote, he continues on to tell her she will become even stronger with the guidance of the Fulcrum. However, it is at this point that it becomes nuanced: the Fulcrum is an oppressive agency that exerts control over and institutionalized orogenes. So if orogenes possess a powerful ability to control geological events, if stills hate orogenes, and the Fulcrum is an organization that controls the orogenes (with the use of Guardians), is this done out of fear? Out of a desire for power? In a world where they experience consistent geologic devastations that kill so many, why aren’t orogenes praised for their powers?
Interactions between the Fulcrum, Stills, and Orogenes in The Fifth Season are what help to shape these methods of reading and thinking. An example of the stripped autonomy that orogenes experience is directly through Syenite, the third narrator and perspective in the novel. Syenite is assigned to work with a highly skilled orogene, Alabaster, but she is also assigned to conceive a child with him, which is something all Fulcrum orogenes must do. She is told that she has to do as she is assigned by her mentor Feldspar, and that Feldspar herself has had six children of her own for the Fulcrum. Not only is the Fulcrum responsible for oppressing and controlling orogenes’ powers, they are also responsible for stripping their basic autonomy as well (ability to have a right of choice for their own sexual reproduction). To further the horrid forced conception to even worse lengths, the reveal of what is done with Fulcrum-born orogene children is appalling and disturbing. Inside a node station1, Syenite comes to the realization of the treatment of the node maintainers: “She would call it a chair, if it was made of anything but wires and straps. Not very comfortable looking, except in that it seems to hold its occupant at an easy recline. the node maintainer is seated in it, anyway, so it must be—Oh. Oh. Oh bloody, burning Earth,” (Jemisin 139). The intensive, abusive, and forced labor that node maintainers (children nonetheless) is an overwhelmingly revolting piece of the worldbuilding within this novel.
In my own mind, how this abuse and oppression exerted by the Fulcrum and higher powers comes across is a desire to hold onto power. After reading through The Fifth Season, I am not convinced in the slightest that the governmental powers in the Stillness are working properly or carefully for both social justice and environmental justice for the people who live there, both orogenes and stills. Even with the handpicked examples of the oppression, stripping of orogene autonomy, and massive control over the populace I have featured, that surely does not cover the entirety of issues within The Fifth Season. Surely, much much more will be brought to light in The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky (perhaps the moon that has been absent!). Now that N.K. Jemisin has provided a foundation for using geological concepts to seek/question justice, I wonder how she writes out the rest of the series to accomplish this. Can the Stillness obtain social justice, or will they find themselves stuck in a cycle of hatred and oppression? What can be done to break said cycle? What does a just and caring future look like for Essun and all people in this world?
1Network of Imperially maintained stations placed throughout the Stillness in order to reduce or quell seismic events