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.

“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.

The abuse of power and blurred consent we see all throughout our lives

The abuse of power and blurred consent we see all throughout our lives

In N.K. Jemisins, “The Fifth Season”, we see many forms of blurred consent and abuse of power. In the novel the Fulcrum rules over all of the people of the world; if you don’t follow their rules then you are exterminated before you can cause them problems. While the Fulcrum abuses their power, the Orogenes are the people who suffer. The Orogenes have powers connected to the earth, and if those powers are not used in a safe way, it can be detrimental to the safety of everybody. To maintain their control over the world the Fulcrum forces the Orogenes to do many things including hard labor and forced breeding. The abuse of power and blurred consent in the novel can also be seen in real life pertaining to the building of houses and buildings on dangerous land. Abuse of power and blurred consent can be seen all around us in real life as well as the novels we read; we can see this in, “The Fifth Season”, with forced breeding and hard labor, and in real life with letting people buy houses or build houses on dangerous land. 

In the novel, “The Fifth Season”, written by, N.K. Jemisin we meet a character named Syenite who is an Orogene. She works for the Fulcrum and she is a breeder. To be seen as useful she is forced to breed with other orogenes to produce babies for the Fulcrum. “He inhales to start shouting, she has no idea what but she doesn’t want to hear it, and before he can she snaps, ‘I’m here to fuck you, Earth burn it. Is that worth disturbing your beauty rest?’” (The Fifth Season, page 69) Syenite is instructed to breed a baby with the ten ringed Orogene named Alabaster. Throughout their journey it is made clear that both parties don’t want to have sex, but it is a mutual understanding that they have to follow orders. In chapter eight of the novel we find out that Alabaster has had many children and often does not get to see them when they’re born. Later on in the chapter Syenite finds out that the reason Alabaster quiets all of the little shakes he feels is because he wants to give the node maintainers a break from their duties. And when Syenite questions this, she is shown the horrors that the node maintainers are put through. Not only are the node maintainers forced to quell all shakes in their surrounding areas, but they’re also put to sleep during this process. It also comes to light that many of the guards and bystanders at the node station often assault the node maintainers while they’re asleep and helpless. These scenes with syenite, Alabaster, the Fulcrum, and the node maintainers clearly show abuse of power and blurred consent. The Fulcrum is abusing their power by forcing the Orogenes to breed. The Orogenes know that if they don’t obey then they will be punished and lose their rank. And the node maintainers lose their free will and are sexually asaulted.

While we clearly see abuse of power and blurred consent in the novel, we also see it in real life. One common instance we see these in is construction, and house buying. Oftentimes people will buy houses and be informed by landlords that it is a perfect home in a perfect location. But buyers are often misinformed. There are many cases when people will pay a lot of money for homes, and then later on through disasters find out that they bought a house on a natural disaster hotspot. Through the texts in class we have seen the destruction that earthquakes and volcanoes can make. In the video titled, “Kilauea Lava Flow Activity In Lower Puna May 19, 2018”, we can clearly see how destructive lava can be. In the video we see the lava flowing very quickly. We also see dead trees and fire all around the area. According to the center for research on the epidemiology of disasters, natural disasters affect 218 million people each year, and claim over 68,000 lives per year. So when realtors act in bad faith and sell people houses knowing that these people are gonna be living on natural disaster hotspots, it becomes an abuse of power. Many people who buy these homes don’t know that they are in a bad place until a disaster occurs. 

In both, “The Fifth Season”, and in real life we see many instances of power abuse and blurred consent. In the novel Syenite and Alabaster are forced to breed a child with each other. And while they became free for a short time, the Fulcrum still came back and while trying to survive lost their baby in the process. And in real life house buyers are often manipulated by realtors who abuse their power and are money hungry, this often leading to many people losing their homes or their lives.