Weakness, Instability, and Love: Catastrophism in Stable Socieites

The theory of Catastrophism, as defined by Nur and Burgess, is the “sudden, typically unpredicted natural disaster that leads to abrupt changes in a culture or lifestyle that has been stable for a long time”. I explored this geological and social phenomenon heavily in my ThinkING essay, published in late February, in relation to The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. However, after completing Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, I have since reflected on the idea of change. I have come to the conclusion that change, no matter how abrupt or disagreeable, is not always a bad thing. With that being said, I do not believe that Catastrophism, which can cause substantial distress and destruction of societal stability, always results in a negative transformation of the lives of all people in a community.

 In my original essay, I stated that “catastrophism definitely plays a role in the destruction of societal stability, but only because there was a factor before the natural disaster that was already causing weakness and vulnerability to collapse”. After reading not only what I wrote, but also Jemisin’s trilogy in its entirety, the idea of weakness is something that I have pondered over. An idea that has fascinated me is whether a LACK of power and justice- two very big themes within The Broken Earth trilogy- are the cause of weakness within societies. This changes my original hypothesis, as weakness is not instability. A society can be weak and have internal weaknesses but be incredibly stable. Originally I equated weakness and instability, using them interchangeably as synonyms. Jemisin’s work has taught me that these two words, and social constructs, are not the same at all. Within the third and last book in the trilogy, The Stone Sky, Jemisin introduces the reader to the idea of civilization before The Stillness, which is the ‘current’ world that the trilogy is set in. When describing the city, she describes a place that sounds almost mythical, “And Syl Anagist lives… in bustling streets and ceaseless commerce and buildings that your mind would struggle to define as such… vehicles…No steam or chemical fuels them…” (Jemisin). Jemisin wrote this city to model a SolarPunk aesthetic, which can be considered beautiful, green and highly technologically advanced. In other words, this city comes across as extremely stable. However, I have established that stability does not mean strength. Within this society, we are also introduced to a group of people, the Tuners, being oppressed and used as slaves, “We are the deficient ones, after all, stripped of much that would’ve made us human” (Jemisin). The Tuners were used for their abilities while being stripped of their humanity. This is where the internal weakness of this seemingly powerful society, Syl Anagist, lies. In order to keep their society running and uphold their impressive infrastructure, Syl Anagist took advantage of and persecuted the Tuners. These people were used as a resource, and without them the community would fall apart at the seams. Moving forward in time, society was also weak when the Fulcrum was a highly functioning body. The trilogy’s main character, Essun, experienced life at the Fulcrum and worked for the Fulcrum from childhood to young adulthood. Society at this point in time was incredibly stable, as guardians and the leadership caste were able to control Orogenes- those with incredible powers- and use them to their benefit. They were, like the Tuners, slaves. The oppression of the Tuners at the time of Syl Anagist and the oppression of Orogenes during the Fulcrum’s existence are extremely reflective of one another. Society was weak during both of these time periods, as the people in power were not the most powerful people, and the most powerful people were being taken advantage of. I assert, then, that oppression makes a society WEAK, but not necessarily unstable. 

Returning once again to my ThinkING essay, I posed the questions: Does a LACK of justice lead to an increase in Catastrophism, and how does it do so? Although I would still respond to this question with an immediate “YES”, the “how” portion of the question has evolved and shifted, shaped by new knowledge I gained through reading The Broken Earth trilogy. I no longer would argue that “Fifth Seasons”, periods of dramatized apocalypse, cause Catastrophism. Society changes during these periods due to the increased difficulty to survive, and therefore an increase in the survival instincts of the people within. However, social norms are upheld. During these phases, Orogenes are still oppressed and looked at differently. They are feared due to their immense power, but also utilized for their abilities to stop or lessen the effects of natural disasters. This fact does not change in The Stillness, no matter if a “Fifth Season” is occurring or not. By definition, because society’s views as a whole do not change, and there is no philosophical revolution, “Fifth Seasons” cannot be considered Catastrophism. What does cause Catastrophism however, in The Stillness and Syl Anagist alike, is a lack of justice. When people who lack justice want to gain justice, this is the sole cause of Catastrophism, or the “how” component of the original question I posed. During the “Fifth Seasons”, that spark is not present. People are simply attempting to survive, and are not focused on changing the way they are treated. We are made to believe that, until Essun, no Orogene has been able to change society and cause Catastrophism. They simply accept their oppression due to the need for survival, or are not powerful enough to bring about change, “They’re afraid because we exist, she says. There’s nothing we did to provoke their fear, other than exist. There’s nothing we can do to earn their approval, except stop existing – so we can either die like they want, or laugh at their cowardice and go on with our lives” (Jemisin). We see, especially in The Stone Sky, how a lack of justice increases Catastrophism when people are powerful enough to cause it. It may even be argued that, in the fictional world created by Jemisin, Catastrophism was the only feasible way that power could be used to gain justice, as she states, “But for a society built on exploitation, there is no greater threat than having no one left to oppress” (Jemisin). 

As Jemisin has proved to readers, Catastrophism does not always result in ruin- whether that be physical or societal. This complicated geological phenomenon can be the sole cause of a group of oppressed people gaining justice, which most (unless you are on the side of the oppressor) consider to be an incredibly positive change. Catastrophism, which I believe can be considered a movement, needs a catalyst. Within Jemisin’s books, the catalyst she, and her characters, choose to explore quite often is LOVE. Love makes everything more complicated but yet is often the reason people choose to fight back. Essun endured many hardships throughout The Broken Earth trilogy, including losing her children. Her motivator for the Catastrophism that she caused was the LOVE for her children, and all other Orogene children in The Stillness. Jemisin makes it clear that this is Essun’s ‘why’, “For how many centuries has the world killed rogga children so that everyone else’s children can sleep easy?” (Jemisin). Essun is fighting not for herself, but for the greater good of her people and because of the love she has for them. Therefore, love can start a revolution. 

People who have power can always change the world, whether for the right reasons or the wrong reasons. In this case, Jemisin proves to readers that justice can be gained through Catastrophism, and all it takes is one person. Because of this trilogy, and Jemisin’s beautifully crafted writing, my definitions of power and justice have changed drastically. Power is a spectrum, as opposed to a negative attribute. Within the books, there were many people who held power that can be considered the ‘villains’ within this world, but there were also many people who were extremely powerful that can be considered the protagonists. All people in this trilogy had power in some shape or form. One group of people had power that was upheld due to societal beliefs, while other people had power due to physical abilities. This power, no matter the source, can be used to bring about change, whether positive or negative. Because my definitions have changed, I have begun to look at American society very differently. One could argue that American society is stable based on a variety of factors (the economy, education, job opportunities, etc.). But, in my opinion, society is incredibly weak. Very recently, we have learned that the Supreme Court wishes to overturn an important decision, Roe v. Wade. This, in turn, takes rights away from people who need reproductive care. Therefore, there is a group of people who are lacking justice. By my definition, this makes our country extremely weak, and consequently vulnerable to change. This change, although unlikely on this big of a scale, could be brought about by Catastrophism. Here, we see the spectrum of power, as citizens are using their power (in numbers) to influence people in powerful positions (the Supreme Court). Even in this very real situation, LOVE can be considered a motivator. People who are fighting for these rights are both fighting for themselves and fighting for others that they care about. Thus, love (along with many, many other factors) is a catalyst even in our world. As Jemisin states, “…demand the impossible. It isn’t right, they whisper, weep, shout; what has been done to them is not right. They are not inferior. They do not deserve it. And so it is the society that must change. There can be peace this way, too, but not before conflict. No one reaches this place without a false start or two” (Jemisin). 

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