Lithosphere Essay: Using Race to Manage Society

When first introduced to N.K. Jemisin’s novel The Fifth Season, I did some light research. I quickly found that it was a science fiction text. I had very little knowledge of science fiction, so I dug for a little more information. As defined by Dartmouth Libraries, science fiction is defined as “stories involving conflicts between science and technology, human nature, and social organization in futuristic or fantastical settings.” (Dartmouth Libraries, 2024) As I began engaging with the text, I found this definition to be true of what I had been reading, but soon realized this text was much more than imaginative and futuristic concepts. Themes of power, oppression, and prejudice began to emerge that parallel the real world.

            Jemisin uses orogenes, people who have power to control seismic events, to portray hierarchies and inequalities very similar to the ones that surround us. The Fifth Season takes place on a continent referred to as The Stillness, where seismic activity occurs regularly. Throughout the text, we meet several orogenes who face discrimination for their powers, typically from “stills”, those who do not have powers. Non-orogenes fear orogenes and view them as monster-like creatures. Non-orogenes are taught to view orogenes as threats to society and feel as though they have the right to hurt them if that is what is deemed necessary to protect others from orogenes powers. However, there are even inequalities within the orogenes that seem to be represented in a hierarchy.

            As far as racializing we see amongst orogenes and stills, one prime example creates the overall plot for the text. Jija, a non-orogene, killed his own son Uche after finding out he was an orogene. We see this on page 58 when it says, “these people killed Uche. Their hate, their fear, their unprovoked violence. They. (He.) Killed your son. (Jija killed your son.)” We see the prejudice in this quote as the words “hate” and “fear” are used to describe non-orogenes feelings towards orogenes. Uche was killed due his ability to control and create seismic events. This control over something that seems incontrollable allows non-orogenes to feel threatened in their society, causing them to react through violence.

We see another instance of discrimination against orogenes when Syenite and Alabaster, both orogenes, are sent on a mission to remove coral for non-orogenes. While on this mission, Syenite and Alabaster converse with the deputy governor of Allia, a community on the shore of The Stillness, named Asael. Asael speaks with the orogenes as people beneath her. The orogenes are told to make stills feel safe. However, Syenite quickly becomes frustrated by the lack of respect she is receiving from Asael. (Duerheimer, 2024) Syenite says, “And yet you haven’t shaken our hands, Asael Leader. You didn’t look us in the eye when we first met. You still haven’t offered that cup of safe that Alabaster suggested yesterday” (215). It is clear that Asael is leery of the orogenes, too afraid to touch them and look them in the eye. While this is an interaction between one still and two orogenes, Asael’s biases are learned and reflect those of the other stills in her community. Therefore, while this is an interpersonal example of inequality, it stems from something much deeper, structural inequality imbedded within the society. (Duerheimer, 2024)

            Beyond non-orogenes discrimination for orogenes, there are even inequalities amongst orogenes themselves. The hierarchy of orogenes is based on rings. Orogenes can work up to ten-rings. The more rings one has, shows the deeper level of control they have over their power. Due to these levels, one-ring orogenes are often treated beneath ten-ring orogenes. Orogenes often reside in the Fulcrum. The Fulcrum is much like a military boot camp that trains orogenes to control their powers. Orogenes who just enter the Fulcrum are referred to as “grits.” Grits are referred to as “…an unimportant bit of rock ready to be polished into usefulness, or at least to help grind other, better rocks—“ (191). Here, Jemisin uses a metaphor connecting geology to inequality. Grit refers to sand sized grains and small pebbles. The “newbie” orogenes are viewed as something that does not consist of much substance yet, but with training and control can be morphed into something much stronger and useful. In this hierarchy, groups have specific roles that they are to follow. Hierarchies limit freedoms and promote inequalities amongst the orogenes causing problems to arise if anyone chooses to rebel.

            Overall, we see Jemisin create a text where orogenes are racialized by their powers. Orogenes powers are what marginalize them from the rest of the those on The Stillness because fear of them is embedded deep within the society. In the course epigraph, a particular line from Geraldine Heng resonated with me as I read The Fifth Season. It reads, “My understanding, thus, is that race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content.” Throughout the novel, orogenes were put in a box as something that was to be feared. Non-orogenes used this ideal of orogenes to structure their thoughts and lives. By non-orogenes treating orogenes as less than human, they are able to remain in power. Therefore, while I do believe non-orogenes were taught to fear orogenes for their powers, the ultimate reason they continue to view them as less than is to keep their society and power structures in order. If non-orogenes ideals of orogenes shifted, power dynamics and hierarchies would change, sending people into a time of disorder. This relates back to Hang’s quote because orogenes are discriminated against not because of “substantive content,” but because it is a way manage human differences to create order within a society.

            Jemisin writes this text not to make an interesting novel, but instead to parallel the real world. By using orogenes as a marginalized group, readers can digest the text and view the discrimination occurring in a way that refrains from bias. By embedding themes of power, oppression, and hierarchy into a fictional text about orogenes, readers are able to read through a lens with limited preconceived notions. (Duerheimer, 2024) Similarly to how orogenes are viewed as less than non-orogenes to keep order, in the real-world, society perpetuates racism by giving some more powers than others. While it may not be everyone’s intention, structural racism continues to occur because of a desire to keep order. Giving some power and putting down others creates a sense of order that society feels as though they need. To change that hierarchy or power structure, small changes would not be effective. Instead, the entire system itself would need to be rebuilt.


Duerheimer, A. Hughes, L. Laughlin, G. Lepsch, V. Licata, A. (2024) ‘ENGL 111 Mini Collaboration 1’. SUNY Geneseo. Unpublished Paragraph.

Hall, L. M. (2022, May 23). Research Guides: Film Genres: Science fiction.

Jemisin, N. K. (2016). The fifth season : the broken earth. book one. Orbit.

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