Societal Hierarchy of Race in Science Fiction and Our World

After concluding the first novel of N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy it’s truly not until the end of the book where I start to grasp the nature of this story and start to see it unfold. We can see just how divided each category of people are, especially as we are led throughout Essun’s whole life while not knowing that Damaya, Syenite, and Essun are all the same person. As I navigate this novel and the dynamics in it, I am drawn back to our course epigraph by Geraldine Heng and her hypothesis of race as something that is done to people to categorize them, rather than something that is internally human. It has nothing to do with our actual being and self. The process of racialization is a way of life in The Fifth Season, in one sense it provides structure to a world and society that is crumbling, but in a world with so many issues, structure and discrimination against race seem trivial. Which makes me reflect on the similarities of the science fiction world of The Fifth Season and the real-life everyday world that we experience.

The University of Winnipeg defines the process of racializing as “the processes by which a group of people is defined by their ‘race.’ Processes of racialization begin by attributing racial meaning to people’s identity and, in particular, as they relate to social structures and institutional systems, such as housing, employment, and education”. In The Fifth Season the main group of people who are discriminated against are orogenes, the appendix in the book defines orogenes as “one who possesses orogeny, whether trained or not” and orogeny being defined as “the ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events.” There are many instances in the novel where we can see the hierarchy of races presented to us, one in particular being when Binof leads Damaya into an off-limits corridor in the Fulcrum. Binof explains that she is not worried about getting in trouble because she gets in trouble all the time, but as a Leadership Yumenes the consequences are very minimal. Damaya’s response to this is the worry that she will get in trouble, “She isn’t a Leader, or a person; no one will save her.” (pg. 308) This moment stuck out to me as a perfect example of racialization, it shows how Binof is more privileged than Damaya as she is allowed to get in trouble without serious consequences while Damaya fears for her life every time she goes against any kind of law. In connection to a real-world scenario, the Black Lives Matter movement addresses these same kinds of racial inequality issues, specifically with discrimination against black people and police brutality instances. Black Lives Matter highlights how black people fear for their life when encountering law enforcement, while specifically white people are capable of getting in trouble with the law and getting out with a slap on their wrist. In both fictional and non-fictional scenarios, it’s clear to see the different behavior toward both races and the absurdity of it.

One line in Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, taken from our course epigraph is, “’Race’ is one of the primary names we have – a name we retain for the strategic, epistemological, and political commitments it recognizes.” This quote reminded me of Essun’s versatility in her literal names and how those names were each a different version of herself. Damaya, the name she was given at birth by her mother, is her younger self, someone who went through hardships as only a child. When Damaya becomes Syenite she chooses this name for herself, and this is something that seems all orogenes in the fulcrum decide to do once they reach a certain level of orogeny or gain their first ring. Damaya tells Schaffa that she has chosen her name and that it will be Syenite. “It forms at the edge of a tectonic plate. With heat and pressure it does not degrade, but instead grows stronger” (pg. 331), Syenite chose this new name for herself and experienced parts of life as Syen, and no longer Damaya. As Syen, more was expected of her, she was essentially a new person, wiser and stronger. We have yet to learn the exact timing of when Syen changed her name to Essun, and why she chose Essun (perhaps this is something we will learn more about in the next book). Even in the different time periods of Essun’s life with her various names and each with a seemingly different personality we can relate this to Heng’s words of how race is just a primary name. It is something that is assigned to someone and created for a structural hierarchy and with that name comes expected attributes, or stereotypes. With each of Essun’s names we see how people treat her differently based on which version of herself she is in her life. While throughout the novel Essun is always an orogene, we see various people treat her differently based on that fact. This proves Heng’s hypothesis that race is only something assigned to people, and as Dr. McCoy put it in our class notes from February 22, “race” is not “anything that people have in them internally or on them externally”.

I think that based on the book so far and its use of racialization and very human like attributes to characters such as good and bad faith decisions, that there will be a major shift in the dynamics of racialization, but specifically regarding the Orogenes and Guardians. I predict that Orogenes will somehow come into more power than they have now, as they are currently used for training and treated unfairly, I expect there to be a revolt against the current conditions. However, when considering other parties such as Hoa and the stone eaters, I suspect that it won’t be as straightforward as two groups in a conflict. When we reach Hoa’s perspective at the end of The Fifth Season he says, “I am the one who found her first. I fought off the others and trailed her, watched her, guarded her.” (pg.443) This whole time Hoa has had a part to play in Essun’s journey, protecting her in a way we do not fully understand yet. Going forward, I suspect there will be alliances made and trust broken between those alliances. I look forward to learning more about the world that N.K. Jemisin has created and the surprises that she will shock us with. I also feel fortunate to have no prior knowledge of this trilogy, making the journey more exciting for me. I’ve always thought that stories with a map at the beginning are the most intriguing because it is evident the author took time in crafting the story and the characters in it, so much so that a definable map had to be curated to follow along.  

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