Lithosphere Essay – Hailey

Oppression, racism, and violence are vital issues that we struggle with today in our world, but are also vital issues found in the Stillness, a world built by N.K. Jemisin in her novel The Fifth Season. In her text, the stratified society living in a future dystopian world closely mirrors our own society in which oppression and racism exist at the institutional, structural, and individual levels. Jemisin strategically racializes characters and institutions in her world in order to create this parallel between reality and her book, and she does so inconspicuously. Our course epigraph defines race as “a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences,” and the epigraph connects it to “a repeating tendency, of the gravest import, to demarcate human beings through differences among humans that are selectively essentialized as absolute and fundamental, in order to distribute positions and powers differentially to human groups.” Essentially it means that race is a way of sorting humans based on their differences. The process of racializing can be complex, especially when you’re attempting to world-build and discard all preconceived notions of race that we think of in context to real life. My goal is to break down elements of the text and explain in-depth how Jemisin uses different methods to racialize people in The Fifth Season.

One major way that Jemisin utilizes racialization in her first book of the Broken Earth Trilogy is through showing racism at the structural level. An important element of the Stillness to note is the Sanzed Equatorial Affiliation. In the novel we find out that Sanze has been around long before the events in the first book, and only after taking over other comms in the Stillness through tactful violence did they acquire the significant power that is talked about in The Fifth Season. In fact, Erlsset, the emperor of the Equatorials during the second decade of the Season of Teeth, was quoted saying “Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at these contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.” (Jemisin, 76) While this is quite clearly textbook racism, these are also the foundations of which the Fulcrum was created and is run in the text. Jemisin effectively establishes Orogenes as the oppressed peoples, and then foreshadows the way in which they are exploited systemically by the Equatorials on an institutional level in the Fulcrum, which was founded very soon after Erlsset said this at a party. The young Orogenes grow up being told those exact words, and the effects are lasting.

Another way that Orogenes are racialized to be structurally oppressed involves the Guardians. As soon as a young Orogene gets their Guardian, the Guardian breaks their hand and establishes the hierarchy of power between the two. However, the way they brainwash the poor Orogenes goes much deeper than that. We get an in-depth look at the interactions between Orogenes and Guardians during Damaya and Schaffa’s trip to the Fulcrum in chapter six. Immediately after Schaffa breaks Damaya’s hand, he tells her he loves her. “‘Never doubt that I do, little one. Poor creature locked in a barn, so afraid of herself that she hardly dares speak. And yet there is the fire of wit in you along with the fire of the earth, and I cannot help but admire both, however evil the latter might be.’ He shakes his head and sighs. ‘I hate doing this to you. I hate that it’s necessary. But please understand: I have hurt you so that you will hurt no one else.’” (Jemisin, 99) Schaffa is essentially rewiring Damaya’s brain to believe that is what love is, preying on the fact that she has never known what real love is like; not from her parents or anyone from her comm. 

Let’s fast forward to Syenite and Alabaster. When we see the older version of Damaya and Alabaster interact, we can see the effects that their upbringing in the Fulcrum has had on them. Alabaster has ten-rings, he’s older, he’s “wiser,” and yet he is always referring to Orogenes (specifically himself and Syenite…) as animals in multiple instances. “Ferals—the ones from outside—often don’t know, or care. But when an Orogene is born from parents who weren’t, from a family line that’s never shown the curse before, that’s how they think of you. A wild mutt to my domesticated purebred.” (Jemisin, 72) In addition, he says “‘Either the Fulcrum owns us, or we have to hide and be hunted down like dogs if we’re ever discovered.’” (Jemisin, 123) This process of dehumanization is crucial to re-establishing and supporting the oppressive society in which the Orogenes live. It is ingrained into their minds from such a young age that even well into adulthood they fully believe that they are inhuman, monstrous animals. Not only is this taught to them in the Fulcrum, but the stonelore that they read in school in the comms is also full of anti-Orogene text. For example, Alabaster tells Syenite in chapter eight, “They kill us because they’ve got stonelore telling them at every turn that we’re born evil—some kind of agents of Father Earth, monsters that barely qualify as human.” (Jemisin, 124.) 

While I could go on for days about racialization in this book, there is a unique relationship between racialization, science, and myth within this text. The science aspect is one that is quite obvious; Orogeny itself, the power to manipulate the earth and start shakes is described in-depth. Jemisin defines Orogeny as “The ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events.” (Jemisin, 462) Many of the characters in the novel are named after rocks or geological substances as well, such as Alabaster, Syenite, Antimony, Corundum, and Feldspar. I can admit that I am not sure what will come of this revelation, but hope to be able to come back and revise when I find out and (or) finish the Trilogy. Myths play a very powerful part in The Fifth Season. We know about stone eaters- the mysterious statue-like people that live forever and eat stone. However, that is about it. We don’t know their intentions or anything else about them other than their abilities and appearance. Well… we also know what their favorite meal is. This element of not knowing in relation to stone eaters is a crucial aspect of the book. Tied in together with the aspects of racism and oppression showcased in the first book of the trilogy, there is no other choice for a sane reader other than to keep going. In my opinion, Jemisin did an excellent job with revealing just enough information to keep me grounded in the plot, but leaving out just enough to leave me (and hopefully you, too) wanting more. 

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