Lithosphere Essay

In Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, she states, ‘race’ is one of the primary names we have—a name we retain for the strategic, epistemological, and political commitments it recognizes—attached to a repeating tendency, of the gravest import, to demarcate human beings through differences among humans that are selectively essentialized as absolute and fundamental. This description can help give readers a perspective on how race has nothing to do with real or internal things. It’s the idea that privileges can be given to some and taken away from others based on bias. Throughout the first book, The Fifth Season in N.K. Jeminson’s Broken Earth Trilogy, this idea of race, myth, and science is used to divide the people who live amongst the Stillness. In LitCharts theme analysis of the Hierarchy, Oppression, and Prejudice in the Fifth season, the Stillness is described as “a single massive continent… which is ruled by the remnants of the Sanzed Empire and is rigidly divided into various “use-castes” and other systems of ranking. Among these divisions are the people called orogenes, who have the power to affect seismic activity by manipulating energy, yet are also officially considered non-human and harshly discriminated against.” Among the many people in these castes are Orogenes, who are born with the ability to affect and control the seismic activity that occurs below the surface and possibly even above the surface. And those are those who are part of the use-castes, which can range from breeders to strongbacks.  Because these Orogenes have such tremendous power, it is important to know that this power is incredibly difficult to control. This idea of having to control this power makes all other castes fear it and usually ends in the death of the young Orogene child. 

In this first stage of her life, we are introduced to our main character with the birth name Dama Strongback, who goes by three different names throughout the story: Damaya, Syenite, and Essun. Throughout her story, we can see many different perspectives on how race is used to discriminate against those who are under the power of Orogenes. 

When Damaya’s parents learned that she had this power, they locked her in a barn so they could hide her from the world. It wasn’t until a Guardian showed up that Damaya would be free from her parents’ fear and oppression. Before The Guardian, Schaffa, took Damaya under his wing, we heard some of the stereotypes around Orogenes directly from Damaya’s mother. “‘If you could assemble a package for her—a coat—we’ll be on our way.” Mother draws up in surprise. ‘We gave away her coat.’… In winter?’… “She’s got a cousin who needed it… ‘And you’ve heard that orogenes don’t feel cold the way others do,’ That’s a myth’… The mother looks flustered. “Yes. But I thought… ”That Damaya might have been faking it… Damaya had hidden it from them, Mother said. She had hidden everything and pretended to be a child when she was really a monster. Damaya, she’d always been such a little liar.’ “ (Jemison, 29). Through the lens of Damaya, we see the fear and discrimination people have about orogenes. This idea of race This ostracization of Damaya starts to show readers a pattern of how marginalization and oppression are faced by those deemed different. Because they are deemed different and hard to control, they must be dealt with effectively. 

When Schaffa arrives, Damaya is angry with her parents because they have opted to just give their daughter away like some sort of commodity. Schaffa follows these disgruntled words of sadness with a statement of  ‘You’re alive and well’, and that is no small thing’… They chose to keep something rather than lose everything. But the greatest danger lies in who you are, Dama…’Every time the earth moves, you will hear its call. When a threat is imminent, of course you’ll do what you must to protect yourself (Jemison, 30-31). This view Schaffa gives allows readers to see a new perspective from the eyes of Damaya’s parents. One can argue that the way her parents dealt with Damaya was simply a way to protect themselves, but the way I see it, they tried to find a way to protect their daughter, and by hiding Damaya, they risked losing everything. Based on this notion, it becomes evident that the societal structures within the Stillness are deeply rooted in a system of hierarchy, oppression, and prejudice. Orogenes, like Damaya, are only feared and marginalized due to their inherent abilities. The fear surrounding orogenes stems from a lack of understanding and control over their powers, leading to their dehumanization. 

We learn through Damaya’s story that she adopts the name Syenite, and on her journey, we learn about the possible outcomes for Orogene children. It is in Chapter 8 that we are introduced to the characters known as node maintainers. LitCharts defines node maintainers as “node maintainers who have been essentially lobotomized, sedated, and strapped into a wire chair so that they constantly use their incredibly powerful orogeny to quiet earthquakes while having no free will or control of their own. Essentially, node maintainers are used by the government for their power orogeny to control earthquakes. The node maintainer conditions are described by Syenite and her companion, Alabaster. “The body in the node maintainer’s chair is small and naked. Thin, its limbs atrophied. Hairless. There are things—tubes and pipes and things. One of the tube things is for putting that medicine into the node maintainer. And this one is for pushing in food, and that one is for taking away urine, oh, and that cloth wrapping is for sopping up drool. A newborn orogene can stop an earthshake. It’s an inborn thing, more certain even than a child’s ability to suckle—and it’s this ability that gets more orogene children killed than anything else. The best of their kind reveal themselves long before they’re old enough to understand the danger. Drug away the infections and so forth, keep him alive enough to function, and you’ve got the one thing even the Fulcrum can’t provide: a reliable, harmless, completely beneficial source of orogeny” (Jemison  106–108). Since node maintainers are so powerful, the government tries to control them by stripping them of their humanity and turning them into mere tools for controlling seismic activity. This treatment highlights the oppression faced by Orogenes in this society. To make matters worse, these children are still not safe from being physically, emotionally, and sexually abused. Syenites Companion Alabaster describes “a still-livid bruise on the boy’s upper thigh. It’s in the shape of a hand; finger marks are clearly visible even against the dark skin. “I’m told there are many who enjoy this sort of thing. A helplessness fetish, basically. They like it more if the victim is aware of what they’re doing. The node maintainers feel terrible pain whenever they use orogeny. The lesions, see. Since they can’t stop themselves from reacting to every shake in the vicinity, even the microshakes, it’s considered humane to keep them constantly sedated. And all orogenes react instinctively to any perceived threat… ‘Every (Orogene) should see a node, at least once.’… He jerks his head toward the body of the abused, murdered child. You think he mattered after what they did to him? The only reason they don’t do this to all of us is because we’re more versatile and useful if we control ourselves (Jemison 108–109). The government’s exploitation of the Orogenes abilities is justified, as they need to be controlled because they can’t control themselves. Furthermore, these children are sedated, so there is this notion that they can’t feel pain, but that is far from the truth. The doctors who care for these node maintainers take advantage of their helpless state, and when these children awaken, it results in the deaths of themselves and their abusers. This idea of race and hierarchy is used to overshadow the mistreatment and exploitation of these children under the disguise of societal necessity and control. It is fair to assume that those who live in stillness know that this cruelty is occurring right under their noses, and they benefit from it. It makes me wonder: if those who live in the stillness knew what really happened to children who are born with orogeny, would they change their preconceived notions or would they remain the same? This really makes me think about the idea of the complicity and silence of those within the Stillness society regarding the exploitation of marginalized groups. Despite the knowledge of these atrocities, many may turn a blind eye or rationalize the mistreatment as a necessity for the greater good, thereby perpetuating the oppressive structures that benefit them.

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