Lithosphere Essay

As a distinct group establishes a set of regulations that restrict another group’s entry to wealth and resources, structural inequalities arise. Political, economic, and health inequalities have, historically, been used to immortalize discriminatory practices that sustain a single group’s power. The most normalized and even casual practice in society is perhaps the idea of “race.” As it stands, one’s race is not a biological factor but rather a system “to distribute positions and power…so as to construct a hierarchy of peoples for differential treatment” (Heng 27; course epigraph). This stratification of the individual has the potential to either impart privilege or to oppress; nobody is unaffected by race. The Fifth Season—novel—serves to produce a fictional world in which race and its repercussions can safely be explored.

N.K. Jemisin, author of The Fifth Season, unmistakably investigates themes of structural inequality, oppression, and power throughout her storytelling. Jemisin’s sophisticated creation of racial hierarchy within the novel is, in effect, a sensationalized and eerie retelling of US history. There is a strange ease and comfortability with understanding The Fifth Season’s class structure that can only be attributed to having lived similarly. Although Jemisin traverses the underlying policies that have shaped these societal norms, they are greatly accentuated by the commonplace of supernatural powers and unchecked murder. Rather than an assessment of inequality in the novel, however, I believe that this narrative functions as way for us to assess our own reality.

The Fifth Season opens in action. Essun, mother to Uche (son) and Nassun (daughter), is distressed. Her son lies dead on the floor; her daughter is nowhere to be found, and her husband, Jija, has fled. Without any direction, Essun lies in wait, knelt next to her son’s stiffened body for two days. The reader is left to wonder how an innocent child could be callously battered and brutally murdered. Essun seems to believe deeply that Jija is to blame, subsequently fleeing with their daughter. Another question arises: how could Jija murder his own son? Both uncertainties are soon answered as an implicit reference to race is made. Jemisin states that Essun is “an orogene” and “that [her] children are like [her].” The reader is left to infer that orogenesis (the process of mountain-building) is a recessive trait—undesirable, at that. At this point, it is known that Jija was unaware of his familial ties to orogeny. Essun, mature, is able to control her own powers, but Uche, young and untrained, may have lost his temper, revealing his true nature. From this point on, there is an established class system of which orogenes suffer. Although the supernatural abilities portrayed in this work are far-fetched, the endured brutalities are not.

On May 20<sup>th</sup>, 2023, less than one year ago, an eleven-year-old black boy was shot and wounded in his own home (Wagster Pettus, 2023). Unarmed, Aderrien Murry phoned 911, seeking assistance in a domestic dispute. His mother’s partner had become angry and violent; in an attempt to diffuse the situation, Murry contacted law enforcement. Instead of receiving the necessary help, Murry was shot by a young white man (Wagster Pettus, 2023). Like Uche, Aderrien was young and “untrained.” As the boy walked into the hallway, veering around a corner, police had allegedly confused the young boy for the perpetrator. Aderrien Murry was a mere 4’11” while the true offender was about 6 feet tall; confusing the two was unlikely. It has been speculated that Murry’s assigned race scared the officer, prompting the discharge of his weapon. An investigation was opened, but the shooting was deemed “unintentional” by the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. Unfortunately, like Jija thus far into the Broken Earth Trilogy of which The Fifth Season belongs to, no accountability has been taken.

The previous account of Aderrien Murry is all too familiar to America’s black communities. Aderrien and Uche share an ominously similar fate. Each boy, young and naive, were unable to hide their predetermined identities, paying the ultimate price. Feasibly, both anecdotes are tales of crude inequality, fixed at birth. The only obvious difference between their experiences is the apparent fantastical nature of Uche. Despite Uche’s fictional abilities, Jemisin is, impressively, able to paint an explicit and realistic picture of race.

The stories of oppressed individuals in our own reality are under intense scrutiny; school districts continue to ban literature pertaining to black history. The “inappropriate” nature of critical race theory and its place in the public school system incites anger. Those in power—white men—fear that their children will hear intensely nauseating accounts of black lives. Is it because the narratives are simply too grotesque for young ears—or—will their children question the mass murder that their fathers have so eagerly encouraged? Not every powerful individual is wielding a weapon like the officer in Aderrien Murry’s case, nor are they brutalizing with their own fists like Uche’s father, but rather sitting safely behind their desks, enacting the policies that enable and affirm structural inequalities. I believe that Jemisin has fabricated The Broken Earth trilogy in an attempt to appeal to this very proclivity for safety. It’s much easier for us to discuss and unpack the story of a fictional character than that of a real person who once had real feelings and continue to have an aching family. We tiptoe around the subject so as not to upset the grieving or the powerful. The issue with this tendency is that change doesn’t occur within our comfort zones. The white man is comfortable with his status. Once he becomes uneasy, it is only then that he may change.

The Fifth Season is an opportunity to safely investigate structural inequalities in our own reality. Jemisin’s plausible narratives, although fictional, would likely touch members of the black community. She recognizes that a historical and anecdotal understanding of racist policy is a precondition to overcoming those systemic inequalities. Thus, Jemisin provides the reader with easily digestible, exacerbated accounts of injustice in the hopes of shifting their perspective. Recognizing that those in positions of power may be more inclined to engage with a highly acclaimed science fiction novel than confront uncomfortable headlines in a newspaper, Jemisin strategically utilizes her platform to foster awareness and stimulate critical reflection on societal issues.

Pettus, E. W. (2023, May 26). Officer who shot an unarmed 11-year-old boy in his home should be fired, family attorney says. AP News.

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