The Process of Racialization in Fiction and its Reflection of the “Core” of Societal Power Imbalance

By: Stella Kahnis

When returning to my previous essay written on The Broken Earth trilogy, I focused my writing on a claim surrounding the concept of societal power and the origin of its influence. I was considering how N.K. Jemisin uses the process of racialization in The Fifth Season in order to create a fictional society with an immense power imbalance. I concluded my previous essay on the Fifth Season by quoting our mini-collaboration in class, “The Fifth Season works to reverse the false assumption that societal power is an inherently dominant force by exaggerating the idea that people instinctively condemn themselves to systems of power in society”. I made this statement in order to rationalize the observation that orogenes continue to participate in a society that discriminates against them, despite their extreme advantage in power. I recognized that without the power of orogenes, society would be too fragile to continue to thrive. This realization may have caused the Fulcrum to need power over the orogenes, but I still did not understand why the orogenes succumb to this discriminatory system when they have the power in this situation. After reading the entirety of this trilogy, I believe I have more clarity on where my original claim came from and how it differs from my thinking now. It is easy to make a claim that people condemn themselves to systems of power, but not as easy to understand why or if that is necessarily true. In this essay, I aim to discuss the unanswered questions that sparked my original claims. I will revisit and reevaluate my past claims and develop my thesis in order to understand why and how society in the stillness is able to keep control of orogenes.

Jemisin builds a detailed fictional world throughout the Broken Earth trilogy full of supernatural abilities, extreme natural disasters, and a prejudiced and discriminatory society. In the first book of the series, The Fifth Season, we meet a woman named Essun. A main character throughout the trilogy, Essun quickly becomes a prime example of an orogene who willingly lives in a society that discriminates against her. When contemplating why orogenes were staying in this society, I looked to Essun in order to understand why she followed the Fulcrum’s orders as a young woman, and later on lived in the town of Tirimo with her family. By the end of the Fifth Season, it is revealed that the three perspectives in the book, Damaya, Syenite, and Essun, are all the same person at different stages of her life. Syenite is a rebellious young woman who lives in the Fulcrum and is sent on a mission with a highly esteemed orogene, Alabaster. On top of their assignment, they are tasked with having a child. By the end of their journey, they have threatened the Fulcrum by discovering an immense power source. As the Fulcrum aims to find and control them, they hide with their child in Meov. In my first essay, it was difficult to understand why Essun might choose to live in Tirimo among the people who treat orogenes with judgment and cruelty, but after piecing together Damaya and Syenite’s stories as the entirety of Essun’s past, it is easier to understand where her priorities lie as Syenite, and how that coincides with how she lives her life as Essun. Syenite and Alabaster are attacked by Guardians, another supernatural race tasked with controlling orogenes. Alabaster is killed in this fight, and Syenite is left to defend herself and their child, Corundum. When she is cornered, she panics as she contemplates the plight of not having the power to protect him while also refusing to accept the fate that the guardians would put upon him. “Everyone she loves is dead. Everyone except Coru. And if they take him— sometimes, even we…crack. Better that a child never have lived at all than live as a slave. Better that he die” (pg. 441). Syenite makes the heartbreaking decision that the death of her baby is better than the torture and control he would be under if she had let him go. 

Knowing that this traumatic experience is a part of Essun’s past makes it easier to rationalize the fact that Syenite’s rebellion seems to directly conflict with Essun’s original desire to stay put and raise her children. Syenite was known throughout her story to rebel against the Fulcrum and its rules. In the Fifth Season, Essun is found by someone she knew as Damaya, and explains to them how she escaped the Fulcrum, “I died. That was the only way to hide from the Fulcrum. I died to get away from them, and yet I didn’t shake you.” (pg. 392). This quote shows how trapped orogenes are in this system. The only way that Essun could have children and live a life without discrimination was by faking her death and living under a new name. Syenite’s behavior translates to Essun’s life as we realize that Essun is in fact defying the Fulcrum by living in Tirimo under the alias of Essun. Further, we see that Essun’s rebellious attitude is still present in The Fifth Season, as she escapes Tirimo after her son, Uche, is killed and her daughter, Nassun, is taken. “People run out into the streets, screaming and wondering why there was no warning, and you kill any of them who are stupid or panicked enough to come near” (59). This quote not only proves that orogenes have the ability to leave this prejudiced society, but it is also a direct parallel to the death of Corundum which was a consequence of her rebellion and of Corundum’s power. The relation between her rebellious behavior and her compliance with the Fulcrum supports the realization that there is a reason why orogenes stay in this society when they have the power to leave. Living in the society that once controlled and hated her is the only way for her and her children to survive and live a comfortable life. 

Essun not only represents an orogene that complies with the Fulcrum, but she also shows us the consequence of living free from this society. When asking the question, why are orogenes continuing to live in this society? It is important to theorize as to what might happen if they were to leave. After Essun leaves Tirimo, we see these consequences- no safety, no technology, no food, and no community. Their standard of living is horrible and they constantly live on the verge of survival. Although Essun had the power to escape, she is still discriminated against in multiple encounters along her journey. We then begin to realize that without this system of power, orogenes may be free from this societal structure, but the preconceived judgements against orogenes remain for the most part. Even when Essun finds a comm that is run by orogenes, Castrima, she finds that people would rather leave the safety of a comm and risk death than coexist peacefully with orogenes. The consequences of leaving Tirimo are greatly amplified at the end of the trilogy, when she is finally reunited with her daughter, Nassun. Once Essun finally reunites with Nassun in The Stone Sky, she realizes that the trauma Nassum has gone through in her upbringing and her travels outside of Tirimo have not only completely damaged their relationship, but have irreversibly damaged Nassun. “So Nassun turns her back on you again and says, ‘Don’t follow me anymore, Mama” (pg. 376). 

These are the consequences that Essun looked to avoid by staying hidden in this society and not attempting to overthrow this power. I can imagine that many orogenes also feared the violence and damage that would be caused by setting off this societal structure. This can be related to our society because many people who have the power to make change may be afraid of the damage that would be caused by refusing to live in an oppressive society. The Fulcrum may have known that because they had a disadvantage in power, they needed to create a codependent society where the orogenes gained something from their comms or society while society gained the benefits of orogenic power. The Fulcrum balances out orogenic power with societal power because they know that they rely on the help of orogenes, but decided the only way to gain the help of orogenes was to discriminate against them so they could not survive without the help of society. Although the stillness was controlled by an oppressive society, everyone had some measure of safety from seasons and quakes. Although orogenes were treated poorly, they still worked with the Fulcrum in order to ensure their own safety and the safety of the stillness. In the Syl Anagist chapters in The Stone Sky, we can see how Hoa and his friends were discriminated against and treated as inhuman as well. This codependent society is the reason Essun stays for so long. She wants to protect her children and she knows that the only way powerful orogenes will be safe is by following the Fulcrum’s orders or disguising their identities. What I failed to realize in my Lithosphere essay is that powerful people are not always condemned simply by society, but by the consequences of refusing to participate in that societal structure. I think this trilogy was meant to show what happens when an oppressive society gets to a point where the consequences of dismantling it are less detrimental than the consequences of staying. The Fifth Season works to reverse the false assumption that societal power is an inherently dominant force by enforcing the idea that systems of power create codependent societies through prejudice and discrimination, thus confining beings otherwise capable of leaving.


Stella Kahnis, Lithosphere Essay, Lithosphere Essay- Stella Kahnis – Google Docs

English 111, Mini-Collaboration 1,

N.K Jemisin, The Fifth Season

N.K Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate

N.K Jemisin, The Stone Sky

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