Racialization and Power Dynamics  A Structural Analysis of The Fifth Season

The course epigraph is a framework for the thought-provoking and controversial concept of “race,” and is laid out as a strategic, political, and epistemological tool designed to demarcate and distribute power differentially among sects of humanity (Heng, 27). Geraldine Heng’s passage from The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, serves as a theoretical framework to analyze the racial complexities of the book The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, providing the context for how racialization operates within the narrative, applied through realistic circumstances. Emphasizing how science, myth, and other power dynamics shape the narrative of The Fifth Season, this paper will prioritize the world of orogenes, and how their livelihoods are crafted by preexisting power dynamics.

Heng proposes in The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, that “race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content” (Heng, 27). In The Fifth Season, racialization is presented beyond the notion of individual prejudices, or even inherent characteristics. Rather, racialization is a structural relationship designed to manage and disparate differences amongst humans. Orogenes, in particular—individuals in The Fifth Season with the power to manipulate the earth and its resources—become the targets of racialization throughout the narrative; their powers are selected through a process of essentialization from the Fulcrum—a place designed for orogenes to harness their power. Jemisin writes that, “the orogenes of the Fulcrum serve the world,” using the characters Damaya and Schaffa, arguing that “you will have no use name from here forth, because your usefulness lies in what you are, not merely some familial aptitude.” It is further exemplified that the Fulcrum is a place designed for the use of orogeny, where “from birth, an orogene child can stop a shake; even without training, you are orogene,” and that “within a comm or without one, you are orogene.” However, with training, “and with the guidance of other skilled orogenes at the Fulcrum, you can be useful not merely to a single comm, but all the Stillness” (Jemisin, 36). The orogeny is placed within a systemic hierarchy within their absolute and fundamental differences, reflecting the broader social tendency to construct hierarchies based on perceived differences. 

Likewise, myth plays an important role in how racialization is showcased throughout The Fifth Season. In a particular instance, Damaya is ridiculed under the notion that “orogenes don’t feel cold the way others do,” a myth that has plagued the existence of orogenies. As such, it is mentioned that “Damaya might have been faking it [the cold,” and that was what “she’d [Mother] said to Damaya that first day, after she got home from creche and while they were setting her up in the barn” (Jemisin, 33). The narrative of The Fifth Season draws on the power of myth to alter societal perception of orogenes, equally portraying them as saviors to society, along with threats, demarcating them to the periphery of society by imposing mythology upon them. This serves as a mechanism to justify the treatment of orogenes, and is used to perpetuate the inherent belief throughout the story that orogenic abilities are dangers and consequential. The manipulation of myths throughout The Fifth Season permanently alters the societal view of orogenies, establishing a racialized hierarchy that justifies the subjugation of orogenies.

The subjugation of orogenies becomes far more prevalent as science is incorporated into racist ideology, becoming wholly evident in the systematic control and exploitation of orogenies. Drawing back on the Fulcrum, a technologically advanced system of training and manipulation, is used to perpetuate racialized power dynamics. As such, the usage of orogenies in the conquest of suppression and societal stability demonstrates the usage of science to uphold racialized hierarchies—utilizing science as a tool for maintaining and reinforcing racialized structures, particularly at the Fulcrum.

The usage of eclipses throughout The Fifth Season exists as a layer of symbolism to the process of racialization. An eclipse is a naturally recurring event, defined as “an astronomical event that occurs when an astronomical object or spacecraft is temporarily obscured, by passing into the shadow of another body or by having another body pass between it and the viewer,” which is strategically employed during moments of heightened tension throughout the story (New York Times). Eclipses are linked to the suppression of orogenes, highlighting how celestial events are manipulated by those in power to reinforce the aforementioned societal hierarchy, subjugating orogenies to the periphery. Symbolically, eclipses emphasize the events that occur throughout the story, intentionally orchestrated to perpetuate the racialized structure.

In a real-word context, the structural context of racialization in The Fifth Season allows for reflection on how real-word events parallel the narrative. Jemisin emphasizes the notion of “Blackdar,” which is shared amongst orogenies. “Blackdar” is defined as “the ability to detect whether or not a person is of African ancestry by observing that person,” which is evident in The Fifth Season through the “sess” ability of an orogene—the ability to distinguish other orogenes (Wikipedia). Clearly, there are certain traits shared among oppressed groups that help understand the context of racialization throughout The Fifth Season, allowing the reader to better understand the world of The Broken Earth Trilogy. Jemisin writes:

“If the problem is that ferals are not predictable… well, orogenes have to prove themselves reliable. The Fulcrum has a reputation to maintain; that’s part of this. So’s the training, and the uniform, and the endless rules they must follow, but the breeding is part of it too, or why is she here? It’s somewhat flattering to think that despite her feral status, they actually want something of her infused into their breeding lines. Then she wonders why a part of her is trying to find value in degradation,” (Jemisin, 58).

Indeed, the symbolic language and intertwining of science, notions of race, and power dynamics are immensely prevalent as the story ensues, using these events to resonate with historical and contemporary issues surrounding racialization. Realistically, the world is heavily condemned by racist ideology, and Jemisin uses The Fifth Season to forward a sense of awareness to better understand the conditions of oppressed and marginalized groups by using orogenies as the periphery.

The Fifth Season, though a confusing narrative, employs intricacies in its world-building to better provide a lens in the examination of racialization and the pre-existing structures surrounding it. The interplay between myth, science, and other forms of power dynamics allows the recognition of the parallels between the fictional world of orogenies throughout the story, along with the complexities of real-world society and the racialization that is evident historically and contemporarily. Jemisin’s work throughout The Fifth Season allows the reader to question and challenge the systems that perpetuate treatment in regards to selective differences, and how society ultimately condemns the things they do not understand—rethinking and reshaping our understanding of race and power is essential to understand the narrative, and by employing the course epigraph, the complexities of The Fifth Season become quite distinguishable.

Works Cited

Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Print. 

Jemisin, N. K. The Fifth Season. Orbit, 2016.

The New York Times. “Science Watch: A Really Big Syzygy.” (March 31, 1981).

Wiktionary. “Blackdar – Wiktionary, the Free Dictionary,” n.d https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/blackdar.