Building a Better World

What I love most about human beings is the ability for us to change our minds. When we learn new information, we can use it to change the way we think and create something even better. New ideas, art, poetry, relationships, inventions, and so much more are made possible by the fact that we learn and grow. What I dislike most about human beings is the downright stubbornness to change our minds when faced with new information. We think that our opinions are right and they become close to us. When they are challenged, we feel personally attacked. When this happens, there is no room for change—for love, for growth. 

When I was first asked to reflect on what the most interesting/challenging strand of how Jemisin is using geological concepts to get me thinkING about the ideas of power and justice, I had only finished the first book of the trilogy. I had just met the characters and was introduced to the world for the first time. I had chosen to write about orogenes and their ability to quell earthquakes and how this power was controlled by those who decided they were in power. That isn’t to say that I am no longer interested in this strand, however I did not have the whole story. In my original reflection, I was focused on destruction and the prevention of destruction when in reality, orogenes are much more than that. Orogeny isn’t just a superpower in a trilogy, it exists in our own world! Orogeny is the process by which mountains are formed on the earth’s continents. This process includes the destruction of existing crust AND the creation of new crust. The destruction of what is existing and the creation of something new. Sounds a little reminiscent of Alabaster’s view of the world. This world that our characters live in cannot keep existing as it is with murder and hatred and enslavement. It is not enough to keep quelling earthquakes and pretending everything is fine. It must be destroyed and rebuilt. 

One of the most shocking things that was revealed to us in the trilogy was that the hatred towards orogenes and the world that enslaved them was built on a lie. According to Stonelore, Father Earth didn’t always hate life. The lorists say, “He hates because he cannot forgive the loss of his only child” (The Obelisk Gate, pg. 103). Orogenes are blamed for flinging the moon away in pursuit of harnessing the earth’s power. After generations of hearing this story, stills, or people who don’t have the power of orogeny, have grown a sense of hatred for the people they fear. Orogenes are not just the cause of the Seasons, but its remedy as well. They can sess danger and quell earthquakes and it is for this reason that they are turned into tools. All of this is turned upside down when it is revealed how the moon was actually lost. 

To briefly sum up what actually happened: 

Long ago there were two groups of people: the Niess and the Sylangestine. The Niess believed that magic could not be owned and let it exist as it was in the form of art. This angered the Sylangestine who felt as though this was a waste of magic and were upset that despite this, the Niess had more efficient magic. The Sylangestine convinced themselves that the Niess had to be different somehow–that they had different sessipinae and eventually, that they were not human at all. To keep up with the lie they had crafted and built their lives upon, the Sylangestine carefully engineered those with special sessipinae and utilized them as tools. A group of these engineered people felt as though they should not be tools any longer and halted the extraction of the earth’s power by redirecting the obelisks. In the process of this, the moon was flung away. 

To know that everything you have been told your entire life is a lie, to feel as though you have been betrayed by society and everything you know must be earth-shattering. However, once this curtain is pulled back you have to make a decision: to continue on as things are or destroy everything you know to be true and rebuild it. 

After finishing the trilogy, it is clear that LOVE is an essential part of this story. As Nassun discovers her powers and tries to understand the world, she learns many hard lessons. One in particular is that love can be conditional. She tells her father moments before killing him, “‘I wish you could love me anyway, even though I’m bad’” (The Obelisk Gate, pg. 387). Sometimes, love isn’t enough. Her own father, someone who raised her, took care of her, played with her, and laughed with her could not ultimately love her for who she was. He wanted to change her and in the end he paid the price with his life. For Nassun, destruction is the only way she thinks things can be changed. 

After the moon was flung away from earth, some people felt it would be easier to continue living a lie and treating orogenes as tools. For them, this idea was stone solid and would not be changed. In response, the earth was cursed with the Seasons and along with it destruction and disrepair. At the end of The Stone Sky, Hoa tells Essun, “‘Orogeny…was never the only way to change the world’” (396). The world was changed because of growth, because of change, because of love. It was never about forcing orogenes to use their powers in a certain way or harnessing the earth to suit one’s personal needs. People should be able to exist as they naturally are. 

Looking back at my first essay, I can safely say that it isn’t good. But it was an idea and instead of looking at it as finished, I got to come back to it, expand upon it, and (hopefully) make it better. I get to finish the trilogy and see the whole story. I get to change my mind and I get to build.

The Power of Orogeny and Geological Events

When I think of power and justice, there are many images that come to mind. There are also many images that don’t (or didn’t) come to mind–images like earthquakes or volcanoes or other geological events. What N.K. Jemisin does in her novel The Fifth Season, is the tying together of these geological events with concepts of power and justice so that we can gain a better sense of what it means to have and use this power. 

While I read this novel, one of the things that particularly interested me was the concept of power as it relates to the orogene’s abilities. Orogenes are able to manipulate energy related to seismic events, a power that makes those without this power, fearful. The power that orogenes have is truly awe-inspiring and powerful. One of the things that they can do is still earthquakes. I’m not entirely sure what this means exactly, but they are somehow manipulating the energy from these events to stop them. To stop literal plates of earth from moving. That is not only super cool, but seems impossibly hard. Aside from the physicality of their powers, there are also the underlying motivations for them to use these powers. I think this might partially be a reason why they are feared, but I will get to that later. 

Another thing that orogenes can do is freeze the air around people, something that seems to occur when they are heavily emotional about something. This has proven to be dangerous, as many young orogenes have killed family members and friends by inadvertently doing this. That also seems to be another reason why the stills, people who don’t have the power of orogeny, are fearful of these powers. It seems like the unpredictability of motivation and usage of power leads others to be wary of orogenes, a fact that leads to the resentment and contempt with which they treat those who are different than themselves. 

In the second chapter of their book, Nur and Burgess discuss how earthquakes happen. They say, “Though earthquakes are unpredictable, they are not strictly random; they shape and are shaped by the structure of the earth as a whole” (41). When I read this quote, I immediately thought of the orogenes. Yes, they may have unpredictable powers that have consequences, but they also are affected by what happens around them–something the stills and those in power somehow overlook. Unpredictability and uncertainty can be fear inducing for sure, but does that mean that orogenes should be treated as less than? Should orogenes be harmed in the process of training them to harness their powers? 

When Damaya, the young protagonist of Jemison’s novel, is being taken to the Fulcrum to be trained, she gets her hand broken by her Guardian as a lesson. Schaffa says, “I am your Guardian now, and it is my duty to make certain that you remain helpful, never harmful” (93). This rubbed me the wrong way for many reasons. Who deemed Guardians the ruler over orogenes? Why can’t orogenes learn to control their actions on their own? How will hurting Damaya make her want to be helpful instead of harmful? How can breaking a young child’s hand (and spirit) be just? All of these questions keep surfacing and shifting to some of the awful things that orogenes have to endure throughout the novel. The quote from Nur and Burgess reminds me that the earth, the very thing that sustains us, is unpredictable. Why do we as humans get to try and push the earth into this box of predictability for our own benefit? We tend to forget that our own actions have consequences on the very forces that we believe shape us. Jemisin points out that, “Father Earth never forgets the debts we owe” (146). This line haunts me. The Earth in this novel has existed before humans, and although did not create humans, has a relationship with us where it both affects us and is affected by us. When we mistreat the earth, the earth remembers. When the orogenes are mistreated, they will remember by whom. 

Nur and Burgess also talk about stress building at plate boundaries. They state that, “only when the stresses exceed the friction holding both sides of the fault together does the plate boundary slip, releasing the energy stored in the strained rocks, like a stretched rubber band releasing energy when it snaps” (45). This makes me think of the young orogenes discovering their powers and accidentally hurting someone they are in contact with. Obviously, if there is a build-up of pressure, it needs to be released eventually. The earth does it, so humans will too. I’m wondering if this intense reaction could be avoided if those with orogeny were not devalued in society. What if we taught young orogenes that they were special and had amazing powers that could do some real damage if left suppressed? What if instead of hurting orogenes to teach them lessons on who gets to be in control, we taught them effective ways to utilize their powers so they felt more in control? Clearly, the need for control and power outweighs any of the other possibilities from this situation. People want what they want and will do whatever they deem necessary in order to remain in power. 

I feel as though Jemisin’s treatment of concepts like control and fear show us that sometimes, people will manipulate things as a means to benefit themselves without truly recognizing the scope to which this is harmful to others. People use and abuse the earth and the earth breaks apart. People mistreat groups of people they seem scary and unpredictable in order to maintain control.