Aggregate Love

               On the first page of The Obelisk Gate Hoa tells the reader that “relationships chisel the final shape of one’s being.” This idea is a concrete theme throughout the series as it focuses on the ways that characters are an amalgamation of the people they have impactful bonds with. This becomes especially poignant when (spoilers!) at the end of The Stone Sky Essun is transformed into a stone eater made out of jasper, an aggregate rock. Aggregates are a unique formulation composed of many other types of rocks; like aggregates, Jemisin’s novels display how people’s relationships impact who they are and how they relate to others. This is most prominently shown in the relationships between Essun and Schaffa as well as Essun and Nassun. Essun’s relationship to Schaffa impacts her relationship with Nassun and, in turn, these relationships impact Essun’s and Nassun’s development as people.

               Jemisin takes special care to demonstrate the complexities that come with love, namely in that love is not always given in the form we desire. There is a destructive nature in how Schaffa loves Essun in her youth, which is then recycled in Essun’s love for Nassun. Namely, in both relationships there is the use of violence in the form of breaking a child’s hand in order to impart a lesson of control so that the respective child in the situation can remain safe in their environments. Schaffa needs to teach Essun how to control her orogeny so that she could survive in the Fulcrum, where she would be swiftly killed if she were to show even a miniscule lack of control. Essun, in turn, thought of this method as the best way to teach her own child control to keep her from being discovered as an orogene in a town where she would be culled for any display of such power.

               Neither of these situations are clearcut, neither wholly good nor necessarily completely bad. Rather, they are complex situations that are (within the realm of the world) considered necessary for the overall safety of the child. Obviously, this then impacts how the children see the adults that hurt them. Essun grows to be fearful towards Schaffa and unable to understand why he hurts her and grows up to think that pain was a necessary way to show love. Her way of thinking thus impacts her relationship with her daughter, as Nassun “has never seen any proof of” the love that Essun “occasionally” said she had for her (The Obelisk Gate 78). Instead, Nassun and Essun lack a strong connection.

               The weak connections between adult and child are also represented in the lack of respect that Schaffa has for Essun and Essun has for Nassun. Despite their protective natures, neither Schaffa nor Essun saw the respective child in their relationships as people. Schaffa loved Essun not as a person but more as an object, as something that needed to be controlled. This is best shown when Schaffa and Essun reunite in Meov with Schaffa intent on killing her for escaping from the Fulcrum:

He does genuinely care about her. . .She’s his little one, and he has protected her in more ways than she knows. The thought of her agonizing death is unbearable to him. . . Did [Essun] not know that Schaffa would love her son as he loved her? He would lay the boy down gently, so gently, in the wire chair.

(The Obelisk Gate 38-39)

While Schaffa is willing to do everything he can to protect Essun, he also sees her as a product, as showcased by how he is so willing to put her son in a node, guaranteeing him a life of pain. Meanwhile, Essun initially holds little regard towards Nassun, seeing her as little more than the idea of a daughter. The Fifth Season begins with Essun desperate to find her missing child after discovering her toddler murdered; her journey is more motivated by the idea of her child being lost rather than concern for Nassun as a person, as she never imparts much characterization of Nassun nor personalization towards their relationship. Thus Essun’s relationship to her daughter, while unconditional, is more surface level—the love for a child rather than a love for this specific child.

               But this changes between Essun and Nassun throughout the series as Essun begins to respect her daughter’s autonomy. Their relationship changes primarily from Essun’s side, as she learns more about Nassun’s growth and comes to accept Nassun as her own person with her own needs that may differ from Essun’s desires. This is best represented when Essun discovers that Nassun is traveling with Schaffa. Essun’s initial reaction is a desire to kill Schaffa for all the pain he put her through, but resigns when she realizes that Schaffa is to Nassun everything that Essun never was:

You didn’t save her from Jija. You haven’t been there when she’s needed you, here at the literal end of the world. How dare you presume to protect her? Gray Man and Schaffa; she has found her own, better, protectors. She has found the strength to protect herself. You are so very proud of her. And you don’t dare to go anywhere near her, ever again.

(The Stone Sky 171)

Essun sees that Nassun has (presumably) found people that care for her and give her the type of love that she needed. A type of love that Essun is still learning to provide by that point in the series, which is why she resolves to stay away from her so that she can never hurt her daughter again.

                It is not until Essun learns that Nassun plans on using The Obelisk Gate that she dares to infiltrate on Nassun’s new life, and only then with the intention of keeping Nassun alive. Essun knows that if Nassun uses the gate, she would most likely die, so instead of letting her daughter be hurt once more Essun rushes to the other side of the world in order to save her. Yet when it comes down to a power struggle between the pair, a struggle between saving the world and saving a single life, Essun lays down her own to save her daughter. “[Nassun] is prepared for the inevitability of her own death. You aren’t. Oh, Earth, you can’t just watch another of your children die” (The Stone Sky 385). Essun ultimately forgoes the fate of the world in order to save her child because she would rather have her daughter alive and happy than have her daughter dead and the world saved.

                It is in this final act, the one that shows just how much Essun has come to understand her daughter and finally give her the love that she needs, that Nassun begins to accept her mother in return:

Because the world took and took and took from you, too, after all. She knows this. And yet, for some reason that she does not think she’ll ever understand…even as you died, you were reaching for the Moon. And for her.

(The Stone Sky 387)

Nassun recognizes that, despite all of the hardship that the world has put her through, Essun chooses love and the possibility for change, for redemption. By reaching for the moon, Nassun knows that Essun wants to save the world, to put an end to all the Seasons forevermore. Yet she still reaches for Nassun. Yet she still, ultimately, chooses to forgo her own life, forsake the world, to save Nassun. Essun thus makes the same choice Nassun intended to make—she chose the life of one over that of the world. Poetically,  Nassun then also chooses what her mother aimed for: she chooses to bring the moon back into orbit and end the Seasons forever.

                Hoa states in a conversation with Essun that he thinks “that if you love someone, you don’t get to choose how they love you back” (The Stone Sky 285). I think Jemisin demonstrates this clearly through Essun’s relationships with Schaffa and Nassun. She loved Schaffa as a child and was not given the correct protection and love that she needed, and in turn she failed to see or know the kind of love that Nassun needed from her. We absorb the important people in our lives and how they treat us. But we ultimately get to choose if we want to change how we love someone in return. Nassun did not get to choose how Essun loved her, nor could Essun choose how Nassun loved her in return. But both, ultimately, chose to change and to love one another differently. While they still hold onto the ways they were loved, they show that love, like rocks, are malleable—metamorphic. Love is about changing while acknowledging the parts that make you up. Essun and Nassun choose to embrace their aggregate love by taking on one another’s choices for the world, allowing them to finally love each other in the ways that they needed.

Catastrophism and the Need for an End

One of the key themes of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is systematic oppression. The novel focuses on several orogenes, people who possess the power to “manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events.” Despite their power, orogenes are at the bottom of the social hierarchy and are even treated as monsters amongst those who do not possess orogeny (the stills). The only way for orogenes to possess even a modicum of power is to gain rings from the system known as the Fulcrum. The Fulcrum trains orogenes to use their powers to aid the world and dispose of any they find to be a threat—fostering power in only those they have full control over.

We learn early on the degradation that orogenes within the Fulcrum have to endure in order to gain any sense of autonomy. When Syenite is told she must go on a mission and procreate with a ten ringer (the top of the Fulcrum orogene hierarchy) her focus is on the advancement of her own career. “With the experience and boost to her reputation, she’ll be that much closer to her fifth  ring. That means her own apartment…Better missions, longer leave, more say in her own life. That’s worth it. Earthfire yes, it’s worth it.” Despite being boiled down to a baby-machine, Syenite can only care about the better treatment she could receive if this leads to her gaining another ring.

The ring system is another form of social stratification, particularly within the Fulcrum. Those with more rings gain more privileges and thus more control over their own self. A great example is the fact that, as a four ringer, Syenite cannot deny having a baby while Alabaster, a ten ringer, can. The rings reflect the amount of power an orogene can use; the more rings you have, the greater your orogeny. Yet regardless of rings, an orogene is still always oppressed, always treated like the other, always treated as the monster.

The book begins with a catastrophic event that sends the world into shambles—a fifth season categorized by the end of civilizations and the erection of new ones. These seasons are clear examples of catastrophism, defined by Nur and Burgess as “the sudden, typically unpredicted natural disaster that leads to abrupt changes in a culture or lifestyle that has been stable for a long time.” Such large-scale events are essentially the destruction of some level of society leading to it being rebuilt in a new way. Nur and Burgess also posit that social systems depend on large structures and that the collapse of a building can be indicative of the collapse of a society. Each fifth season inevitably leads to the destruction of many Civs with a majority of those present having only survived one, if any at all. The seasons are thus a clear example of catastrophism.

An orogene causes the season that begins the book—a season that is expected to last millennia. While causing the destruction “he reaches forth with all the fine control that the world has brainwashed and backstabbed and brutalized out of him, and all the sensitivity that his masters have bred into him through generations of rape and coercion and highly unnatural selection.” He feels “his fellow slaves” through the earth and promises to “make their suffering serve a cause greater than one city’s hubris, and one empire’s fear.” The Season was not simply an act of Father Earth or the anger of a madman; the world came to an end because of the destruction its people wrought on their fellow human being.

With this end comes new beginnings. For the first time (on the mainland at least) orogenes and stills live side-by-side in the newly created Castrima. Before then such comradery between the two had only been found on the islands, far away from the inner workings of the continent. Castrima is led by an orogene, Ykka, whose goal is to create a safe haven for orogenes and stills alike from the doom reeking outside the safety of their geode. For once, orogenes are beginning to hold true power in the Stillness.

Now, I doubt that Jemisin is advocating for the oppressed to wreck catastrophic natural events onto the world in order to enact some modicum of social change. Rather, Jemisin shows on a grand scale what must be done in order for there to be any real change in the world. One of the key structures to fall, the heart of the Season, laid in Yumenes—the home of the Fulcrum. Yumenes was the heart of the empire that created the Fulcrum and thus the place responsible for the widespread and systematic suffering of orogenes.  The world of the Stillness, for orogenes, would never change so long as the Fulcrum and Yumenes stood.

Not all social structures are physical though, especially not in our world. But the ways in which they impact minorities is structural. Oppression itself is based within social structures. Thus the only way to destroy them is to take down the system as a whole and rebuild it from the ground up in a form that is truly equitable.