Considering Personhood in Jemisin’s Trilogy

In my first essay, I began with a discussion which delineated two opposing worldviews concerning the formation and fluctuation of the earth’s geological condition. These were the doctrine of uniformity and catastrophism. I played with the definition and scope of uniformity in geology by transcribing these slow and miniscule changes with that of Stonelore’s restrictive political impact on oppressed peoples, such as orogenes, within The Stillness. In effect, it became a social doctrine as well as a metaphysical teaching. I then explained how catastrophism functioned in the text through the actions of these oppressed groups to upheave the uniform social structures which consequently led me to the conclusion that Jemisin is proposing that true change must be a quick and powerful strike in order to be effective. While this is all true, I am concerned that I simplified Jemisin’s trilogy too much as purely consisting of a message of liberation. Of course the texts ask us to deal with the rights of individuals, but it also asks us to accept the personhood of supposed non-humans in order for their desires of autonomy to be verified in our eyes. This is what’s bugging me; How and why does Jemisin force us to expand our definition of humanity?

Without going a step further, I would like to make something very clear. Despite the freedom and space that this genre offers, I will try my best not to establish the boundaries of what makes something human and throw each character into a category. By merely attempting to do this, I fear that I might as well be shouting from the rooftops in support of genocide and be no better than those who caused The Rifting. No. Instead, I will explore how Jemisin urges us to demolish our preconceptions and experience the same degree of empathy characters indulge in with their friends and requests from their enemies. The aforementioned acceptance of their humanity is largely subjective, and therefore I can only relate my own personal journey regarding my recognition of Orogenes, Stoneaters, and Guardians as people and the following ethical obligations. Please know that my intentions within this essay are made in good faith, and are meant to illustrate my growth as a consumer of fictional peoples.

Hoa and the Stoneaters

Coming from years of discriminating (and killing) “weird” or “bad” fictional species such as aliens and monsters, it was challenging for me to understand Stoneaters as something more than distant, dangerous, and mysterious. Surely, they are just one-dimensional beings who function outside of the sphere of humanity, right? This understanding was initially reinforced when Hoa emerged from the geode at the beginning of The Fifth Season. His movements are described as “fast and jerky” and similar to “a clockwork puppet.” (13) This image screams horror. Yet, at the same time we are introduced to him as “the boy.” (13) This duality perplexed me because the name of this creature illustrated a kind of innocence, but the circumstances surrounding his birth and his initial mannerisms were disturbing to say the least. Regardless, the humanity of Hoa is further amplified during his first meeting with Essun as the success of this encounter relies on trust and empathy; “Then you toss him the bedroll. He catches it and looks confused for a few moments, then figures it out. Happily he rolls it out and then curls up on top of it, like a cat.” (82) Based on these events, and the way they are related to us, it is clear that this boy plays the human quite well. That is enough for Essun to relax and decide that she “can manage to be human for a little while.” (82) So, what’s going on here? Obviously the two individuals decide that they can stand each other but there’s a wider point that goes beyond plot development and characterization. Even at the time, I could tell that this boy was the geode creature. That being said, I was a bit disgruntled at the notion that he was so evidently vulnerable, sweet, and human. I could not write him off as evil or strange anymore, but I still tried. Going further into the trilogy, Hoa is emphasized as Essun’s protector and guide throughout their journeys in the post-apocalyptic hellscape known as a season. When the two come across supplies and are approached by feral beasts, Hoa acts; “And then the boy is facing the creature…the whole kirkhusa is solid.” (187) While this moment served to represent Hoa’s level of commitment and care towards Essun, I still remained unconvinced that Stoneaters are to be trusted. Plenty of mythical creatures assist the protagonist in almost every fantasy/science fiction text and then pull a fast one so-to-speak. Jemisin discusses her opposition to this standardized narrative in her blog post entitled “Creating Races”; “the reader doesn’t have that bank of cultural capital to borrow against.” We have no wall against which to evaluate the patterns of mythological morality as we would with Orcs or Elves. This is a double-edged sword because the limiting barriers are taken away but we also don’t really know what to expect from this race of people (especially considering their age and ability). This brings me to two important points regarding when I really believed in the humanity of Stoneaters. It was not until I learned the true nature of Hoa’s relationship with Essun that I began to believe in his personhood as illustrated through his self-sacrificial tendencies borne out of empathy. When Hoa and Lerna are discussing their relationships to Essun, our Stoneater relays “I resist the urge to crush his head. ‘I love her, of course.’” (382) This, as cliche as it is, was my turning point because one of the most noble characteristics of an individual is the willingness to help other(s) at the expense of oneself (love) and Hoa’s actions indicate that he’s probably not lying. However, my view on the humanity of Stoneaters was ultimately solidified when Steel screams at Nassun for not understanding how difficult his life is and how the right decision is the cruel one (hate); “You have no idea what that’s like, BUT I DO.” (307-308) Without getting into character analysis, it’s clear that these two Stoneaters respectively represent and enact the best and worst of humanity and therefore, are unequivocally people. My definition of humanity may not be as biological as I thought it was…

Schaffa and the Guardians

Speaking of cruelty, let’s take a look at this group. Despite their ironic title, the Guardians are inhumane to say the least. When Schaffa is traveling back to the Fulcrum with Damaya, he breaks her hand to assert superiority and control; “She closes her eyes, feeling tears run freely from her lashes. She’s queasy, cold. The sound of her own blood pounds in her ears.”  (99) To make matters worse, Schaffa seems to take a sick pleasure in this act as “he soothes her with a soft shush in her ear” and exclaims, “I love you.” (99) This is pure psychological horror and the stuff out of a serial-killer documentary. Despite his form and ability to feign empathy, I did not consider Schaffa as human. Would you? Those who hurt children are the worst of the worst in our society. In true Jemisin fashion, this belief which I held so concretely, came to be shaken. Of course, I am alluding to Syenite’s decision to save Corundum, but that is another essay. After Schaffa forces Syenite to do that, he winds up going through a near-death experience and, in order to regain his strength, eats an innocent young boy’s family during his opening moments of The Obelisk Gate; “Schaffa rises and moves through the quiet, dark house, touching each member of Eitz’s family and devouring a piece of them.” (51-52) Not only does he hurt children, but he eats people too. There is no possible way that Schaffa can be human. Even with the corestone in his head and an identity to uphold, there has to be some sort of defiance within him against the monster. Enter Nassun, the only orogene who he actually seems to care about. I remember when their relationship first started, we discussed the idea of symbiosis in class. Instead of destroying the pathos through paraphrasing, I will just introduce these quotes around when she murdered Jija; “I wish you could love me anyway, even though I’m bad.” and “She thinks of Schaffa as she says this, though. Schaffa, who loves her no matter what, as a father should.” (387) The fact that Schaffa becomes a father figure to Nassun is surprising, but provides us with a silver-lining in regards to his morality. Keeping with the idea of symbiosis, one of the major aspects of being human is co-existing with other organisms peacefully (thank you, Butler). Schaffa is obviously able to achieve a meaningful relationship, but I cannot say that I considered him entirely human until witnessing the pain he suffered during the vehimal ride with Nassun to Corepoint. Going back to the idea of sacrifice as a marker of humanity, Scaffa knew that traveling that close to Father Earth would be the most painful experience he has ever endured. But, he did it anyway, for Nassun.

Alabaster and the Orogenes

When I first learned about how Orogenes were treated despite the power they held, my first thought was that their condition is very similar to that of oppressed groups within our world. I believe that Jemisin purposefully created this parallel. That being said, I really want to admire this character and put him up as a savior. But, I can’t and perhaps that aids his humanity. The Fifth Season opens up with him causing The Rifting and ensuring that a house divided cannot stand. Going back to my original essay, what’s more human than pushing up against boundaries and defying the expectations of others? He also sacrifices himself and displays the whole array of human emotions like hate and love. So why am I dedicating a section to him and other Orogenes who are obviously the most human out of all the “non-humans” in the text? Answer: their power is disturbing. I am not going to lie, similar to The Stills’ way of thinking, Orogenes are dangerous and the text makes that very clear. Imagine you met a guy who could level Manhattan with his mind because he thinks it’s right for whatever reason, would you really trust him? As Alabaster puts it to Syenite when they are staying in Allia together, his kind are “gods in chains.” (167) If you look around this genre enough you’ll see that it only takes one evil mage to mess up everything. It is so easy for me to label Alabaster as selfish and lacking empathy. But, of course, I have to be aware of my gravitation towards the “us” way of thinking here as well. The Stills subjugate Alabaster’s people and children within the various node stations around The Stillness; “Even the least of us must serve the greater good.” (139) The main question here is one of made evil versus born evil, and as I listened to the stories of Alabaster and Essun’s defiance, I saw that their humanity was undeniable and that just because they hold immense power, they are not monsters. However, I believe that the true lesson when considering the Orogenes comes back to Stonelore and forced narrative; If you treat somebody like a monster, they will become one. Houwha puts it best when recounting his decision to cause The Shattering on page 329 of The Stone Sky; “They have never believed us human, but we will prove by our actions today that we are more than tools. Even if we aren’t human, we are people. They will never be able to deny us this again.” Very little has shifted from my original view of Orogenes, since I was always able to appreciate their desire for freedom despite my trepidations surrounding their abilities, but my commitment to their cause has bolstered as a result of witnessing all the tragedies they endured and realizing the allegorical nature of this group.

The focus of this text around natural disasters speaks volumes. When a hurricane or earthquake strikes, every ounce of stability and power in a region endures devastation. Without seeking to exaggerate, I needed to rebuild my understanding of the word “human” after this trilogy. Throughout both of my courses with Professor McCoy, the main concept that has stuck with me throughout the years and impacted almost all of my writing is very simple; so what? I have just worked through my initial conceptions of these groups and the shifts in favor of recognizing their humanity or personhood; why do you care? While I fear the ending on messages of empathy and equity are too straightforward, I remain convinced that Jemisin’s expansion of the definition of humanity in this trilogy is aimed at challenging people’s ability to forgive and understand. After all, that’s what being a human should be about.

The Denial of The Doctrine of Uniformity

The Denial of The Doctrine of Uniformity

In the field of geology, there are two ways to see the fluctuation of the Earth’s crust and climate in general. One perspective is known as uniformitarianism. This principle is centered on the assumption that the natural processes we witness today have always been operating in the past and that there’s a certain level of continuity to the slow and gradual change of everything. These changes can be tracked over a great length of time and provide us with a sense of predictability and stability when looking forward to the future. We know what to expect and discount the severity of natural disasters as fundamental to the formation of our planet in favor of water erosion or the depositing of sediments. More information can be found here, here, and here. I highly recommend checking these sources out for yourself. Put simply, the Doctrine of Uniformity proclaims that there are recognizable patterns to natural movements and structures which govern the Earth and consequently civilization. For our purposes as readers of The Fifth Season, I am expanding this definition. There is a prevailing social order to life in The Stillness, a framework designed to control orogenes specifically. These guidelines follow the same logic as uniformitarianism in geological terms, the past is the key to the present and all citizens should put their faith in the traditional structures.

This is in direct opposition to the other perspective, catastrophism, which suggests that geological change occurs suddenly and violently. Catastrophism is unsettling because it comes pre-packaged with the “end of times” mentality as it attributes the majority of Earth’s features to cataclysmic events such as meteor strikes and major natural disasters, and not something that can be measured from a withdrawn distance safely. According to Nur and Burgess in their article titled “Introduction”, the catastrophism theory is most beneficial when detailing the collapse of a climate or landscape and thus civilization; “The social systems that created these structures may have depended on them for governance and stability, and so the physical destruction of these structures could lead to the collapse of the corresponding social orders.” (2) From this perspective, humanity and the Earth’s survival are at the mercy of the cosmos (or Gods…). One major destructive event has more impact on humanity than the last ten thousand years of erosion and sedimentary shifts. The key word I would highlight for us in association with this theory is disruption. More specifically, the disruption of long-standing social order rather spontaneously. As Dr. Giorgis mentioned during his time in our class, geological time is extremely sped up in this text despite its general accuracy in the description of geological events. This pacing of natural disasters does not stand on its own, it walks hand in hand with the upheaval of the conventional, discriminatory, apparatus that governs the orogenes. The catastrophic events we witness change both the landscape and position of orogenes in this fictional space.

That is the type of world that Jemisin creates, a world where we don’t get a break. But why? What is the purpose of embracing a hastened catastrophism theory as the core foundation of the story? How does the pattern of occurrence and termination concerning geological events relate to character power struggles in an unjust system? This seems to be a major theme after all. Consequently, what is Jemisin asserting when it comes to fighting against oppression? What’s the lesson here?

The Fulcrum prides itself on uniformity, that much is certain. When Damaya is first being indoctrinated into the system, she is aghast at the Fulcrum’s expectation for consistency in identity; “One cannot reasonably expect sameness out of so much difference, and it makes no sense for Damaya to be judged by the behavior of children who share nothing save the curse of orogeny with her.” (193) This sense of order provides a coherent structure to orogene management. And by orogene management, I mean the systematic denial of their natural rights as human beings. The only reason they are given degrees of comfort is that the owning class cannot allow them to cause massive amounts of destruction. Not surprisingly, this is not enough to prevent a pervasive feeling of servitude and inferiority.

 Scaling down the system, another example of uniformity is comms themselves. These are communities of people who have gathered together based on mutual interest and respect. Some are bigger than others, function differently, but they all maintain a uniform structure based on occupation-related hierarchies. They are havens of order during a season, where everyone has a role and works towards crafting something resembling security together.

Neither of these places works well with orogenes and it’s supposed to be their fault. Each social structure bases its beliefs off of Stonelore primarily, which illustrates orogenes as dangerous non-humans. We know that this is essentially an allegory for racism in our world. That being said, there seems to be a (somewhat) righteous pattern of cataclysmic destruction that follows two of our three main characters throughout the text and serves as a representation of their denial of despicable, yet structurally sound, institutions. 

Let’s start with Syenite and her part in the disruption of the traditional ways of the Fulcrum. Throughout her and Alabaster’s journey together, we see multiple tragic examples of the challenges that orogenes face within their line of work. One of Alabaster’s sons was tortured, they are refused to be given proper treatment when helping the coastal comm with their coral, and are forced to breed with each other as a science experiment. For all these reasons and more, it comes as no surprise when Alabaster refers to his people as “Gods in chains” on page 167, apparently quoting a text that serves a similar purpose as Stonelore but maintains a more unique perspective on orogeny, before passing out after a near-death experience. Syenite slowly starts seeing through the facade more clearly and with validation, but still feels stuck in the system and expresses her need for respect through being rude and short. That coping mechanism is no longer necessary when she accidentally summons a new obelisk and a Guardian attempts to kill her and Alabaster. Fearing for her life, she “becomes aware that she is angry. Furious. Duty be damned. What this Guardian is doing, what all Guardians do, is not right. And then- She becomes aware of the obelisk.” (261-262) This is a cataclysmic event that is almost entirely spurred on by the Guardian’s unjust actions and subscription to the idea that the “couple” are too dangerous to be kept alive. I would draw a comparison to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in order to emphasize the results of Syenite’s action even though the extenuating circumstances clearly differ. In both cases, it is a cleansing of sorts. Moving onto Essun, after she is given safe passage by Rask to leave Tirimo but is forced to destroy the community because of their hatred; “Perhaps he does not see the latter woman quickly shoulder her weapon and orient it on you.” (55) Essun is overcome with the human instinct to survive, coupled with their intolerance of her grief, and the results are just as cataclysmic as Syenite’s action albeit it on a more limited scope.

Tracking back to one of the major questions posed here, both of these cataclysmic events seem to lead the reader to the conclusion that true social change, in their world and ours, requires abrupt and irreversible action. My understanding of the text is that we must use our autonomy and potential to resist the powers that be, even at the risk of considerable destruction, in order to deflect their unfair agenda and avoid the gradual decay of identity and meaning associated with uniformity.