The Broken Earth Trilogy as a Study of the Social Sciences

The Broken Earth trilogy tells a story rooted in the social sciences, its gripping plotlines and diverse, complex characters sowing the various branches, with observations and statements about systems of power and the imbalance of justice within these systems unfurling like leaves. 

To recap from my first reflective piece, social science is the study of human society and societal relationships and can be broken down into archaeology, anthropology, geography, history, law, politics, psychology, and sociology, to name a few. For N.K. Jemisin, who has a degree in psychology, her works commonly center around a social system in which, as Raffi Khatchadourian describes it after an interview with Jemisin, “the oppressed often possess an enormous capacity for agency—a supernatural ability, even, that their oppressors lack—but they exist in a society that has been engineered to hold them down. Eventually, the world is reordered, often with a cataclysm.

It’s not just the degree that makes this a subject of interest for Jemisin though. As a Black author, Jemisin is also conscious of the long history of the science fiction genre marginalizing minority writers, continuously failing these authors by putting white men at the forefront of who’s recognized within the genre. As one study of Jemisin’s trilogy presented through a masters thesis by Imogen Bagnall points out, “Science fiction and African-American interests were seen as mutually exclusive categories, as the most dominant representatives of the science fiction and fantasy author—and readership were white men. This assumption, however, is baseless, and is merely representative of the ethnocentrism and racial bias prevalent in almost all social and commercial spheres.

I noted in my reflection on The Fifth Season that Jemisin intentionally combats the racism within the genre by presenting a story told through “a slate of people of different colors and motivations who don’t often appear in a field still dominated by white men and their protagonist avatars,” as Vann R. Newkirk II wrote for The Atlantic. Reviewing the characters of the first novel, I focused on the three main girls and women, all described by Jemisin to be “Orogenes,” a race classified by their “ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events,” and how these characters document the systematic oppressions against Orogenes because of their abilities. While the Orogenes do not have visually distinct traits and can be from any region, the main characters are all “Midlatter,” which is a multiracial group. Perhaps this should have forewarned me for what we would discover later in the trilogy, which is that these three girls and women are actually the same person, just broken across periods of her life and accordingly narrated with or through the name she identified with during those times.

Crucially, though, the discovery that these three characters are all the same person does not diminish the character diversity in the novel. In fact, the character diversity increases as more individuals are introduced and the storyline threads deeper into Orgogenic history and beyond. 

During the time of the Orogenes, it is explained through stonelore that Orogenes are “born evil—some kind of agents of Father Earth, monsters that barely qualify as human” and that they are the reason why Father Earth seems to hate the human race, constantly waging war against humanity through brutal Seasons, which lorists say originates with the Orogenes separating the Moon from Father Earth, sending his child out of alignment.

By the third book though, it is divulged that before there were Orogenes, there were tuners who also had abilities and were created in the image of the Niess, a race who was tyrannized through war and defamed. Hoa, the immortal character who we discover has been narrating the sections of the novels told through third person, was once a tuner and he recounts that in the early years of his life, “It became easy for scholars to build reputations and careers around the notion that Niess sessapinae were fundamentally different, somehow—more sensitive, more active, less controlled, less civilized—and that this was the source of their magical peculiarity. This was what made them not the same kind of human as everyone else. Eventually: not as human as everyone else. Finally: not human at all.”

Reading through the abuses to both of these minority groups within the trilogy makes readers aware of the notion that “Trauma and oppression work cyclically, as each generation of oppressors infects the next with notions of prejudice and discrimination, and each generation of the oppressed are re-traumatised by the collective memory of the past,” as expressed by Bagnall. This cycle has been described before as a donut, which is depicted below. There are certain needs, built on social foundations, that all people have and, if these are not being met for all, a whirlpool of trauma is created. However, as seen with both The Broken Earth trilogy and the graphic, social institutions are not the only possible source for trauma since an abuse of the climate can also disrupt the “safe and just space for humanity,” meaning that resources have become so exploited that the Earth is endangered. With the trilogy, we see these lacking social foundations and ruptures of the ecological ceilings lead to the Seasons, a time when societies are forced to reset as the homes they built and the societies they formed are demolished by natural disaster. But each and every time, as we see by the end of the first book, society chooses to once again build the same social foundations and continue to overuse the materials the Earth provides. This is why, in the second and third books, Jemisin writes of love so powerful that it can shake the oppressive foundations society tries to rebuild during the most recent Season.

(Above is the donut graphic that Dr. Reitz introduced us to this semester.)

The first powerful love that Jemisin explores, based on the timeline of events in the novel, has lasted centuries, even as Hoa’s memories of his siblings have ebbed and receded in the vast ocean that is time. Since his existence was also built on social inequity, Hoa and his siblings lived in ignorance of the true severity of their situation until a woman named Kelenli was introduced to them and quickly became “something to lose” to Hoa. She also became a source of knowledge, and as the siblings learned about their conditions and where their siblings who had been taken away were sent, they found a collective desire to overthrow the system. In a heart-rending moment in book three, when the tuners resist at the same time the Moon does, resulting in is misalignment with Father Earth, Hoa recalls, “We entwine our presences in a layer of cold coal, which is perhaps fitting as Remwha sends a hiss through all of us like sand grinding amid cracks. It’s an echo of the static emptiness in our network where Tetlewha—and Entiwha, and Arwha, and all the others—once existed.”

Centuries later, we meet Nassun, the daughter of Essun and a crucial character beginning in book two, and witness her grief and fervent attachments as she learns that blood-related family isn’t always the strongest source of love. After her parents have tarnished her perceptions of the loving relationships they could have had with her, Nassun depends on Schaffa, a Guardian. In order to keep this love intact, Nassun essentially destroys the last Fulcrum, a sort of school where Orogenes were kept and forcefully bent to the wills of non-Orogenic people, when she realizes it was what made her mother “something else” and “wrong” in the sense that she couldn’t love Schaffa, who was also her Guardian, like Nassun does. Although Nassun did this to prevent her love for Schaffa from souring, it also marks the end of the Fulcrum’s presence at this point in the timeline.

Now, the main character Essun experiences many different loves. She loves her children, her romantic partners, and has even come to love the people in the comm that she has been a part of throughout much of the Season. The most powerful attestation of love in her life though is actually her death, when she meets her daughter again after years of searching and, even though they have different motives and beliefs on how to end the Season, Essun tries to laugh with pride as she dies, narrated as, “So rusting amazing, your little girl. You are proud to lose to her strength.” It’s these actions that make Nassun consider that “the world took and took” from her mother as well, though “for some reason that she does not think she’ll ever understand…even as you died, you were reaching for the Moon.” No matter her understanding though, Nassun ultimately decides to use her abilities to bring the Moon back into alignment with the Earth as her mother intended, which ends the Season and will predictably alter social foundations.

You might notice, if you had read my first reflection on The Broken Earth trilogy, that I’ve hardly mentioned geology compared to how in-depth I explored it before. This is partly because I think that after Jemisin drew the attention of readers and proved her wealth of knowledge and ethos with the first book, she could play around with the science fiction elements. Of course, these elements are still rooted in real geology, like the concept of the moon being separated from the Earth and causing the Seasons coming from a question at a NASA workshop that Jemisin attended. Mostly, though, it’s because sociology becomes a driving force as the trilogy progresses, as Essun makes more relationships and experiences more love, which invigorates her desire to quake unjust social foundations and assert her power after others have wrongfully suppressed it for far too long.

Love is Solid Stone: The Broken Earth Trilogy and Forgiveness as Love

By: Maria Pawlak for ENGL 468

Back in February of 2022, I reread the first novel in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, The Fifth Season, after having last read it in March of 2020. The space between initial reading and second reading allowed for personal growth, shift in thought, and shift in culture. The first time I read The Fifth Season, I was a freshman in college who had never heard of COVID-19; the second time, I was a senior who had more than heard of the virus—I had had it myself. Reflection is not just an exercise in self-understanding. As these two rereads demonstrated to me, it is a chance to grow and understand the world around you externally as well as internally. In that vein, the chance to now reflect and reassess the essay I wrote after rereading The Fifth Season last February will demonstrate a great deal of change, especially considering that in the intervening months, I finished the Broken Earth Trilogy in full for the first time. As with anything, seeing the whole picture and not just the first third informs one’s reading, which will be obvious as this blog post continues. Because of that shift in focus, what I once wrote an entire essay about becomes less nuanced and more one-note than I had wanted originally, and I am forced to reexamine the way Jemisin threads power, love, and justice together in a cohesive way. Now, it is clearer to see how love factors into the twin threads of power and justice throughout the trilogy as a whole. 

My first essay focused on the challenging way Jemisin used the fantasy-geological concept of “icing” in order to explore themes of justice and power. In The Fifth Season’s world, people with significant power over the earth, called orogenes, have the ability to “ice” individuals, plants, et cetera, through an explosion of energy and power. This “icing” is fatal. In my first reading, I was fascinated—and simultaneously disconcerted—by the way lack of justice forces orogenes into killing without distinction or mercy through icing, especially when compared to the more subtle displays of power of politics as displayed by the Fulcrum, which controls the orogene population. After all, the reader has no more than barely met our main character, Essun, a recently bereaved mother and secret orogene, when she ices her town and threatens both those who had tried to help her and those who tried to hurt her. Jemisin does not let the reader rush past this difficult, complex emotional journey of violence, instead describing it with visceral language like, “The shout dies in his throat as he falls, flash-frozen, the last of his warm breath hissing out through clenched teeth and frosting the round as you steal the heat from it.” It is violent, nuanced, and hard-hitting all at once. Jemisin’s purposeful second-person also plays with blame here, especially in first readings before individuals know the full story. By narrating in second-person, Jemisin forces the reader to participate in the assault, to engage in the violence. With every turn of a page, she calls out “you” again and again, making the actions of her protagonist as close to the reader as possible. In that way, icing especially becomes a study in the way that the lack of justice can manifest in outbursts of non-discriminating, wide-spread violence; revenge and fury that touches everyone in a certain radius, rather than those at fault. And because it is in the second-person, it also calls out the fact that those who stand by and allow injustice, violence, and hurt to go unchecked are as guilty and participatory in injustice as the people at the forefront. 

However, as I previously mentioned, it is not until one finishes the trilogy in its entirety that the true nuance of the second-person narration of indiscriminate violence comes to full light. In my first reading, this particular instance of “icing” is a demonstration of when injustice and usurpations of power go unchecked for so long, that what power the oppressed do have explodes in angry, wide-reaching ways. However, the second-person narration of that explosion of power adds a new, love-laced wrinkle. At first, the reader is only vaguely aware of who is narrating—all we know is that a third party narrates, someone who thinks the end of the world is boring and wants to “move on to more interesting things.” We are given a prologue of introduction from this mysterious individual, and then promptly asked to move on and become engrossed in the quick-paced world building of N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy. By the end of the trilogy, though, that narrator is revealed to be Hoa, a practically immortal companion of Essun. Hoa characterizes their relationship as not simply friends or family, but rather “‘…both and more. We are beyond such things.’” Suddenly, the previous thousand-plus pages take on striking new meaning. 

Now that we are well-aware that the narrator is not some far-off third-party or someone who wishes ill-will to Essun, but in fact someone dear to her, the moments of nuanced violence in the previous books come with new interpretations. Add to that the fact that the novels become Hoa retelling the entire story of Essun’s life to her after she has lost her memories, and that wrinkle becomes a full-blown tear in the fabric. Someone might have an instinct to say that Hoa’s unencumbered retelling is blunt and hurtful, but I posit the opposite. This is where N.K. Jemisin’s emphasis on love and care enters the power and justice equation. Instead of treating Essun like a child, brushing over the terrible facts of someone’s life, Hoa instead tells Essun of her past violence in poetic yet brutal language. He does not sugarcoat and he does not pretend. And even so, the whole reason he even tells Essun about her past “icing” is because he misses her, he cares about her, and wants to give her the honor of knowing the story of her past life. 

In taking the time to painstakingly recount her story to her, Hoa is engaging in an act of love. Through doing so, Jemisin makes two things happen. First, she demonstrates the power of love. Hoa is a being who has existed for centuries, who has made mistakes, and who cares about Essun deeply, going so far as to take the time to recount her life story. Secondly, the fact that he includes instances of injustice and violence in reaction to that injustice demonstrates humanity’s capacity to forgive and to love in a beautiful way. Yes, Essun has made terrible mistakes. She has committed acts of indiscriminate violence to those in her life who both loved her and hurt her. This is almost always because of injustice enacted upon her first, but that does not negate the violence she causes. And yet—Hoa loves her. He cares for her. His dedication to Essun even after violence and mistakes is Jemisin’s thesis on the power of love in the face of injustice and harm. 

Having read the entire trilogy, the reflection necessary to understand Hoa’s true loyalty throughout the entire trilogy is daunting. At first, one is simply taken by the plot-twist. But in careful rumination, the distinct significance N.K. Jemisin gives to forgiveness and love by having Hoa narrate the trilogy becomes unmistakable. He does not falter from Essun’s side, even as he recounts horrific instances of power or abuse. He knows that much of it was a reaction to a world that treated Essun and those like her with incredible cruelty—the lack of black-and-white throughout the trilogy only strengthens the power of love. When you are left without certainty or justice, what remains? Through Hoa, I believe that Jemisin is proposing an answer: love. Love remains, through loyalty, understanding, and forgiveness. 

Essun’s introductory “icing” challenges the reader to care for and relate to the injustice of her world despite her reaction to that injustice being indiscriminate killing. That is true. But it is also true that once you have finished the entire trilogy, the revealed depth of the narration adds love and loyalty to the mix. The fact that Hoa remains at Essun’s side after death, violence, disagreement, and the end of the entire world is proof enough of love. Forgiveness abounds; second-chances are offered. By the end of the novel, Essun is no longer who she once was. She becomes a stone-eater, like Hoa. This is a result of the power she used—clearly, there are still consequences for one’s actions amid the second chances. But that does not countermand the second chance itself. Icing might have introduced both Essun and her power in a violent, deadly manner. But it is the manner in which that violence was narrated, the steadfastness of Hoa’s recounting, that proves the faithful power of love throughout N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy. Yes, there was rampant injustice and indiscriminate use of power. But Hoa’s love, the loyalty and forgiveness he extended, is indisputable. 

Geographically Induced Injustice in “The Fifth Season”: Let’s get to thinkING

N.K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season presents a complex and engaging narrative that seriously  addresses issues of injustice and inequity through her studious worldbuilding. This was evident  from the first moment I picked up the book. I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between the  injustice experienced by the Orogens (enslaved people who can manipulate kinetic energy to  control seismic movement) and the experiences of marginalized and oppressed groups from  throughout the world, particularly the U.S. The Novel incited me to begin to examine the relationship between  justice and geography in an interdisciplinary understanding, which for me led to some  surprising realizations supported by Jemisin’s writing and related research. To put it plainly, it seems to me that Jemisin suggests that injustice and inequity can be exacerbated  and even created by impartial geographical circumstances. 

Before tackling the issues I believe Jemisin is proposing through her writing I will  provide brief context for the novel as a whole. The story itself is set in a region of the world  called “The Stillness” where the earth experiences destructive “seasons” that threaten to destroy  communities and extinct humanity. In order to combat this unforgiving planet, the communities  of the Stillness harness the power of Orogenes, who, as previously mentioned, are enslaved by  the Fulcrum to use their powers to control the earth’s restlessness so it is less volatile.  Communities construct “Nodes”, facilities where Node Maintainers (also orogenes) quell shakes  for communities throughout the Stillness, ensuring no loss of life or destruction of communities.  “In the Equatorials, the nodes’ zones of protection overlap, so there’s nary a twitch; this, and the  Fulcrum’s presence at its core, is why Yumenes can build as it does” (119). Jemisin establishes  that this is an unforgiving environment and the communities in this environment are only held  together by the effort of the Node Maintainers and other orogenes. Every second of existence is a  feat when one considers the how volatile the planet is. The power of the orogenes is all that  keeps the balance. By establishing this fact, Jemisin also introduces the idea of geographically  induced injustice.  

When two orogenes named Syenite and Alabaster investigate one of the nodes in a place  called Mehi, they find the corpse of the node maintainer. Much to Syenite’s shock and horror,  the maintainer is a child. “The body in the node maintainer’s chair is small, and naked. Thin, its  limbs atrophied. Hairless. There are things—tubes and pipes and things, she has no words for  them—going into the stick-arms, down the goggle-throat, across the narrow crotch” (139). Not  only is the maintainer– the person enlisted to control seismic activity in that region– a child,  they are malnourished and abused. In the Stillness, orogenic children can and will be abused,  tortured, and enslaved to ensure the safety of the greater society. The node maintainers stop any  earthquakes that could result in massive destruction. Through this horrifying example of  worldbuilding Jemisin seems to be establishing the case that injustice can often be caused or exacerbated by the demands of geography.  

Luckily, there are other examples of this idea of geographically induced injustice in the  novel to consider that are far less graphic than the abuse of a child. Later in the story Alabaster  and Syenite are taken to safety on a relatively unknown island called Meov after having been attacked by a Guardian (a sort of soldier created to neutralize any rogue or dangerous orogenes).  Syenite describes the island. “The island is nothing but rolling hills and grass and solid rock—no  trees, no topsoil. An utterly useless place to live” (282). Agriculture is impossible on the rocky  island, and keeping cattle is just as unlikely due to the size of the island and its lack of fertile  soil. The topography and geography of this region makes it almost unlivable. So, how do the  citizens of Meov get by? Well, due to the desperation of the topography, the islanders must use their seafaring ways and a little crime survive. “So Meov raids. They attack vessels along the  main trading routes, or extort comms for protection from attacks—yes their attacks” (294). Here  again I found that the geography of the regions in the Stillness create and exacerbate injustice, in this case injustice to the communities of the Stillness. What is interesting  about Jemisin’s depiction of the issue of geographical injustice in this case is that both “sides” of  the story engage in it. In the case of the communities of the Stillness their geographical survival  is ensured by the enslavement and abuse of powerful children. In the case of the community of  Meov, they ensure their geographical survival by killing Merchants, raiding communities, and  taking what is not theirs. Meov must act unjustly to keep their people alive. Now, my interest is not to compare the degrees in which these actions  are unjust or immoral, my only interest is to point out what I noticed, that Jemisin is clearly tying geography to injustice, and after looking at some relevant research presented in class, it is understandable why. 

It turns out Jemisin seems so keen on pointing out the connection between geography and  injustice because it is extremely relevant in the discussion of justice and equity as well as discussions in science. In an article published by the Columbia Climate School titled “Earthquakes May Endanger New York More Than Thought, Says Study”, authors Leonardo Seeber and John Armbruster discuss the risk that seismic activity has on New York City and other places located on minor fault lines, as opposed to major faults like near California and Japan. Their research found that New York City, although not a frequent hotspot for large earthquakes, could be susceptible to high amounts of damage due to the confluence of multiple smaller tremors. Seeber notes that the effects of these tremors would affect some communities in New York City more than others. “Earthquake-resistant building codes were not introduced to New York City until 1995, and are not in effect at all in many other communities. Sinuous skyscrapers and bridges might get by with minimal damage, said Sykes, but many older, unreinforced three- to six-story brick buildings could crumble”. Here, represented in data and research we have an example of real world geographically exacerbated and induced inequity. People from low income neighborhoods which often do not have the money to remodel buildings so they are earthquake resistant, will be disproportionately affected if a natural disaster like a strong earthquake should happen. The marginalized, minority communities which have been oppressed through systematic structural racism in housing communities will feel the ramifications of a natural disaster far more than a wealthier  person in a newer, more expensive building. When geographical disasters take place the oppression minority communities face is only exacerbated. As I am limited in space, I won’t delve into the ways that geography was used to oppress communities in the U.S through redlining, gerrymandering, and other strategies, just note that they are there, waiting for discussion. What is evident is that due to structural inequality, when disaster comes, it is the oppressed communities that unduly feel the ramifications. 

The final example of Geographically induced/exacerbated inequality and or injustice I would like to briefly discuss is a thought I derived while reading the “Guidelines on Preparedness Before, During and After an Ashfall” prepared by International Volcanic Health Hazard Network (IVHHN), Cities and Volcanoes Commission, GNS Science and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). While reading the preparedness guidelines, I noticed a recurring theme amongst the rules: a need for abundance. This can be seen looking at the first page of guidelines. “Enough drinking water for at least 72 hours – one gallon (3-4 litres) per person per day. Enough non-perishable food for at least 72 hours for family and pets…If cold, extra blankets and warm clothing. Extra stocks of medication for both family and pets…A small amount of money” (3). The guidelines state that in order to make it through an ashfall you should have extra clothes, food, medication, water, and even money. Can you think of how inequity might be exacerbated by an ashfall? Start by asking the question: how are people who are poor or oppressed expected to get this abundance of material? If one is to survive an ashfall one must have an abundance of these materials and the ability to stock resources, and until relatively recently the ability to stockpile resources has been a luxury, one not allowed to minority communities.

 I am uncertain where the rest of Jemisin’s Broken Earth series will take me, or how my understanding of her commentary on geography and justice will change, but as it stands right now Jemisin has gotten me thinkING about how injustice is created and perpetuated by things as simple and as impartial as geography. This leads me to believe that an interdisciplinary approach to solving issues of inequality and injustice is essential in getting lasting, meaningful change. Jemisin is toying with the ideas that justice is a relative luxury, and that the need to live can override ideas of justice and equity. She makes this idea clear in her worldbuilding, survival outweighs the luxury found in the concept of justice. I am uncertain if Jemisin is simply challenging the reader to sympathize with unjust people (like the pirates who help our progatogists), or simply stating that the need to live comes before the need to live justly. It is not clear to me what the answers to these questions are, but I look forward to continuing thinkING about these concepts as I read further.

Icing as Metaphor in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin presents a land called the Stillness, ironically named as it is anything but still. Populated by inhabitants who are always waiting for the next natural disaster, Jemisin follows a second-world apocalypse through the eyes of an oppressed middle-aged woman called Essun as she searches for her daughter. Essun is oppressed for her gift of orogeny, meaning she can manipulate kinetic energy to cause—or disrupt—seismic events. But these gifts come at a cost: in order to draw energy, she creates a controlled field of “ice” that condemns everything it touches to a frozen death. This direct power exchange raises interesting questions about the way power and fear work in tandem, and often without the governing hand of justice or righteousness. I am interested in investigating how fear coerces people into wielding their power without justice or discrimination through the metaphor of “icing.” 

Power exists in many forms. Soft power and hard power are both rampant throughout The Fifth Season, carefully relegated between social classes and human species. Of these, hard power is often showier, something Jemisin plays with through her cinematic writing, such as in the opening chapters of the text. Essun’s narration begins with grief. She is reeling from the death of her son at the hands of his father for his crime of being an orogene and so, buried under a twisted sense of justice and necessity—her daughter is missing—she tries to escape her town. In doing so, she is attacked and retaliates, causing a localized earthquake and icing anyone in her vicinity. This reaction is her own haphazard version of justice, ministered through her power. Her reaction is depicted as a dawning realization as Jemisin writes, “but the attempt on your life has triggered something raw and furious and cold …[T]he kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you.” Through her orogeny, Essun exacts justice by forcing the earth to punish the town around it, collapsing buildings and icing much of the town’s leadership. Essun uses her hard power of orogeny, specifically focusing on icing, in order to react to a wrong. Notably, this only occurs after Essun has been attacked by the people of her village, making her fear for her life. Her original goal of slinking out of the village without disturbing anything vanishes because of fear. 

In Essun’s case, fear caused her to use her power violently, even if she believed it just. The metaphor of icing helps illustrate that while power can exact justice, fear-driven decisions removes nuance from justice. As she ices her town, she does not differentiate between the people who attacked her and the people who helped her get as far as she has. Pulled from the same scene as earlier, Jemisin writes, “You aren’t just inflicting death on your fellow villagers, of course. A bird perched on a nearby fence falls over frozen, too. The grass crisps, the ground grows hard, and the air hisses and howls as moisture and density is snatched from its substance.” There is no selection, no thought process. Birds die in the same breath as would-be murderers and friends. Jemisin’s metaphor of icing demonstrates in a horrifying sequence that when fear, justice, and power intersect, it often creates a corrupt blend of wide-reaching, nondiscriminating, unilateral consequences. 

While Essun’s descent into violent justice is a demonstration of hard power instigated by fear, soft power instigated by fear can be just as damning. The Fulcrum, and to a larger extent, the Stillness, establish that in chilling order. The Fulcrum is the organization that trains people gifted in orogeny, such as Essun in her childhood up through early adulthood. Using a mix of dehumanizing and demoralizing techniques, the Fulcrum raises orogenes to consider themselves second-class citizens and uses its influence—its soft power—to ensure that orogenes remain persecuted and targeted throughout the Stillness. Unsurprisingly, but chillingly, The Fulcrum has done this because it is fearful of these powerful humans who can cause earthquakes and sink cities. It does not want their power threatened, in a way that is familiar to anyone who exists in any reality. The powerful do not want to become the weak. An example that might hit closer to home of soft power being used in fear to protect one’s status and wealth can be found in this United States Geological Survey article. Covering how overlooked downstate New York State’s earthquake risk is, the article spoke about the controversial Indian Point nuclear power plant. Like how the Fulcrum twists information and perception in order to continue to oppress and abuse orogenes to maintain power, the Indian Point nuclear power plant is alleged to have ignored new information about earthquake risk, instead choosing to focus on studies written before the 1980s. Understanding that the Fulcrum uses soft power as ubiquitously as Essun used icing is important for understanding how fear-driven decisions hurt more people, more widely. To that end, even the Fulcrum’s teaching on icing demonstrates how fearful and terrifying it considers that power. Back in Essun’s days at the Fulcrum, this is made clear. From that time, Jemisin writes, “Instructor Marcasite praised her for only icing a two-foot torus around herself while simultaneously stretching her zone of control.” The Fulcrum is obviously frightened of the orogeny side-effect of “icing” and does everything within their power to train its unwieldy, deadly reach out of orogenes. This training would only be possible through the oppression and control they have already exacted over the orogene population through their soft power. 

Between both Essun’s reaction to fear and the reaction of privileged oppressors of the Stillness’s society and the Fulcrum, a common denominator is made clear. When fear is a driving factor, power is used in such a way that true justice is an impossibility. To understand that, one needs to look no further than the concept of icing. In order to access power and commit huge, godlike acts of seismic activity, you must take from the life around you. When that power is driven by fear, the taking becomes an unruly, wild thing that grows in anger, even if, like Essun, that anger and fear is justified. It might be justified, but acting out of fear takes away that critical thinking and leaves only rash, violent decision making. Examining the intersection of fear, justice, and power through the lens of icing in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season leaves me with only one conclusion: fear-driven so-called “justice” doled out by power, be it hard or soft, only begets more fear. That is the consequence of uncontrolled icing and of the Stillness’s continued persecution of the orogenes.