Social Sciences, which Jemisin explicitly advocates “is science too” because of how often it is ignored, is the scientific study of human society and social relationships. It’s composed of several branches that include archaeology, anthropology, geography, history, law, politics, psychology, and sociology, to name a few. In my experience, many of these branches don’t seem to fit into the typical categories considered when someone brings up the sciences, as the biological, logical, and physical sciences are usually thought of first.
Jemisin uses this to her advantage, creating a story that has social science at its core, allowing her to deep dive into the experiences of minorities who have been marginalized, especially in the field of fantasy writing. This theory about the intentions of the groundbreaking novel are reinforced by Newkirk, who reviews The Fifth Season’s characters as “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.”
A rupture of the science fiction genre is in the placement of exploited minority characters at the center of the story. Within the novel, there are three main characters with interchangeable perspectives each chapter. All three characters are girls and women who are described by Jemisin, in the appendix, to be a race known as “Orogenes,” which is classified by their “ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events.” While the Orogenes do not have visually distinct traits and can be from any region of the Stillness, the continent Jemisin explores in her world, the main characters are “Midlatter,” a multiracial group. The choice to create Orogenes as a race composed of varied peoples is likely influenced by readings Jemisin has studied about “the different sets of people who have been oppressed and the different systemic oppressions that have existed throughout history,” drawing on not only her “own African American experience, but…a lot of other stuff too.” These systemic oppressions are documented through all three narrators, showing the injustices towards Orogenes in different settings and also in a seemingly nonlinear timeline.
The injustice against the Orogenes has a long history. Jemisin describes that there’s “stonelore” that tells the non-orogenes and Guardians, those that train and control Orogenic people, that Orogenes are “born evil—some kind of agents of Father Earth, monsters that barely qualify as human.” Even though there’s no solid proof that Orgoenes truly are born evil, the non-orogenes and Guardians follow the stonelore closely, using it as justification for their severe mistreatment of Orogenes. In this society, Orogenes, as Jemisin outlines, “have no right to say no,” “have no right to get angry, to want justice, to protect what they love,” and are subject to private discipline from Guardians so that the non-orogenes do not see and generate “inappropriate sympathy” for the Orogenes. They are a race that are feared to be weapons of the Earth and are controlled to be mediators for seismic events, paired with an anguishing degree of suffering and even death, just to ease the lives of non-orogenes and Guardians.
However, focusing on just the sociology of the novel doesn’t consider the impact of social science as a whole. Geology is also a critical factor of Jemisin’s novel. Jemisin herself highlights just how important the geological aspect of science fiction is by discussing how “the boundaries of science-fiction and fantasy…are supposed to be about people…It was all supposed to be about the science” and yet “you would see dozens of people nitpicking the hell out of the physics.” In order to keep people from focusing on the physical attributes of science in the novel, Jemisin takes care to represent the science realistically, proving her research as she describes the effects of natural disasters. This tactic can turn the focus away from discussing whether or not the science is a true representation and turns it towards theorizing why these catastrophes happen and how they’re related to the social institutions in the novel. After reading the book, I think Jemisin wanted to show a world in which society exacerbates geological events, placing emphasis on just how dangerous injustice can be by giving it not only individual mental, emotional, and physical dangers, but also universal physical dangers that threaten even the privileged.
The origin of increased seismic activity is recounted through folklore Jemisin creates, which explains that people “poisoned waters beyond even his ability to cleanse, and killed much of the other life that lived on his surface. They drilled through the crust of his skin, past the blood of his mantle, to get at the sweet marrow of his bones. And at the height of human hubris and might, it was the orogenes who did something that even Earth could not forgive: They destroyed his only child.” It is this vague action that seems to instigate the first Fifth Season, which Jemisin says, in an interview with PBS, is “similar to what we have had in our world, the year without summer, for example, where people have to learn to suddenly survive where they can’t grow food, they don’t see the sun for weeks, months on end.”
The cause for this catastrophe in The Fifth Season consults two opposing viewpoints in Nur and Burgess’ “Introduction,” which states that “Some researchers deny that earthquakes, and, by analogy, other sudden natural events, may have played a bigger role in shaping history, simply because these sudden occurrences are not manmade” while the norm for “many modern historians, political scientists, and ecologists is to view major disasters in human history as resulting from man’s actions.” By mixing these two perspectives, Jemisin can make a point about how social injustice leads to natural disaster and then how this natural disaster leads to more social injustice, creating a cycle formed by rigid social structures that seem to worsen following catastrophes.
After this initial cataclysm, it seems like select humans adapted to be able to practice Orogeny to protect society as a whole from the rage of Father Earth. Instead of being celebrated, they are enslaved and continuously injured and molested, seen to build tension until they erupt and bring damage to civilizations.
This concept is introduced in the very beginning of the book, when Jemisin introduces, “And then 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,” metaphorically holding the Earth in his hands before “he breaks it.” It’s seen yet again when Essun tears apart the fault line and causes deadly destruction to the town, claiming that “The kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you.” It’s seen yet again when the readers are introduced to node stations where young Orogenes who struggle to control their powers are sedated and used to negate small tremors and fulfill sexual fantasies of perveted people. They meet the dead Orogene boy who had been held captive there, abused until he killed everyone within the station and himself. Once more, it’s seen “five days after Syenite shut down a volcano that she started, which killed a whole city, and eight days after she killed two ships full of people to keep her family’s existence a secret,” which occurs later in the book.
These situations build on the sociological aspects of the novel, of the continued social injustices, and it gives them physical repercussions. By continually pushing the Orogenes beyond their breaking points, we may see the entire world Jemisin fabricates brought to its downfall, caused by the prejudices of the very people who are desperate to save it.