The Roles of Sociology and Biology as Social Science in The Fifth Season

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.

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.

Carving (Y)our (My) Stories

” In love, then, we shall seek understanding.”

  • – N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate

Oftentimes, when I’m writing, I feel as though I’m carving something out of stone — I’m writing and writing and writing and slowly an idea emerges from the haze of dust and rock, at first realized only in rough outlines, in the hint of a general idea, and slowly, s l o w l y I polish away the hard edges.  I have, truth be told, perfectionist tendencies that come into play when writing (when doing anything, really, god, you should have seen me try to play sports — practice does not make perfect when you expect yourself to be perfect on the first try) and these tendencies are most definitely not unusual, especially when many of us are released from a schooling system that incorporates in us  a certain idea not only of writing (how to write, what qualifies as effective and acceptable writing) but how to work. Even now, in writing this, I feel the perfectionism — which is in turn symptomatic of both my education and my anxiety— rising up inside me, in the constant questioning (Is this good enough? Is this long enough? What will they think of this? Is this comprehensive enough? Is this good? Is it great? Is it the best it can be?) of my own work. In writing I sometimes feel trapped in my anxieties, in my thoughts, so judgemental of my own self, my own art, my own individual stories; I am caught in a spiral constantly folding in on itself as I question and question and question. 
Continue reading “Carving (Y)our (My) Stories”

Ex-Machina or That Which Was Formerly Machine

We were constructed as intentionally and artificially as the fragments you call obelisks. We are fragments of the great machine too . . . By our existence, we glorify the world that made us, like any statue, scepter or other precious object. We do not resent this, for our opinions and experiences have been carefully constructed, too. We do not understand that what Kelenli has come to give us is a sense of peoplehood. We do not understand why we have been forbidden this self-concept before now… but we will (Stone Sky 50).

Artificial intelligence.  Robots.  Cyborgs.  The steadfast fundamentals of sci-fi.  From I, Robot to Ex Machina, from the cybermen of Doctor Who to the cylons of Battlestar Galactica, the idea of living and cognizant technology has captured our imaginations for decades.  It’s a fascination that has developed and grown alongside our exploration and use of technology, one that, in a literary sense, likely has roots in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; we are fascinated, in a sense by creating that which is beyond ourselves, fascinated by the idea of becoming becoming almost as god.  In the concept of artificial intelligence we see the ability to not only push the boundaries of knowledge, but to push the boundaries of self.   Continue reading “Ex-Machina or That Which Was Formerly Machine”

On Beauty and Being Stone

In another course myself and Sabrina Bramwell are taking this semester, we are reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a novel based in exploring contemporary ideals of beauty, academia and self.  It is, in fact, a novel almost as completely opposite from Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy as possible, taking place not in a future other-world involving people who move mountains and eat stone, but instead in a contemporary other-but-still-quite-similar university and focusing upon the lives of two families riddled by ideological differences, affairs, issues of ethnicity, and art.  And yet, both Sabrina and myself have been finding a myriad of connections, especially to do with ideals of beauty, between the works, despite their seemingly enormous differences in genre and content.   Continue reading “On Beauty and Being Stone”

Utopetroleum (and Cow Farts™)

Life is sacred in Syl Anagist — as it should be, for the city burns life as the fuel for its glory.

Syl Anagist at first seems a utopia, projecting image of surface-level perfection: a society built around life, around a pure and clean energy source, a source that, in lasting forever, will allow for unhindered progress of the  empire. Yet, Kelenli’s lessons to the tuners break any illusions of perfection in revealing the oppressive framework upon which the empire’s energy, and thus, the empire’s survival, depends.  Continue reading “Utopetroleum (and Cow Farts™)”


By Abby “Opal” Ritz and Helen “Azurite” Warfle

On the first day of class, Professor McCoy asked us what our favorite rock was. Now that the semester is almost over and we have a more advanced knowledge of geology, we have decided to come back to this and give everyone a description of their rocks and note whether or not they are significant in the Broken Earth trilogy. It is clear that in the beginning of the semester, none of us knew the difference between a rock and a mineral as most people chose minerals, except for those who chose igneous rocks, sedimentary rocks, granite, slate, and shale (good job lads, you rock 😉 ).   Continue reading “WHAT’S THAT ROCK?”