Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Community of Apocalypse: On N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season

Hey all, I've got another longform essay for you about N. K. Jemisin and The Fifth Season, with a focus on colonialism. Happy New Year!

The Community of Apocalypse

N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy represents one of the most important works of 21st century speculative literature. While the narrative remains as exciting and entertaining as to fit the speculative genre expectations, the narrative skill is reminiscent of Samuel R. Delany’s postmodern triumph Dhalgren (1974) or Ursula K. Le Guin’s groundbreaking The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Yet, Broken Earth is never so simple as to become a single-issue trilogy. Rather, the novels center people of color, climate crisis, gender studies, colonial power structures, found family, intentional community, human rights theory, the nonhuman, and so on. Though many methodologies could be applied to an analysis of the trilogy, this paper will focus on a postcolonial reading of book one, The Fifth Season (2015). This novel is important to postcolonial studies because it represents the fall of an empire through environmental apocalypse rather than political or military change. While the shape of any community changes after colonialism, the combination of imperial collapse during environmental apocalypse depicts a reality that climate change could produce. Already indigenous writers have imagined how shifting society due to the climate crisis would change colonized lands, such as the walled and expanded DinĂ© lands described in Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning (2018). This paper argues that ending empire through environmental collapse rather than through revolution or the withdrawal of colonial forces creates space for new communities more devoid of nationalism or repeated colonial power structures because community begets survival. 

The book cover of The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season is the first book in the trilogy and introduces a braided narrative with a strong first-person narrator. The three point of view characters are Damaya, Syenite, and Essun, who are revealed at the novel’s end to be the same person at different points in her life. While the world seems recognizable—there is asphalt, cities, technology—two major changes impact the novel: consistent apocalyptic events (called Seasons) continuously decimate much of the continent and people exist who can sense and control these events called orogenes. While orogenes appear human, they can access earth-power, particularly heat, which allows them to create and control geologic forces. For example, by drawing heat from a human body, an orogene can flash-freeze a person. An orogene can also start an earthquake or shield an area from tremors. In a world where “Father Earth” causes apocalyptic geological events regularly, such skills could be a boon to any community rather than a threat (8). Instead, orogenes are murdered, and if they survive to grow up “feral,” they are hunted and enslaved by the Fulcrum. The Fulcrum trains orogenes to work on behalf of the Fulcrum and other political leaders, though the Fulcrum represents the largest power structure in the novel. The orogenes’ enslavement involves being connected to a Guardian, a person with the ability to stop orogene abilities. Guardians are an exclusive caste that allows them special treatment, even during the apocalyptic time of a Season. They also exclusively work for the Fulcrum. While much postcolonial speculative literature investigates the invasion of other lands or nations, this novel depicts internal colonialism, such as defined by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang: “[I]nternal colonialism, the biopolitical and geopolitical management of people, land, flora and fauna within the ‘domestic’ borders of the imperial nation. This involves the use of particularized modes of control—prisons, ghettos, minoritizing, schooling, policing—to ensure the ascendancy of a nation and its white elite” (4-5). This paper focuses on tracing the changing power structures of internal colonialism during the three sections: Damaya as a child taken to the Fulcrum; Syenite as a powerful but obedient orogene working for the Fulcrum; and Essun as an orogene coming out of hiding during a Season so destructive the Fulcrum will not survive. Each storyline displays a different type of colonial structure and the community that forms in accordance or in resistance to this empire.

Damaya’s storyline displays how the colonial structures function as she must learn to survive within their abuse. In Damaya’s first chapter, she is removed from her community as a child because her orogenic powers are discovered. Damaya’s removal, while not exact, parallels indigenous child removal, especially as she is taken to the Fulcrum to learn not only about her powers but for general education as well, much like a boarding school. This removal and focus on education demonstrates the Fulcrum’s usage of internal colonialism to control orogenes. Indeed, the instigator of this removal is Damaya’s Guardian Schaffa, the only main human character described as white. Damaya at first identifies him as a “child-buyer,” which remains accurate even if he is a Guardian, and she describes him as “almost white, he’s so paper-pale; he must smoke and curl up in strong sunlight. […] But what strikes Damaya most are the child-buyer’s eyes. They’re white or nearly so” (29). Additionally, the description of his voice could suggest a brogue: “[H]e speaks with an accent like none she’s ever heard: sharp and heavy, with long drawled o’s and a’s and crisp beginnings and ends to every word. Smart-sounding” (26). While accurately described as a child-buyer, he also positions himself as a savior—to Damaya’s family, he is ridding them of a dangerous creature, and to Damaya, he saves her from the mob violence that often results in the death of orogenes born outside the Fulcrum. Jemisin often details the skin color and hair type of characters, but Schaffa’s appearance and actions so early in the narrative set up his role: the white colonist sent to educate and save orogenes for a greater purpose. 

In the early stages of their relationship, Schaffa begins teaching Damaya while traveling to deliver her to the Fulcrum. He tells Damaya the story of Shemshena, which is often taught in their schools. The story features a human outwitting and killing a supposedly violent orogene intent on massacring a human city for no reason. At first, Damaya likes the story but realizes at the end that she is not allowed to picture herself as the hero Shemshena but can only be regulated to the massacring orogene who comes to a violent end. She realizes this feeling was Schaffa’s goal: “She doesn’t like the one he just told, not anymore. And she is somehow, suddenly certain: He did not intend for her to like it” (93). The foundation of Damaya’s community at the Fulcrum is based on such stories and information, which becomes more evident when she must unlearn them as Syenite then Essun. In White Mother to a Dark Race, Margaret D. Jacobs writes about the importance of such narratives in settler-colonial practice: “The concept of the frontier in both countries has also contributed much to the heroic narratives of settler triumph that all but erase the histories of violence and conflict with the indigenous inhabitants of each continent. Myths of valiant settlers on the frontier work to obscure colonial histories in both counties” (6). While Schaffa and the other Guardians do not enter an environmental frontier as they practice internal colonialism, they do free the land of what they see as threats to their power, thus enslaving powerful resources. As Schaffa says in a textbook definition of Said’s Orientalism: “‘[Guardians train] as Shemshena did. We learn how orogenic power works, and we find ways to use this knowledge against you. […] I am your Guardian now, and it is my duty to make certain you remain helpful, never harmful’” (93). Schaffa admits to the colonizer’s tactics of creating a knowledge base to enslave an entire group of people while also couching it in emotionally manipulative language that would impact a child who doesn’t want to hurt others. Thus, Schaffa introduces Damaya to what Said calls “dominating frameworks” through created knowledge: “Knowledge of the Orient, because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental, and his world” (40). Schaffa uses this tactic to change Damaya’s views of herself and her world, turning both violent. At the Fulcrum, Damaya is forced into this act of colonization and the reader learns how successful the Fulcrum tactics are through the older but obedient actions of Syenite. Syenite’s world is created by the Fulcrum’s knowledge and domination of what it means to be an orogene.

While Damaya is being reeducated by Schaffa and the Fulcrum, the braided narrative continues with Syenite, who has changed to survive the Fulcrum’s violence. She’s tough, talented, and believes the Fulcrum is, for the most part, right. She’s given an assignment to “breed” with the most powerful orogene under the Fulcrum’s command, named Alabaster (72). He’s earned the right to refuse missions and travel alone, something most orogene never experience under Fulcrum rule and something Syenite desires. While he also obeys the Fulcrum’s order to produce a child with Syenite, he works to undermine her belief in the Fulcrum, such as when he takes her to see a node station operated by one of his other orogene children, meant to stop earthquakes and tremors near the empire’s center. There, Syenite is reminded of the Fulcrum’s true horrors:

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. There’s a flexible bag on the corpse’s belly, attached to its belly somehow, and it’s full of—ugh. [… There’s] a part of her that’s gibbering, and the only way she can keep that part internal and silent is to concentrate on everything she’s seeing. Ingenious, really, what they’ve done. She didn’t know it was possible to keep a body alive like this: immobile, unwilling, indefinite. (139-40).

Much like Syenite, this moment is also the reader’s first experience of the Fulcrum’s ingenious horrors. The pattern of colonial violence is clear on the page, but Syenite’s experience at the node demonstrates how the Fulcrum’s framework had dominated her worldview. This scene demonstrates how the Fulcrum sees orogenes as resources, not people. As Alabaster says of the empire: “‘Mother Sanze can always find another use for [orogenes]’” (140). In a postcolonial reading of this novel, such a moment is important because it demonstrates colonial power structures remain past the initial event. In the novel, these structures of control have been institutionalized and normalized as internal colonialism. Rather than focusing on an empire invading another land, a colonial trope in much epic fantasy, Jemisin’s worldbuilding relies on a much more deceptive form of colonization. This moment corresponds with Paul Gilory’s argument of reviewing the violent colonial archive: “The countless tales of colonial brutality are too important to be lightly or prematurely disposed of. […] My argument is that these accounts of colonial war must be owned so that they can become useful in understanding the empire, in making sense of its bequest to the future” (47). Indeed, this previous violence is very much part of Essun’s structuring of community later in the novel, where people are people no matter what (Jemisin 402). This realization of using orogenes as mere resources, though, leads to Syenite finding some form of community not dominated by Fulcrum knowledge. Until this moment, she had tolerated Alabaster, but the shared experience becomes an important source of knowledge that they keep secret in order to survive under the Fulcrum’s oppression.

The novel ends with all three braids of the narrative coming together to make and reveal the main character of Essun. While the novel started with Essun alone, about to be turned on by her community, this book ends in Castrima, a geode that has a sustainable energy source that orogenes can access. The community already hiding and surviving the apocalypse in the geode is described by Essun as “people and not-people,” of which Essun is a not-person (332). Yet, the Castrima community does not see themselves that way. Rather, to join the community, equality between human and nonhuman is required. Orogenes and humans work together for survival. The community leader, an orogene, states: “‘This is what we we’re trying to do here in Castrima: survive. Same as anyone. We’re just willing to innovate a little” (343). In this moment, “innovate” takes on a double meaning. In the novel, it means they are willing to risk living in a geode that runs off orogene power, but in reference to the colonial structures depicted throughout the novel, “innovate” references the destruction of their normalized ways of treating others. No longer are orogenes feared by humans as together is how all—human and nonhuman—can survive the apocalypse.
The Fifth Season’s focus on apocalyptic collapse separates it from other postcolonial speculative narratives. In the midst of apocalypse, community forms, found families fight, and internal colonialism is dismantled. Environmental apocalypse changes the type of community viable in Essun’s world. No longer are dominating colonial structures sustainable, so the smaller decolonized communities—previously kept hidden—can reveal themselves and not only survive but thrive. While the novel offers many diverse readings, using the postcolonial critical lens opens an important avenue for future study—what happens when the climate apocalypse weakens or destroys colonial structures? N. K. Jemisin answers this question by ending her apocalyptic novel with a focus on intentional community that dismantles colonial systems as a valid form of survival. 

Works Cited
Gilroy, Paul. Postcolonial Melancholia. Columbia UP, 2004.

Jacobs, Margaret D. White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the

Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940. U of Nebraska P, 2009.

Jemisin, N. K. The Fifth Season. Orbit, 2015.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Pantheon Books, 1978.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity,
Education & Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-39.

Phoebe Wagner currently studies at University of Nevada: Reno. When not writing or reading, she can be found kayaking at the nearest lake. Follow her at phoebe-wagner.com or on Twitter @pheebs_w.