The obelisks in The Fifth Season represent the human tendency to ignore things that they do not understand, and also the way that those in power suppress information that might question the status quo.
The obelisks are mysterious crystalline objects, sometimes miles across in length, that float above the continent of the Stillness. As products of a lost civilization that no one seems to remember, the obelisks are generally seen as pretty but useless—they’re another reminder of past cultures that failed to survive Fifth Seasons and so are “not to be admired.” This idea largely comes from stonelore, which prioritizes survival and following its own prescribed tenets in order to make it through a Fifth Season, and works its way into the general mindset of the Stillness populace. Even Syenite, an orogene, barely notices the obelisks at first.
Over the course of the novel, it’s revealed that some special orogenes can actually use the obelisks to wield incredible power. This is what Alabaster does when he quells the node maintainer’s hot spot from hundreds of miles away, and what Syenite does to destroy the Guardians at Meov. Therefore, the Guardians and whomever they might answer to (whose true identity is still a mystery by the end of The Fifth Season) keep this information about the obelisks secret, letting the mindset of stonelore guide the populace instead. They keep the pit where the obelisks were created completely hidden behind a secret door at the center of the Fulcrum, and when they believe that Alabaster will discover an obelisk and use it (not knowing that he already has done so in the past), the Guardians try to assassinate him. Thus, the Guardians try to suppress information about the obelisks, fearing that orogenes will become too powerful if they learn what they are capable of and become upset that the Guardians control the status quo.
The history of the obelisks’ creation is still a mystery even by the novel’s close, though Alabaster, Essun, and Tonkee have gathered more pieces of the puzzle over the course of the book. The way that the obelisks are perceived by the general population of the Stillness, however, shows that most people will ignore things that don’t directly affect them, no matter how fascinating or inexplicable they may seem. At the same time, ruling classes are usually willing to suppress information and alter history to keep themselves in power.
The Obelisks Quotes in The Fifth Season
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. His fingers spread and twitch as he feels several reverberating points on the map of his awareness: his fellow slaves. […]
So he reaches deep and takes hold of the humming tapping bustling reverberating rippling vastness of the city, and the quieter bedrock beneath it, and the roiling churn of heat and pressure beneath that. Then he reaches wide, taking hold of the great sliding-puzzle piece of earthshell on which the continent sits.
Lastly, he reaches up. For power.
He takes all that, the strata and the magma and the people and the power, in his imaginary hands. Everything. He holds it. He is not alone. The earth is with him.
Then he breaks it.