The Stillness, the supercontinent that is the primary setting for The Fifth Season, is a world constantly in danger of disaster. The complete collapse of civilization is always possible due to the apocalyptic conditions of its periodic “Fifth Seasons,” which could come at any time. This reality has led society to prioritize survival above all else—and violence is generally seen as a necessary aspect of that equation, as during Seasons, only some can survive while others inevitably perish. In general, The Fifth Season condemns violence when it is used cruelly or to oppress others, but also suggests that violence is sometimes justified and necessary in the name of surviving disaster or fighting oppression.
From the start, the novel creates a sense of constant danger and instability in the world of the Stillness. The opening description of the continent describes the earth itself as constantly shifting like an old man in a restless sleep. To survive, the peoples of the Stillness have learned not to trust even the ground beneath their feet, as at any moment a “shake” could upend their entire lives. Most people keep “runny-sacks” full of emergency supplies stored in their homes in case they need to suddenly flee. Essun’s pragmatic and pessimistic inner dialogue also highlights the way that the people of the Stillness think about their world—anything could collapse at any time, and their society is constructed around this fact. This makes many people desensitized to violence, as it is easily justified in the name of survival.
At the same time, the novel condemns violence in the name of maintaining power or oppressing others. The Guardians are introduced as explicitly using violence to teach orogenes that they are dangerous and second-class citizens. When Schaffa takes the young orogene Damaya away from her home to be trained, he purposefully breaks her hand—as a means of testing her control over her orogeny, but also as a lesson that she is to accept violence from her Guardian if Schaffa decides that it is necessary. Despite the practical “lesson” that Schaffa teaches through this abusive act, the narrative also highlights how Damaya is scarred by this trauma for life. In an even more horrifying example, Alabaster’s powerful orogenic children are lobotomized and made to live as machines in constant pain as node maintainers, using their orogeny without any free will of their own to still earthquakes across the Stillness. Though they are technically using their powers to prevent seismic disaster, in the process these children are brutalized beyond belief.
While The Fifth Season clearly condemns this kind of violent exploitation of the oppressed, the novel is more ambiguous about violence waged solely in the name of survival or fighting oppression itself. Stonelore—which the novel acknowledges as flawed, but which also contains knowledge that has helped humanity survive Fifth Seasons for centuries—assumes that people will turn against each other in a Season, and that the strong must survive while the weak perish. One unnamed rule is that comms (towns) will accept those people with skills useful to them, and send the rest out into the wilderness to fend for themselves—effectively a death sentence during a Season. Orogenes especially are often forced to use violence to protect themselves. As Essun is leaving the town of Tirimo, the guards attack her and she is forced to fight back to defend herself. At the same time, the novel doesn’t deny that Essun reacts disproportionately in this scene, as she kills not only the guards who tried to murder her, but also many of the townspeople, including the headman Rask who had gone out of his way to help her leave safely. Her actions are not justified, but only explained, as Essun lets her rage and grief take over and her own vast power run amok, set off by an act of simple self-defense. On the opposite side but showing similar moral ambiguity, even the people killing young orogenes usually think that they’re protecting themselves from dangerous monsters and helping their own communities. There are no clear heroes in Jemisin’s narrative, as violence is often presented as necessary or understandable but rarely moral.
Similarly, the novel’s central act of violence—Alabaster breaking the continent into two and starting a Season that will last for millennia—is neither explicitly defended nor condemned in the work. Alabaster’s words before his “Rifting” of the Stillness, as well as his life experiences as laid out in the rest of the novel, imply that he acts in response to a broken world that is truly evil in its treatment of orogenes, and that to some degree deserves to be violently destroyed. The Rifting is an act of righteous anger and vengeance, but also the result of a society that has trained someone like Alabaster to wield such great power while also oppressing him at every turn. At the same time, Alabaster’s actions cause the deaths of millions of people, many of whom have nothing to do with the ruling hierarchies of the Stillness. (The details of Alabaster’s motivation are also left vague in order to point to more revelations in future books of The Broken Earth trilogy.) In The Fifth Season, his destruction of the world is mostly presented as a shocking act, one whose repercussions cannot be escaped but also have yet to be fully understood. From the start, however, the Rifting raises the novel’s central questions about when violence and destruction are justified in a broken world—though Jemisin ultimately offers no easy answers.
Disaster, Violence, and Survival ThemeTracker
Disaster, Violence, and Survival 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.
“Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at these contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.”
He does understand. She bites her lip and feels fresh tears threaten. It isn’t right that she loves him, but many things in the world are not right. So she fights off the tears, and makes her decision. Crying is weakness. Crying was a thing Damaya did. Syenite will be stronger.
“I’ll do it,” Syenite says, softly. “I’ll pass the test for you, Schaffa. I promise.”
“My good girl,” Schaffa says, and smiles, holding her close.
“Heh.” Innon sounds odd, and Syenite glances at him in surprise to see an almost regretful look on his face. “Sometimes, when I see what you and he can do, I wish I had gone to this Fulcrum of yours.”
“No, you don’t.” She doesn’t even want to think about what he would be like if he had grown up in captivity with the rest of them. Innon, but without his booming laugh or vivacious hedonism or cheerful confidence. Innon, with his graceful strong hands weaker and clumsier for having been broken. Not Innon.
Promise, Alabaster had said.
Do whatever you have to, Innon had tried to say.
And Syenite says: “No, you fucker.”
Coru is crying. She puts her hand over his mouth and nose, to silence him, to comfort him. She will keep him safe. She will not let them take him, enslave him, turn his body into a tool and his mind into a weapon and his life into a travesty of freedom.
Better that a child never have lived at all than live as a slave.
Better that he die.
Better that she die. Alabaster will hate her for this, for leaving him alone, but Alabaster is not here, and survival is not the same thing as living.