The hierarchical society of the Stillness limits the freedoms of many of its citizens in various ways. Nearly everyone is divided into “use-castes” that determine from birth the roles that they are assigned to within their communities, and orogenes are denied their humanity and only allowed to use their abilities under the control of the Fulcrum, a self-contained order policed by the deadly Guardians. While conceding that some structure is necessary for the sake of a functioning civilization, the novel emphasizes the importance of allowing freedom on both an individual and societal level, and in the most extreme cases the book suggests that it is better to die than to live entirely without freedom.
The most obvious example of a group whose freedoms are continually denied is the orogenes—and because the novel’s protagonist is an orogene, readers are made to intimately feel the injustice of this system. Under the Fulcrum’s control, orogenes are placed with a Guardian who essentially has the power to decide everything about their lives, including whether they live or die. Only after years of training and earning several rings (signs of rank at the Fulcrum) are orogenes allowed any autonomy. At the same time even Alabaster, the highest ranked orogene alive, recognizes that there is essentially no difference between him and his children, the node maintainers, who are lobotomized and forced to act as orogenic tools to quiet earthquakes across the Stillness. He recognizes that the freedom granted to him and the other ringed orogenes is largely a facade, as he is still treated as an entirely expendable orogenic weapon, and the Guardians are quick to try to assassinate him when they worry that he will step out of line. At first, Syenite longs for the freedom that she sees in higher ranked orogenes like Alabaster, but she later comes to realize that Fulcrum orogenes are made to pursue this vision of autonomy as a means of keeping them in line. By the novel’s end, she has not found any real freedom at all—the best she could do was on the island of Meov, which was soon attacked by Guardians, and in Tirimo where she was forced to hide her true identity as an orogene. This, the novel implies, isn’t freedom at all—but it is all that is available in an inherently oppressive society.
Further, rigid social hierarchies and prejudices restrict everyone’s freedom, even those who benefit from other privileges of such systems, because restrictive roles cannot account for the full range of human expression. In the Stillness, each person is bound to a use-caste that determines their role in life. Strongbacks, for example, maintain security and do heavy labor, never able to rise above their station, while Leadership families remain in power almost no matter what. Though these castes are meant to assign people to necessary jobs during a Fifth Season, they are also maintained outside of Seasons, with castes being passed down from parents to children regardless of their actual skills and desires. Because of this, everyone in such a system lacks true freedom—even members of upper-caste families like Binof. She is born into the privileged role of Yumenes Leadership, but her desire to study, and the fact that she is a trans woman, make her unacceptable to her use-caste, so she is eventually disowned. Her caste ensures that she is rich and well-fed, but it also denies her humanity and freedom.
In contrast to the Stillness, societies like the island of Meov encourage more freedom on a societal level, providing a better life for their people. Though islands are considered extremely dangerous because of the risk of tsunamis, the citizens of Meov are willing to take this risk for the privilege of being free from Sanze and its hierarchies. They do not kill or demonize their orogenes, but rather put them in charge of their comm so that they might protect the island of their own volition—not as the forced servants of non-orogenes. It is also on Meov that Syenite finds the most individual freedom of her life, in both her orogeny and in her romantic relationships—again a result of a non-judgmental and non-hierarchical society. This is because Meov also has little structure or prejudice about how families and relationships should function. Most children are raised communally, sex is openly discussed, and Syenite is able to find happiness in an undefinable polyamorous relationship with Alabaster and Innon, Meov’s second-in-command. This is in direct contrast to the relationship that she was forced to have with Alabaster, as the Fulcrum ordered them to conceive a child together. When Syenite and Alabaster are allowed freedom in their relationship, however, they choose to remain close, forming a nuclear family with Innon and their child Corundum. This suggests that it is easier to find personal happiness and real human connection when one is not limited by restrictive social structures or oppressive outside forces.
The most extreme example of the contrast between freedom and enslavement comes at the novel’s climax, when the Guardians invade Meov and Syenite chooses to kill her son Corundum rather than let him be made a slave, as he would surely be turned into a node maintainer like Alabaster’s other children. In the moment of crisis, then, Syenite decides that death is better than slavery, choosing to smother Corundum and hope that she dies herself as she draws on an obelisk’s power to destroy the enemies around her. There is no “right” answer in this horrifying situation, and the book neither condemns nor justifies Syen’s decision. Further, this idea is carried over into Syenite’s next identity, as Essun stands vigil over her son Uche’s body and realizes that only now is he truly free, as before he was constantly forced to hide who he was. In such a corrupt and oppressive system, the novel suggests, true freedom is only found in death—at least until more drastic changes can be made.
The Fifth Season deals with characters who wield deadly power and also live in a world of constant instability and potential disaster. While situations like this lead many to find comfort in division and structure, the novel shows that such systems can easily lead to more suffering than they prevent, and the desire for freedom is a central aspect of the human experience—one that should be celebrated in all its messiness and nuance rather than constrained in the name of safety or order.
Freedom Quotes in The Fifth Season
If the problem is that ferals are not predictable…well, orogenes have to prove themselves reliable. The Fulcrum has a reputation to maintain; that’s part of this. So’s the training, and the uniform, and the endless rules they must follow, but the breeding is part of it too, or why is she here?
It's somewhat flattering to think that despite her feral status, they actually want something of her infused into their breeding lines. Then she wonders why a part of her is trying to find value in degradation.
“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.”
Because everyone’s starting to realize what the shake and the redglow and the clouded sky all mean, and to be on the outside of a community’s gates at a time like this is—in the long run—a death sentence, except for a handful who are willing to become brutal enough or depraved enough to do what they must. Even those only have a chance at survival.
None of the people at the roadhouse wanted to believe they had that in them, you saw as you looked around, assessing faces and clothes and bodies and threats.
“Never say no to me,” he says. The words are hot against her skin. He has bent to murmur them into her ear. “Orogenes have no right to say no. I am your Guardian. I will break every bone in your hand, every bone in your body, if I deem it necessary to make the world safe from you.”
He’s not just small but stocky, as if his people are built for a different kind of sturdiness than the ideal that Old Sanze has spent millennia cultivating. Maybe his race are all this white, then, whoever they are.
But none of this makes sense. Every race in the world these days is part Sanzed. They did rule the Stillness for centuries, after all, and they continue to do so in many ways. And they weren’t always peaceful about it, so even the most insular races bear the Sanzed stamp whether their ancestors wanted the admixture or not. Everyone is measured by their standard deviations from the Sanzed mean.
“They kill us because they’ve got stonelore telling them at every turn that we’re born evil—some kind of agents of Father Earth, monsters that barely qualify as human.”
“Yes, but you can’t change stonelore.”
“Stonelore changes all the time, Syenite.” He doesn’t say her name often, either. It gets her attention. “Every civilization adds to it; parts that don’t matter to the people of the time are forgotten. There’s a reason Tablet Two is so damaged: someone, somewhere back in time, decided that it wasn’t important or was wrong, and didn’t bother to take care of it. Or maybe they even deliberately tried to obliterate it, which is why so many of the early copies are damaged in exactly the same way.”
Alabaster smiles, though the muscles of his jaw flex repeatedly. “I would’ve thought you’d like being treated like a human being for a change.”
“I do. But what difference does it make? Even if you pull rank now, it won’t change how they feel about us—”
“No, it won’t. And I don’t care how they feel. They don’t have to rusting like us. What matters is what they do.”
You think, maybe, you need to be someone else.
You’re not sure who. Previous yous have been stronger and colder, or warmer and weaker; either set of qualities is better suited to getting you through the mess you’re in. Right now you’re cold and weak, and that helps no one.
You could become someone new, maybe. You’ve done that before; it’s surprisingly easy. A new name, a new focus, then try on the sleeves and slacks of a new personality to find the perfect fit. A few days and you’ll feel like you’ve never been anyone else.
But. Only one you is Nassun’s mother. That’s what’s forestalled you so far, and ultimately it’s the deciding factor. At the end of all this, when Jija is dead and it’s finally safe to mourn your son…if she still lives, Nassun will need the mother she’s known all her life.
You are representatives of us all, the instructors say, if any grit dares to protest this treatment. When you’re dirty, all orogenes are dirty. When you’re lazy, we’re all lazy. We hurt you so you’ll do the rest of us no harm.
Once Damaya would have protested the unfairness of such judgments. The children of the Fulcrum are all different: different ages, different colors, different shapes. […] One cannot reasonably expect sameness out of so much difference, and it makes no sense for Damaya to be judged by the behavior of children who share nothing save the curse of orogeny with her.
But Damaya understands now that the world is not fair. They are orogenes, the Misalems of the world, born cursed and terrible. This is what is necessary to make them safe.
“What do you want? An apology? Then I apologize. You must remember, though, that most normal people have never seen an orogene, let alone had to do business with one and—” She spreads her hands. “Isn’t it understandable that we might be…uncomfortable?”
“Discomfort is understandable. It’s the rudeness that isn’t.” Rust this. This woman doesn’t deserve the effort of her explanation. Syen decides to save that for someone who matters. “And that’s a really shitty apology. ‘I’m sorry you’re so abnormal that I can’t manage to treat you like a human being.’”
“You’re a rogga,” Asael snaps, and then has the gall to look surprised at herself.
“Well.” Syenite makes herself smile. “At least that’s out in the open.”
The young man has a sash around his waist that is soft and peach colored and there solely for decoration, as far as you can tell.
Except it’s not really decoration. You notice how they look at you when you walk up: a sweep of the eyes, an inspection of your wrists or neck or ankles, a frown as you are found wanting. The impractical cloth has one very practical use: It is the marker of a new tribe in the process of being born. A tribe to which you do not belong.
She scrambles backward again, tries to get to her feet again, tries again to reach for power, and fails in all three efforts. Even if she could succeed, though—he’s a Guardian. It’s her duty to obey. It’s her duty to die, if he wills it.
This is not right.
“You need not understand,” he says, with perfect kindness. “You need do only one thing.” And then he lunges, aiming the poniard at her chest.
You’ve always known better. How dare you expect anything else? You’re just another filthy, rusty-souled rogga, just another agent of the Evil Earth, just another mistake of sensible breeding practices, just another mislaid tool. You should never have had children in the first place, and you shouldn’t have expected to keep them once you did […]
There’re so many ways to die in this place. But they know about all of them—seriously—and as far as I can tell, they don’t care. At least they’ll die free, they say.”
“Free of what? Living?”
“Sanze.” Alabaster grins when Syen’s mouth falls open.
(Friends do not exist. The Fulcrum is not a school. Grits are not children. Orogenes are not people. Weapons have no need of friends.)
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.
“All the accounts differ on the details, but they agree on one thing: Misalem was the only survivor when his family was taken in a raid. Supposedly his children were slaughtered for Anafumeth’s own table, though I suspect that’s a bit of dramatic embellishment.” Alabaster sighs. “Regardless, they died, and it was Anafumeth’s fault, and he wanted Anafumeth dead for it. Like any man would.”
But a rogga is not any man. Roggas have no right to get angry, to want justice, to protect what they love. For his presumption, Shemshena had killed him—and became a hero for doing it.
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.
“After Meov. I was…” You’re not sure how to say it. There are griefs too deep to be borne, and yet you have borne them again and again. “I needed to be different.”
It makes no sense. Alabaster makes a soft affirmative sound, though, as if he understands. “You stayed free, at least.”
If hiding everything you are is free. “Yes.”
“I understand why you killed Corundum,” Alabaster says, very softly. And then, while you sway in your crouch, literally reeling from the blow of that sentence, he finishes you. “But I’ll never forgive you for doing it.”