The society of the Stillness is shaped by its perception of its own history, which is mostly passed down through the Sanzed Empire’s own records and also through stonelore, the ancient commandments intended to help society survive through Fifth Seasons. Although most of the citizens of the Stillness consider such knowledge as true, timeless, and literally written in stone, it is revealed throughout the novel that stonelore is, like any human document, actually subject to revision and distortion. Indeed, the novel shows that ideas of history and knowledge are mutable and can change depending on who is in power—instead, they are more like storytelling, which itself shapes how a society functions.
One way that stonelore gains credibility with the population is through its supposedly immutable nature: it was originally written in stone, so it presumably hasn’t changed over time. But this turns out not to be the case. The novel reveals this via Alabaster, who tells Syenite that certain parts of the original stonelore might have been destroyed if they contradicted current Sanzed doctrine, and that entire tablets have been lost or kept secret from the public. This is shocking to Syenite, who has believed in stonelore in good faith for her entire life, but who then begins to realize that the worldview she was taught is not necessarily logical or true. Ancient documents like stonelore should not be held as infallible and eternal, the novel suggests, because they too are written by fallible and easily-influenced human beings, and are also able to be changed by those in power to fit the status quo that they desire. Again, as the first book of a trilogy The Fifth Season leaves many mysteries unsolved in this regard, but the book implies that stonelore and Sanze’s official history of its own past are heavily edited in order to keep the powerful at the top.
Stonelore and “history” lessons like the story of Shemshena and Misalem are designed to reinforce the perception that orogenes are dangerous, non-human monsters that must be strictly controlled at best and killed if necessary. Because Guardians tell the story of Misalem and Shemshena to their young orogenic wards, they ingrain in them early on that the young orogenes themselves are the Misalems of the world, requiring their own personal Shemshenas to guide them and protect the world from their power. Similarly, the various use-castes of the Stillness cling to the stonelore that divides them, even those who are kept at the bottom of the hierarchy. It is easier to believe a predefined story about one’s current position in life than to question everything and seek to redefine that story altogether, the novel implies.
Further, Jemisin shows that even though “history” might seem to be factual and objective, it’s actually much more like storytelling—that is, a story being told by those in power in order to justify their own place in society’s hierarchy. The quotations at the end of each chapter help build up this narrative that the Sanzed Empire is telling to itself, with its specific histories of past Seasons that serve to glorify its own existence. It is only through Alabaster, who himself gets his information from unknown outside sources, that Syenite ever learns anything different from the Fulcrum’s prescribed teachings. In The Fifth Season, then, Jemisin builds up an entirely new speculative world—which the reader experiences through the protagonist’s perspective—while also questioning the reality of that world. This questioning of history and knowledge through the medium of speculative fiction highlights how history and knowledge are their own kind of narrative in the real world as well.
As a story itself being told to its own protagonist, The Fifth Season immediately questions ideas of what is reliable and what is not, and especially what kinds of knowledge can be used by the powerful to maintain their status. By giving concrete examples of history being rewritten, The Fifth Season makes literal the idea that a society’s idea of factual knowledge is often subjective and beholden to whoever is in power and might want to interpret such knowledge for their own benefit.
History, Storytelling, and Knowledge ThemeTracker
History, Storytelling, and Knowledge 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.
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.”