Mark Reads ‘The Fifth Season’: Chapter 8 / Interlude

In the eighth chapter of The Fifth Season, I’m ruined. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.

Trigger Warning: For extensive discussion of torture, violence, slavery, lynching, nonconsensual medical procedures, death of a child, sexual assault of a child, and grief.

Holy shit.

I mean… what do I even say about this chapter? I’ve sat here in silence, trying to figure out how I’m going to reflect on what I just read. It didn’t even hit me until nearly the end that the events int he second half of chapter eight explain Alabaster’s behavior at the start of the chapter.

Shit, let’s begin there, then, because even my initial reactions to Alabaster were misinformed. I was just as annoyed as Syenite that Alabaster kept sleeping while she seemed to be doing all the hard work, but holy shit. After a FULL WEEK of travel, Syenite figures out that Alabaster is quelling every shake around him whenever he is conscious. He was purposely doing this, too, and through this, Jemisin reveals more of the world. How?

By giving us Syenite’s reaction.

So, let’s talk about THAT act of craft. The narration puts us in Syenite’s head, and her confusion over Alabaster tells us what sort of values exist in the Stillness, as well as give us details about the node maintainers. Syenite feels like Alabaster is wasting his time; that’s what the maintainers are for. That’s an acceptance of the system as it is. Like everyone else who doesn’t know the truth, she sees the maintainers as a necessary part of the world. Not just that, though; she also knows that the earth doesn’t like being restrained, so there’s a scientific reason for her objection to Alabaster. He’s making things worse, right? Down the line, that energy will have to be released. I also think that the rural nature of this part of the Stillness plays into her reasoning, too. These comms are remote and not super populated, so she views the maintainers as… beneath her. Their duty is “tedious,” and then: 

“…but she’s very, very glad no one has ever suggested it for her. It’s the sort of thing they give to orogenes who’ll never make it to the fourth ring—the ones who have lots of raw power and little control. At least they can save lives, even if they’re doomed to spend their own lives in relative isolation and obscurity.”

It’s is absolutely fucking WILD to read this now that I know the truth. Because she’s technically not wrong at all; it’s just that the tale of the orogenes who work as maintainers has been spun in a way that hides the actual reality of their lives. Yes, they have lots of raw power, and yes, they have little control. Actually: none! They have no control whatsoever! Even more damning: her belief that they “spend their own lives in relative isolation and obscurity.” Syenite is framing this in terms of their place in society and the hierarchy of the orogenes, but she truly has no idea how on-the-nose she is. Their isolation and obscurity is by design because this system is so overtly interested in dehumanizing them, in treating them as objects for a “greater good” than as people.

They remain unseen because that is by design. It’s a powerful metaphor, of course, for the way our own world hides those who actually help make it run. There’s a whole reading of this that also is in direct conversation with the legacy of chattel slavery! Jemisin is doing all this on purpose: it’s both metaphorical and literal. It’s a fantastical allegory; it is history. It’s a story; it’s reality. 

And this is also a deeply, deeply uncomfortable way of talking about complicity, especially the kind of complicity that comes from ignorance. By the end of this chapter, Syenite is violently disgusted by what she is shown. But early on, she thinks Alabaster is a fool. She views the act of helping the maintainers as pointless, just a quirk of an eccentric ten-ringer who does whatever he wants, which also includes how she feels when he insists that they go to a node station that is two days away. Yet we loop back around to the notion of stories and what they tell us about the world. I was reminded of Schaffa’s conversations with Damaya about the orogenes and how similar it felt to see Alabaster approach it from a different context. Here, Syenite believes the stonelore that she’s been told. She has no reason to question it. Hell, questioning it is not even allowed, since someone added a bit in that stonelore can’t change. Saying it can’t change doesn’t mean it hasn’t, and as you’ll see in my notes below, this reminded me of when I learned that the Bible was assembled, rather than just appearing as a whole entity one day. Because I was certainly raised that way! The Bible was God’s word, so it was blasphemous to even suggest that human intervention—including the choosing of the Gospels and the suppression of gospels that said other things—affected this book that was law. 

So Alabaster plays a fascinating role here. Initially, he is challenging Syenite’s understanding of stonelore and of herself. It was obvious to me that he also despised the entire system of the Fulcrum and was perhaps trying to radicalize Syenite, to get her to think outside the box for the first time in her life. He doesn’t press her too hard initially; he suggests that maybe orogenes can run things. Her reaction is telling: She believes that all orogenes would be lynched immediately. Who can blame her for that reaction??? It’s what would happen! But note how Alabaster presses her further: Why would that be the response to orogenes being in control? He’s trying to get her to rethink the very basic tenets of their society, one of them being that orogenes are inherently evil. 

But then an event pulls them in a different direction. From a worldbuilding standpoint, I loved getting to see how the orogene powers worked during these big quakes, since I was still struggling to understand this. It’s also a great scene because it establishes orogenic power and then IMMEDIATELY subverts what is established. Orogenes are supposed to work alone, and yet, Alabaster both harnesses Syenite’s power and then cedes his to her at one point. So, right there, an established bit of lore is thrown to the wayside. It’s not supposed to be possible, and yet? Here we are. The world is not what Syenite thought it was. 

I didn’t get this part, though:

“It’s just like Hessionite said,” he whispers suddenly…

WHOMST???

Anyway, it’s obvious to me now that Alabaster made a decision as he lay on the earth alongside Syenite: he was going to show her the truth. Maybe he planned to do that the whole time, to slowly erode away her notions of who she was, what she could do, and what she was worth. Maybe his plan was to do so gradually as they traveled together. And then the node exploded, and he knew that he had to take care of the maintainer who had set the quake off. I’m sure he knew immediately that the maintainer was dead; he just didn’t know the exact reason why. 

So, two birds with one stone, right?

He doesn’t warn Syenite at all. I think that was on purpose. God, everything was, wasn’t it? I just noticed that he casually drops that mode maintainers don’t need Guardians, BUT IT’S NOT FOR THE REASON I INITIALLY THOUGHT. He was kind of easing her into this, wasn’t he? 

Y’all. I can’t.

To say what they discover inside is disturbing is the understatement of a lifetime. Jemisin builds dread brilliantly here, giving us the details to understand what this facility should look and feel like, all so that we know the utter silence and lack of people is wrong. That wrongness fills the space between every word as Syenite enters the pyramid and it’s all revealed.

I’m not gonna quote the details because this is all so upsetting (and potentially triggering) as it is, but I wanted to point out the parallels between Syen’s experience and what Essun is currently going through. Jemisin is rooting both of their stories in the loss of a child, though in Syen’s case, this child is a stranger. But at the heart of both of these plots is a hatred and dehumanization so supreme that people are willing to murder a child to uphold their system. Jija murdered Uche; countless people, who will remain unnamed, murdered the unnamed node maintainer who was strapped to that chair. Again, it’s hard not to see allusions to chattel slavery, white supremacy, and the unique cruelty that manifests in the intersection of those nightmares. Whose life is valued? Whose body is the site of violence, and how is that violence justified by those who perpetrate it? How does the state support that violence? No—how does it encourage that violence? Even Syenite herself accepted the presence and need of the node maintainers… but what now? What of this poor child who was reacting to be woken up by a fucking PEDOPHILE who wanted to exploit his helplessness?

It really is all wrong. All of it. 

So what comes next? It’s hard to conceive of that in this moment, and I confess that I have no fucking idea where Syenite’s story is going to go after this. I, too, was horrified by Alabaster’s command to Syenite to unsee what she had seen. Because how? How do you forget something so horrible, so cruel, so vicious and disgusting? But perhaps he ordered this as a means of survival. As he says at the end, he’s been exposed to years of horrors in the Stillness. I read this as him telling her that she’s got to compartmentalize in a sense to protect her mind and her heart. Because this will eat away at her, and what use will she be if she can’t still do the work? Which is a problem in and of itself, of course. This world values the orogenes only for what they can offer others; it sees no value in them otherwise. So survival under this system is all that’s left, right?

Or maybe there’s another way.

And maybe that’s what the Interlude is hinting at. The interlude speaks of what’s missing, all things that I absolutely did not notice. Like no one speaking of islands. Like… what the fuck, THAT’S RIGHT. Or other continents? THERE ARE OTHER CONTINENTS??? What other celestial objects are there?

But then, how can they? Who misses what they have never, ever even imagined? That would not be human nature. How fortunate, then, that there are more people in this world than just humankind.

So, a question, then: Is someone in this world going to get people to imagine what they have never imagined? Will this world begin to embrace what was once unfathomable to them?

NOTES

  • Okay, there’s a name. Alabaster. That feels… very interesting. JEMISIN IS SUPER INTENTIONAL SO WHAT DOES THIS MEAN
  • oh so the man keeps sleeping while she does all the work. hmmm. HMMMM.
  • he is WHAT. 
  • so no wonder he’s exhausted. he is CONSTANTLY working?? but why???
  • y’all i need to know what those obelisks are
  • “She’s going to kill him.” LMMAAAOOOOOOOOOO
  • ooooh the idea of worth and value in rural communities in the eyes of the state.
  • wait, the Fulcrum punishes people for using the slur??? that is fascinating.
  • I AM ALSO FASCINATED BY THE DYNAMIC OF THEM. why does he act like this?
  • “Why do you hate me?” Bruh, how much time do you HAVE
  • his response, oh my GOD
  • THIS SHIFTED. A LOT. WHAT THE HELL.
  • what are those ruins of??????
  • i’m losing it, this whole character became something else. what is alabaster planning???
  • “you can’t change stonelore” SAYS WHO. omg this is so exciting!!!
  • hi, this all reminds me of when i learned how the Bible was assembled. it was so confusing!!!
  • what the fuck is alabaster doing????
  • he chained them together??? what is this????
  • cushioning her???
  • i’m fascinated by her having access to Alabaster’s power and immediately thinking he’s a “monster.”
  • Hessionite??? who???
  • “it’s been proven” well, guess it was just unproven LMAO
  • well, at least she’s now speaking honestly with him, right???
  • omg “Coaster creoles” I LOVE THESE LITTLE DETAILS
  • what the fuck??? someone set this off on PURPOSE???
  • interesting detail: do the comms have their own styles not just because of their location, but because they frequently HAVE to rebuild, so it can reflect more “updated” styles?
  • wait they don’t have guardians???
  • something is deeply wrong here and it makes me NERVOUS
  • alabaster truly does not give a fuck
  • “but something about this big, looming, silent building unnerves her. She’s not sure what.” COULD IT BE THE BIG, LOOMING, SILENT BUILDING BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT’S DOING IT FOR ME
  • WHAT SHE FINDS INT HE PYRAMID. GOOD BYE
  • what the fuck
  • what the fuck
  • what the fuck
  • this is straight-up one of the most fucked up things i’ve ever read
  • the efficiency of dehumanizing someone. i just… i can’t.
  • a child
  • a fucking CHILD
  • my immediate thought: oh, i’m now EXTREMELY worried for Damaya. what if this is her fate?
  • oh my god, now i know why alabaster was stopping every little quake
  • oh my god HE KNEW WHAT THE NODE MAINTAINERS WERE
  • this is so much
  • oh. she would become a guardian. OH.
  • Unsee it??? what the FUCK???
  • i am so overwhelmed.
  • THE INTERLUDE IS ALSO SO MUCH, HOLY SHIT.

Mark Links Stuff

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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