Why do you think Jemisin told this story through three separate narratives?
Throughout the Fifth Season, we meet Damaya, Syenite, and Essun, all of different times and places, and each with their own sub-narrative. What do you think motivated Jemisin to tell the story through these three perspectives? How did your perceptions of each character differ, and in what ways were they similar? Did you like one more than others?
How seriously should we take the political and environmental parallels to our own world?
Although the novel is set in a world far removed from our own, The Stillness resembles earth — geologically and geopolitically — in important ways, and Jemisin hardly disguises her critiques of our own world and time. In particular, she takes familiar features — namely, geological volatility and racial oppression — and draws them into fuller focus, conjuring a world of grotesque misery and perpetual instability.
Are these critiques, or mere warnings? Have we, too, found ways to adapt to unpredictable climate atrocity, or have we, like the empire, wrongly convinced ourselves we can control nature? Is Jemisin successful in capturing these real-world phenomena through fantasy, or does the genre create a hard-to-take-seriously distance?
Is apocalypse the end, or an opportunity?
Throughout her travels with Alabaster, Syenite gradually becomes awakened to the extent of the empire’s suffering, and her own role in it. “But she thinks, almost but not quite subconsciously: A way to change things. Because this is not right,” goes the refrain throughout the book. And whatever hope she might arrive at is often extinguished quickly by Alabaster, who claims “You can’t make anything better…The world is what it is. Unless you destroy it and start all over again, there’s no changing it” (371).
In this moment and others throughout the book, the idea and threat of apocalypse looms large. Indeed, Jemisin frequently takes metaphors of apocalypse in our own world and literalizes them in the book. What’s the takeaway? How might the literal, universal presence of apocalypse in The Stillness help us better understand the experiences of certain people and groups in our own world?
What do you think keeps the Empire in power?
So much of what allows the Empire to survive throughout the Empire is brute, physically and psychologically. Throughout, we encounter gruesome depictions of the empire’s methods — harnassing the power of super powerful child orogenes, for instance — alongside brain implants and lynchings. Physical violence, that is, plays a central role at both the local and imperial levels in reproducing power. But equally important, it seems, is the empire’s mythology. Critical to Damaya’s training, for instance, is reading, and we learn also of “lorists” planted locally around the towns (199).
Later, through Syenite, we see the enduring strength of this inculcation, but also its weaknesses. “Syen can’t remember…what the nation was called before it became a nominal part of Sanze,” we learn in one of several moments at which her memory fragments (154). And with these fragments come an interrogation of the history she was reared to believe, revised frequently in her conversations with Alabaster.
Why is this intangible dimension required of the empire’s power, in addition to physical oppression? Are these forces more powerful, perhaps, than the obvious ones in maintaining imperial power? What weaknesses come with memory? How do these memories influence identity formation in certain characters? Can we find similar methods of control and oppression in our own world?
Caleb Owens 2020