From the very first chapter in the Broken Earth series it is made clear that our narrator is funny. The speaker, who 400 pages later we will find out is Hoa (The Fifth Season 443), tells us, after describing the catastrophic Rifting, that he must “keep things grounded, ha ha” (9). I believe there is significance to the placement of this line. Sandwiched between an account of a disaster which killed millions, and Essun’s grappling with the reality of her son Uche’s brutal murder, we find an extremely incongruous, casually-delivered pun. With such lofty goals as appeasing Father Earth’s wrath in order to save humanity, why does Hoa take the time to crack jokes? And why in the midst of such bleak circumstances? The evolutionary approach to humor analysis taken by Glenn E. Weisfield in his 1993 article “The Adaptive Value of Humor and Laughter” may hold some answers.
“Hoa appears as you walk, gets left behind as you keep walking, then appears again somewhere ahead of you. Most times he adopts a neutral posture, but occasionally he’s doing something ridiculous, like the time you find him in a running pose.” (The Stone Sky 52)
Based on my reading of Weisfield’s work and my recollection of Hoa’s many thoughts and statements throughout the Broken Earth series, I believe his humor serves two key functions: to humanize himself in Essun’s eyes and thereby strengthen their bond, and to help the two of them cope with a bleak reality.
His desire to become close with Essun is clear from the beginning of the trilogy, when he very straightforwardly tells her, “I like you” (The Fifth Season 82). The possession of humanity, a recurring theme throughout the trilogy, is a key part of this objective. Jemisin makes it very clear that the mechanism by which such powerful people as orogenes and the Niess are dominated by the weaker majority is their systematic dehumanization. The stone eaters, as Alabaster tries to explain to Essun in The Obelisk Gate, are “people, too” (167). Hoa attempts to combat this through his temporary donning of his past, fleshy human form, and through humor–as Weisfield explains, “Humor and laughter seem clearly to be universal in our species” (143). Eventually, it works: “So you sigh and also let go of the part of yourself that wants to treat him as something else, something frightening, something other. He’s Hoa” (The Obelisk Gate 282-283).
Humor is well-established as a coping mechanism. In their article for the Association for Psychological Science, Folkman and Moskowitz assert that there is a wealth of “data demonstrating that positive emotions occur even under the most dire of circumstances” (115). These positive emotions are often dependent on one’s “ability to find humor in the situation” (116). After the completion of Essun’s stone metamorphosis, Hoa tells her, “I have told you this story, primed what remains of you, to retain as much as possible of who you were” (The Stone Sky 397). By including carefully placed humor such as the above-mentioned joke on page 9 of The Fifth Season, Hoa softens the blow of the harsh tale he must recount, weaving opportunities for resilience into the narrative itself.