In a 2016 interview with WIRED, back when The Fifth Season was the only book in the Broken Earth Series on the shelves, N.K. Jemisin was asked if she had “deliberately set out to write a critique of our society,” and answered, “I didn’t set out to write big heavy themes.” The tuned-in sci-fi writer did so nonetheless–whether it was merely in the service of satisfactory world-building, or intended to generate actual change, we cannot know, though the response from the “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies” campaigns may be answer enough. As we have discussed, the implications regarding “slavery and caste oppression” are clear; Jemisin herself says that she “set out to write a world in which people who are powerful, who are valuable, are channeled into systems of self-supported and externally imposed oppression” (WIRED). Yet what we have not addressed quite as explicitly, though the topic came up significantly in our talks with Dr. Giorgis and Dr. Reitz, is the environmental commentary present throughout the trilogy. As the old adage goes: LIVE IN ROCK???
Why did the concept of Castrima resonate with us so deeply? There was something about a society liberated from the need to generate energy (provided there were orogenes present) which was intriguing and enticing. Yet, while Castrima lacked the Solar Punk aesthetic of Syl Anagist, it seemed to circumvent what Hoa’s progenitors could not: a basis in extractivism. The Sylanagistine were a reverse Icarus; they flew not too close to the sun, but too close to the Earth.
Life is sacred in Syl Anagist. (The Stone Sky 144, and many other places)
This is because life powers the city (cities–Syl Anagist at the point at which Geoarcanity is attempted encompasses the whole planet). As Nassun eventually figures out, magic comes from that which is, or was, alive. This point is made viscerally when we finally see the briar patch–as conductor Gallat explains, “the fragments could not have begun the generation of magic on their own…nonliving, inorganic things like crystals are inert to magic” (The Stone Sky 262). Yet while those who made Hoa and the others understand that “the richness of magic at the core [of the earth[ is precisely what will enable Geoarcanity” (326), they do not understand as the tuners do that the earth is alive, “the onyx is alive” (332); all that possesses magic possesses life, and life is finite. Hoa estimates that “eventually, if it takes fifty thousand years, [the earth’s core] will be exhausted, too. Then everything dies” (334).
This echoes our contemporary struggle with global dependence on fossil fuels. Just like Jemisin’s magic, fossil fuels are a potent, finite resource generated by life. And climate scientists and tuners alike recognize the fact that, after a critical point of extraction, “Then everything dies” (334). With “the deadline to limit warming to 1.5°C already passed,” we are risking a similar “burndown,” though instead of 27 obelisks burning down to our planet’s core (342), we will have shrinking coastlines, more intense storms and droughts, and much more.