At the end of The Obelisk Gate and leading into the beginning of The Stone Sky, we as readers are well aware of the power Essun holds: she is literally the most powerful orogene in The Stillness (now that Alabaster is dead, of course). For me, when reading The Obelisk Gate, I was very intrigued in Nassun’s story line, though, and her development as a skilled orogene. It is clear that she has an immense amount of power, and is surely unaware of just how truly powerful she is capable of becoming. I began to wonder if Nassun had the capability to surpass her mother in terms of ability (which at the time I had yet to read very far into The Stone Sky to investigate that more). However, as Nassun explored her orogeny more, I began questioning her strategy of practice.
On pages 298-299 of The Obelisk Gate, we learn that Nassun has been practicing her orogeny on her own and trying to hone in on her skills and master them. She is doing this with the intent of helping Schaffa, hoping that if she masters her power enough she can remove the silver threads within him that control him and cause severe pain. In the process, we learn that Nassun takes on some test subjects to help her understand her orogeny: ranging from plants, insects, animals, and even human beings (but they were commless, so their lives didn’t matter, right?). When reading this part I couldn’t stop myself from picturing one of those commercials that shows the terrifying truth about animal testing (just a quick note it’s a little graphic, it’s a cartoon though), and I couldn’t help wondering if what Nassun was doing with her powers was morally right?[Now I know this can venture into some pretty in-depth, conflicting arguments, but just for the sake of this blog post, you should know that I think for the most part that in vivo testing is morally unnerving and wrong. You don’t have to feel the same way by any means, but for the context of this blog post, this is where I’m coming from.]
The basic answer here for me is no, it’s not morally right. I was rusting mad at Nassun for doing it, too. For me, this very closely mirrored the process and effects of animal testing that we see in our own society. Animal testing falls under the umbrella of in vivo testing, which according to this article on in vivo studies is “experimentation using a whole, living organism as opposed to a partial or dead organism”. Specifically, animal testing refers to in vivo testing that is practiced on specifically living animals for research purposes that may be associated with human disease, medicine, and consumer and industrial products (which can be read more about on the Humane Society International webpage).
I felt a lot of frustration towards Nassun for causing pain and suffering in plants, animals and humans in order to do research on her powers. I am aware of the severe trauma that in vivo testing has caused on animals in our own society, and I found myself imagining Nassun experimenting on my beloved cat Pebble, whom I know (and yes, I can confidently the word know, that’s how much I engage with my pets and value pets as family members) experiences emotion, has loved ones, and overall values his life. I know she had very good intentions, but that doesn’t change the fact that she is doing something so wrong.
But I also understood where she was coming from. I understood why she did what she had to do: love. This lead me to question my OWN morals: why would any part of me let Nassun off the hook, when in real life I would never condone this behavior if I witnessed it or was affected by it myself. Is it because she is a fictional character and is only hurting fictional creatures? Or is it because I know the power that love can have over morals? I felt myself asking myself that typical question when it comes to morals: eye for an eye?
There really isn’t an answer, in my opinion, if Nassun’s choice to engage in inhumane testing on living subjects is morally right or wrong. For her, she was doing the right and necessary thing in order to benefit a person she loves, Schaffa. But in the process, she is inflicting pain, suffering, and even death on innocent creatures, who were unlucky enough to be in her path at the wrong time. I couldn’t help but make this connection and lack the ability to shake it. It made me change my view of Nassun’s character, and also made me question the morality of love. If love can make us do terribly immoral things, then is love as great as we perceive it to be?