Environmentalism in Jemisin’s Work

This post might be short, though we will see.

Jemisin had several issues to which she wanted to draw attention to in writing The Broken Earth series, though one that stands out to me is how she addresses the way that humans interact with the environment and affect it and how it in turn affects them. Not only will I be discussing how various elements of the story address environmentalism but the discussion necessitates covering the personification of the planet Earth

It all begins in Syl Anagist, as most problems in the novel do with a transgression so grievous that it haunts humanity far into a future where no one even remembers what happened or why, with the exception of the stone eaters.  Syl Anagistians are ravenous for power and long ago understood that more power could come from the silver magic that stems from all living things, hence the popular term, “life is sacred in Syl Anagist”. They tap into the magic flowing through all things, plants, animals and people (specifically the Thniess) included. Yet even the exploitation of all living things other than themselves is not enough yet. Through what they called “Geoarcanity” they intended to tap into a massive reservoir of magic within the planet itself, turning the whole planet into a tool to serve Syl Anagist’s unquenchable thirst for power at the expense of others. For those with such supposed mastery over life, the idea that because the planet has such a massive amount of magic in it it might also be a living thing with agency and means by which to defend itself does not occur to the arrogant oppressors who recklessly exploit the tuners in order to enslave the planet as they did the tuners and their predecessors the Thniess. Only the planet is acutely aware of Syl Anagist’s intentions towards it and is more than capable of acting against it with its enormous magical power. In retaliation to the attempt to shackle it, the Earth destroys Syl Anagist with the Obelisks meant to enslave it and tries to wipe humanity off the face of itself. Only with the intervention of the tuners is the power meant to kill all of human life redirected at the moon, pushing it out of orbit from the Earth.

The similarities might seem striking at this point. A nation of people who flagrantly bend all around them to their own convenience, pillaging a planet just to power their metropolis. To top it off, their taking a fuel source from within the planet that is based on life. If Syl Anagist’s actions here do not remind anyone of how people ravage our own world to satisfy their own unsustainable and exploitative way of life, than perhaps Evil Earth’s reaction may spark some neurons. Constant and implacable natural disasters toppling cities and annihilating cultures as a direct consequence of treating the planet poorly and disrupting a careful balance with barely any attempt at righting it. Hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts and floods rage across the planet with no place truly untouched by the disasters. Jemisin clearly was trying to send a message on this, that you can’t treat your own planet without consequences. It’s like being on a raft in the middle of the ocean and stripping the logs out from under you to make a chair so you’re more comfortable as you sink.

But I haven’t touched enough on the characterization of Evil Earth, as it is clearly capable of thought and action. The Earth is obviously non-human in its thoughts and being, yet has such an accurate grasp of the situation in the novel that it is able to see that if it does not continuously unmake human society, it will inevitably return to the logical end of attempting to enslave the Earth. The method by which it seeks to keep this from occurring is genius if not callous in its methodology, by pitting orogenes and stills against each other and using the Guardians as a stopgap between them in order to control both sides. The Earth does no do all of this to force humanity to set right what it has done, but rather simply in vengeance for crimes committed, much like Essun is overtaken in each occasion (it is truly horrible that there are any, much less more than one) that she loses a child. When she lost Corundum she destroyed both her and Alabaster’s ship as well as the Guardian ship that pursued them in a rage fueled by the grief of being forced to end her own child’s life. When Jija murdered Uche, she set out with only two things that she really cared about at all, making Jija suffer for what he stole from her and making sure he could not do it to Nassun as well. The Earth may be some inhuman entity with an age and experience so wildly different from our own as to be unrecognizable. Yet so much does it seem merely like a grieving parent, separated from their child and taking it out on those responsible.

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