Defining Genre: Cyclical Apocalypse?

Early on within my read of The Fifth Season, I had a personal theory that perhaps the Stillness was our own real world. Following the destruction of the environment, as we currently know it, the organizations and comms within the Stillness rose up. In my eyes, not only was Jemisin’s work incorporating elements of fantasy and science fiction, but also apocalyptic or post apocalyptic fiction. I even had another theory that perhaps the Stillness was an example of post post-apocalyptic fiction. However, as I continued through The Broken Earth series, I realized that the element of the Seasons makes it a mixture of all of these, a cycle of apocalypse, and a cycle of societal collapse. It seemed that I couldn’t find an exact name to describe this.

Usually apocalyptic and post apocalyptic fiction deals with the destruction of institutions, and a break down of normal life. Usually, these come in the form of nuclear fallout, artificial intelligence revolution, or zombie hordes. What makes apocalyptic fiction interesting is the loss of stability and the regular. Seeing massive governments fall, societal institutions and beliefs collapse, and anarchy reign supreme. While often times the disaster is part of the fun within this genre, the real elements that catch people are seeing the established order falling and changing to something often more primal. Most works within these genres have one big event, which changes the world forever.

I had attempted to write a blog post explaining that The Broken Earth series was instead an example of post post-apocalyptic fiction. This is a smaller genre, which is dedicated to stories taking place in a world rebuilt after a disaster. In many ways, the Stillness at the start of The Fifth Season is such a world. There is a remarkable stability to the Stillness at the start of the series. The world we enter at the start of The Fifth Season seems to be largely stable, the larger institutions having survived multiple seasons. Cultural lore in the form of stonelore has survived, the societal model continues to survive through each season. Comms, use-names, almost all the elements of the cultural society of the Stillness seem to last. The world seems to be the most stable it has ever been since the initial apocalyptic disaster.

Yet, the Fulcrum still falls, the Season still comes, and the apocalypse happens once again. “All things change during a Season” (The Stone Sky, 151). No matter the resilience of society, it collapses once again and must be rebuilt. The world of the Stillness is not apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, or even post post-apocalyptic, it is cyclical. It rises and falls with every Season, and must be rebuilt again and again off of cultural blueprints of stonelore and lorists. I found that post post-apocalyptic fiction cannot fully encompass The Broken Earth

Of course, this cycle does end with the Nassun. The cycle of disaster and reconstruction ends with the conclusion of the series. Arguably, through the power of familial love rather than institutions built around oppression brute forcing an end to the cycle, “End the Seasons. Fix the world. This, Nassun sesses-feels-knows, was your last wish” (The Stone Sky, 387). Interestingly, as I explore this element of the finale, I am reminded of another series Jemisin has spoken much about in her blog (and even written a small part of): Mass Effect.

Mass Effect is a science fiction series based around humanity reaching the stars, and uncovering the remains of an ancient advanced civilization that has fallen. Using mass relays that they don’t entirely understand (in ways similar to the obelisks), they are able to traverse the galaxy. However, danger comes when they realize that an external force threatens the entire galaxy.

What links this to The Broken Earth (and massive Mass Effect spoilers for those who are interested in playing through the series), the player finds that the apocalypse they are facing is cyclical. It happens again and again to the beings of our galaxy, with only small caches of information (sort of like stonelore) surviving through to the next species to attain space travel. And like Nassun at the end of The Stone Sky, the players themselves are given the choice of ending the cycle at the close of the series.

What makes this comparison interesting is at the end of the cycle of apocalypse, “A break in the pattern. A snarl in the weft. These are things you should be noticing” (The Fifth Season, 150). Both series conclude with the decisions of a single person, Nassun and Sheppard (the protagonist of Mass Effect). And these decisions break the cycle with potentially dangerous repercussions, doing so not for selfish reasons but for family and friends.  

It is still difficult to define what genre these works exist in (beyond their more obvious fantasy and science fiction elements). And as I continue to think about the concept of a cyclical apocalypse even more literary series come to mind. I have not found a specific term for this type of series, as the various forms of “apocalypse fiction” I know fail to fully apply, but maybe “cyclical apocalypse” would be an appropriate name for the genre.

Looking to classify a series into a genre may seem like a pointless or trivial task, but it does allow us to distill some grander themes that unify genres(similar to when I analyzed the orogene system vs magic systems in fantasy). Works of “cyclical apocalypse” often carry ideas of destroying an apocalyptic cycle not purely with force and institutions, but with individuals. It is centered around often dissenting characters and perspectives in societies that have been hardened by disaster and crisis. They appeal to humanity when looking to break “the cycle of apocalypse”, which is often a metaphor for something culturally relevant.

And looking once again back at The Broken Earth series, how do these grander themes apply? Essun and Nassun eventually to stop the cycle, rather than the entire might of the Fulcrum, doing so with the previously mentioned familial bond. Both these characters are orogenes, outcasts from society who bring unique abilities and perspectives to change the world. And the cycle of Seasons could potentially stand for a variety of culturally relevant issues, something I had not considered before. Maybe I will explore this specific thread further in a follow-up blog post.

But returning to the more general discussion of genre, I have always found that looking at related works to literature reveals aspects to it I would have never before considered. But is the cyclical nature of works enough to classify a genre, or is this concept too general? I am curious to hear if anyone has any thoughts on this subject, or simply if anyone has any other examples of this cyclical concept in literature.


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