If This Isn’t Niess, What Is?

“This engine’s magics have no purpose that I can see, other than to look and sound and be beautiful. And somehow—I shiver, understanding instinctively but resisting because this contradicts everything I have learned from the laws about physics and arcanity—somehow this structure is generating more energy than it consumes.” (The Stone Sky 149)

I arrived at Geneseo fall of 2015 with 30 credits, precisely one year’s worth, from taking AP courses in high school. With ardent warnings of the present ferocity of competition within the job market still ringing in years, I set out to do what any sensible student would do—acquire as many designations on my degree as possible. I declared a nice, meaty Theatre/English major and, following the advice of my theatre department advisor, immediately set upon knocking out those theatre requirements, with an English class sprinkled in on occasion. I slogged through technical theatre courses. I took History of Theatre Since the 17th Century and Play Analysis with Dr. Wesp. His were the only theatre classes I took that I enjoyed; Dr. Wesp was the only theatre professor who actively checked in on me to make sure I was managing the difficult adjustment to college courses. Dr. Wesp passed away. So it goes. I continued through my theatre degree in a haze, while also getting my fine arts and outside major requirements out of the way.

Eventually, a bad experience with a professor catalyzed a broader re-evaluation of my academic direction. After some deliberation, I switched my major to just English and decided to go wherever opportunity took me. It started small—taking a Latin American history course on a recommendation of the professor from a friend—and soon grew to traveling to Lithopolis, Ohio to be the only English major at archaeology field school. This trip took on extra meaning as it happened to coincide with the suicide of a very close friend. I came home from Ohio with a fresh tattoo symbolic to the Hopewell and to me, and a fresh understanding of the fragility of life.

I took more of what interested me—anthropology, psychology, history. Unfortunately, there is no minor in The Human Condition, so I had to settle for anthro. Looking back, my only regret is not trusting myself sooner. Taking courses for their own sake was not only liberating; it also facilitated a deeper understanding of the material. And taking classes from a variety of tracks enabled me to make invaluable interdisciplinary connections. In light of the recent move for financial aid not to apply to courses outside one’s degree (including minors and second majors), I feel this knowledge is especially salient. This semester, my thoughts on this matter were greatly strengthened and clarified by N.K. Jemisin’s prose. The Broken Earth Series itself, my engagement with it, and Jemisin’s outside commentary on the text and her process all seemed to unite under a single axiom: things are done best when done for their own sake.

Reading Jemisin’s trilogy, one gets the impression it was created with the express purpose of critiquing modern Western society. In a NY Times interview, the writer indeed said she was cognizant, and felt the pressure, of the story’s “parallels to persistent racial injustice in the real world.” Yet, as I discussed in my post, Extractivism: Syl Anagist, and Us, Jemisin has said she “did not set out to write an allegory for slavery and caste oppression.” Nor did the Hugo Award-winner believe she “had a chance in hell being successful in a field by defying so much of what the genre, maybe in clichéd form, seems to embrace.” Rather, Jemisin has shared that her inspiration was rooted in the more primal, immutable creative well of the unconscious mind“partially in a dream, partially…trying to make sense of that dream”and in her willingness to follow her impulses without thought of personal gain. This mentality is thematically crystalized throughout the Broken Earth Series; through my prolonged, intimate engagement with the text, primarily in the form of blog posts, I found myself further internalizing this wisdom which, through my aforementioned college trajectory, I had just begun to grasp.

The multitude of ways in which Jemisin demonstrated the principle that things are done best when done for their own sake throughout her trilogy did not become fully apparent until I allowed myself time to reflect while preparing for this essay. In the end, I identified two clear symbolic foils for this concept: the Fulcrum and Syl Anagyst. These institutions, when juxtaposed with Nassun, Ykka, and what we know of the Regwo and the Niess, make clear Jemisin’s implicit thesis. Our protagonist was trained in the Fulcrum, a carefully structured and monitored academy of orogeny with a clearly delineated system of progress, using “ring tests” as a form of exam. The Essun we first meet believes this training to be the only vehicle for any sort of significant orogenic capability. Yet her acquaintance with the “feral” Ykka, and Nassun’s astonishing progress after escaping her mother’s covert Fulcrum-like training, prove the limitations of what a linear, tightly organized institution can/is willing to teach. Tellingly Hoa, in The Stone Sky, comments of Essun, “And here, now, long free from the ordered, staid strictures of the Fulcrum, you have become mighty” (10). Yet for so long Essun is limited—it takes “yoking” with Ykka for her to see magic, the “web of silver threads interlacing the land” (The Obelisk Gate 361).

 From the moment we meet her, Ykka becomes emblematic of the self-trained anti-establishment guru, the poster-child for intuition. In that fateful first encounter in Castrima-over, we are told that “Ykka is off the porch and standing in front of you…she’s not touching you, but you stare…realizing she just did…something you don’t understand. Orogeny, certainly, but deployed in a way you’ve never experienced before” (The Fifth Season 273). A feral accomplishing what a highly respectable six-ringer could not has immediate implications for the actual value of institutional accolades. The impact of this revelation is not fully apparent to Essun until toward the end of the next book, during the Rennanis raid. While Essun and Ykka are working on an escape tunnel, Hoa tells us that Ykka’s work is “better than you could have done, and suddenly you realize:

Maybe she couldn’t shift a pebble because who the rust needs to shift pebbles? That’s the Fulcrum’s way of testing precision. Ykka’s way is to simply be precise, where it is practical to do so. Maybe she failed your tests because they were the wrong tests.” (The Obelisk Gate 359)

Nassun is similar, possessing a far more natural and integrated understanding of magic and its relationship with orogeny (that is, tuning) than her mother. Utilizing the sudden freedom to explore her powers provided by her stay at Found Moon, she teaches herself how to heal others via the careful manipulation of a magic thread, a “difficult trick to master” (The Obelisk Gate 298). Like Ykka, Nassun seems able simply to use her powers to do what a situation requires. After she briefly ensnares Nida in a net woven of magic threads, Hoa remarks, “She’s never done this before, but no one has ever told her that is can’t be done” (The Stone Sky 33). Yet throughout Nassun’s steady increase in power Jemisin reminds us, crucially, that Nassun practices orogeny and magic primarily for the simple joy of doing so—something she wishes she could explain to her father.

Jemisin’s commentary on this topic is perhaps most poignant with regard to Syl Anagyst, the self-proclaimed zenith of society. Houwha, indoctrinated by the conductors, believes “the Plutonic Engine is the most advanced creation of geomagestry ever built” (The Stone Sky 150). Yet, when Kelenli shows him a Niess engine he realizes the “tiny, bizarre engine…is more advanced…and it seems to have been built for no purpose other than beauty” (150). His previous self-concept having been based solely on the conviction that he was but an advanced, self-aware tool, Houwha finds the idea of an object existing for its own sake absolutely foreign and perplexing. But he tries to understand, for Kelenli, and realizes, “What’s different here is…philosophical. Attitudinal. The Plutonic Engine is a tool. This thing? Is…art” (150).

Readers of the series are made to come to a similar understanding regarding lorists. As I discussed in my final blog post, Obelisks, Stone Eaters, and Lorists: The Many Faces of the Archive (Part Two of Two), “’Twenty-five thousand years ago…[the lorists’] role became distorted into near-uselessness’” (The Obelisk Gate 2). In Essun’s time, with their work [is] deemed “’apocryphal and probably innaccurate’” (2). Instead, only the Universities are trusted, despite their penchant for revisionism and political motivations, an issue my group addressed in our blog post, The Deeper Inspiration of Catastrophe. At the beginning of The Obelisk Gate, Jemisin reveals just what has been lost from the ancient tradition of loristry. Initially, she writes, “Lorists came only from a race called Regwo…who worshipped the preservation of history the way people in less-bitter times worshipped gods. They used to chisel stonelore into mountainsides in tablets as high as the sky, so that all would see and know the wisdom needed to survive” (2-3). This element of worship, of sanctity, makes clear the fact that the Regwo viewed their task as inherently significant, a virtue unto itself. Looking back, one gets the impression Alabaster knew of this era and mourned its passing when in The Fifth Season he tells Syenite the Stonelore is not constant, but repeatedly altered to suit a regime’s needs.

Even the very process of analysis itself taught me this lesson which reverberates throughout the series. My two most fruitful resources for bloggingRobert Jay Lifton’s The Protean Self, used in Jemisin, Sessing the Symbolic Power of Apocalypse and Essun’s Personal Rifting: Fractures in Identity, and Kurt Vonnegut’s If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? used in What Stillness Society Understands About Puberty Ceremonies That We Do Not—were both books which I read for fun over breaks. Lifton’s book, which I found on a $3 shelf in an otherwise too expensive bookstore and bought purely for that reason, ended up providing key insights regarding psychological fragmentation and the implications of apocalyptic imagery. Coincidentally, Lifton’s Freudian emphasis on the unconscious throughout the book relates to Jemisin’s aforementioned comment that she obtains most of her major themes from dreams. Without Vonnegut’s book, which I borrowed on a whim from the Brooklyn Public Library, I would not have noticed Jemisin’s key world-building element of puberty ceremonies—practices which themselves may not have an immediately apparent purpose, yet accomplish the indispensable task of instilling a sense of belonging and framing an individual’s future contributions to a community.

As my college career comes to a close, I will walk in May not with 9 or 10 rings on my finger, but with a nice, simple major in English Literature and minor in Anthropology. It is hard to give an answer when people ask what I want to do after I graduate. After all, Nassun was dead-set on becoming a black lipstick-wearing storyteller, then switched gears and tried to turn all of humanity to stone-eaters, and eventually settled on plopping the moon back in place, ending the Seasons, and saving the world, to fulfill her mother’s dying wish. For my part, I generally tell people: I want to write, but I’d be happy doing anything! Maybe work for a non-profit again!

Whatever I do, I want to do for the joy of doing it. For the joy of being alive.

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