Justice, Power, and Node Stations in Jemisin’s ‘The Broken Earth’ trilogy

In my thinking essay, I focused on N.K. Jemisin’s use of earthquakes or “shakes” and the node stations in The Fifth Season. Jemisin begins world-building by showing readers symptoms of the society our main characters Essun, Damaya, and Syenite exist in. This is a world of oppression, control, and racism that is constantly one disaster away from a Season. Orogenes are people that have the innate ability to control and quell earthquakes which makes them both helpful and dangerous to “stills” or people that cannot control the earth. Orogenes are helpful because of their skills in quelling the shakes of the earth, helping prevent a new “Season” of death. Seasons are times when natural disasters caused by Father Earth lead to an apocalyptic environment and abundant death for those to live in it. Jemisin begins The Fifth Season with the story of the beginning of the end of the world, continuing throughout The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky

Jemisin gives the reader background information about the Stillness or continent that this series takes place on, and Yumenes a government city where the end of the world begins. Earthquakes in this world are constantly happening even if stills cannot feel most of them. “Here is the Stillness, which is not still even on a good day.” (The Fifth Season, p. 7) The end of this world is set off because a huge earthquake up North in Yumenes triggers a Season, making it an incredibly important geological event ending the world for the last time. “So he reaches deep and takes hold of the humming tapping bustling reverberating rippling vastness of the city, and the quieter bedrock beneath it, and the roiling churn of heat and pressure beneath that. Then he reaches wide, taking hold of the great sliding-puzzle piece of earthshell on which the continent sits. Lastly, he reaches up. For power. He takes all that, the strata and the magma and the people and the power, in his imaginary hands. Everything. He holds it. He is not alone. The earth is with him. Then he breaks it.” (The Fifth Season, p. 7)

Jemisin gives readers a peek into the society that our characters live in right away, using a non-linear timeline to build an unstable world of “The Stillness”, immediately throwing the reader into the tension between orogenes and stills. With this worldbuilding, we immediately and rightfully sympathize with our orogene characters; Essun, Syenite, and Damaya (later revealed to be the same person at different points in her life). Jemisin shows the horror of a world constantly afraid of its ending and another Season beginning threatening the livelihood of all the communities or comms of the stills. 

The Fulcrum is characterized as a safe place that takes orogenes away from the hatred of stills and trains them to be useful instead of dangerous. However, through the eyes of one of our characters in The Fifth Season Syenite, we are shown a much less polished version of propaganda the Fulcrum uses to control orogenes and stills alike, node stations. Syenite is under the impression that grits (students training at the Fulcrum) who will not listen are sent to node stations to quell local shakes and protect comms as a punishment. “Is Crack’s control really a problem? Or is it simply that her tormentors have done their best to make her crack?” (The Fifth Season p. 204) “It could be worse, though. No one ever sees or mentions Crack again.” (The Fifth Season p. 211) In the eighth chapter, we are shown what the node stations really are. “Even the least of us must serve the greater good,” (The Fifth Season, p. 139) “The body in the node maintainer’s chair is small, and naked. Thin, its limbs atrophied. Hairless. There are things- tubes and pipes and things, she has no words for them- going into the stick-arms, down the goggle-throat, across the narrow crotch. There’s a flexible bag on the corpse’s belly, attached to its belly somehow, and it’s full of- ugh,” (The Fifth Season, p. 139) We find out that these stations are a gruesome use of orogene children who could not be taught or refused to be controlled by the Fulcrum. These node stations are used by Jemisin to show not only how powerful orogenes are as a people because they are so capable at such a young age, but also how violently the Fulcrum oppresses them. Throughout the trilogy, Jemisin references node stations as a way to remind us of the gruesome reality that few know of. We are reminded of node stations when Corundum was killed, when the tuners’ wire chairs are described, and when Essun thinks about the Fulcrum and their treatment of orogenes as a people.

Throughout the trilogy, Jemisin uses geological events and concepts to display power. While Jemisin uses the node stations and control of orogenes by the Fulcrum to display the power that the Guardians (people who can negate orogenic power) have over orogenes, Jemisin brings this idea back with the story of Syl Anagist and the briar patch that powers the city (the predecessor to node stations). Jemisin also makes a commentary on social issues of race and racism. This hatred of orogenes by stills is reminiscent of real-life issues of racism towards minority groups, specifically Black people. In The Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin uses stills and orogenes to comment on racism and the use of racist language. Stills in this world are taught to be afraid of and hate those with orogenic powers, going so far as to make up the slur rogga which is mirroring the real-life use of the n-word which white people and other minority groups use to disempower those of Black heritage. In real life, there is no reason to be hateful against Black people, but Jemisin gives stills an excuse of sorts by making orogenes powerful and intimidating. While this doesn’t make it okay to treat orogenes as such, this does help contextualize the world readers have been dropped into. 

 Jemisin also uses geological events and concepts to display justice. Jemisin shows us the concept of justice throughout many events including the murder of Corundum in Meov, and the journey Essun makes throughout the entirety of The Broken Earth trilogy to avenge her son Uche and save her daughter Nassun from their father Jija. “‘I have to go now.’ Because you do. You need to find Jija,” (The Fifth Season p. 24) “You should have told Jija, before you ever married him, before you slept with him…Then if the urge to kill a rogga had hit him, he would’ve inflicted it on you, not Uche.” (The Fifth Season p. 272) Syenite chooses to kill Corundum rather than have the Fulcrum claim ownership over him because she knows they will turn him into a node maintainer. “You know what they’ll do to him, Syen. A child that strong, my child, raised outside the Fulcrum. You know.” (The Fifth Season p. 433) While murder isn’t necessarily a just option, with the context of the Fulcrum using Alabaster’s son as a node maintainer back in chapter eight of The Fifth Season combined with Alabaster begging Syenite not to let that happen to another one of his sons (Corundum) we can see how it is a murder of mercy, love, and protection. Essun’s journey to find Jija and Nassun is not only for revenge because Essun wants to kill Jija as an atonement for murdering her son Uche. Uche was an orogene, but also for justice because Uche should not have died just for who he was. “You cowards. You animals, who look at a child and see prey. Jija’s the one to blame for Uche, some part of you knows that-” (The Fifth Season p. 57) “No Nassun. And now no direction, no realistic way to find her. You are suddenly bereft of even hope.” (The Fifth Season p. 406) Jemisin’s focus in my interpretation of The Broken Earth trilogy was justice and how important it is in the world-building for the Stillness. Jemisin is not only trying to show how unjust the world is now, but she is also giving us background on how the world was unjust before the Stillness in Syl Anagist.

In The Stone Sky readers are given a look into the history of Syl Anagist and the reason behind the Seasons of death. Jemisin uses this history of Syl Anagist to show readers how tuners, or people capable of working orogenic power with the power of magic in harmony, are treated like they are not people, much like orogenes are treated by stills in the Stillness. Tuners in Syl Anagist are created for a purpose of powering the Plutonic Engine so that the conductors (like Guardians for the tuners) and people of Syl Anagist can harvest lifeforce from the Earth. “Life is sacred in Syl Anagist- as it should be, for the city burns life as the fuel for its glory.” (The Stone Sky p. 334) “No one would do this for a mere lump of iron… We drilled a test bore at one of the Antarctic Nodes. Then we sent in probes that took this from the innermost core. It’s a sample of the world’s own heart.” (The Stone Sky p. 325-326) “There’s not enough magic to be had just from plants and genengineered fauna; someone must suffer, if the rest are to enjoy luxury. Better the earth, Syl Anagist reasons. Better to enslave a great inanimate object that cannot feel pain and will not object.” (The Stone Sky p. 334) Life is considered sacred in Syl Anagist, yet they are taking life from the Earth without ever thinking if it was a living being. 

My understanding of the use of geological concepts to show power and justice in The Broken Earth trilogy has not changed much throughout the series. Jemisin uses these concepts to justify the actions our characters make by showing readers the reasoning behind them. Syenite chooses to murder her child Corundum when the island of Meov is attacked by the Fulcrum and Guardians. The tuners in Syl Anagist choose to revolt and break the Plutonic Engine because they are not treated as people and will be useless after its successful launch. Essun chooses to avenge Uche’s death and save Nassun because Jija killed Uche and kidnapped Nassun out of fear and hatred of orogenes. Each different event is chosen intentionally by Jemisin to weave a thread of justice, and the choice between love and hatred throughout every integral moment in the trilogy.

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