Fissures, Fractures, and Cracks: Physical and Metaphorical Implications in The Broken Earth Trilogy

In N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy, the use of ‘cracks’ or ‘rifts’ in the Earth, in people, and between people seems to relate heavily to the concepts of power, justice, and love that are prevalent in the trilogy. This is seen in many instances throughout the novels. The geological definition of ‘fissure,’ according to the United States Geological Survey is “a fracture or crack in rock along which there is a distinct separation.” As such, the phenomena of cracks and rifts in this novel is going to include fissures and fractures as well, as they are used semi-interchangeably. Fissures, fractures, and cracks are such common phenomena, both in the trilogy and in our world. This desensitization can have several effects: first, it may cause us to forget how serious and devastating these fissures and rifts can be, and secondly, it may blind us to positive effects of these phenomena. In The Broken Earth Trilogy, cracks, rifts, and fractures are used to show the strength of power, justice and love in many different ways and situations.

In the prologue of The Fifth Season, we can see the concept of a fissure or crack being used to show justice being served. A man, a slave, who has been controlled and abused all his life and whose ancestors were controlled and abused for theirs, is breaking free of the bonds, physical and metaphorical, that kept him and his people yoked. “The earth is with him. Then he breaks it…. Now there is a line, roughly east-west and too straight, almost neat in its manifest unnaturalness, spanning the girth of the land’s equator. The line’s origin point is the city of Yumenes. The line is deep and raw, cut to the quick of the planet”. We now know this man to be Alabaster, and are somewhat aware of the massive amounts of trauma and abuse he has faced at the hands of the Fulcrum. Talking about this event to Essun, he says “I was careful to wipe out the Fulcrum when I tore Yumenes apart.” The Fulcrum, where so many Orogenic children were abused and enslaved and killed, destroyed by a man who had been through it. This is justice being served to an unjust system and an unjust people, by a man who has borne the brunt of that injustice for his whole life. We also see justice at play with Hoa’s testimony of what happened to Syl Anagist and how the Seasons started. In order to get justice for themselves and all of the people they saw at the Briar Patch, the Tuners unknowingly committed a great injustice against the Earth itself. “In the next instant, the power struck the broken stone, failed to reflect, and began to chew its way through the moon. Even with this to mitigate the blow, the force of impact was devastating in itself. More than enough to slam the Moon out of orbit.” The path to justice is never clear, exemplified by these two events. Alabaster killed an extreme number of people, including other Orogenes; the Tuners, in getting their justice, made life worse for every other person on the planet. No matter how justified someone is in their actions, there is always a chance, however slim, that they are wrong or they are going about it wrong. There is no way to confidently say if Alabaster or the Tuners did the best thing possible; all we know is that they were searching for justice. We can never know what could have been if people made different choices. Justice is never clear-cut and hardly ever easy, but it is something we must keep searching for and striving toward. 

The Orogenes of The Broken Earth Trilogy seem to have a lot in common with the Earth itself. They are both immensely powerful beings that have been oppressed and treated badly by those with more power than them. And each of them has the possibility of cracking. This is seen in Hoa’s testimony of the Shattering: “One hundred years after Father Earth’s child was stolen from him, twenty-seven obelisks did burn down to the planet’s core, leaving fiery wounds all over its skin.” While these weren’t the same type of cracks discussed in the USGS glossary, they were wounds nevertheless. This attack was meant to clear humanity off of the Earth for good, but since it didn’t work, the Earth continued trying with the Seasons. The cracks between tectonic plates allow for shifting, which cause all kinds of seismic activity. This propensity for cracking is shared between the Earth and the Orogenes. After the attack on Meov, Syenite thinks, “Everyone she loves is dead. Everyone except Coru. And if they take him- – Sometimes, even we…crack. Better than a child never lived at all than live as a slave. Better that he die.” The emotional pressure is too much, and Syenite made a decision that would stay with her even as she shed that identity and became Essun. Essun remains prone to cracking under this type of pressure, especially when it involves Orogenic children. When the woman in Castrima attacks the little girl, “A fist that you’ve seen  the imprint of Jija’s fist, a bruise with four parallel marks, on Uche’s belly and face a fist that that that no.” Essun turns the drunk woman into something like stone. In these instances, cracks are a function of power and as a response to power. It is institutional power and physical power, constantly at odds.

In this entire trilogy, it is easy to see how rifts are used as a function of love. Even the fissure that Alabaster created seems to have been done out of a mixture of love and anger, because there is no telling how many children he had lost to the Guardians or to node stations, and there’s also the story he related of the guardian killing his mentor, whom he loved. In this trilogy, love, loss, and anger seem to be intrinsically connected. However, we can also see the function of metaphorical and emotional rifts or fractures as relating to love. One of the largest rifts in the trilogy is that between Essun and her daughter. One place where we may find an origin point for this rift is when Essun is training Nassun and breaks her hand, as Schaffa did to her as a child. In this act of fracturing bones, we can see the fracture beginning to turn into a rift between them. This rift seems to grow throughout the trilogy as Nassun is taken away from her home by her father. There is also a rift between Nassun and her father, beginning at the point where he learns that she is an Orogene. This is a rift that both father and daughter try to overcome; Jija by trying to find a way to remove Nassun’s Orogeny and Nassun trying to convince her father that she is still just a little girl. This rift ends with Jija’s death at the hands of his daughter, when he tried to stab her, and the rift is recognized: “The stabbing is an outcome of an impossible choice he demanded of her: to be either his daughter or an Orogene.” For Jija, the rift between Orogene and daughter was too wide for him to be able to accept. However, the rift between Nassun and her mother ends with at least some kind of reconciliation. Despite there never being an explicit make-up between them, the rift is healed when Essun gives her life so that Nassun will live. Nassun, then, realizes the amount of love she has for her mother and mourns her death. The rifts between Nassun and each of her parents shows different outcomes that rifts, cracks, and fissures can have. The rift found in Þingvellir National Park in Iceland causes the island to grow as fast as two centimeters a year. This rift seems to be fairly representative of the love between Nassun and Essun: the rift only made it grow. However, the rift between Nassun and Jija seems to be more akin to the Dead Sea Rift, which is theorized to have created  massive earthquakes in ancient times that destroyed cities, were deemed acts of God, and were even recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible. Even as we think about the destruction that can be caused by rifts, we can’t discount those stories of rifts being methods of creation. Love and the rifts that can form between loved ones are the same way: they can either cause that love to grow, or shatter it.

Throughout The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, rifts, cracks, fissures, and fractures, which can all be used semi-interchangeably, are used to show the concepts of justice, power, and love. We can see rifts used as an example of great power, as a response to injustice and to try to achieve justice, and as inevitable events that have several possible outcomes. Rifts are a phenomena that are present during all different kinds of seismic events, from earthquakes to volcanic eruptions. This might explain their prevalence in NK Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy, or maybe it’s because of the almost endless metaphorical uses for rifts, fractures, cracks, or fissures. For whatever reason Jemisin decided to use fissures, the effects were powerful in the discussion of power, justice, and love that continues throughout the novels.

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