Love and Catastrophism Within The Broken Earth Trilogy

In my first ThinkING essay that I published back in February of 2022, I chose to discuss the loss of power the orogenes experience as a result of the skills that are bestowed upon them and how this loss compels them to use their orogeny as a means to exact justice within an oppressive system, in relation to the first novel of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, The Fifth Season. Throughout my essay, I focused on Jemisin’s exploration of the duality of orogeny as she illustrates how the orogene’s power is restrained in an effort to prevent destruction and turmoil, while demonstrating how this limitation of their power can be perceived as a forceful attempt to control them. Although I conveyed my thoughts on power and justice within the novel, I neglected to incorporate a geological concept to substantiate my thinking about them. Towards the end of my first essay, I briefly mentioned the concept of catastrophism to illustrate how the orogenes may be perceived as catastrophes, but I never fully explained or expanded on my thought process. Thus, as I have been given the opportunity to reflect and reconsider the essay I wrote after reading the Broken Earth Trilogy in its entirety, it is my belief that Jemisin uses the concept of catastrophism to illustrate the orogene’s response to the injustice and loss of power they endure with love as their driving force. 

Throughout the Broken Earth Trilogy, it is clear from the first novel, The Fifth Season, that there is an injustice within the system of the Stillness. Jemisin is quite transparent about the overt distinction between the stills and the orogenes, as the latter are trapped within a continuous cycle in which they experience the loss of power and are denied several forms of freedom. The most distinct example of this is the Fulcrum where orogenes “are legally permitted to practice the otherwise-illegal craft of orogeny under strict organizational rules and with the close supervision of the Guardian order” (The Fifth Season 460). Thus, as I mentioned in my first essay, once an orogene enters the Fulcrum they are stripped of their power and their humanity. Jemisin provides her readers with an insight to this order of life within the Fulcrum through Damaya’s experience there. She learns quite quickly of the injustice of the system she has been placed in as she is informed that she will be judged by the behavior of the other children within the Fulcrum and that “friends do not exist. The Fulcrum is not a school. Grits are not children. Orogenes are not people. Weapons have no need of friends” (The Fifth Season 297). Therefore, it is quite evident that the Fulcrum is an oppressive system that treats the orogenes as less than human. 

Although the Fulcrum is not the sole reason orogenes are compelled to use their orogeny as a means to exact justice for the loss of power they experience within their lives, it does perpetuate this loss and illustrate the severity of the injustice they endure. Therefore, one could imagine the type of response an orogene may have when this lack of power and justice affects the ones they care and love for. Over the course of the Broken Earth Trilogy, Jemisin displays the lengths some of the orogenes will go to in an effort to protect the ones they love and to exact justice for those they can’t protect. In doing so, it appears as though she uses the concept of catastrophism, a “sudden, typically unpredicted natural disaster that leads to abrupt changes in a culture or lifestyle that has been stable for a long time,” as Amos Nur and Dawn Burgess define it in the introduction to their book Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God, to illustrate the intensity of their response. With that being said, the first glimpse at a catastrophic response by an orogene to the lack of power and justice is within the first novel of the Broken Earth Trilogy, The Fifth Season, when Essun uses her orogeny to ice the entire town of Tirimo. Jemisin begins this novel describing the way Essun “cover[s] Uche’s broken little body with a blanket–except his face, because he is afraid of the dark” (The Fifth Season 1) after she discovers his dead body on the floor in the den of their home. As the story progresses, Jemisin discloses that the cause of Uche’s death was his father, Jija, discovering that he was an orogene, thus illustrating the fear the stills have towards orogenes and how they use their fear to justify their treatment of them. Furthermore, Essun is aware that Jija is responsible for killing their son and uses this anger she has towards him, as well as the love she has for her son, as her motivation to avenge Uche’s death and to exact justice for the abuse enacted upon all orogenes. In doing so, Essun uses this moment as an opportunity to chastise all of Tirimo even though “Jija’s the one to blame for Uche, some part of [her] knows that–but Jija grew up here in Tirimo. The kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around [her]” (The Fifth Season 57). Thus, Essun acknowledges that yes, Jija was the one responsible for murdering Uche, but he is a product of his environment–an environment in which he was taught to loathe the orogenes because of the skills they possess. Therefore, “these people killed Uche. Their hate, their fear, their unprovoked violence. They. (He.) Killed [Uche]” (The Fifth Season 58). As a result of this, Essun uses her orogeny to ice Tirimo, “from your feet, the circle of frost and swirling snow begins to expand. Rapidly” (The Fifth Season 58). Essun’s ability to destroy Tirimo and cause an abrupt change within the comm illustrates how orogene’s response to a lack of power and justice can be perceived as a form of catastrophe, with regard to the way in which their orogeny operates. For instance, as I mentioned previously, Nur and Burgess defines catastrophism as “sudden,” while in The Fifth Season Jemisn also defines orogeny as “sudden” when Essun begins to ice Tirimo, “that’s why people like these fear people like you, because you’re beyond sense and preparation. You’re a surprise, like a sudden toothache, like a heart attack” (The Fifth Season 56). Thus, it appears as though Jemisin uses Essun icing Tirimo as a form of catastrophism to illustrate an orogenes response to a lack of power and justice, as well as to demonstrate how the love Essun has for her son was the catalyst for her response.

Like mother, like daughter, another instance in which the concept of catstrophism is used to illustrate an orogene’s response to the lack of power and justice is displayed in the third novel of the Broken Earth Trilogy, The Stone Sky, through Nassun’s character and her relationship with Schaffa. Jemisin’s readers are first introduced to the connection Nassun and Schaffa form in her second novel of the trilogy, The Obelisk Gate. Throughout this novel, Schaffa becomes a true parental figure to Nassun as he demonstrates how much he loves and cares for her by taking her in at Found Moon and protecting her from her father, Jija. Nassun is quick to return this affection to him as she is very adamant about healing him and “offering herself” to soothe the discomfort of the corestone in his head “as it punishes him with lashes of silver pain” (The Obelisk Gate 301). The connection between the two of them only grows stronger over the course of The Obelisk Gate and throughout The Stone Sky as Nassun discloses “you’re the only one I love, Schaffa” (The Stone Sky 91), while also promoting him to a new role within her life, “you’re not my guardian anymore, you’re…You’re my new father” (The Stone Sky 199). Thus, it becomes evident that their love for one another makes their situation more complex as Nassun is left to make the difficult decision of keeping Schaffa alive or ending the world’s hatred–she cannot have both. Ultimately, Nassun’s love for Schaffa serves as her motivator in deciding to “change the world” (The Stone Sky 344) in order to keep him alive and in her life. However, as Nassun begins the process of activating the Obelisk Gate, Essun appears in Corepoint before she can open the Gate and turn herself into stone. In this moment, in which Essun intervenes in an attempt to prevent her daughter from killing herself, it is clear through Hoa’s narration that they are both motivated by their love, “she is just as determined as you. Just as driven by love–you for her, and she for Schaffa” (The Stone Sky 383). Thus, Essun comes to the realization that if she continues to fight Nassun on her decision to open the Gate and protect the one she loves they will both die, so she gives up and releases her control of the Gate. It is because of Essun’s sacrifice that Nassun decides to complete her mother’s task and use the Gate to return the Moon to orbit. In doing so, Nassun “ends the Seasons”and “fix[es] the world” (The Stone Sky 387). Therefore, it is my belief that Jemisin uses Nassun’s activation of the Obelisk Gate as a form of catastrophism to illustrate her response to a lack of power and justice. The opening of the Gate causes an abrupt change to the society they live in, just as a catastrophe “leads to an abrupt change in a culture or lifestyle” (Nur and Burgess). Although Nassun could not protect Essun from turning herself into stone, she uses this loss as her motivation to exact justice for all her mother endured as an orogene.

Thus, after reading the Broken Earth Trilogy in its entirety, it has become clear to me that love is a very powerful concept that has the ability to motivate and create change in a world that lacks power and justice. I’ve learned through Jemisin and the characters she created within this trilogy that even “when the world is hard, love must be harder still” (The Stone Sky 321).

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