Obelisks, Satellites, and The Stone Sky

Back at the end of February we wrote a reflection essay after our reading of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. At that time we had only read one out of the three books in the trilogy and we still had so much to gain from reading this literature. We were asked to write a paper on what we deemed the most interesting/challenging strand of how Jemisin had been using geological concepts and how that concept connected to power and justice. I chose to write that essay on Jemisin’s use of volcanic activity throughout the first novel. The shakes are the primary geological aspect used most frequently throughout the novel, but after my reading I had looked at the appendix and discovered something about the different seasons that make up the science-fiction world that is The Stillness. N.K. Jemisin took the time to go back to a time before her book was even set and created a timeline of Seasons for the readers to explore after their initial reading of her work in The Fifth Season. Most of these seasons were started by a combination of geological events, but many included volcanic eruptions as a primary factor. After reading the trilogy and looking at the series as a whole, I have shifted my mindset to thinkING a lot about the obelisks and their power in the story. 

Obelisks in real-life outside of Jemisin’s trilogy, have held an immense amount of meaning for a lot of different civilizations and cultures since the beginning of time. The word obelisk is the Greek word for spit, nail, or pointed pillar and they are tall, narrow, four-sided monuments that have a pyramidion on top. When obelisks were first built in Ancient Egypt more than 3,000 years ago, only a single piece of stone was used. The first obelisks, known as tekhenu to the Egyptians, are said to have appeared around 2300 BCE, were usually built in pairs and located at the entrances of Ancient Egyptian temples. One of the interesting things that I researched about obelisks in real life is that they were embellished on all four sides of the shaft with hieroglyphs that included religious dedications, most commonly for the Sun God, Ra, and as tributes to rulers past and present. Some were even used as sun-dials because the shadows followed the movements of the sun journey each day. Obelisks symbolize a lot more than I had originally thought, and each group of people that looks at one can find a different meaning hidden away behind the stone. They can be used to represent creations and life, resurrection and rebirth, unity and harmony, strength and immortality, and success and effort among other things. These monuments are still around today, one being the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital! The idea that Jemisin uses throughout her trilogy and the way the readers learn more and more about the obelisks and their immense power as they continue the series made me start wondering what the obelisks could symbolize in our world away from the Stillness. Upon further research, I concluded that writing about the obelisks and keeping their true power and purpose from the readers for so long had to be one of the most challenging aspects of the trilogy to write. There is so much depth to this concept that seems so simple, especially when an author might already have an idea of where they want their story to end without spoiling too much too soon. 

Obelisks are very similar to satellites especially when put into a common category with the obelisks in “The Broken Earth.” What I mean by this is that obelisks are monuments made of stone that can symbolize power, life and success, while satellites are artificial bodies that are placed in orbit around the earth, moon, or another planet in order to collect information or for communication. When thought about through the perspective of someone living in the Stillness and witnessing all of the crazy events that can arise from pulling power from an obelisk, it makes a lot of sense why Jemisin chose this object to represent and hold power in the trilogy. Many NASA satellites carry cameras and scientific sensors. Sometimes these instruments point toward Earth to gather information about its land, air, and water. Other times they face out into space to collect data from the solar system and universe.

Satellites allow us to have TV and other mobile signals needed to communicate with others. They also collect information that is used to program GPS and GNSS programs that help us get from place to place safely and quickly. Satellites have a multitude of uses including measuring the temperature of the Earth, measuring the amount of greenhouse gasses and pollutants present in the atmosphere, collecting information that informs weather forecasts, and even collecting data on the amount of snow, sea ice, and plant cover there is on Earth. These measurements are all helpful in monitoring and predicting Earth’s changing climate. Scientists compare the data that satellites collect with the data that is found in other parts of the world to explore how the environment has and will continue to change as time goes on. There are so many things to discover when researching satellites, and one of the main connections I made between my findings and Jemisin’s trilogy was the stunning similarity between the function of satellites and the obelisks/node stations. 

Throughout the novels, we learn that node maintainers are most always orogene children that were taken at a young age (we find out later that a majority of them might be Alabaster’s offspring). These children are lobotomized and kept alive for the sole purpose of maintaining the geological stability of the surrounding area. We knew after reading The Fifth Season that orogenes have the ability to prevent earthquakes, tremors, and other tectonic events with the powers they were genetically given upon birth. This idea of orogenes having the power, even as children, to protect their surroundings unwillingly can be connected indirectly to satellites orbiting Earth to protect and predict future events so that Earth’s inhabitants can prepare for the upcoming geological events. The obelisks in the context of Jemisin’s writing are known for the amount of power they hold, even though they are seldom mentioned in the beginning of the trilogy. These obelisks and node stations can be seen as representing the human tendency to ignore what we do not understand and the way that people in power suppress information that might question the status quo. The Fulcrum is the place in the novels where orogene children are brought to learn how to control their abilities and find guidance from their Guardians throughout this transition process. The people of the Fulcrum did not tell the common people about the node stations and what was really maintaining the shakes. This suppression of information lead the children to grow up believing that the Fulcrum was a good place filled with good, honest people which we find out not to be true as often as we might like. The Fulcrum does not spend time teaching the children what the obelisks are or what they do because they don’t seem to fully understand them either. This ignorance later leads to a lot of destruction and loss for everyone and ends up being the reason that Nassun can turn her father to stone and the reason Essun becomes a stone eater. 

Volcanic activity as a geological concept has always been fascinating to me along with many other geological events that we as humans still have a lot to learn about. Looking back, it makes sense why I wrote about that what I thought was the most interesting/challenging strand of Jemisin’s writing, but now I have the opportunity and resources after finishing the trilogy to make the decision to shift my thinking to the obelisks and node stations compared to satellites and real-life monuments. These connections are ones that I would not have thought so deeply about before reading The Broken Earth and seeing things through the eyes of another world created through the art of science-fiction. Thank you N.K. Jemisin for getting me to practice thinkING outside of my corner of the world and giving me the resources to compile my findings into writing this essay.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.