To Control What Breathes: A Greedy & Fruitless Endeavor

Earlier in the semester, I reflected on N. K. Jemisin’s use of unyieldingly strong power—that of Orogenes and the Earth’s in her first novel of The Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Season—and how it stands against those who attempt to harness or manipulate it. I claimed that, “both the natural world and orogenes…[are] subjected to great degrees of restraint by individuals in power,” (Avila) all the while containing an immense amount of power within themselves. In navigating the rest of The Broken Earth trilogy, I have examined this notion further, revisiting the conclusion that humans and the geological environment that surrounds them have autonomy regardless of oppression. Therefore, trying to put restraints on those that have and can develop autonomy is not only a pointless effort, but one rooted in a desire for personal gain. I described how, “Orogenes—under the watchful eye of a discriminatory society, the Fulcrum and their Guardians (if given the ‘opportunity’)—and the geological world—at the hands of law makers, large corporations, humanity, and capitalism—are both underestimated in their capabilities,” (Avila) and that limitations, such as these, are to no avail if the ones implementing these limits don’t understand, or refuse to acknowledge, that they are severely unmatched in their strength compared to the ones they try to control. In their underestimation and, more importantly, exploitation of others, they are blind to signs of resistance and ignorant to the failure of prior attempts to dominate people and places. This observation, both in the novels and in actuality, can get others considering how they approach learning about and interacting with the natural world and others in it. 

Fracking & Faults: A History of Exploitation & Enslavement

There are several repercussions to all parties when it comes to dismissing, placing restraints on, and trying to defy powerful, living beings. All that is sentient comes with stressors and, with it, its breaking points. Earth has its fault lines and, similarly, humans have their physical and emotional boundaries. Both, when subjected to centuries of abuse and misuse, are subject to snap under pressure. 

Firstly, let us explore this concept under the lens of N. K. Jemisin’s world in The Broken Earth novels. The first in the trilogy, The Fifth Season, introduces readers to the supercontinent of ‘The Stillness’ and the power dynamics within it: Orogenes, both in/from the Fulcrum and out of it, under the firm hand of Guardians and stills, being forced to serve them and their seismic needs in order to keep the overly active Earth at bay. Orogenes that do not find themselves constrained by the internment of the Fulcrum are referred to as ‘ferals’ (as if the animalistic treatment of Orogenes wasn’t enough to convince stills and Guardians that they should not be considered human). Regardless of background, all oroegenes are expected to be enslaved and utilized to protect the continent and its inhabitants from cataclysmic events or minor geological inconveniences. One of the major characters in the trilogy, Alabaster, notes in the first book, “‘They are gods in chains…The tamers of the wild earth, themselves to be bridled and muzzled,’” (Jemisin 167). Similar to how orogenic people are viewed and assumed to be subservient, the geosphere below them—Father Earth, as Jemisin’s characters refer to him—has historically been used as a source of power by humans of all abilities (Orogenes, Guardians, stills, stone eaters, etc). In the second novel, The Obelisk Gate, we learn that humans originally began digging into Father Earth to contain and use his power for a variety of reasons. Jemisin delves into the specifics of this repeated cycle of exploitation in the final novel of the trilogy, specifically, but more on that later. 

There are obvious parallels between Father Earth and the Earth we know in the real world: both under constant suffering of human induced climate problems and self-indulgent practices that deplete them of their natural resources. However, a quality they seem to share with orogenes and marginalized people alike is that of overpowered beings refusing to acknowledge their humanity or existence as a living entity. For centuries, people on The Stillness have rejected the idea of orogenes being people and Father Earth being alive, both with their own intentions, drives, and [super]natural abilities. Likewise, people in marginalized communities and the Earth, as we know it, have been subjected to others ignoring their basic needs for respect and survival. Jemisin draws attention to this and urges readers to reflect on the power dynamics of their environment through the use of her ‘fictional’ world.

Shakes & Eruptions: ‘Unexpected’ Resistance

Because those in power have been, and are, so accustomed to the ones they enslave being subservient, they are constantly under the impression that resistance is the last thing they have to worry about. I noted in my previous reflection on Jemisin’s novels, “Stills and Guardians, much like companies and everyday people in relation to the earth, are so convinced that the power they hold over orogenes is so absolute and concrete, they would never expect them to act on their own accord…” (Avila). However, regardless of circumstance, the oppressed always have the strength to establish a sense of autonomy, even if it’s rooted deep within them. There are several accounts of resistance in Jemisin’s trilogy and several countries’ histories in the real world, especially when examining first hand accounts of those who have been oppressed. To understand why an entire group of people (or, in Jemisin’s case, an entire sentient globe) chose paths of defiance against those who have enslaved them for so long, one must be conscious of two concepts. One, that oppressors will most likely attempt to record the history of the oppressed—often shaping the minds of readers and researchers into perceiving the oppressed as ‘deserving of their suffering’—and two, that the most accurate depiction of ones experience with discrimination and resistance will always be written by the abused. 

To begin with a prime example of opposition in an unjust society, Ella Forbes’ essay, African Resistance to Enslavement: The Nature of the Evidentiary Record, goes into detail on how false narratives led those who participated in the slave trade and people, centuries after, who learn the eurocentric history of slavery, to assume enslaved people were passive or too weak to resist. She explains how very little resistance was recorded or released publicly to enforce this narrative, though, she writes, “The narratives of Africans who had been enslaved offer the most Afrocentric look at resistance…although Eurocentric writers have dismissed them as abolitionist propaganda,” (Forbes, 39-40). Comparably, there are several instances in The Broken Earth trilogy where the practice of resistance was heavily erased through ‘Imperial history’ excerpts, typically found at the end of chapters in the novels, or was made to feel impossible through heavy surveillance. (Contrarily, in terms of the Fulcrum or fragment complexes, where Tuners were held, [again, more on these later], little or concentrated surveillance was presented to those being forced into labor because they were brainwashed to be cooperative: “No need for guards when you can convince people to collaborate in their own internment.” (The Stone Sky, Jemisin 5).) 

In order to contrast these narratives, Jemisin’s use of changing perspectives between chapters assists the reader in understanding the actuality of a suppressed person’s suffering, and, ultimately, the motivation to fight against their oppressors. For instance, Jemisin guides readers through the first novel by switching the perspective of narration from Essun to Syenite to Damaya. Once it’s revealed that they are all the same character, just at different times in her life, readers have a better understanding of Essuns overall experiences, eventually leading her (Syenite) to destroy the city of Allia and the island of Meov when under the attack of Fulcrum Guardians. In the second book, The Obelisk Gate, readers are given a surprising point of view to read from: (Damaya/Syenite’s) Guardian Schaffa. It is through this narration that we learn he, and all Guardians, are technically under the control of Father Earth himself, and have been for hundreds to thousands of years. However, when Schaffa develops a close relationship to Nassun, Essun’s daughter, his will overpowers that of the Earth’s and his commands. This painful act of defiance—quite literally, as it is killing Schaffa to do so—is another experience that would have been overlooked if the narrative had only stuck with a single character’s perspective. While it is disclosed that Father Earth was the true entity and source of control behind the cruelty of the Guardians, it is fully unveiled in the final book that this forced mastery was also a personal, confrontational reaction to years of exploitation at the hands of people who did not acknowledge the personification of the Earth. These people, the Sylanagistine, sparked the war among humanity the characters in Jemisin’s novels are presented with and must navigate for survival.

A Blind Eye to Rubble: Neglected Warning Signs

The ancient people and society of Syl Anagist is made known to readers in The Stone Sky, the final book in the trilogy. Here is where N. K. Jemisin reveals the parallels between that world and the current one of The Stillness (like a reverse foreshadowing). To name a few:

  • In the world of Syl Anagist, orogenic power is combined with magic, harnessed from the core of the Earth. The individuals who can channel this unification of abilities are called Tuners. I don’t think I have to explain who they compare to the most in The Stillness.
  • Tuners live and work out of a complex of buildings that surround a cities ‘local fragment’ (later known as the obelisks in The Stillness), where they are not permitted to leave unless for work or with a Conductor (those who oversee and give them orders). Their own ‘Fulcrum’ and set of ‘Guardians,’ how fitting.
  • Surrounding each fragment/obelisk, there are thick vines (‘sinklines’) with Tuners intertwined in a half-dead state to power the magic within the fragments, providing a constant source of power to the surrounding city (Jemisin 262). These can be connected to the node stations in The Stillness, where strong, young Orogenes are put in wire chairs to keep the strata stable for its surrounding Comms. 

When the Tuners came to realize their eventual fate was to either be killed or placed into a sinkline, that their existence was merely for the depletion of the Earth’s resources, and they were forever meant to serve others that saw them as less than human, they devised a plan to destroy the Conductors’ attempt at containing more magic. This resulted in the loss of the Moon: dooming it into an abnormal orbit away from the Earth, causing the deadly Seasons on the continent of The Stillness. The Earth combatted this act as best as he could, using the power of the fragments the way the Tuners did to cause this catastrophe in the first place. As a form of merciful vengeance, he turned Tuners into what the people on The Stillness know as stone eaters. (It is also speculated that he turned Conductors into Guardians by placing shards of iron from the Earth’s core into their sessapaines). The stone eaters, and this mostly unknown history of the world, act as a warning sign to future generations and societies of people who try to dehumanize and utilize people for their abilities and identities. 

In reference to the world we live in today, there is a widely ‘understood’ concept of history repeating itself, as people refuse to acknowledge historical warning signals and allow major unjust or destructive events to occur. Japan, most notably, has its own cautions set in stone. Martin Fackler, in an article titled Tsunami Warnings, Written in Stone, investigates centuries old stone tablets across the coast of Japan with messages carved into them: warnings to not build structures, live, or frequent certain places because of previous destruction in them caused by tsunamis. He explains how some people abide by these instructions, while others (mainly modern architects, engineers, and companies) were convinced that “advanced technology and higher seawalls would protect vulnerable areas…” (Fackler). When driven by greed, personal gain, superiority complexes, and insensible perspectives, whole areas of the world, and groups of people within them, can meet detrimental fates. This is true for business and home owners on the coast of Japanese islands, as well as the Earth and characters in Jemisin’s trilogy, who endured traumatizing experiences founded on the ignorance of others. When starting to explain the world of Syl Anagist to the reader, Hoa, the primary narrator, states, “Well, some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place,” (Jemisin 7) as to further establish this positionality.

Emancipated Respiration: Conclusion

A combination of unwillingness to accept cautionary tales, underestimation, and forced utilization of living beings under the control of others has helped form the basis of atrocities in The Broken Earth trilogy and several issues of discrimination and exploitation our own world. See, the oppressed have always been dismissed as weak in physical and emotional capability. Conquerors never want to admit that their ‘submissive’ counterparts live and potentially function under their own free will. That they, too, have the potential to start wars and end them. The Earth and the humanity it inhabits are subject to the depletion of their strength by people in all positions of power. However, historian Will Durant has written, “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”* While this can exhibit the idea that civilization lives because the earth has allowed them to, and that this can change at any point, his sentiment leaves me wondering: Is anyone really in control of anything? The ability to live [breathe] and produce life is not a privilege granted to establish dominance: it is to be used as a means of connection and collaboration. While we can’t preach this to the ground below us, we can start with the people who dig their toes into the sand and dirt of Father Earth for the fun of it.

*I made the mistake of crediting this quote to Robert Byrne in my precursor essay to this post. It was, indeed, coined by American historian and writer Will Durant. Sincerest apologies!

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