Core Essay

The elements of stratification, racism, and oppression at every level are vital parts of N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy, The Broken Earth. Throughout the novel, Jemisin works strategically to racialize characters and institutions, and this effort goes hand in hand with creating a parallel between her novel series and real life. An essential part of my Lithosphere Essay was the Fulcrum and how young Orogenes are raised to think about themselves. Most are taken from their birth homes immediately, and raised alongside other orogenes with Guardians leading them and ensuring they do no harm. They are taught to believe they’re dangerous, not human, terrible things and they are fully aware most people want them dead. Rather than knowing this is a flaw of the stills, they believe they are at fault for the way people hate them in the Stillness. While I still believe that is an essential part of the process of racialization in the novel, after reading the whole trilogy I realize that Syl Anagist has a lot to do with the way the world turned out at the end of the series.

The Fulcrum is in place to keep Orogenes oppressed, however, it was not the original institution. In fact, The Fulcrum came from an even bigger institution of oppression- Syl Anagist. In this civilization, rather than Orogenes, Tuners are the target of the systemic hatred we see in the first two books. They seem to face an even more harsh lifestyle than the one we read about before. One example is when Houwha, a tuner, goes on a field-trip outside of his usual living quarters with the rest of his tuner friends. Then they get a chance to see Kelenli’s home, in comparison to their own. “Nothing is hard and nothing is bare and I have never thought before that the chamber I live in is a prison cell, but now for the first time I do.” (Jemisin, 202.) Houwha has Kelenli to thank for his realization that he’s having in this chapter, for it is her resistance that is allowing her to share this information with the other tuners. Without this sneaky revolt that takes place during the Syl Anagist chapters, the Tuners might have never learned that information on their own- and that’s how Syl Anagist wanted it.

A parallel between present-Stillness and the past-Syl Anagist are the node maintainers and the briar patch. In The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, a vital component of these novels are the node maintainers. Nodes are defined as “The network of Imperially maintained stations placed throughout the Stillness in order to reduce or quell seismic events. Due to the relative rarity of Fulcrum-trained orogenes, nodes are primarily clustered in the Equatorials.” (Jemisin, 410) This official definition, however, leaves out the living, prisoner orogene part of the nodes. In each node, there is a 4-10 ringer orogene who is only able to quell earthquakes, nothing else. This is slavery and a terrible practice, but what is shocking is that it didn’t start in the Stillness. 

It started before the Stillness, and before the Shattering (the event that resulted in the Stillness.) In Syl Anagist, we learn about the Niess, the original users of magic, and how they were conquered and treated by those of Syl Anagist. “So when Niess magic proved more efficient than Sylanagistine, even though the Niess did not use it as a weapon… This is what Kelenli told us.” (Jemisin, 210) Here, what Syl Anagist did to the Niess is hard even for Houwha to recount. The discriminatory behavior and oppression of this group of people resulted in the creation of tuners, which Houwha describes as “the carefully engineered and denatured remnants of the Niess, have sessapinae far more complex than those of ordinary people.” (Jemisin, 211) Sound familiar? Orogenes! Jemisin’s display of history repeating itself through this flashback strengthens the core of her trilogy, which is showing the parallels between the treatment of orogenes/tuners to the treatment of underrepresented communities in real life, specifically the black community. 

During Essun’s lifetime in The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, orogenes at this point are one of the few things keeping stills alive. They quell shakes and minimize damage done to comms, yet when an orogene is found, most comm members want to kill them rather than send them to the Fulcrum where they can be trained for their benefit. This treatment of orogenes is normalized due to the fact that Tuners in Syl Anagist were considered not human. “This was what made them not the same kind of human as everyone else. Eventually: not as human as everyone else. Finally: not human at all.” (Jemisin, 210) This dehumanization of Tuners translates to the time represented in The Fifth Season, where Orogenes do not believe they are human, period. There is not a single thought in their brain that says maybe I am human, because of the years and years of oppression and forcing Orogenes to grow up in the Fulcrum. There is a parallel here to real life in regards to slavery in America before 1865. Slaves were treated inhumanely and suffered oppression, injustice, and torture at the systemic level and everything under it. This was normalized at the time, as white people claimed themselves to be “elite,” similarly to how the people of Syl Anagist claimed to be “elite” as opposed to the Niess. 

We can see similar after effects of these instances of slavery and injustice on both sides. In the case of the Broken Earth Trilogy, the end of the series does not bring equality and peace to the Stillness. Orogenes will have to fight to be seen as human, (if they don’t choose to annihilate all the stills with the absence of Guardians…) and there will always be stubborn, ignorant people to call them slurs and remind them of a time when it was okay to do so. Even to this day in 2024, minorities still experience racism, oppression, and injustice in their everyday life. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy really puts into perspective what it was and still is like for these groups of people who have been enslaved or exploited in the past.

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