The Erosion of Family in The Broken Earth Trilogy

In my first blog post, I centered on N.K. Jemisin’s use of tension, both seismically and socially, in her novel The Fifth Season. As the first book in a trilogy, The Fifth Season naturally leaves questions to be answered at its conclusion: will Essun and Nassun reunite? What other strange powers resonate within the deadciv obelisks, waiting to be unlocked (and how did they get there in the first place)? And, if this is truly the way the world ends “for the last time,” then who could possibly have survived to tell the story? Jemisin answers these questions and countless others over the course of the next two novels in the Broken Earth trilogy. The themes of political and geological unrest which she employs in The Fifth Season return as well; however, just as the land of The Stillness is in constant flux, Jemisin’s portrayal of these themes takes different forms throughout the trilogy. I found her examination of family dynamics to be a particularly compelling iteration of Jemisin’s use of tension. Several of her characters are related, but in The Stillness, genealogy is no refuge. In fact, through the erosion of Essun and Nassun’s relationship, Jemisin exposes the reality that familial bonds are not always indicative of biological family. 

In The Fifth Season, family dynamics are sketched in negative; we see Essun, in three separate instances, lose her family. As Damaya, her parents lock her in a barn after discovering her orogeny and don’t care if she’s killed. As Syen, she is forced to kill Corundum after watching a Guardian kill Innon. And as Essun, after her husband Jija kills their son Uche, she treks over a continent in search of her last living child, her daughter Nassun. Essun is partially defined by the losses she suffers; each of her names was once attached to a now-fractured family. The pressure that splits Essun from her families is the same pressure that formed the Fulcrum and its structures of oppression. Widespread and factually inaccurate information about the innate dangers of orogeny results in the hate that led Damaya’s parents to lock her in the cold and Jija to kill his own son. Additionally, the Fulcrum’s animalistic treatment of its orogenes is the impetus for Coru’s conception; and, even when Alabaster and Syen manage to find some respite, it is brutally ripped from them. Through the dissolution of families, Jemisin shows the transient nature of love in Essun’s life; at the center of each instance is the same intolerance that follows her life with the tenacity and longevity of a stone eater. 

The effects of Essun’s tenuous relationship with family dynamics can be seen through Nassun’s development. Throughout The Fifth Season, Essun is consumed with worry for her daughter’s safety, from the environment and from her father. In her fear, Essun imagines Nassun as defenseless, unable to save herself and in need of a protector: “at the end of this, when Jija is dead and it’s finally safe to mourn your son… if she still lives, Nassun will need the mother she’s known all her life.” Essun perceives her daughter as an incapable child. In reality, during the first scene centered around Nassun, she redirects an earthquake and emotionally manipulates her father out of killing her. Nassun is already capable, and continues to grow stronger as she continues her journey. However, the same training which sharpened her orogeny also causes her great emotional distress. At Found Moon, she finds solace with Schaffa, and eventually reveals to him Essun’s method of teaching: “she got really quiet. Then she said, ‘Are you sure you can control yourself?’ And she took my hand.” She bites her lip then. “She broke it.” Essun reapplies the abusive manner of her own education while teaching her daughter, but Nassun has no knowledge of the Fulcrum’s methods; all she sees is a mother willing to hurt her own child. Schaffa’s response that “it’s wrong to hurt someone you love” only reinforces the disconnect between Nassun and Essun which was spurred by intense pressure to conceal their orogeny. As a result, Nassun rejects her mother, referring to her as “Essun” internally. Essun’s way of raising her daughter, so similar to the method by which she was raised, results in Nassun’s gradual estrangement.

Though Essun initially thinks of her daughter as helpless without her, this conception is challenged by the end of The Obelisk Gate. During the attack on Castrima, Essun takes control of the obelisks to fight the Rennanis army; when she tries to control the sapphire obelisk, she realizes Nassun is already using it. Still, she later dismisses this feat as “playing with an obelisk,” infantilizing her daughter’s accomplishments. It takes a major blow for Essun to realize her mistakes. When Hoa tells her that Nassun has killed Jija, Essun asks him to take her to the site. There, as she contemplates the stone remains of her husband, she confronts her misconceptions about her daughter: “You didn’t save her from Jija. You haven’t been there when she’s needed you, here at the literal end of the world. How dare you presume to protect her?[…] She has found the strength to protect herself. You are so very proud of her. And you don’t dare go anywhere near her, ever again.” This is a painful moment for Essun, as she realizes that she has failed as a protector. Her only living child has rejected her, due to actions which she intended to be loving but had the opposite effect. She replicated the cruel behaviors of her teachers while raising her daughter, and now Nassun regards her in the same light as Essun regards the Fulcrum. Essun’s epiphany at Found Moon is crucial to her final decision during the showdown at Corepoint. Hoa, watching the battle, laments, “you so wanted to make a better world for Nassun. But more than anything else, you want this last child of yours to live… and so you make a choice. To keep fighting will kill you both. The only way to win, then, is not to fight anymore.” Essun sacrifices herself to save her daughter; in this moment, she finally protects Nassun. Her love for her daughter– her love for all the children she’s lost– occludes all other motivations. Whether or not Essun’s death redeems her, it ends a destructive cycle once perpetuated by the Fulcrum, and gives her daughter the autonomy to choose a better path. As Hoa tells Nassun at the end of The Stone Sky, after she has closed the Rifting and seen her mother turn to stone, “all of these were choices. Different choices have always been possible.” The freedom to choose was never one afforded to Essun; in her death, she gives it to her child. 

Across the many english classes I’ve taken at Geneseo, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that novels and the themes they discuss should never be considered in isolation, but rather in conjunction both with the myriad of influences with which the novel is in conversation and the subsequent influence the novel has on those who engage with it. Through Essun’s character arc, and Nassun’s perception of her mother, Jemisin shows the same can be said about people: we don’t always know the full story. Jemisin’s careful construction (and subsequent implosion) of the mother-daughter relationship which motivates much of the trilogy has led me to reflect many times on my own relationship with my mother. I resonated strongly with the representation of a young girl struggling to come to terms with her own identity while also trying to understand the actions of her mother, a woman whose past she has no access to. As readers, we of course understand Essun’s past lives: her time in the Fulcrum, her life on Meov, her fears around being exposed as an orogene. Nassun, however, only knows the mother who terrorized her into compliance as a child. My mom, thankfully, doesn’t share Essun’s propensity for violence; she’s great and I love her very much. But I’ve realized that I don’t know much about her, other than things that have happened to her during my life. I don’t know every twist and turn of my mother’s life, and I doubt I ever will. But reading the Broken Earth trilogy has strengthened my appreciation for the knowledge I do have, and it has encouraged me to find out more. The mother-daughter relationship in the Broken Earth trilogy is of course framed within a fantasy world, but it portrays real-world dynamics with painful accuracy.

“Evil, Rusting Earth”: Tension and Power in The Fifth Season

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season begins with “the way the world ends… for the last time”. By beginning with the destruction of the grand city of Yumenes, described as “the oldest, largest, and most magnificent living city in the world,” Jemisin creates the unstable atmosphere that encroaches as the novel progresses while establishing herself as comfortable with subversion. This latter accomplishment is particularly important, as Jemisin’s world, ironically named The Stillness, is rife with people, places, and things that are not what they appear to be. Jemisin subverts many expected tropes of science fiction, including a closer focus on her character development and how global events impact individual lives. Because of this, the parallels she draws between the raw, churning power of the earth and the more insidious power of social stratification become clearer. The Fifth Season is plagued with tension; readers are constantly waiting for the moment that tension snaps.

           Denizens of The Stillness live a fractured existence. Their lives are constantly overshadowed by the threat of Seasons: geological events of devastating size, the effects of which last for unknowable periods of time. As the legend goes, the first Season was caused by Father Earth Himself: “nearly every living thing died as his fury became manifest in the first and most terrible of the Fifth Seasons: the Shattering Season […] It is only through sheer luck that enough of humankind survived to replenish itself afterward—and never again has life attained the heights of power that it once held. Earth’s recurrent fury will never allow that.” In The Stillness, Earth is conceptualized as male, and wrathful. Characters use “evil earth” and “burning earth” as curses, displaying their fear and discomfort with the very ground they live upon. At the same time, legend also suggests that the people of The Stillness deserve their fate: “people began to do horrible things to Father Earth. They poisoned waters beyond even his ability to cleanse, and killed much of the other life that lived on his surface. They drilled through the crust of his skin, past the blood of his mantle, to get at the sweet marrow of his bones.” In this passage, Father Earth’s personification is more pronounced; as a result, the Seasons are seen not as randomly occurring events but as the vengeful actions of a wronged Earth.    

            Nur and Burgess explain that the generally accepted theory of how earthquakes occur is called the elastic rebound theory. As two tectonic plates scrape past each other and get stuck, “the plates themselves warp, building up internal stresses. Only when the stresses exceed the friction holding both sides of the fault together does the plate boundary slip, releasing the energy stored in the strained rocks, like a stretched rubber band releasing energy when it snaps.” The energy released during this motion causes the earthquake. (Less exciting than an angry planet, but more scientific.) This understanding of earthquakes, while suitable in the real world, is not fully applicable in The Stillness. Although earthquakes do happen naturally, they can also be stopped, accelerated, or redirected. Individuals termed “orogenes” have control over kinetic energy, which allows them control over seismic events. The people of The Stillness hate and fear the Earth; they also hate and fear the orogenes. The novel’s protagonist, a woman whose story is told concurrently from three different points in her life, is an orogene who experiences first-hand how deep hatred can run. Her parents send her away as soon as her ability appears—they make her spend her last few nights with them in a barn. In a meeting with a deputy governor, she is told, “you must remember, though, that most normal people have never seen an orogene, let alone had to do business with one.” Her Guardian, assigned to monitor her progress and kill her if she steps out of line, tells her on the night they meet, “you’re a gift of the earth—but Father Earth hates us, and his gifts are neither free nor safe.” She is constantly told that she is dangerous and abnormal, someone to be feared; and there are several moments in the novel where she shows that power. In Tirimo, she collapses and destroys the comm she previously saved from the quake that destroyed Yumenes. In Allia, she raises an obelisk and later uses its power, destroying the entire harbor in the process. And leaving Meov, she uses the purple obelisk in a similar way to destroy the Guardian ships. However, all these events are acts of desperation; the protagonist is responding to life-or-death situations each time. She is shot at in Tirimo, threatened and nearly killed by a Guardian in Allia, and surrounded from all sides in Meov. Her use of orogeny is instigated by overwhelming tension; she snaps.

            Another prominent orogene in the novel is Alabaster, who serves as the protagonist’s mentor when she goes by Syenite. Alabaster has much more control over his orogeny than anyone else Syenite meets, but is still forced to work for the Fulcrum. As he reflects to Syenite, “you hate the way we live. The way the world makes us live. Either the Fulcrum owns us, or we have to hide and be hunted down like dogs if we’re ever discovered. Or we become monsters and try to kill everything. Even within the Fulcrum we always have to think about how they want us to act. We can never just… be. There should be a better way.” Alabaster hits the crux of the issue here; within the current system, there is no option for an orogene that does not entail some kind of misery. Even he, with ten rings and the ability to control obelisks, cannot combat the social systems that oppress orogenes.

            In an interview for The Atlantic, Jemisin discusses her perspective on character development in science-fiction. As she says, “social sciences are sciences too, and that aversion to respecting the fiction part of science-fiction; to exploring the people as well as the gadgets and the science never made sense to me. And that aversion is why it isn’t common to see these kinds of explorations of what people are really like and how people really dominate each other, and how power works.” Here, she makes a distinction between the “scientific” and “fictional” aspects of the genre, noting that she makes an effort to explore both. Her efforts are illustrated clearly in The Fifth Season as she connects the tension of the Earth’s crust to the tension of social positioning. In the same way the personified Earth bore human activity until He finally took revenge, the orogenes are subjected daily to sub-human treatment until they, like the protagonist, break away from the tension.