Genre and Justice in N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy

Earlier in this semester I wrote my ThinkING Essay on how in The Broken Earth trilogy N.K. Jemisin uses geological disasters to show how richer classes are more likely to survive, and yet, regardless, how geological disasters are great equalizers of Jemisin’s world and our own. In my essay, I compared and contrasted disasters in the series to disasters in the real world, and how Jemisin effectively (and sometimes ineffectively) created analogies, and therefore a mirror, for how our own world works. Since completing the trilogy, my point of view on this has not shifted much; if anything, I believe the further we got in the series, the less the world of Jemisin resembled our own, and therefore her analogies became less effective in some ways. The fact that by the end of The Stone Sky it was solely up to a handful of characters (namely Essun, Nassun, and Hoa) to change the fate of the world completely severed the series from reality for me; it came to resemble more clichéd speculative fiction works that I had hoped Jemisin would overcome. That is not to say she did not overcome any clichés, however. In this essay, I would like to examine how Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy exists within the speculative fiction (that is, science fiction and fantasy) genre as a whole; what Jemisin has said about her writing process, what kind of industry the series exists within, what kinds of prejudice the series received after release, and, finally, the awards the series won, and why.

To begin with what N.K. Jemisin has said about her writing process, I am going to refer back to an article we read titled “Creating races,” posted on Jemisin’s website. What appeared to me to be the most relevant about this post was Jemisin’s explanation of her use of “race” or “people” instead of “species.” When I first read this article, I felt this was relevant—Jemisin had thought about this terminology in her writing process, and it reminded me of conversations that were currently underway in the Dungeons & Dragons community at this time. Regardless, in this article Jemisin says, “I think using ‘species’ may feed into the tendency of fantasy to treat groups that are equally sapient as somehow lesser because they’re different. ‘Race’ emphasizes personhood, IMO, where ‘species’ emphasizes inhumanity.” In this regard, I agree with Jemisin. It shows that she has spent a lot of time researching the prejudice that has existed in the speculative fiction genre; what particularly resonated with me was how she explained how the human race in the fantasy genre is almost always depicted as white, while the other “races,” such as orcs, demons, etc. were meant to depict non-white races. As I had already been familiar with this issue in the genre, again, it was encouraging to see a modern fantasy author engaging with the issue and providing their own interpretation in a published speculative fiction series.

Now that I have established an understanding of N.K. Jemisin’s writing process, I would like to provide an analysis of the genre in which The Broken Earth trilogy could possibly fall. Before I do this, I would like to first state that the existence of genre is almost irrelevant to the existence of a fictional work; most times, genre merely exists to inform the reader that what they are about to read may be somewhat similar to other works that they have read. That aside, upon first glance, The Broken Earth trilogy appears to be somewhere in the speculative fiction genre. Breaking that down, the series appears to be an amalgamation of science fantasy. Science fantasy usually refers to science fiction works that have loose rules for how their world works; I attribute this genre to The Broken Earth trilogy due to Jemisin’s use of magic. Magic is a hot term when trying to determine fantasy; using that term in your writing will almost always earn you a placement in the fantasy genre. However, Jemisin’s world also has features of science fiction; there is, or was, technology, and the world itself has many features of an apocalyptic event. This, as well, would earn the trilogy a placement in the post-apocalyptic fiction genre, save for aspects of magic and technology still placing it science fantasy, as well as the fact that Jemisin places her story more during an apocalypse. Due to Alabaster’s splitting of the world, and the recurring Fifth Seasons in general, Jemisin’s world appears to take place in a cyclic apocalyptic, then post-apocalyptic world. With all this taken into account, I would place Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy in the science fantasy genre still, but in a post-apocalyptic world.

As I am personally interested in pursuing a career in the publishing industry, I was interested in investigating N.K. Jemisin’s publishing journey in regards to The Broken Earth trilogy. To begin with what I could find in the acknowledgements of The Fifth Season, the first book in the series (though not Jemisin’s debut novel—that credit goes to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), Jemisin cites an editor, Devi Pillai, and an agent, Lucienne Diver. In the acknowledgements, as well, Jemisin says, “The Broken Earth trilogy is the most challenging work I’ve ever written, and at certain points during The Fifth Season the task seemed so overwhelming I thought about quitting.” I felt that quote was very poignant, and highly reminiscent of many writer’s journeys to publishing a novel. What I was more interested in, however, was if Jemisin had faced any challenges in publishing the novel itself. With an agent and an editor, she was halfway there, but even so, manuscripts can be rejected for almost any reason. Luckily enough, I found an article by The Guardian that interviewed Jemisin on her thoughts on publishing; in one particular quote that struck me, Jemisin says, “she never thought she’d be published. ‘I honestly didn’t think I had a chance. You just didn’t see characters like me in fiction.’” This provides a good transition into discussing justice, particularly racial justice, in regards to Jemisin and The Broken Earth trilogy.

N.K. Jemisin’s candor and transparency about the publishing of The Broken Earth trilogy is a refreshing and realistic outlook on how the publishing industry functions in the United States and Europe (Jemisin’s publisher, Orbit Books, is based in London). Issues about racial justice, in particular, are brought up in regard to Jemisin’s publishing. In another honest quote from The Guardian article about one of her first novels, The Killing Moon, Jemisin says, “It was the mid 2000s, and at that time science fiction and fantasy publishers were not super interested in stories with black casts by black writers. They had done some stories with black casts by white writers, but they were not interested in those stories coming from people who actually were black.” Jemisin goes on to explain that she would receive rejection letters explaining how publishers would not be sure how to market her book, or what her audience would be. Jemisin states that the implication she received from those letters was that “fantasy readers don’t want to read about black people. Black people don’t want to read fantasy. So what do we do?” It is an issue that is multi-facetted. Bizarrely, publishers had been publishing fantasy novels with Black characters written by those least equipped to write a Black perspective—that being white writers. What the publishers perhaps did not understand is that if chances with audiences are not taken, new opportunities to develop new audiences will never arise.

A decade later, after The Broken Earth trilogy was published, evidence can be seen for the popularity of the series and the increasing diversity of fantasy and science fiction readers. Though the issue of racial injustice in the publishing industry had not been completely cured (to this day, there are still issues), Jemisin had her trilogy published and being read by readers around the globe. Her success was reflected in the nominations and subsequent award-winning of each book in her trilogy. However, as we discussed in class, Jemisin still faced issues even after winning the Hugo Awards three times in a row, and the Nebula Award for The Stone Sky. Societal issues such as Gamergate and, of particular importance to the Hugo Awards, the Sad Puppies campaign, on which Jemisin states in an article by The Atlantic, “Basically, [it’s] the science-fiction microcosmic version of what’s been happening on the large-scale political level and what’s been happening in other fields like with Gamergate in gaming. It’s the same sort of reactionary pushback that is generally by a relatively small number of very loud people.” In a genre that has inherently had multiple issues with racism and sexism for decades, unfortunately, this kind of pushback was seen as relatively expected in regard to Jemisin’s success. Regardless of “merit” in Jemisin’s work, her success in the speculative fiction genre and the publishing industry as a whole is a step forward for diversity, and, therefore, better stories.

The Effects of Geological Disasters on Populations in The Fifth Season

In my reading of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, I have come across a multitude of interesting facets that the novel has brought up in regards to social issues, particularly in how social issues can pertain to/stem from the world we live in. The novel has also addressed standardized fantasy and science fiction tropes in a way that is not usually seen—for example, addressing the standard all-white cast of most fantasy by leaning heavily into diversity, with white characters being few and far between. As this essay prompt has asked me to analyze how The Fifth Season uses geological concepts to get the reader thinking about power and justice, I would like to examine how the novel uses geological disasters to show both how richer classes are more likely to survive, and yet regardless, geological disasters (called Fifth Seasons in the novel) are the great equalizers of Jemisin’s world. I will then compare the disasters in the novel to disasters that have happened in the real world, and compare/contrast how they can affect social classes, and if they can equalize them.

First, starting chronologically at the beginning of the book, the character Essun is greatly affected by the most recent Fifth Season, as she leaves her home in search for her husband, who murdered their child. Though Essun did not need to evacuate her home due to a direct disaster, we see many people of lower classes who have been negatively affected by disaster on the road while Essun travels. “What you saw at the roadhouse were ordinary people, some still caked in filth after digging themselves out of mudslides or collapsed buildings, some still bleeding from wounds haphazardly treated, or untreated entirely” (Jemisin 80). There goes on the be a description of the commless, a group of people who have been cast out or had their comms (“communities”) destroyed—this group can be considered to be the lowest class in Jemisin’s world. The appendix at the end of The Fifth Season describes commless as “Criminals and other undesirables unable to gain acceptance in any comm” (Jemisin 459). Throughout Essun’s travels, commless are seen and observed, and are almost always described as having little-to-no hope of survival during a Fifth Season.

Moving on, though Jemisin does seem to take into account a kind of privilege higher classes have in regards to disasters in her world, she also appears to portray geological disasters as great equalizers. Again referencing Essun’s travels in the novel, at one point she comes upon a group who appear to have been wealthy at some point. “This lot have removed most of the flowing, uselessly pretty garments that people of the Equatorial cities used to consider fashionable…But each of them sports some remnants of the old life” (Jemisin 237). At this point, Jemisin makes it clear that it does not matter where each character originated, whether they had been wealthy or not—everyone has to fight to survive now that it is a Fifth Season. This scene also had a sentence I enjoyed in regards to this essay’s topic: “being aware of a geological event and knowing what the event means in the real human sense are two very different things” (Jemisin 236). Furthermore, in regards to the city of Yumenes, perhaps the most privileged people in Jemisin’s world, it is shown to soon be equalized with the rest of those struggling to survive during this Season. “Yumenes’s fabled vast storecaches are slag in a lava tube somewhere. Part of you mourns the waste of all that food. Part of you figures, well, that much quicker and more merciful an end for the human race” (Jemisin 274).

There are some garling exceptions in this comparison between the classes of the Stillness and the classes of people in our own world. People of different privileges are proportionally affected by geological disasters, but in Jemisin’s world, there is one class of people who exist outside of this—that being the orogenes. Though those who live in the Equitorials or those with money and standing may be better off during a Season, many times their money and power will be erased because of how long a Season can be, according to Jemisin. However, orogenes (the focus of this novel’s magic system) possess other-worldly power that appears to be bestowed upon them at random (or at least semi-genetically). Because orogenes can control geological events, they can save themselves during a geological disaster. Therefore, it is in this way that Jemisin escapes the reality-based results of disasters in her world, and adds a new element into the mix that does not have a real-world counterpart. Though Jemisin does use the orogenes to comment on other social issues (i.e. enslavement of people for use), it might be in this way that Jemisin actually lessens the message she is trying to convey about the effects of real-world geological disasters. We do see the effects enough, however, in The Fifth Season, so that the previous claim might just be moot.

On the topic of the effects of geological disasters on people in the real world, I am reminded of the sources our class examined geological events and how they can negatively affect populations. Specifically, the article “Buried in Volcanic Ash, Scenes from the Canary Islands” came to mind when I was thinking about people having to evacuate their homes and how differences in class can change the effect a disaster might have on a person. The photograph “Cristina Vera leaves her house covered with ash after collecting her last belongings in La Palma on November 1, 2021,” taken by Emilio Morenatti was what I envisioned, specifically. Seeing photos like that really aided my imagining of Jemisin’s descriptions of the ash-covered people Essun encountered toward the beginning of the novel. It also made me think about disparities our own world has between peoples of different classes—for example, one person might lose their house to ash or a volcanic eruption, but if one is rich enough, or born into a rich enough family, they might have a second house, and thus this loss does not affect them nearly as much. Pertaining back to my previous point made earlier on in this essay however, if the geological disaster is apocalyptic enough in scale, that higher class person might lose both their houses, and then be just as well-off as the person who lost their one and only house—thus making the geological disaster a great equalizer.

In this essay I discussed how Jemisin utilizes craft to convey messages about class in geological disasters and how geological disasters can be great (in scale) equalizers. I also elaborated on how Jemisin might have weakened these messages by including a more fantastical class of more fantastical people that can escape the effects of geological disasters. By recognizing that these people, the orogenes, are useful in communicating different messages than those attached to geological disasters, the value of their incorporation can be reestablished. I also analyzed texts from our class’s research on real-world geological disasters by looking at the effects of ashfall and how that compares its representation in The Fifth Season. In summation, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season successfully conveys realistic effects of geological disasters on different demographics of populations.