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.

Lithosphere Essay – Hailey

Oppression, racism, and violence are vital issues that we struggle with today in our world, but are also vital issues found in the Stillness, a world built by N.K. Jemisin in her novel The Fifth Season. In her text, the stratified society living in a future dystopian world closely mirrors our own society in which oppression and racism exist at the institutional, structural, and individual levels. Jemisin strategically racializes characters and institutions in her world in order to create this parallel between reality and her book, and she does so inconspicuously. Our course epigraph defines race as “a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences,” and the epigraph connects it to “a repeating tendency, of the gravest import, to demarcate human beings through differences among humans that are selectively essentialized as absolute and fundamental, in order to distribute positions and powers differentially to human groups.” Essentially it means that race is a way of sorting humans based on their differences. The process of racializing can be complex, especially when you’re attempting to world-build and discard all preconceived notions of race that we think of in context to real life. My goal is to break down elements of the text and explain in-depth how Jemisin uses different methods to racialize people in The Fifth Season.

One major way that Jemisin utilizes racialization in her first book of the Broken Earth Trilogy is through showing racism at the structural level. An important element of the Stillness to note is the Sanzed Equatorial Affiliation. In the novel we find out that Sanze has been around long before the events in the first book, and only after taking over other comms in the Stillness through tactful violence did they acquire the significant power that is talked about in The Fifth Season. In fact, Erlsset, the emperor of the Equatorials during the second decade of the Season of Teeth, was quoted saying “Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at these contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.” (Jemisin, 76) While this is quite clearly textbook racism, these are also the foundations of which the Fulcrum was created and is run in the text. Jemisin effectively establishes Orogenes as the oppressed peoples, and then foreshadows the way in which they are exploited systemically by the Equatorials on an institutional level in the Fulcrum, which was founded very soon after Erlsset said this at a party. The young Orogenes grow up being told those exact words, and the effects are lasting.

Another way that Orogenes are racialized to be structurally oppressed involves the Guardians. As soon as a young Orogene gets their Guardian, the Guardian breaks their hand and establishes the hierarchy of power between the two. However, the way they brainwash the poor Orogenes goes much deeper than that. We get an in-depth look at the interactions between Orogenes and Guardians during Damaya and Schaffa’s trip to the Fulcrum in chapter six. Immediately after Schaffa breaks Damaya’s hand, he tells her he loves her. “‘Never doubt that I do, little one. Poor creature locked in a barn, so afraid of herself that she hardly dares speak. And yet there is the fire of wit in you along with the fire of the earth, and I cannot help but admire both, however evil the latter might be.’ He shakes his head and sighs. ‘I hate doing this to you. I hate that it’s necessary. But please understand: I have hurt you so that you will hurt no one else.’” (Jemisin, 99) Schaffa is essentially rewiring Damaya’s brain to believe that is what love is, preying on the fact that she has never known what real love is like; not from her parents or anyone from her comm. 

Let’s fast forward to Syenite and Alabaster. When we see the older version of Damaya and Alabaster interact, we can see the effects that their upbringing in the Fulcrum has had on them. Alabaster has ten-rings, he’s older, he’s “wiser,” and yet he is always referring to Orogenes (specifically himself and Syenite…) as animals in multiple instances. “Ferals—the ones from outside—often don’t know, or care. But when an Orogene is born from parents who weren’t, from a family line that’s never shown the curse before, that’s how they think of you. A wild mutt to my domesticated purebred.” (Jemisin, 72) In addition, he says “‘Either the Fulcrum owns us, or we have to hide and be hunted down like dogs if we’re ever discovered.’” (Jemisin, 123) This process of dehumanization is crucial to re-establishing and supporting the oppressive society in which the Orogenes live. It is ingrained into their minds from such a young age that even well into adulthood they fully believe that they are inhuman, monstrous animals. Not only is this taught to them in the Fulcrum, but the stonelore that they read in school in the comms is also full of anti-Orogene text. For example, Alabaster tells Syenite in chapter eight, “They kill us because they’ve got stonelore telling them at every turn that we’re born evil—some kind of agents of Father Earth, monsters that barely qualify as human.” (Jemisin, 124.) 

While I could go on for days about racialization in this book, there is a unique relationship between racialization, science, and myth within this text. The science aspect is one that is quite obvious; Orogeny itself, the power to manipulate the earth and start shakes is described in-depth. Jemisin defines Orogeny as “The ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events.” (Jemisin, 462) Many of the characters in the novel are named after rocks or geological substances as well, such as Alabaster, Syenite, Antimony, Corundum, and Feldspar. I can admit that I am not sure what will come of this revelation, but hope to be able to come back and revise when I find out and (or) finish the Trilogy. Myths play a very powerful part in The Fifth Season. We know about stone eaters- the mysterious statue-like people that live forever and eat stone. However, that is about it. We don’t know their intentions or anything else about them other than their abilities and appearance. Well… we also know what their favorite meal is. This element of not knowing in relation to stone eaters is a crucial aspect of the book. Tied in together with the aspects of racism and oppression showcased in the first book of the trilogy, there is no other choice for a sane reader other than to keep going. In my opinion, Jemisin did an excellent job with revealing just enough information to keep me grounded in the plot, but leaving out just enough to leave me (and hopefully you, too) wanting more.