Fissures, Fractures, and Cracks: Physical and Metaphorical Implications in The Broken Earth Trilogy

In N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy, the use of ‘cracks’ or ‘rifts’ in the Earth, in people, and between people seems to relate heavily to the concepts of power, justice, and love that are prevalent in the trilogy. This is seen in many instances throughout the novels. The geological definition of ‘fissure,’ according to the United States Geological Survey is “a fracture or crack in rock along which there is a distinct separation.” As such, the phenomena of cracks and rifts in this novel is going to include fissures and fractures as well, as they are used semi-interchangeably. Fissures, fractures, and cracks are such common phenomena, both in the trilogy and in our world. This desensitization can have several effects: first, it may cause us to forget how serious and devastating these fissures and rifts can be, and secondly, it may blind us to positive effects of these phenomena. In The Broken Earth Trilogy, cracks, rifts, and fractures are used to show the strength of power, justice and love in many different ways and situations.

In the prologue of The Fifth Season, we can see the concept of a fissure or crack being used to show justice being served. A man, a slave, who has been controlled and abused all his life and whose ancestors were controlled and abused for theirs, is breaking free of the bonds, physical and metaphorical, that kept him and his people yoked. “The earth is with him. Then he breaks it…. Now there is a line, roughly east-west and too straight, almost neat in its manifest unnaturalness, spanning the girth of the land’s equator. The line’s origin point is the city of Yumenes. The line is deep and raw, cut to the quick of the planet”. We now know this man to be Alabaster, and are somewhat aware of the massive amounts of trauma and abuse he has faced at the hands of the Fulcrum. Talking about this event to Essun, he says “I was careful to wipe out the Fulcrum when I tore Yumenes apart.” The Fulcrum, where so many Orogenic children were abused and enslaved and killed, destroyed by a man who had been through it. This is justice being served to an unjust system and an unjust people, by a man who has borne the brunt of that injustice for his whole life. We also see justice at play with Hoa’s testimony of what happened to Syl Anagist and how the Seasons started. In order to get justice for themselves and all of the people they saw at the Briar Patch, the Tuners unknowingly committed a great injustice against the Earth itself. “In the next instant, the power struck the broken stone, failed to reflect, and began to chew its way through the moon. Even with this to mitigate the blow, the force of impact was devastating in itself. More than enough to slam the Moon out of orbit.” The path to justice is never clear, exemplified by these two events. Alabaster killed an extreme number of people, including other Orogenes; the Tuners, in getting their justice, made life worse for every other person on the planet. No matter how justified someone is in their actions, there is always a chance, however slim, that they are wrong or they are going about it wrong. There is no way to confidently say if Alabaster or the Tuners did the best thing possible; all we know is that they were searching for justice. We can never know what could have been if people made different choices. Justice is never clear-cut and hardly ever easy, but it is something we must keep searching for and striving toward. 

The Orogenes of The Broken Earth Trilogy seem to have a lot in common with the Earth itself. They are both immensely powerful beings that have been oppressed and treated badly by those with more power than them. And each of them has the possibility of cracking. This is seen in Hoa’s testimony of the Shattering: “One hundred years after Father Earth’s child was stolen from him, twenty-seven obelisks did burn down to the planet’s core, leaving fiery wounds all over its skin.” While these weren’t the same type of cracks discussed in the USGS glossary, they were wounds nevertheless. This attack was meant to clear humanity off of the Earth for good, but since it didn’t work, the Earth continued trying with the Seasons. The cracks between tectonic plates allow for shifting, which cause all kinds of seismic activity. This propensity for cracking is shared between the Earth and the Orogenes. After the attack on Meov, Syenite thinks, “Everyone she loves is dead. Everyone except Coru. And if they take him- – Sometimes, even we…crack. Better than a child never lived at all than live as a slave. Better that he die.” The emotional pressure is too much, and Syenite made a decision that would stay with her even as she shed that identity and became Essun. Essun remains prone to cracking under this type of pressure, especially when it involves Orogenic children. When the woman in Castrima attacks the little girl, “A fist that you’ve seen  the imprint of Jija’s fist, a bruise with four parallel marks, on Uche’s belly and face a fist that that that no.” Essun turns the drunk woman into something like stone. In these instances, cracks are a function of power and as a response to power. It is institutional power and physical power, constantly at odds.

In this entire trilogy, it is easy to see how rifts are used as a function of love. Even the fissure that Alabaster created seems to have been done out of a mixture of love and anger, because there is no telling how many children he had lost to the Guardians or to node stations, and there’s also the story he related of the guardian killing his mentor, whom he loved. In this trilogy, love, loss, and anger seem to be intrinsically connected. However, we can also see the function of metaphorical and emotional rifts or fractures as relating to love. One of the largest rifts in the trilogy is that between Essun and her daughter. One place where we may find an origin point for this rift is when Essun is training Nassun and breaks her hand, as Schaffa did to her as a child. In this act of fracturing bones, we can see the fracture beginning to turn into a rift between them. This rift seems to grow throughout the trilogy as Nassun is taken away from her home by her father. There is also a rift between Nassun and her father, beginning at the point where he learns that she is an Orogene. This is a rift that both father and daughter try to overcome; Jija by trying to find a way to remove Nassun’s Orogeny and Nassun trying to convince her father that she is still just a little girl. This rift ends with Jija’s death at the hands of his daughter, when he tried to stab her, and the rift is recognized: “The stabbing is an outcome of an impossible choice he demanded of her: to be either his daughter or an Orogene.” For Jija, the rift between Orogene and daughter was too wide for him to be able to accept. However, the rift between Nassun and her mother ends with at least some kind of reconciliation. Despite there never being an explicit make-up between them, the rift is healed when Essun gives her life so that Nassun will live. Nassun, then, realizes the amount of love she has for her mother and mourns her death. The rifts between Nassun and each of her parents shows different outcomes that rifts, cracks, and fissures can have. The rift found in Þingvellir National Park in Iceland causes the island to grow as fast as two centimeters a year. This rift seems to be fairly representative of the love between Nassun and Essun: the rift only made it grow. However, the rift between Nassun and Jija seems to be more akin to the Dead Sea Rift, which is theorized to have created  massive earthquakes in ancient times that destroyed cities, were deemed acts of God, and were even recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible. Even as we think about the destruction that can be caused by rifts, we can’t discount those stories of rifts being methods of creation. Love and the rifts that can form between loved ones are the same way: they can either cause that love to grow, or shatter it.

Throughout The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, rifts, cracks, fissures, and fractures, which can all be used semi-interchangeably, are used to show the concepts of justice, power, and love. We can see rifts used as an example of great power, as a response to injustice and to try to achieve justice, and as inevitable events that have several possible outcomes. Rifts are a phenomena that are present during all different kinds of seismic events, from earthquakes to volcanic eruptions. This might explain their prevalence in NK Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy, or maybe it’s because of the almost endless metaphorical uses for rifts, fractures, cracks, or fissures. For whatever reason Jemisin decided to use fissures, the effects were powerful in the discussion of power, justice, and love that continues throughout the novels.

Cracked Foundations and Changing Systems: The Mount Pinatubo Eruption

By: Cheyanne C., Hannah F., Isabelle C., Marlee F., Mia D., Peyton W., Sarah P.

Chronicling the Mount Pinatubo Eruption: From Myth to Magma Flow

The major Pinatubo eruption occurred on June 15th, 1991. But as early as March of 1991, there were signs that the mountain was waking up. A series of earthquakes shook the area over a period of several months, alerting the locals that Mount Pinatubo might become active for the first time in living memory. These frequent, low-magnitude earthquakes continued until the second of April of the same year, when there was an explosion on the north side of the mountain that opened up steam vents and a fissure, emitting sulfur fumes. The next day, locals led scientists from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) to the site of the explosion. The scientists brought five seismic monitors and, realizing what the activity could mean, called the USGS Volcano Disaster Assistance Program for help monitoring the situation. On April 23rd, the USGS team arrived and set up a home base with PHIVOLCS using seismic and volcanic tracking and predicting technology. Over the next few weeks, the team determined that Mount Pinatubo was capable of a very large eruption, but they couldn’t tell if or when the volcano would erupt, or how big the possible eruption would be. By late May of the same year, seismic activity was fluctuating daily and more and more craters were appearing at the base of the mountain. It was still nearly impossible to tell when it would erupt, but they were able to map the areas of the island that would be hit by a worst-case scenario eruption (which unfortunately ended up being very close to what actually happened). At this point, they still couldn’t officially recommend evacuation because the team wasn’t sure when the volcano would erupt. 

In early June, the activity really started to ramp up. On the sixth of June, a swarm of low magnitude earthquakes accompanied the inflationary tilt, or puffing up, of the volcano, along with a continuous low-level ash eruption. A few days later, the first magma approached the surface of the volcano; on June ninth, the evacuation orders began, ordering 25,000 people to evacuate. Clark U.S. Air Base evacuated 14,000 “non-essential personnel” and their families due to the impending threats of growing lava dome, higher level ash eruption, and a worrying amount and magnitude of seismic activity. The first big eruption occurred on June 12th—Philippine Independence Day—at 8:51 a.m. The ash from this eruption went around 12 miles into the air. At this point, officials evacuated everyone in a dangerous range, for a total of about 60,000 people evacuated. After this eruption, seismic activity ramped up again and it was clear the volcano wasn’t stopping there. From the 12th to the 15th, there were three more massive vertical eruptions and 13 smaller ones, which produced pyroclastic flows down the slopes of the mountain. The team of scientists didn’t leave until the 15th, when the stop-and-go eruptions turned into one continuous eruption, that sent golf-ball sized pieces of pumice down over the Air Base, and lahars formed the ash and lava mixing with the rain from Typhoon Yunya, carrying boulders down the side of the mountain. That eruption led to the collapse of the peak into a caldera, which the scientists could feel from where they spent the night, 28 miles away.

The Range of Bacobaco’s Wrath

Most directly, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo affected the island of Luzon, where the volcano resides. As Live Science recalls, as Pinatubo erupted, the Philippines was already facing a natural disaster in the form of Typhoon Yunya, also known as Typhoon Diding. It is also remembered, in the context of how so many people were able to evacuate before disaster, that there were reoccurring earthquakes striking the mountainside which concerned residents and prompted Filipino scientists to contact the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Volcano Disaster Assistance Program to examine the tremors more closely. Thankfully, with these warning signs taken into careful consideration, many lives were saved as scientists  and officials called for evacuations, though the land surrounding Mount Pinatubo was ravaged. USGS documents that pyroclastic flows of lava seeped and exploded from the volcano, filling the surrounding valley, which polluted streams and destroyed crop fields. Even worse was the half-inch layer of ash, which Live Science reports covered 4,660 miles (7,500 square kilometers), but then spread further across the island and beyond the country of the Philippines because of Typhoon Yunya. It’s also explained that the ash falling from the sky mixed with the rains, creating lahars, a concrete-like mud, that collapsed roofs as far as nine miles (15 kilometers) away from the volcanic site, and USGS goes on to say that winds from the typhoon brought ash all across the South China Sea, affecting places as far as Cambodia. The initial effects of the eruption was not the end though, as there were earthquakes that followed and monsoons “eroded the thick pyroclastic deposits, recurring mudflows buried towns and farm fields, destroyed roads and bridges, and displaced more than 100,000 people,” as well as caused hundreds of deaths in addition to the original death toll.

Beyond the Philippines, USGS records that the ash cloud inoculated the stratosphere with nearly 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide, which cooled the global temperature by nearly an entire degree fahrenheit (half a degree celsius), causing weather patterns across the globe to shift and the effects of climate change to subside for a period of time.

Exploring Myth and Environmental Impact

Though the effects of Mount Pinatubo’s eruption in 1991 can be seen in modern times, there is a much older history of the mountain among the Aeta people of the Philippines. They believe that there is a god–Apo Mallori–who lives on the mountain and is the source of their sustenance. Some of the Aeta elders believe that Apo Mallori is angry at illegal loggers who have stripped the mountainside of its trees and also at the Philippine National Oil Co., who has allowed drilling into the heart of the mountain. For them, Apo Mallori is punishing humanity for its injustices by raining ash over the land. In this ideology, humans are the prime agents for the seismic events that unfolded in 1991. One villager, Victorio Villa, told reporters in an interview in June of 1991, “‘It is our firm belief that had the lowlanders not disturbed our volcano, it would not have erupted.’” Jemisin plays with this ideology in The Broken Earth Trilogy, using seismic catastrophism as a response to injustice by writing, “So where they should have seen a living being, they saw only another thing to exploit. Where they should have asked, or left alone, they raped.” In this trilogy, Father Earth is angry at humanity for being destructive and for the loss of his child, the moon. This triggers seismic events like earthquakes and volcanoes, the cause of the Seasons in this world. Myths, stories, and traditions are an integral part of people’s ways of life and are important parts of humanity. To understand Mount Pinatubo’s history in this way is to understand humanity’s role in the destruction of the earth. The language used by the Aeta humanizes the earth, just as Jemisin’s depiction of characters that utilize the earth for their powers and those that are formed from it, humanizes the earth. Both the history of the mountain as told by the Aeta elders and the beliefs held by the villagers living on the mountainside after the eruption lays blame with humans. No matter the cause, the effects of this eruption were very real.

The effects of Pinatubo continued to impact the people and environment in the  surrounding areas 25 years after the initial eruption. The Aeta people lived on the highlands of the island Luzon in the Philippines and approximately 20,000 of these Indigenous people were displaced during the evacuation process. During this horrible process, the Aeta people tried to hold onto their livelihood. Many chose to bring pets, while others arranged to be married to their partners prior to leaving behind what they knew as home. These people had been living on the slopes of Pinatubo for centuries and had grown their community to a population of 60,000 before the eruption.

Displacement refers to the forced moving of people from their home country because of war, persecution, or natural disaster. This being said, displacement is more complicated than just being physically removed from an area, especially when the Indigenous people relied on the vegetation surrounding the volcano to survive and build tradition with their youth. Because the state of their environment directly correlates to the state of their community, the Aeta people are still living in resettlement camps until they can return to their home. To this day, the fields encompassing Pinatubo are still unable to produce crops for the Aeta people and this also impacts the traditions that they have developed over the years. There are no means of farming left available for the Indigenous people to grow food and other materials necessary for survival, so harvesting traditions cannot be passed on to the younger generations when they come of age. Ecotourism efforts have attempted to restore some Indigenous practices, but this often leads to the shifting of focus onto satisfying foreign tourists instead of the well-being of the Aeta people, proving it ineffective for this community. Ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education [inclusive of both staff and guests].”

Some of the people who once resided in the lowlands were able to return home, but doing so forced them to continue facing danger due to lahars burning settlements and covering rice paddies and sugar-cane fields. The eruption also had a multitude of financial consequences for the people of Pinatubo including $700 million in damage, $100 million of the damage cost being to the 16 aircraft flying over Pinatubo at the time of the eruption, and $250 million in property with the rest of damage costs from agriculture, forestry, and land destruction.

Art Emerging from Tragedy

Like with many tragedies that happen on Earth, whether natural or anthropogenic, humans tend to create art to memorialize these events. In Angeles, Pampanga, a museum has been created to teach and reflect on the volcanic eruption that occurred. It was opened to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Pinatubo and highlight the events before, during, and after the eruption. There are many murals for visitors to view, not only showing the timeline but also the negative impacts of the ash that spewed from the volcano. One of the most stunning, nonetheless tragic, pieces of art is titled ‘Lumud” (Drown). Its creator, Arnel Garcia, depicts a Filipino family buried in ash with their personal belongings. Their faces, which are incredibly lifelike, depict a wide range of emotions. Some seem to be calm and accepting, while others seem to be scared and distraught. Garcia shows us that not all Filipinos reacted to the tragedy in the same way. Although this museum is very much a “chilling reminder” of the eruption, it has been very beneficial to the Filipino community. The tourism industry in and around Pinatubo has increased, as people have traveled to visit the museum and to see the aftermath. Along with the museum, tourists enjoy appreciating the lake, Lake Pinatubo, that was created due to the eruption. 

Lumud by Arnel Garcia

Following the eruption, in 1991 and the years that followed, the sunsets became extremely pigmented and breathtakingly beautiful. The colorful sunsets were produced by the sun’s rays cutting through the sulfuric acid cloud, altered by the thickest layers. People within the Philippines sat on the beaches to view and appreciate the beauty around them. The eruption caused hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, which did create incredible sunsets, but also contributed to climate change. This cloud accelerated the destruction of the ozone layer and lowered temperatures on Earth.

Sunset from a beach in the Philippines

The Broken Earth of Pinatubo

When thinking about why this matters, it makes sense to reflect on Jemisin’s underlying motivations and why the messages threaded throughout The Broken Earth trilogy matter. We connect the ways in which the destruction of something, whether it be the environment or a societal system, is a tragic event; it is also an opportunity for change. It redirects a society towards new discoveries and a greater understanding of the world we inhabit. In other words, failing foundations need to break in order to catalyze the growth of a system. “And so it is the society that must change. There can be peace this way, too, but not before conflict. No one reaches this place without a false start or two” (Jemisin). Furthering the idea that allows us to find hope within failure, destruction and change. Jemisin’s storyline reflects a foundation built on racial and ecological injustice, modeling a system with which we are all way too familiar. Our conversation is important because maybe some things break because there is a need for it to be rebuilt with a better understanding.

In regards to our seismic event, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, this applies to the way in which this event modified the way we approach and learn from volcanic hazards. It also alerts us as readers about the impacts of climate change and how necessary changes within society are, which connects to previous learning in this course, particularly our conversation with Dr. Reitz. If we do not begin to react to climate change now, we may end up relying on a poor solution in the future. Both the characters in the novels and us as humans have come to the conclusion that we are responsible for much of the destruction that happens around us. In local myth, the Mount Pinatubo eruption has been viewed as human-caused and allegedly occurred due to the exploitation of the surrounding area. Humans have also been found responsible for causing climate change: “The eruption helped scientists definitively declare that human emissions of greenhouse gasses are to blame for at least the past 60–70 years of warming” (Wendel & Kumar). Essentially, The Broken Earth trilogy ends within the realm of the same realization, who is at fault for all the turmoil: The humans who built the foundation in the first place. Even as old foundations crumble, we must remember them in order to build better ones in the future. As occurred in Jemisin’s novels, the loss of knowledge of what happened in Syl Anagist led the people of the Stillness to repeat the sins of their ancestors, in oppressing and enslaving a group of people, and led to their continual punishment at the hands of the Earth. We must always remember the cracks in the foundations we are rebuilding, so we’re sure we are making it better and stronger than before. As Jemisin questions throughout her trilogy, “How can we prepare for the future if we won’t acknowledge the past?”

Cracking as a Function of Justice in The Fifth Season

In N.K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season, the use of ‘cracks’ in the Earth’s surface or otherwise seem to directly relate to justice and power. This is seen in many instances throughout the novel. First, if we direct our attention to the USGS volcano glossary, to the entry for the word “fissure.” This defines a fissure as “a fracture or crack in rock along which there is a distinct separation.” As such, the phenomena of ‘cracks’ in this novel is going to include fissures or fractures. In the same glossary entry, there is a photo of a fissure in Kilauea, Hawai’i.

In the Verge article we read, focusing on the same eruption, there are many photos and videos from Twitter of fissures in the ground and in roads, showing the differences in magnitude that fissures can have, from fissure eruptions to what appear to be just cracks in the road.

In The Fifth Season, these cracks are used to show justice (which may not be easily identified as a good thing), but also as a visible example of the harm that unequal power dynamics can bring about.

In the prologue of The Fifth Season, we can see the concept of a crack being used to show justice being served. A man, a slave, who has been controlled and abused all his life and whose ancestors were controlled and abused for theirs, is breaking free of the bonds, physical and hypothetical, that kept him yoked. “The earth is with him. Then he breaks it…. Now there is a line, roughly east-west and too straight, almost neat in its manifest unnaturalness, spanning the girl of the land’s equator. The line’s origin point is the city of Yumenes. The line is deep and raw, cut to the quick of the planet.” This is an example of a man claiming justice for himself and his peers, and taking it into his own hands. However, this act of justice will take a huge number of lives as suggested later in the novel. Very few of these people will be innocent, many being complicit in the structural abuse of the group of people to which that man belongs, and many will have actively perpetrated that abuse. Despite that structural power that has kept the man and his peers from freeing themselves before, this man holds within him a power that very few others do, and which very few others could match. This situation holds within it two very different unequal power dynamics, each one which puts a different group or person in a higher position. This is power and justice at work.

The crack in the earth is also timed as such that it almost seems like retribution for Essun’s loss as well. After her discovery of her son’s body and when she is getting ready to leave, she stops in her doorway and she can “sess that there are no open earth vents nearby-which means this is coming from up north, where the wound is, that great suppurating rip from coast to coast that you know is there even though the travelers along the Imperial Road have only brought rumors of it so far.” It seems as if this is the same crack that is spoken of in the prologue. Knowing that Essun is also an orogene, the fissure across the continent is a response to the same injustice that has plagued her entire life. As Essun is attempting to leave her comm so that she can find Jija and her daughter, the people around her seem to realize what is happening and what she is. A man attempts to shoot her with a crossbow, even though the town’s leader is escorting her out, and the attempt at her life makes her very emotional and reactive. “The kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you…. And then the valley floor splits open. The initial jolt of this is violent enough to knock everyone standing to the ground and sway every house in Tirimo.” This is retribution for her son, for the culture that made her son’s fate possible, and for all the related injustices up until Karra tried to kill her. Essun is able to create a rift in the earth and crack the town’s water supply in minutes, which would effectively mean the end of the town in the coming weeks. She obviously wields a great deal of power in being able to do this, but she is greatly outnumbered by hateful people who have a great deal of structural power. It is a very similar situation with similar power dynamics to the man in the prologue and the society which surrounds him. An important piece of the dynamic which we get in this situation and don’t in the one in the prologue is Rask. Rask shows Essun sympathy and gives her a chance to escape with her life, showing her kindness that it is clear that most in the community would not afford her. Yet, because he exists within this community and is within the proximity of those who very obviously wronged her, he is killed along with the rest of them. Rask gives this situation a bit more nuance, because he was obviously trying to do right by Essun and give her freedom and her life; he was working against what, societally, stills are supposed to be and do and how they are supposed to treat orogenes, he still get caught in Essun’s torus and is killed. This makes the idea of this justice a little more cloudy from a moral and ethical standpoint – it isn’t black and white.

In the context of geological cracks, the naming of a character who is with Damaya in school ‘Crack’ doesn’t seem to be a coincidence. This seems to be part of a series of events that liken the earth to an orogene in more than one way, throughout the novel. “Damaya wonders: Is Crack’s control really a problem? Or is it simply that her tormentors have done their best to make her crack?” The concept of tormentors causing cracks in one that is revisited in chapter 20, page 379. This is the story of Father Earth.

 “According to legend, Father Earth did not originally hate life. In fact, as the lorists tell it, once upon a time Earth did everything he could to facilitate the strange emergence of life on his surface…. Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth….it was the orogenes who did something the earth could not forgive: They destroyed his only child…. Whatever the words mean, the lorists and ‘mests agree on what happened after the orogenes commuted their great sin: Father Earth’s surface cracked like an eggshell.”

The violence of life on earth is what caused the earth’s crust to break and move so much. The very existence of the Seasons and the constant movement of the earth’s crust is, in a way, retribution for Earth’s “only child.” This also seemingly may have some consequence in what happens, constantly, to the children of the orogenes. They are taken, they are abused, they are killed. In a horrible way, the fate of the orogenes seems to be a kind of justice for Father Earth. The word ‘crack’ in relation to this also occurs when the Guardians find Alabaster and Syenite on Meov. “Everyone she loves is dead. Everyone except Coru. And if they take him- – Sometimes, even we…crack. Better than a child never lived at all than live as a slave. Better that he die.” In order to save her only child, Syenite must kill him. The use of the word ‘crack’ here seems very purposeful, in relating all of these emotional events to the story of Father Earth.

The use of ‘cracks,’ geological and otherwise in The Fifth Season is representative of justice and of power, in direct relation to the Earth and orogeny.