If This Isn’t Niess, What Is?

“This engine’s magics have no purpose that I can see, other than to look and sound and be beautiful. And somehow—I shiver, understanding instinctively but resisting because this contradicts everything I have learned from the laws about physics and arcanity—somehow this structure is generating more energy than it consumes.” (The Stone Sky 149)

I arrived at Geneseo fall of 2015 with 30 credits, precisely one year’s worth, from taking AP courses in high school. With ardent warnings of the present ferocity of competition within the job market still ringing in years, I set out to do what any sensible student would do—acquire as many designations on my degree as possible. I declared a nice, meaty Theatre/English major and, following the advice of my theatre department advisor, immediately set upon knocking out those theatre requirements, with an English class sprinkled in on occasion. I slogged through technical theatre courses. I took History of Theatre Since the 17th Century and Play Analysis with Dr. Wesp. His were the only theatre classes I took that I enjoyed; Dr. Wesp was the only theatre professor who actively checked in on me to make sure I was managing the difficult adjustment to college courses. Dr. Wesp passed away. So it goes. I continued through my theatre degree in a haze, while also getting my fine arts and outside major requirements out of the way.

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Obelisks, Stone Eaters, and Lorists: The Many Faces of the Archive (Part Two of Two)

I’ve studied what I could of the Niess and their culture. There isn’t much left, and I have to sift the truth from all the lies. But there was a…a practice among them. A vocation. People whose job it was to see that the truth got told. (The Stone Sky 213)

When we join the story, though the Sanzed Equatorial Affiliation has technically been abolished in favor of local control, “most comms still follow Imperial systems of governance, finance, education, and more” (The Fifth Season 412). This largely centralized power structure leaves Stillness society vulnerable to self-serving historical and scientific revisions and biases, such as the defunding of research which demonstrated the key role of orogenes in preventing seasons (sorry about that Yaetr). As discussed in our group blog post, “The Deeper Inspiration of Catastrophe,” archives can have a mediating effect, serving to “steady institutions against the sway of politics,” and helping to prevent the same mistakes from being repeated. Far older than the Old Sanze Empire are stone-eaters and lorists. While they can indeed be “folly made flesh” (end-of-chapter excerpt somewhere in The Fifth Season) stone-eaters such as Hoa, alive before Seasons began, are walking history books. When he tells us at the end of The Fifth Season, “This is how it began. Listen. Learn. This is how the world changed” (443), we then understand that the series itself is an archive.

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Obelisks, Stone Eaters, and Lorists: The Many Faces of the Archive (Part One of Two)

There is an order to life in the Stillness*

There is also a continuity. It is difficult for a society to prioritize the preservation of history when the preservation of life itself is such an immediate concern. Yet Hoa’s early assertion that “much of history is unwritten” (The Fifth Season 3) is laden with far more meaning than we could fathom when first starting the series. In my group’s blog post on the 2011 earthquake in Tohoku, Japan, we discussed how art professor Jave Yoshimoto’s documentation of the tragedy in the form of a 30-foot wood carving related to Yaetr Innovator Dibars’ rejected research on Seasons for Seventh University. But the histories recorded in the Sanze universities, and those taught in creche, represent a tiny fraction of the massive banks of memory spread throughout the Stillness in different, less conventional forms. Obelisks, Stone Eaters, and Lorists all serve to preserve pieces of the great history of humankind. They are the unsung archives of Jemisin’s world.

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What Stillness Society Understands About Puberty Ceremonies That We Do Not

Life in the Stillness is flawed. Deeply flawed. As Hoa informs us, it has been so for a long time. Yet when it comes to raising children, there is something they get right: they have puberty ceremonies. This summer, I borrowed Kurt Vonnegut’s If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young from the Brooklyn Public Library. In the book, which is a compilation of speeches, Vonnegut, ever the fan of speaking at colleges, points out the ritual’s absence in modern American society–in his 1998 commencement address at Rice University, he said of the event, “This is a long-delayed puberty ceremony. You are at last officially full-grown men and women — what you were biologically by the age of fifteen or so. I am sorry as I can be that it took so long and cost so much for you to at last receive licenses as grownups.” Jemisin, in her immaculate, historically inspired world-building, informs us that comms in the Stillness have these ceremonies which we lack.

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Extractivism: Syl Anagist, and Us

In a 2016 interview with WIRED, back when The Fifth Season was the only book in the Broken Earth Series on the shelves, N.K. Jemisin was asked if she had “deliberately set out to write a critique of our society,” and answered, “I didn’t set out to write big heavy themes.” The tuned-in sci-fi writer did so nonetheless–whether it was merely in the service of satisfactory world-building, or intended to generate actual change, we cannot know, though the response from the “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies” campaigns may be answer enough. As we have discussed, the implications regarding “slavery and caste oppression” are clear; Jemisin herself says that she “set out to write a world in which people who are powerful, who are valuable, are channeled into systems of self-supported and externally imposed oppression” (WIRED). Yet what we have not addressed quite as explicitly, though the topic came up significantly in our talks with Dr. Giorgis and Dr. Reitz, is the environmental commentary present throughout the trilogy. As the old adage goes: LIVE IN ROCK???

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Hoa’s Humor — Why Jemisin Jokes

From the very first chapter in the Broken Earth series it is made clear that our narrator is funny. The speaker, who 400 pages later we will find out is Hoa (The Fifth Season 443), tells us, after describing the catastrophic Rifting, that he must “keep things grounded, ha ha” (9). I believe there is significance to the placement of this line. Sandwiched between an account of a disaster which killed millions, and Essun’s grappling with the reality of her son Uche’s brutal murder, we find an extremely incongruous, casually-delivered pun. With such lofty goals as appeasing Father Earth’s wrath in order to save humanity, why does Hoa take the time to crack jokes? And why in the midst of such bleak circumstances? The evolutionary approach to humor analysis taken by Glenn E. Weisfield in his 1993 articleThe Adaptive Value of Humor and Laughter” may hold some answers.

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Essun’s Personal Rifting: Fractures in Identity

Amidst the many shocking revelations of The Fifth Season, we came to know our singular protagonist by three names: Damaya, Syenite, and Essun. Since then, the identities of various characters have undergone shifts, some voluntary, some not.  Schaffa and Hoa, too, shift (and Tonkee, though Essun notices that she is in many ways still the same ol’ Binof). Again, I will be drawing on psychologist Robert Jay Lifton’s work in The Protean Self, this time to explore the ways in which this fracturing, this fluidity of self, can be adaptive or regressive. Continue reading “Essun’s Personal Rifting: Fractures in Identity”

Jemisin, Sessing the Symbolic Power of Apocalypse

One of the many books I regret not finding the time to finish is psychologist Robert Jay Lifton’s The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation. While I will discuss the insights and illustrations in The Broken Earth series regarding fragmentation in a future blog post, I would like now to address how Lifton and Jemisin are in conversation regarding the age-old topic: “the end of the world” (Jemisin, 2015, literally page 1). More specifically, why do writers such as Jemisin view apocalyptic scenarios as useful for an exploration of Afrofuturism? The key lies not just in what the Afrofuturistic movement is, but what it is not.  Continue reading “Jemisin, Sessing the Symbolic Power of Apocalypse”

El Niño and La Niña: Our Closest Analogue for Seasons?

Seasons are one of the primary forces which shape Stillness society–lore is centered on surviving them, geomests in the universities debate the history and classification of them, and the worth of individuals is measured by their utility in the event of them. The books in the Broken Earth trilogy each have a whole appendix dedicated to the Seasons in the back. When Antimony shares with Nassun the prospect of catching the moon and “bringing it back into stable orbit and magical alignment” (Obelisk Gate 172), Essun has a difficult time processing the implications: Continue reading “El Niño and La Niña: Our Closest Analogue for Seasons?”