Injustice, power and love in The Broken Earth Trilogy: What does it all mean?

Upon finishing the trilogy The Broken Earth by N.K. Jemisin, it seems I am left with more questions than answers when it comes to injustice and power. While some observations I made early in the trilogy remain true, I am also forced to reexamine some of my initial thoughts I had when first introduced to the characters and their emotions. The buildup of stress and friction when it comes to societal issues is an aspect that is prominent very early on in the trilogy, and continues to be present to the end. The personal consequences for characters such as Essun, and her daughter Nassun, as well as the environmental consequences are huge and long lasting. However, I did find myself reexamining the equivocality of terms such as power and injustice as the novel continued, as well as how love ties into these two concepts. With this being said, while my stance on the negative consequences of ignoring problems in society remains very similar, Jemisin has also pushed me to reexamine the ambiguity of terms such as injustice and power.

The bleak consequences of high pressure, tension and force in a society presented in my first essay remains, both on an environmental level and individual level. I still believe that the inability to face, and thus ignore a problem, will ultimately lead to disastrous results. As stated in my first essay, an apt similarity would be the stress of plate tectonics constantly rubbing against each other underneath earth’s surface, waiting to break. This point seems even more prominent at the end of the trilogy. In order to save the earth, and end what is termed the “seasons,” a time where all are fighting for survival, the moon must be brought back into orbit. However, despite Nassun bringing back the moon, the “Stillness” (the name for the landmass the characters reside on) will still face the consequences of ignoring issues and not creating sustainable long term solutions. In essence, “Plate tectonics will be plate tectonics” and “Season like disasters will still occur.” (Jemisin, The Stone Sky 393). While this fact is certainly preferable to the alternative of millions of years, the consequences are still very much real. Like so many others, Nassun remains without a home, and no longer has a family. Despite her enormous power throughout the trilogy, “she’s still just a little girl. She has to eat and sleep like every other little girl, among people if she hopes to keep eating and sleeping. People need other people to live” (Jemisin, The Stone Sky). Not only has Nassun lost her home and her family, but also her ability to be a child, which is compounded by the multiple traumas she has faced. Even her orogene, a genetic variation which allows her to control earth’s vibrations, is now gone, a huge part of what was once her identity. Perhaps it is at this moment that Nassun, like her mother, has finally reached her breaking point.

The end of the trilogy does not leave the reader with a clear conclusion, allowing them to ponder what kind of justice was achieved. While the moon is now back in orbit, and thus the seasons will eventually stop, Jemisin does not illustrate the societal effect of the characters actions. Though the guardians, the cruel gatekeepers of orgenes are all killed, such individuals are only one part of a larger societal problem. However, what about the rest of society?  What about the ideals so deeply embedded within societal norms? Individuals must make a conscious choice to make a change. Nassun doubts a change is possible stating, “They’re not going to choose anything different” (Jemisin, The Stone Sky 396). Jemisin seeks to remind the reader that changing injustice requires active rather than passive action. Perhaps the latter is just one part of the answer to the question posed in my earlier essay; What happens when the system breaks? The non definite ending of the trilogy leaves room for interpretation, and in a way, reminds the reader that the need for justice is ongoing. 

After finishing the trilogy, I also found myself more closely examining the ambiguity of injustice and power. While I by no means went into this trilogy with the notion that power and injustice is black and white, with no shades of gray, I now see a much larger spectrum of possibilities. Though Alabaster destroyed the “Stillness”, he did so in the hopes of creating a better life. How much can the reader fault Alabaster for wanting to break the society that ostracized him as “the other,” in hopes of building a better future? While Essun killed her infant son, Coru, who shared her orogene gene, she did so in the hopes that he would not be subject to the horror of other children like him. The notion itself of killing a child may seem unjust, but Essun did so in the name of love and protection. If Coru would have been taken by the guardians, they would have turned “…his body into a tool and his mind into a weapon and his life into a travesty of freedom” (Jemisin The Fifth Season 441). Can the reader truly fault Essun for wanting to save her son from such suffering? While the stone eaters, characters who resemble statues, eat Alabaster and Essun when they begin to turn to stone, it is a necessary action for all involved. When looked at without taking into account the fact that such is necessary for the stone eater’s survival, the reader may say this too is unjust. However, can they be faulted when stone eaters have no control over this biological component, especially when taking into account the verbal permission from Alabaster and Essun? Moreover, who deserves the reader’s forgiveness, and how is such a conclusion determined? There is no clear cut definition, and it is ultimately up to the reader to determine who may be justified in their actions.

When discussing the ambiguity of power and injustice, I also find myself reexamining the position of love in the novel. When completing my first essay, I very much positioned power with a negative connotation; The power of one group having power over another. The dynamic and implications is certainly still relevant throughout the rest of the trilogy, as for the  orogenes,“Every season is the Season…The apocalypse that never ends” (Jemisin, The Stone Sky). However, upon the closing of the trilogy, it is also apparent that power can be seeded in love. For example, it is Nassun’s love for Schaffa, her guardian, that pushes her to initially sacrifice the rest of humankind in a desperate hope to keep him alive. Schaffa has become Nassun’s family, and as a result “…she clings to him because she has nothing else” (Jemisin, The Stone Sky 382). Perhaps not the most selfless example, but a point worth noting nonetheless. It is also Essuns’ love for Nassun that drives her to sacrifice herself for her daughter. Though Essun may not have shown the physical affection Nassun yearned for during her childhood, by the end, she “…wanted to make a better world for Nassun…to live” when all her other children had died. Essun realizes there is only one solution, as “To keep fighting will kill…both” herself and her daughter, and thus “The only way to win, then, is to not fight anymore” (Jemisin, The Stone Sky 385). Despite the way Essun’s traumatic past has influenced her ability to make Nassun feel loved, she will do anything to keep her daughter safe. Ultimately, the use of power, detrimental when yielded in the wrong hands, can also provide the motivation to do what is in the best interest of all.  

Overall, N.K. Jemisin has taught us the need to pay attention to building tension, and the role injustice, power and love play in a society. Power, injustice, and love are not exclusive of another, and may work together to drive actions. Furthermore, ignoring a problem only serves to perpetuate the tension and stress that is already building. Jemisin shows us that in any society, such an action will only be to the detriment of its citizens. Within the Broken Earth trilogy, society’s choice to ignore the octraszication of the “other” leads to building resentment among orogenes. When the system finally snaps, the “Stillness” is plunged into a world nearly impossible to survive. The road to fight injustice and those with unfair power can be difficult, and not as clear cut as the reader may like. Throughout the trilogy, characters act in ways that seem unjust, yet are understandable given their past trauma. What does this mean? Who do we forgive? If the actions were done in the name of love, does this change anything? It seems the end of the Broken Earth Trilogy has left me with more questions than answers as I contemplate what may be coined as acceptable in the name of change, as well as who defines what those “terms” may be.

The Earth’s Shifting Power dynamics

Power is a useful tool, both in its ability to create and destroy. And yet, power is not equal, and is often manipulated by those who have this mighty tool. The power dynamics, and implication of such is explored in N.K. Jemison’s novel, The Fifth Season. The Fifth Season creates a post apocalyptic world that while fantastical in its use of magic, intertwines destruction and justice in an all too familiar manner. The novel takes place in a world in which seasons reshape and restructure the future for generations to come. Seasons are not simply thunderstorms, but rather climatic events that have led to the creation of one single continent, coined “The Stillness.” The novel follows the perspective of Essun, who takes on the personna of three fragmented identities within different points of her life. The perspective of power and the implications that such power holds is presented in parallel with the occurrence of natural disasters. Just as pressure builds within the earth’s surface, ultimately leading to destruction, so too do the societal relationships in the novel. 

The motion of tectonic plates within the earth mirrors the very friction of the societal order itself. Within this world, individuals are broken into two distinct groups, the Oregones and the Stills. The Oregones are able to control seismic events, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc. And yet, despite this power, Oregones are ultimately feared by those around them, and therefore, treated as “the other”. It is ingrained in society to fear Oregones, as Stills are told when there is a threat Oregones will do whatever is necessary to protect themselves, and “…people will die.” (Jemisin 37). Oregones have the power to change the world, and yet, they are treated as second class citizens. The notion of power is important to take note of when discussing The Fifth Season. After all, who truly holds the power? One might say the stills hold the power, yet even within this hierarchy, those who are commless are left to fend for themselves. The Comless have neither the resources nor the power to be prepared for the seasons, leading to fatal consequences. In this world that Jemisin has created, the ability to belong is vital to survival, and those who are left outside of the group are ultimately left to fend for themselves. 

The earth, and those who have possession over it have become an entity to be controlled, thereby denying its own agency. Oregones are the very manifestation of nature itself, yet are controlled by those who have no first hand knowledge of their ability and connection to the earth. Oregones are taken to the Fulcrum, assigned guardians, and taught to control the nature that is intrinsic to their very  identity. The guardians themselves have to touch the Oregone to create a connection that enables the control. In this sense, the guardians’ connection is fabricated, allowing not only a sense of control over the Oregones, but a false sense of knowing. Their identities are based entirely on the ideals of the fulcrum, mainly control, rather than unpredictability, creating an unity of sorts. They are taught what is deemed necessary by the Fulcrum, information that consequently allows the Fulcomes to remain in control. Ultimately, the very story of “The monstrous Misalem, who decided to declare war against a whole nation and off the Sanzed empire for no particular season” (Jemisin 416), is told to take away Oregon’s agency. Misalem had a reason, and this aspect is conveniently left out of the story as yet another way to control “the other”. 

And yet, everything and everyone has a breaking point. According to author Leanoard Seeber, though small earthquake faults can not be seen “…when you add them up, they are probably more dangerous than we thought.” Essun has faced injustice after injustice in life, and no longer feels the need to contain her feelings, contain control. Essun’s breaking point comes when she loses  everything she built her new identity around; Her children, her home, and ultimately, her loss of identity within her community. Essun’s identity is erased as “…A bird perched nearby the fence falls over frozen, too. The ground crisps, the ground growls hard, and the air hisses as moisture and density is snatched from its substance…but no one has ever mourned earthworms” (Jemisin 58). Just as Essun, earth’s plates build pressure, controlled underneath the surface, until this is no longer the case. 

Throughout the novel, the reader sees the consequence of ignoring tension and stress, as well as, the potential disastrous result. Nehl Burg describes the resulting motions of tectonic plates as “a stretched rubber band releasing energy when it snaps.” At the end of the novel, we see Essun  release the power the Fulcrum has tried so hard to control. It is evident that Fulcrum is no more as she “…opens herself to all the power of the ancient unknown and tears the world apart” (Jemisin 442). Essun has started a new season, one that will last for centuries upon centuries, and surely lead to the death of thousands. It is at this moment that she starts over. Essun  has reached her breaking point, and as a result, there is death, both literally and figuratively. Individuals on both ends of the power dynamic are dead, and those who survive are left to find a home elsewhere. The end of the novel forces us as readers to ask an important question; What happens when the power structure breaks? Moreover, who survives and what does it take in order to do so?

The earth within Jemisin’s novel teaches us a very important lesson, that even today we still seem unable to grasp; When enough pressure builds, there will be a reaction. However, the implication depends on how much we resist the change. Jemisin shows us that such resistance will prove cataclysmic, that much is clear by the end of the novel. By continually ostracizing Oregones as “the other,” the conflict has escalated, resulting in unspeakable tragedy. However, what we are left to figure out ourselves is what happens when the system breaks.  Who is left? Where do we go and what do we do? After all, a natural disaster is only manageable for those who have the resources to do so. What happens to those who do not have such resources?