How the Rollercoaster Ride of Jemisin’s Setting, The Stillness, Contributes to the Reader’s Understanding

After interpreting the first book of The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemison, I was curious as to how methods of manipulation that we saw with the Guardians could apply to subjugation of race and gender. The next two installations gave us an idea of how far back the oppression of those in the land of the Stillness went. The world had been turned upside down by a season (disastrous event), and our main character Essun and her friends were left to pick up the scraps. On their journey, they encountered the challenge of survival, along with the task of learning from their history.

            The GLOBE Integrative and Applied Learning outcomes states that transformational learning, “develops through such high-impact practices as international experiences, service and community-based learning, intensive research activities, internships, advocacy, learning communities, and capstone courses and projects.” These learning endeavors are crucially important and can be related to the life of our character Tonkee. They are a researcher at Seventh University, which is the authoritative higher learning institution of the Stillness. They spend their life’s work in nature, observing the life of Essun and the movement of the obelisks. Through their research they find truths of an ancient past, and are prepared to join Essun in her quest to calm the land.

            Considering the development of these characters throughout the novels, I am beginning to see the true subject of the story as being at the core of each individual we follow. Essun must grapple with her responsibilities as a powerful person in the land of the Stillness; this land is not for her, and she must work hard to keep her spirit alive amidst a time of great struggle. She attempts many loving connections in her life, and continues to fall into them despite her apparent aversion. Altruistically, the connections she forms end up inspiring her quest to end the seasons. While she is unable to restore the balance of the moon herself, an act of sacrifice inspires her daughter Nassun to complete her task for her. Essun’s spirit is then recycled into the body of a stone eater, and she begins her new life well prepared to advance her notion of peace. Alongside her, an old friend Hoa is there to recite the wonderful stories of the Earth’s past.

            This story shows us that there are more important battles outside of a fight against oppression. To know that they are at an uphill climb from birth gives the orogenes a reason to forgive themselves for their mistakes, and with this knowledge they can move on to continue their strife. Ultimately, it will come down to their peace of mind whether or not the world advances from their actions. Nassun must be convinced by her mother’s sacrifice in order to decide against destroying the world as they know it. Hoa describes how Essun realizes that the fight has become less important than her love for her daughter. He says, “You so wanted to make a better world for Nassun. But more than anything else, you want this last child of yours to live… and so you make a choice. To keep fighting will kill you both. The only way to win, then, is not to fight anymore” (The Stone Sky). Consequently, Nassun is inspired by the sight of her mother turned to stone, smiling at Nassun with tears in her eyes. She is unable to understand how someone was able to carry on with such hope, since her life has been full of death and destruction. She realizes that her mother’s life must have been this way too, and that she carried on nonetheless. This shared struggle gives her faith that her mother understood something that she does not, and she acts in accordance with her mother’s will instead of her own.

            My thinking therefore has shifted much like Nassun’s has. I am no longer looking for something or someone to cling to, but rather find assurance in the fact that others have. All of the people who have valued love of others above all else provide the inspiration that keeps life moving on. Instead of looking for inspiration, we can look for opportunities. There is a quote by the band Yes that I think relates to orogeny and the great change in the Earth that we experience during the trilogy. It reads, “Waiting for the moment when the moment has been waiting all the time. Reaching for the golden heights without a doubt you’re ready for the climb.” This reminds me of the revolution in the Stillness that is inspired by Essun and Alabaster’s use of the obelisks. The whole time that our story is in session, the obelisks float as apparent remnants of a lost time. There is always the opportunity for them to be used to restore the balance of the Earth, and it is only a matter of time until that opportunity is seized. A lost history delays this, but as we see in our story all knowledge is recovered in time.

            Another theme that has affected me since the conclusion of the first book is the idea of an underlying energy. The intricacies of orogeny and other magic are further dealt with by Jemison. We see that an understanding of invisible forces is something that has left the land of the Stillness. Our main characters reinvigorate themselves with their exploration of this, allowing them to channel their energy into great endeavors.

            All in all, I am very impressed by Jemison’s ability to construct a deep and layered realm of the Stillness. This stands out to me in comparison with other works of science-fiction, as the depth of the setting’s frame gives it a sense of realism. This makes it very enjoyable to follow not only our character’s developments, but also the development of the Earth. As a geography student, this is something that felt particularly exciting for me to experience.

Racialization Running Parallel to Separation from our History

As we move forward, we are beginning to find out that race is just as subjective as it is real. When Irish immigrants began to come over to the United States in mass during their ‘famines’ suffered at the hands of the British, they were not considered of the pure race of upstanding American whites. When Adolf Hitler was putting together his propaganda machine about an Aryan race, Werner Goldberg, a man of half Jewish ancestry, appeared on the front page of a Berlin newspaper as, “The Ideal German Soldier” ( These kinds of contradictions highlight the trend of humans constantly trying to attribute more to race than is logical, or for that matter even remotely reasonable. Sentiments on race often fly around back and forth without any regard to reality or human decency. This shows to me that the idea of race is a powerful tool in drawing out the deepest emotions from people.

This is not to say that there is no actual substance to race. Once in the Fulcrum, orogenes in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season are subject to a life of uniformity and isolation, creating the conditions for a race of Fulcrum orogenes. Under the oppression of the guardians, they are made to repress aspects of their individuality and expressions of free will, moving them closer in sync with what we consider race.

When we follow the lives of orogenes Essun and Alabaster, we see them struggle to escape the painful chains of race that have been placed upon them. Some stills control them with selectively bred, technologically enhanced guardians, whom are able to negate the orogenes natural ability to harness the power of the Earth and all living things. This is not enough though, as they are often held down with painful stereotypes, demeaning their humanity. Fulcrum orogenes often try to escape this feeling by identifying themselves with what the guardians have trapped them into. Alabaster sees through this though, and realizes the way the world really perceives them. He often uses the violent slur rogga’ to remind himself and Essun of this. When they visit a node maintainer who has snapped due to sexual abuse, the way orogenes are perceived by the world connects with the reality of how the guardians are using them. Alabaster’s showing Essun of this gruesome truth, and his description, prompt an epiphany from her. “But each of us is just another weapon, to them. Just a useful monster, just a bit of new blood to add to the breeding lines. Just another fucking rogga.” She has never heard so much hate put into one word before. But standing here, with the ultimate proof of the world’s hatred dead and cold and stinking between them, she can’t even flinch this time. Because. If the Fulcrum can do this, or the Guardians or the Yumenescene Leadership or the geomests or whoever came up with this nightmare, then there’s no point in dressing up what people like Syenite and Alabaster really are. Not people at all. Not orogenes. Politeness is an insult in the face of what she’s seen. Rogga: This is all they are.” The node maintainer is the ultimate slave to the Sanze Empire/Yumenescene Elite, the political structure that rules most all of Earth as our characters know it. They are made unable to move or express thought, but are not braindead. This node maintainer was the son of Alabaster, assigned to this station only because of his powerful ability to quell the violent action of the Earth. He has been betrayed by his ‘caretakers’ at the station, likely by people who would refer to orogenes as ‘roggas’, without a hint of irony.

            In this Broken Earth, our characters live with a misunderstanding of their history. Pieces are left out, which Binof finds out as a young girl, and other pieces are misinterpreted, which Essun finds out about with the story of Misalem, long after she is told it incorrectly. From the beginning of our story we see that the obelisks are forgotten artifacts to most people, yet they end up having the power to change the state of the entire Earth. If we take the story from the eyes of Binof/Tonkee, we see the importance of uncovering history. It provides a great opportunity to reveal wisdom that had accrued over thousands of years, only to be forgotten for thousands more. Tonkee dedicates her entire life to studying obelisks, the usefulness of this to playing her part in dismantling the status quo of the Broken Earth, which is one of systematic racism and oppression, is not yet to be seen. But it is clear that it is all coming together, as it has brought her to Essun and Hoa. Alabasters channeling of the obelisks power, and his passing this on to Essun, has already shown a profound impact. He has challenged the notion of stonelore being fact on his own journey, believing it to be altered. It seems to me that the more these characters are able to uncover truths of the past, the closer they will come to restoring a peaceful Earth.

            Sinead O’Connor sang in her song Famine about British oppression of Irish history. She sang, “And so we lost our history
And this is what I think is still hurting me

See we’re like a child that’s been battered
Has to drive itself out of it’s head because it’s frightened
Still feels all the painful feelings
But they lose contact with the memory

And this leads to massive self-destruction…

And if there ever is gonna be healing
There has to be remembering
And then grieving
So that there then can be forgiving
There has to be knowledge and understanding”

She is using the instance of British misinformation being taught to the Irish in regard to Black 47’, a mass starving of Irish people in 1847. She explains that when the Irish were taught about this tragedy, it was left out that Ireland was a key crop producer for Britain, and that they were forced to ship out their crops to the British mainland while people starved in mass on the island of Ireland. She also says that the British took this difficult time for Ireland as an opportunity for them to impress British ideal onto the Irish, phasing out the Irish language and other cultural values.

This example illustrates the power that can come from history. An incorrect understanding of it can allow an abuser to break their subject, and subjugate them to their rule. The people of the Broken Earth, whether it be stills or orogenes, are gaslit by a fake history that ignores the power of great devices that surround them, as well as the great powers within themselves. If the commsfolk had an understanding of the true history of their world, I have no doubt that they would live in respect of each other. They wouldn’t discriminate against orogenes, and they would know how to survive a season much more effectively. This can be equated to our world as well. With a clear understanding of our history, we would be much less likely to give substance to race. But when generations of people are told the British side of the story, and don’t realize that battered people are like that due to racialization, they may be inclined to repeat the pattern.


Jemisin, N. K. The Fifth Season. Orbit, 2015.

 “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers.”, 26 Aug. 2014, Accessed 24 Feb. 2024.

O’Connor, Sinead. Famine. John Reynolds, Tim Simenon, 13 Sept. 1994.