An Active Journey

An Active Journey

Writing this essay, in and of itself, is a lot like writing the blog posts on which it is built. A huge problem I had initially was anxiety over how to start them. A fear over the uncertainty of their composition and structure led me to believe that I was not ready to write one. A fear of being unable to correctly execute the task given to be froze me and prevented the execution of the task like a self fulfilling prophecy. At the time it did not occur to me that the point was to try the first post anyway despite the possibility of failure so that I could learn by failing what to do for the future. Out of fear I prevented myself from growing in a natural and meaningful way. I could resort to blaming the environment around me for cultivating a sense of fear for failure and encouraging procrastinating behavior but that does not help me. By acknowledging my mistake, I’m allowing myself to know what I’ve done wrong and to think about what to do differently to create more favorable outcomes. 

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Essun’s Story, a Slave Narrative

Understanding a Slave Narrative

In the period of American history shortly before the Civil War, a type of biography became quite popular in the north. These were the stories of those slaves escaped from the South who could either write their own tales, or dictated to abolitionists their harrowing experiences as slaves. Famous among them where the stories of Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, which depicted a life of being looked down upon or treated as an animal or inferior at best. Many of these stories show a person on the run for a great part of their lives, constantly on the move with little sense of home or safe refuge.

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Inheritance of the Son

Essun has three children over the course of the The Broken Earth series, yet only her daughter Nassun manages to live beyond infancy. Both sons die at extremely young ages, unable to even truly start living before being cut down. I believe there is importance in that, the the deaths of Corundum and Uche are both meaningful in their own ways, and collectively.

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Jemisin on Being a Parent

The life of an orogene from start to finish is a gauntlet of rejection, abuse and exploitation, and it all starts as many things do, in the beginning. That is, the personal beginning of every orogene, their childhood. Orogeny develops very early and as Jija shows us no orogene is safe from violent persecution, regardless of their age. The Fulcrum also separates orogene parents from their children to raise apart from them as part of their breeding program. Childhood is undeniably a crucial part of any person’s development and I believe that the depictions of parental figures in the novel speaks to how Jemisin feels about parents and the effects they have on their children.

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Environmentalism in Jemisin’s Work

This post might be short, though we will see.

Jemisin had several issues to which she wanted to draw attention to in writing The Broken Earth series, though one that stands out to me is how she addresses the way that humans interact with the environment and affect it and how it in turn affects them. Not only will I be discussing how various elements of the story address environmentalism but the discussion necessitates covering the personification of the planet Earth

It all begins in Syl Anagist, as most problems in the novel do with a transgression so grievous that it haunts humanity far into a future where no one even remembers what happened or why, with the exception of the stone eaters.  Syl Anagistians are ravenous for power and long ago understood that more power could come from the silver magic that stems from all living things, hence the popular term, “life is sacred in Syl Anagist”. They tap into the magic flowing through all things, plants, animals and people (specifically the Thniess) included. Yet even the exploitation of all living things other than themselves is not enough yet. Through what they called “Geoarcanity” they intended to tap into a massive reservoir of magic within the planet itself, turning the whole planet into a tool to serve Syl Anagist’s unquenchable thirst for power at the expense of others. For those with such supposed mastery over life, the idea that because the planet has such a massive amount of magic in it it might also be a living thing with agency and means by which to defend itself does not occur to the arrogant oppressors who recklessly exploit the tuners in order to enslave the planet as they did the tuners and their predecessors the Thniess. Only the planet is acutely aware of Syl Anagist’s intentions towards it and is more than capable of acting against it with its enormous magical power. In retaliation to the attempt to shackle it, the Earth destroys Syl Anagist with the Obelisks meant to enslave it and tries to wipe humanity off the face of itself. Only with the intervention of the tuners is the power meant to kill all of human life redirected at the moon, pushing it out of orbit from the Earth.

The similarities might seem striking at this point. A nation of people who flagrantly bend all around them to their own convenience, pillaging a planet just to power their metropolis. To top it off, their taking a fuel source from within the planet that is based on life. If Syl Anagist’s actions here do not remind anyone of how people ravage our own world to satisfy their own unsustainable and exploitative way of life, than perhaps Evil Earth’s reaction may spark some neurons. Constant and implacable natural disasters toppling cities and annihilating cultures as a direct consequence of treating the planet poorly and disrupting a careful balance with barely any attempt at righting it. Hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts and floods rage across the planet with no place truly untouched by the disasters. Jemisin clearly was trying to send a message on this, that you can’t treat your own planet without consequences. It’s like being on a raft in the middle of the ocean and stripping the logs out from under you to make a chair so you’re more comfortable as you sink.

But I haven’t touched enough on the characterization of Evil Earth, as it is clearly capable of thought and action. The Earth is obviously non-human in its thoughts and being, yet has such an accurate grasp of the situation in the novel that it is able to see that if it does not continuously unmake human society, it will inevitably return to the logical end of attempting to enslave the Earth. The method by which it seeks to keep this from occurring is genius if not callous in its methodology, by pitting orogenes and stills against each other and using the Guardians as a stopgap between them in order to control both sides. The Earth does no do all of this to force humanity to set right what it has done, but rather simply in vengeance for crimes committed, much like Essun is overtaken in each occasion (it is truly horrible that there are any, much less more than one) that she loses a child. When she lost Corundum she destroyed both her and Alabaster’s ship as well as the Guardian ship that pursued them in a rage fueled by the grief of being forced to end her own child’s life. When Jija murdered Uche, she set out with only two things that she really cared about at all, making Jija suffer for what he stole from her and making sure he could not do it to Nassun as well. The Earth may be some inhuman entity with an age and experience so wildly different from our own as to be unrecognizable. Yet so much does it seem merely like a grieving parent, separated from their child and taking it out on those responsible.

Character Development by Jemisin

Analyze one character (ex Nassun) actions she takes/words she speaks in different points in the novels

Attempt to see how Jemisin changes that character and to what end

One of the most difficult things for a writer to do is to create and develop a character that is believable. Jemisin is very effective at writing characters and developing them in a way that feels real in their context and is constructive to her story and its themes. I am interested in how she develops a character, so I went back to Obelisk Gate in order to sess how exactly Nassun goes from wayward child to savior of humanity. (How would an orogene sess a book? Bury it? Stand on it? Would they be able to read a book a lot more quickly if it was underground? Food for thought)

Nassun’s introduction to The Broken Earth series is late for a main character, only getting any direct attention after the start of the second novel. It only goes to show Jemisin’s talent as a writer that she is able to develop Nassun as she does with so much less time and dedication. When we are introduced to Nassun she is fixated on her father in a worryingly obsessive manner. She seems to direct a great deal of negativity back onto her mother and herself, hating that Essun made her keep secrets from Jija about being an orogene. Essun’s development bleeds over into Nassun’s a bit as she lists a litany of reasons why she distrusts her mother and prefers her father over her, even after Jija murders Uche. Nassun seems confused, lost and desperate for something to cling to in the wake of her family’s destruction, which she blames on herself, her mother and her orogeny. What is important here is that she has been able to be what her father can love up until this point, but now he expects her to be something she can’t, which is not an orogene. They both are only able to continue on with the promise that Nassun will be able to undo her nature at Found Moon.

Later, after Nassun connects to the Sapphire and kills Eitz in the process she is heaping the blame for his death onto herself and lamenting that she is a monster. To this Shaffa says; “Perhaps, but you are my monster” (198). The narrator asserts that because of how awful Nassun feels that this actually makes her feel better. This is telling of her development and a reminder that not all change is for the better. In Shaffa she has a parental figure that gives her the love and affection that she craved from a father that was too weak and afraid to give it to her and a mother who was too broken and afraid to give it to her in a way that reached her. At this point Nassun is falling into a trap that many young orogenes fall into where their world has dissolved around them and they’ve no-one to turn to and Guardians show up to fill that void for them. Shaffa is a unique case and has managed to fight the influence of Evil Earth and genuinely cares for Nassun, yet still capitalizes on Nassun’s emotionally vulnerable state to engender feelings of trust and dependency. With Shaffa, Nassun is able to be herself without compromising or altering herself for his satisfaction. The most significant way that Shaffa is able to connect to Nassun is that he loves her for who she is, rather than for what she was or might be. This is different from Jija, who Nassun is forced to kill because he can not reconcile with the fact that his daughter is an orogene. This is significant in that Nassun refuses to bend to someone else’s expectations of her.

As a sort of side note, it is interesting to see how Essun alienated herself from Nassun by teaching her orogeny in the same way she was taught despite knowing that this method embittered her to the Fulcrum and eventually drove her away. It reminds me of how children with abusive parents are likely to also be abusive because they have no other model for parenting than violence to keep control. This lack of trust exists until the end of the series until Essun says that she wants to help Nassun with the Obelisk Gate.

In Stone Sky Nassun’s slavish devotion to Shaffa has only deepened to the point where she compromises her own objective in reaching the Obelisk Gate by bringing Shaffa with her despite Evil Earth’s ability to control him. While Shaffa is incapacitated, Nassun is alone and spends a great deal of time in the ruins of Syl Anagist hoping for Shaffa’s recovery before moving on. After Shaffa’s corestone is removed and she realizes how little time he has left to live she comes up with the plan to use the obelisks to turn everyone in the world into stone eaters in order to preserve Shaffa is some form or another. This plan I think is representative of Nassun inability to let go, she wants to keep Shaffa despite the fact that after living for so long as a slave to Evil Earth, being made into a stone eater that was tied to the same being. That is understandable given the value that being given unconditional validation has for anyone, but especially Nassun. Her actions in these later chapters illustrate that she has realized that orogenes are treated badly not because of their own failings, but because of the ignorance and mindless hate. Nassun no longer blames herself for how she is treated, but still relies on Shaffa’s validation of her and will preserve him however she can in order to continue being validated. Before she reaches the Obelisk Gate, the stone eater that has attached himself to her, Steel, stops Nassun and through a series of questions essentially points out that Nassun is lying to herself about turning Shaffa into a stone eater for his sake. She is really doing it for her own benefit and that living forever is not really that great. She is convinced through his argument that turning Shaffa into a stone eater is not the best thing for him. This does not mean she alters in her course though, and she prepares herself to go forward anyway.

What ultimately stops this is Essun’s presence at the climax and her real concern for her daughter. The Obelisk Gate speaks to Nassun and questions whether Shaffa is really the only person that cares for her as she believed up until this point having written off her mother as being “wrong” due to the Fulcrum’s influence. When Essun offers to unconditionally help Nassun, that is proof enough that her mother really does care for her and doesn’t really want Nassun to change herself for her sake.

Jemisin’s Characters and Their Relationships

Apologies in advance for how many times I say the word “relationship”. It certainly grated on me.

Jemisin’s ability to write characters that reasonably react and exist in the world she has created is evident in the example of Alabaster and Essun’s relationship and how it evolved overtime. The sexual nature of that relationship was forced by the Fulcrum as part of an inhumane breeding program and was always treated as awkward, uncomfortable and undesirable by both parties. Essun, who went by Syenite at the time, chafed under the expectations of the Fulcrum and bitterly resented that they forced her to have a relationship at all with Alabaster. Acting on this building tension, she often took out her frustration on Alabaster by venting verbally on how his behavior frustrates her when in reality she nitpicks his actions in order to find something to complain about that she would otherwise not care about. Alabaster likewise often closed himself off to her, withholding his thoughts and resenting her behavior though for different reasons. There was initially a misunderstanding between the two, Essun believed that treating Alabaster as a superior was proper behavior and would benefit her more than being more casual and familiar with him, when Alabaster hated this false superiority that came with the rank the Fulcrum allowed him. If the two had met under the circumstances of being simply two people coming together by chance it seems far more likely that they would be more agreeable to each other, but the impositions of the society that surrounds them initially isolates them from each other, likely by design. As they continue traveling together, Alabaster takes up the archetype of the mentor, showing Essun what he can of how predatory their society was towards orogenes and they grow closer, though they do not quite seem like lovers as is typically portrayed. Most couples rely on each other, with one party often rendered helpless so that another might be able to save them, often the male party is empowered to help their “damsel in distress”. Essun and Alabaster are not like this, as Essun has great difficulties openly displaying trust or love due to the deep-seeded trust issues implanted by guardians and the abusive attitudes towards orogenes taken up by most people. The closest they become is in their connection via their son, Corundum as parents and that connection is shattered almost immediately when Essun is forced by Shaffa to murder her own child to prevent him from being forced into the same life she was forced to life.

It is unfair to portray Essun and Alabaster’s relationship as strange without acknowledging what I mean by a “normal” relationship. I should clarify, by normal I by no means intend to imply that this type of companionship is in any way correct, better or morally superior to any other way people choose to be together, it is simply what I observe as a general expectation of society on how people are together. There is a great deal of presupposition, not only that a man and a woman would be together but also that they would intend to procreate and remain together for the long term. There are also expectations that the woman care extensively for the child and devote herself to its care and upbringing no matter the personal cost, while the man is expected to remain and provide for the child though expectations are less harsh for the man and harder to enforce socially or even legally.

Essun and Alabaster are hurt by this dynamic when it is forced on them. It drives them apart and makes both of them uncomfortable and unhappy. Coru changes things, and through him, they both hope that something can be different, that maybe they can save their child from the fate that befell them and bring him into a life that is better than theirs. They learn quickly that this is not a world that will allow that to happen as Guardians converge on them and Essun is given only one awful way to prevent Coru from living life as either a node maintainer or as a mad slave like Alabaster. I believe that Jemisin uses Essun and Alabaster’s early relationship to show how enforcing a certain type of relationship on people is harmful and inhumane.

At its core, The Broken Earth trilogy is about defying the unfair and inhumane constraints put on people and working towards a better future. I believe that extends to those who wish to share each other’s lives in a way that maybe many others do not. Essun and Alabaster’s relationship was plagued with the hardships brought upon them by a system that profits from their enslavement and dehumanization and yet the theme of people being too hard to keep down rears its head and they have a companionship despite an entire world that fights to keep them weak.

Castrima as “The Chosen People”

So, after going back through The Stone Sky a bit, I noticed that the people of Castrima’s trek through the desert was a familiar scene and in a part of the story that reminded me of another story, that of Moses freeing his people from Egypt. The more I thought about the connection, the more similarities between the tales began occurring to me, at first more obvious things like how orogenes are an oppressed people who have recently been freed from servitude to tyrants but then more minute details like how Rennanis, as an equitorial city comprised mostly of Sanzed can easily represent the Egyptians, coming to reclaim their slaves and take back the freedom the orogenes of Castrima now had. Continue reading “Castrima as “The Chosen People””

The Link Between Worlds (and people)

As established throughout The Broken Earth series, orogenes have the ability to connect to one another via their orogeny and become more powerful as a result of this. Utilizing this ability to foster greater orogeny through connections, Essun was able to activate the Obelisk Gate, wipe out Rennanis and their army and locate her daughter via the network of obelisks in The Obelisk Gate, all due to the focus granted to her by her connection to the roggas of Castrima. Other groups of connections formed in the distant past of Syl Anagist composed of the tuners that were used by their oppressors to utilize the Obelisk Gate as Essun does in the future, but for Syl Anagist’s own purposes. It is my own theory that these connections function as an analogy to the metaphorical connections one forms with another that they trust and depend on, or relationships. I intend to more closely examine the nature of the more mystical connections orogenes share and compare them to relationships in order to confirm or deny my theory of analogy. Continue reading “The Link Between Worlds (and people)”

Response to Denis Hartnett’s “Separating Good Art From Problematic Artists”

There is a popular saying that often arises when analyzing an author’s work, and I think its meaning applies well here; “The author is dead”. This phrase means that the author’s work should be analyzed separately from their own interpretation of their work, and that the reader’s interpretation is the most important to consider given that it is a work created with the intention of being analyzed by others.

In this case, you and all others should feel safe in not allowing the actions of a creator to affect their opinion of their creations, after all the sins of the father are not the sins of their sons. That being said, you should also be careful to understand the subtext of their creations and not allow them to justify the infringement of people’s rights.

I can enjoy H.P. Lovecraft’s stories while also understanding the bigoted position from which they were written. For me, it acts as a reminder of our own shortcomings, and is a call to aspire to be better myself. The fear of the unknown, while tied to the fear of those that are different from you, is not synonymous with the fear of people that are different, thus I am able to enjoy his horror without wallowing in hatred of minorities. It is your interpretation of the piece that matters, rather than the implied subtext.