Love, Hate, and Justice through the Earth

There have been few books in recent memory that have gotten me to think quite as much as N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy. A grand fantasy tale involving its own form of magic in various forms as well as fully fleshed out histories and societies of its own, the series had me gripped from the very start and held my attention for much of its duration. There are several different themes at play throughout the book, themes that inform the decision making and development of many characters in the series. And many of these themes can be traced back to how they relate to the very earth itself, as well as the magic-esk orogeny used to control it. Orogeny is many things in the world of the Stillness, inspiring awe and fear, hate and reverence. But the aspect that I focused on for much of my early readings of the book was the sense of justice that came bundled along with it. What I had focused on originally had been the power dynamic between the orogenes and the stills, those with and without the ability to control the earth respectively. How the expected dynamic between the two groups had been turned on its head as those with these powers were hunted by those who lacked them. And though my thoughts on the world of the Stillness have changed, the many ways justice, or the lack of it, is embodied by the earth and orogeny do much to embody my understanding of the books and their characters. 

The focus of the series has to do with orogenes and their interactions with both the earth itself as well as the people that they share the Stillness with. It is these interactions that influence much of what is considered just within the world, and my perception of it has evolved along with the characters’ understanding of it. To start, the relationship between the stills and the orogenes is one where justice is thrown to the wayside. Orogenes are feared and despised by those that lack their power and are hunted simply for existing. Whether or not their fear is based on actual backing or purely superstition does not matter to them, as their fear only adds to their hatred. Several examples of this blind hatred can be seen throughout the books, particularly in the third book, The Stone Sky. At the end of many of the book’s chapters, there will be a historical passage about an instance where an orogene revealed who they truly were through use of their powers, only to be brutally tortured and murdered by the stills they had known before. Many of these orogenes use their powers to help their villages, only for their kindness to be met with hate and violence. While my understanding of the power dynamic between these groups at the start of the series was already clear, the plethora of examples that Jemisin provides the reader only serves to further prove the unjust nature of this hatred; how it stems from a lack of understanding, and how the innocent are more than often slaughtered simply for the crime of existing. 

Regarding this sense of justice, there is another relationship worth exploring within the Stillness; that of the relationship between humanity and Father Earth. Within the story, it is revealed that the earth is more than just soil and minerals, but has a consciousness of its own. It is the force that controls the Guardians, as well as the force responsible for all the natural disasters that humanity faces on the surface. Father Earth, as the earth is called by the characters, seeks revenge on humanity for the loss of his child, the Moon. Though the people alive now were in no way responsible for the loss of the Moon, Father Earth continues to barrage the surface with these attacks through the fuel of revenge. And though the consciousness embodying the earth may feel as though these attacks are justified, there is no justice to a natural disaster. A natural disaster is indiscriminate in who it hurts, there can be no targets of the damage that they cause. The earthquakes and tsunamis that the people of the Stillness face care little whether one is a still or an orogene. And this disregard for life is reflected much in the real-world consequences of natural disasters. As me and my group saw when studying the effects of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the loss of life there was in no way just. The people who lost their lives were not killed for any higher purpose. And even beyond the senseless death, the amount of history that was lost through the destruction of art was indiscriminate as well. There is no justice to natural disasters, and whether they are fueled by revenge or not, the death caused by natural disasters can never be justified. 

Aside from Father Earth, the other force that takes the movement of the earth into their own hands is the orogenes. And being the ones who get to choose how the earth moves at many times, their own personal sense of what is right and wrong gets put to the test once they set about using their powers towards some sort of goal. A clear example of this can be seen at the very start of the first book, The Fifth Season, when the character Alabaster decides to destroy the city of Yumenes. Alabaster, after having suffered for many years from working under the Fulcrum, finally decides that enough is enough and chooses to destroy the capital city using a fault line. To do so, he uses the orogeny of the many node maintainers to fuel his own, killing them as a result. However, he is successful, and before long the entirety of the Stillness is plunged into a Fifth Season that will last for thousands of years. Alabaster’s actions in this moment are motivated by many different factors, but despite all the death he inflicts upon the world one of his main motives is love. He holds so much love for the node maintainers who have been forced by both the Fulcrum as well as the whole of society to serve as little more than tools, so much so that he would justify killing them as an act of mercy. Though the loss of life in any sense is inherently bad, Alabaster takes the justice of the world into his own hands and chooses who is worthy to live or die, motivated by hate, love, or even a mixture of both at times. It is not his right to decide what is morally correct, and yet through his connection to the earth he is allowed the opportunity to do just that. 

Regarding the idea of love and hate interacting through the medium of orogeny, there is no character in Jemisin’s trilogy that embodies this quite like Essun. Essun’s journey across the Stillness is motivated by a multitude of things, constantly changing as more and more information comes to light. Her journey at first is motivated by the desire to kill her former husband for murdering their son, and to save her daughter from him. As the plot progresses, though, and Essun becomes more and more intertwined with the people of Castrima, Essun’s focus later becomes keeping her fellow com members alive, even at the cost of halting her search for her daughter. But even though her direction changes, her motivations are still tied to both love and hatred. Being one of the most powerful orogenes of all time allows her the ability to hold the fate of many people’s lives in her hands, and oftentimes she teeters between wanting to cut all ties or create friendships, such as when she uses the force of her abilities to intimidate the Castrimans to follow her orders. These values of love and hate also define much of her relationships with others, often holding intense feelings of hate towards people like Jija before she later realizes that it is worth more to love those she still has. The worth of each value is sometimes ignored for the other, but Essun always seems to bounce between the two. And as these values are so impactful to Essun as a character, her orogeny is also intertwined with them. Essun proves time and time again that she is willing to cause destruction if it is for the sake of those she loves, or even as a weapon against those she hates. The earth becomes a vessel for her, defending or attacking those who she deems fit to protect or attack. While Alabaster’s sense of justice is explored in his decision to destroy Yumenes, Essun’s morals are put to the test around every corner of the book, all the way to the end where she is faced with the decision of stopping her daughter from destroying the world or fighting to save it. Her journey evolves alongside her abilities, but her connection to these values of love and hatred remain constant throughout her story. 

Orogeny is an interesting basis for a story. While supernatural abilities are common in the world of literature, the way that the world of the Stillness has evolved around the presence of this ability and the people who wield it reinforces its importance. But the influence of the earth is revealed by the third book to be so much more than just the materials of orogeny. It comes to represent so much for each of the characters, ranging from morality to revenge to even the simple feeling of love, serving as the connection between characters. The world of The Broken Earth Trilogy is one that is filled with strife. With chaos and injustice, values that can unfortunately be seen reflected in our own world. But after having finished the series, I can say that there is also hope in unlikely places. There are people who try to defy the unfair odds. And there is love, love between people and love through the earth. Jemisin has crafted a world that is not black and white and shows the readers the truth of how things are through a fantastical lens. It was a joy to read the series, and I can only hope that the value of love that she explores can make its way more and more into our world. 

Geology’s Influence on Powerlessness and Power

The name of the continent that the story of The Fifth Season takes place on is, as the author N. K. Jemisin admits at the beginning of the book, quite ironic. It is the title of a land that is constantly barraged with natural disasters, many of which are so potent that they make the founding of a prosperous and long-lasting civilization practically impossible. However, Jemisin makes it very clear from early on that the people of the Stillness have many times tried to start civilizations, only to fail due to the chaotic nature of the land. These civilizations, referred to by many of the characters as ‘deadcivs’, have left artifacts across the land as bits and pieces of warning to the land’s current inhabitants; whether it be showcasing areas where it’s unfit to build through ruins or through the ‘Stonelore’ that had been passed down indicating how best to survive the slew of natural disasters the earth has to offer. And yet, despite their usefulness, it seems that many of the characters do not remember these civilizations, or worse yet have altered the history surrounding them for their own benefit. Though not much is known about many of these civilizations by the end of the first book, it is clear that much of their history has been taken away by the whims of the earth itself. And on a different note, there are also the orogenes to consider when it comes to the relationship between geology and power. Being able to manipulate the earth since birth, the orogenes are both feared for the powers that they wield as well as hated for being different from what is considered by the world to be normal. Despite having access to wildly destructive powers, orogenes are either murdered simply for existing or forced to serve under the Fulcrum, which trains them to use their powers as tools for a larger cause rather than letting them simply exist. Their access to this monumental power does nothing but turn them into targets, reversing the expected power dynamic one may think to see. In both the cases of the deadcivs as well as orogenes, the impact of geology impacts their place in the world of the Stillness, as well as how both are perceived. 

The remains of the deadcivs are a common sight along the roads built by the empire Yumenes. As Syenite, one of the narrators and central characters of the story, rides along one of these roads, she sees “Another ruin, and it must be truly massive if she can see it from here.” (123) Illustrated by the fact that seeing a huge ruin off in the distance from the main road is a common enough occurrence, the ruins of these civilizations unable to brave the conditions of the Stillness are quite common. Due to the fact that there are just so many ruins, it seems most likely that, over the years, many civilizations had tried and failed to properly establish themselves. The idea that civilizations like these can rise and fall so quickly relates one of the ideas presented by Amos Nur and Dawn Burgess in the intro to their book Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God. In this introduction they introduce the concept of ‘catastrophism’, which is “… a sudden, typically unpredicted natural disaster that leads to abrupt changes in a culture or lifestyle that has been stable for a long time” (2). This type of natural disaster that might cause changes to a culture are quite common in the world of The Fifth Season, and so it makes sense that such a disaster might bring an end to a civilization that wasn’t fully prepared. However, this may also at times mean that an entire civilization of people are wiped out in the process, with little agency in defending themselves from the earth’s rage. There is no right or wrong when a natural disaster wipes out an entire civilization, but the immense loss of life is, at the end of the day, inherently unfair. These disasters are unfair, and it is interesting to witness just how often the earth rears its head on the people of The Stillness.

In contrast to the unpredictability talked about earlier, the orogenes are able to predict and manipulate the earth in a much more direct sense. Having the ability since birth to manipulate seismic activity, the orogenes are seen as both incredibly powerful as well as chaotic beings by those without their powers, who are referred to by the orogenes as ‘stills’. And because these stills do not understand and fear these powers, the orogenes spend the majority of the book being hated and persecuted for simply being what they are. As one of the main characters, Damaya, discovers after her hometown of Palela finds out that she is an orogene, “The people of Palela want to kill Damaya. But that’s wrong, isn’t it? They can’t really, can they?” (40) This average town is so fearful of the orogenes and their powers that they’re willing to kill a child, even if she was acceptable up until her identity was discovered. Damaya herself is incredulous that the people she grew up with could turn on her so quickly, but it only goes to show how deep and unfair this hatred truly is. This fear of the orogenes stems in part from the fear of geological disasters, a fear that is well encapsulated in the LiveScience article “The Earth Breathes In Incredibly Creepy Video From Canadian Forest”. The article depicts a scene in which it seems the earth itself is swelling up and down, bringing trees with it. Though the article later clarifies that this phenomenon is in fact caused by wind, the fear that it inspires is real enough to get people’s attention, seeing how the video has ended up on Twitter. The relationship between power and justice in the case of the orogenes is rather strange, as although they are in possession of a much greater power than the stills they are still the ones treated the most unjustly. A fear that started with the earth is directed at those who manipulate it, even if they have done nothing to deserve it. 

These two cases represent two different, yet somehow similar relationships with the earth and what it is capable of. For the civilizations of the Stillness, the natural disasters that plague the continent strip them of their power as a people, wiping out their peoples and cultures until they are nothing but ruins. And for the orogenes, while the earth has granted them immense power through their ability to manipulate it, they are subject to the scorn of the stills and face wild acts of injustice. Though each group has its own distinct relationship with the ground they walk on, both of them face peril because of it. As the book often states, ‘Father Earth’ is angry. And by seeing the fates of these two groups, that sentiment speaks for itself.

The Choice to Notice

The mindset I had when approaching this class this semester was that I had a solid understanding of how to connect texts. I had worked on essays in other classes where I had to draw connections between differing subject material, and while this task was not always simple, I was relatively confident in my knowledge of noticing these connections. And though I think that this confidence was well justified to some extent, much of this course has expanded my understanding of how I go about making connections between different works, how to notice more minute details in books through more directed reading, and how to work alongside others better when it comes to dissecting reading material. For one thing, the course epigraph is something that I’ve found myself coming back to time and time again throughout most of this semester: “My job is to notice, and to notice that you notice.” As someone who spends a lot of time trying to understand a book when I read it, I’ve done my best to notice as much of a book as I can as I read it. However, in many of the books we read this semester, it was somewhat of a challenge to notice the connections between them, particularly towards the latter half of the semester. While the earlier books we read, such as Fortune’s Bones and Home seemed more obviously connected, some of the later works were a bit harder to compare in the same sort of way. A big connecting factor that I have found throughout most of the course works, in fact, connects directly to how I feel I’ve grown this semester, and it is the fact that many of these stories revolve around what characters choose and don’t choose to notice. 

         The text that I felt that had the biggest impact on me as I read was Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem by Marylin Nelson. This book is both a series of poems as well as a collection of information about the life and death of a man named Fortune. He is described in the text as being “… a husband, a father, a baptized Christian, and a slave.” (12) However, after his death, his remains were kept around by the man who had owned him in life, Dr. Preserved Porter, and his family. Initially preserved for the study of human anatomy, Fortune’s remains were treated like an heirloom, being hidden away in an attic, and even displayed in a museum, the name of Fortune now being replaced by the name Larry. And though this treatment of one’s remains is already reprehensible enough, what’s even more unfair to the man they belonged to is that people refused to notice that Fortune had been a person once. Rather than face the reality that the bones they were looking at had belonged to someone, most people who saw Fortune’s remains ignored their history for the sake of preserving a sugarcoated reality. It is this lack of noticing that caused Fortune’s history to remain lost for so many years and caused the remains to be viewed simply as an attraction at a museum. This ties in closely with the course epigraph, displaying how by choosing not to notice the truth to an obvious reality, one makes things easier for themselves by avoiding their job of ‘noticing’. And I feel that this particular text has helped me personally grow in my ability to notice. Though I had read the course epigraph prior, I hadn’t really made a connection between the two, and had assumed that the text associated more so with the course itself. However, thanks to working alongside my group mates for the first collaborative essay, I was able to make this connection between the two. I feel that I’ve gotten better at getting past my initial impressions and interpretations of texts, such as how I at first interpreted the poem “Not My Bones” on page 25 as Fortune’s freedom from slavery but later saw that it could also be seen as Fortune separating who he was from the character people have created out of his remains. By expanding my understanding of how the texts connected through the help of my group mates, I’ve noticed that my reading and understanding in later texts in this course has been a bit easier, though the connections between course texts haven’t always been obvious to me.

         One of the texts I greatly enjoyed but was at first unsure of how to connect to the other course texts was Zone One, which tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic America that has been overrun by a virus that turns people into zombies, though the characters and author do not refer to them as such. The audience sees the story through the eyes of Mark Spitz, a member of a civilian sweeper unit whose job it is to clear out Manhattan of ‘skels’, the name used to refer to zombies. When Mark Spitz first encounters a group of these skels, though, he immediately assigns them titles based on their physical appearance, such as calling one of them a ‘Marge’ based on her hairstyle. By referring to these skels in this way, Mark limits how much of the details and humanity of the skels enemies he will notice. By doing so simplifies the ordeal of killing them without remorse. This was an idea that my group discussed in length while we worked on the second reflective essay; the idea that limiting your perception of another human being can often make it easier for one to treat them unfairly. Zone One’s case this is a bit more extreme than the examples we found in other texts, such as the unchanging perception of Alice Achitophel in Zulus by Percival Everett. However, the same sort of voluntary ignorance of the humanity of another still applies, as Mark Spitz attempts to separate the skels from the living humans they once were to ease the burden on himself of killing them. This ignorance is semi-justified, as any moment of hesitation may lead to his demise at the hands of the skels, but that does not make his refusal to notice any less apparent. I feel that this trait he has taken on ties in well both to the course epigraph as well as the other texts. Mark makes the choice to not notice aspects of the skels, limiting his perception for the sake of a goal. He avoids his job of noticing, much like the way the people at the museum did not acknowledge the fact that the remains on display had once belonged to a living, breathing person. As the story progresses, though, Mark Spitz inevitably starts connecting the skels with people from his past. He is at points forced to remember the humanity that the skels had once held before eventually succumbing to the virus, and falters to both defend himself and put the skels out of their misery. While the scales are by no means the same, I noticed that there is also a connection between this and my journey with the course epigraph. Through this course, I’ve been made aware of all sorts of different ways to connect literature. While this wasn’t forced upon me by life-or-death circumstances, I still had to notice things about these texts in the same way that Mark Spitz noticed the similarities between skels and his past relationships. Both my job and his is to notice, and whether we chose to acknowledge it or not. 

         Between these two texts, alongside all the other texts we read this semester, I’ve learned a lot of different ways to make connections between literature. I’ve had to search both on my own as well as with a group, noticing similar aspects that I wouldn’t think to have checked otherwise. It was my assumption at first that this skill would only help me in the classroom, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that this wasn’t exactly the case. I’ve been trying to notice more about my perception of the people around me as well, not limiting myself to first impressions and instead trying to notice more minute details about them. It’s due to this course that I’ve noticed these sorts of details. And by adhering to the course epigraph even after the end of this course, I will endeavor to continue my job; of both noticing, and to notice what others notice. 

Goal Setting Essay: The Awareness of Yourself and Others

The course epigraph, a quote by Dionne Brand, says “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice,”. The first thing that came to my mind after reading this quote a few times was a sense of awareness. The idea that one should not only be aware of all the things that go on around them, but also know what they are presenting to others and what they are aware of. Additionally, it made me consider how an individual needs to be aware of the fact that what they are perceiving may not be the full picture. How one perceives others, the world around them and how they themselves are perceived has played a big part in much of the worlds’ history, and has also featured prominently in several of the works we have read since the start of the semester. In both fiction as well as nonfiction literature, the world views of the characters are often radically different based on what they notice in the world around them. This can also apply to real-life personal relations, as well as real world current events. And throughout our texts, one of the major throughlines throughout each of them seems to be one’s awareness of themselves and others.

One of the texts that I noticed about this idea was in the Journal of Clinical Investigation article by Peter Hotez, America’s deadly flirtation with antiscience and the medical freedom movement. The article discusses how, for as long as vaccinations have been around, there have been vocal groups that have actively opposed their usage for a wide variety of reasons. These beliefs stem from the ideal of medical freedom, and the alternate medicinal methods and counterarguments that have been suggested range from herbal medications to nutritional supplements, and even to the belief that the “…measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine replicated in the colons of children to cause pervasive developmental disorder (autism),” (2) These beliefs have become more and more prevalent now that the threat of Covid-19, and are an example of how one’s perception of the world can end up being a negative. By locking oneself into the belief that vaccines can only cause harm, you endanger both yourself as well as the people close to you to avoidable diseases. These groups fail to notice the overwhelming evidence that claims the vaccines are safe, and are seemingly trapped by their perceptions of what they deem to be ‘proper’ medicine. While it is definitely important to have medical freedom, it is also important to be able to notice the benefits that vaccines offer.

Another aspect of the article that fits this idea is the section about specific groups being targeted by this mentality. Many groups have been targeted by these kinds of groups, such as the Somali immigrant community in Minnesota in 2017, the Orthodox Jewish community in New York and New Jersey and the targeting of African American communities in places such as Harlem. Due to many of these campaigns, many people ended up sick with easily avoidable diseases. By viewing these sorts of groups in a harsher light, these anti vaccination groups end up putting these communities in danger simply to prove that their viewpoint is the correct one. This ties in to the idea of how one notices others, as these anti-vaccination groups take notice of groups like these and target them with their own perceptions of vaccinations. They alter what these groups notice in an attempt to control how they view a medical procedure that works to keep people safe, rather than allowing them to form their own independent opinions. And it is groups like these that make me want to better understand the work I am reading as I read it. Groups like these can come to be based on a belief that has little to no evidence backing it, and it’s a scary thought that they would put others in danger because of it. When I experience an article or book in the future, I believe that it will be extremely important for me to gather my own research on a topic I don’t understand before my opinion of the subject is affected by the author’s bias. And although I cannot affect the actions of the people in the groups mentioned before, I would hope that they would do the same.

Toni Morrison’s Home also portrays several interesting ways in which characters notice the world around them, particularly with the main character Frank. Having grown up in the small town of Lotus with parents who are hardly around, a grandmother who hardly loved him, and a sister who he constantly had to look out for, Frank’s childhood was filled with a fair amount of stress and fear. Because of this, he and his two friends grew to hate both their town and what it represented, and longed to leave it and join the army. However, when he returns to his hometown when his sister is in desperate need of medical attention, he begins to notice small things about the town that he had never seen when he was a child. As he walks down the road to pass the time, he notices small things about the town, and comments “Had the trees always been this deep, deep green?” (116). His view of his hometown had before been so affected by the circumstances of his childhood, but having returned to the town with fresh eyes. he suddenly see it for all the beauty it has always had. This ties in to the idea of how one can perceive the world around them, as so much of what you notice as an individual can tie in to your past experiences. While most people will not have as much of a troubled past as Frank, the experiences one has throughout life will nonetheless tint the way you see the world and form opinions. And it is precisely because of this that you must inform yourself about subjects before forming these opinions instead of relying entirely on pre-existing biases.

Both the article as well as the book make it clear that informing oneself on a subject before forming an opinion is vital if one is to properly perceive the world around them. And I believe this can extend to a much smaller scale as well. Even in cases like the in-class discussions that we have had so far, gaining as much information on the subject matter before the class can be a great boon for the discussion, as you may be able to provide more to the conversation. Having the course epigraph mention how important it is for me to notice things makes it quite clear that I must continue to strive to be aware of all the factors surrounding both me as well as the works we read in class. Due to this, I keep the epigraph in mind as we continue with the semester, and will pursue self-growth in regards to how I view the world around me. 

Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. Home. New York: Vintage Books, 2012. Print

Hotez, Peter J. “America’s Deadly Flirtation with Antiscience and the Medical Freedom Movement.” Journal of Clinical Investigation, vol. 131, no. 7, 2021,