The Reality of Balance and Love in The Broken Earth Trilogy

Love and geology may not be synonymous, but their relationship in N.K. Jemisin’s, The Broken Earth trilogy, is surprisingly solid. The characters in Jemisin’s trilogy lived lives where unpredictability was considered the norm. Because of this less-than-fortunate lifestyle, the love stories that came about were always faced with challenges that were not necessarily solvable. Only the healthiest, wealthiest, and most intelligent could survive during the seasons, and not every family/relationship made this cut. Sacrifices are often non-negotiable and intense, as Essun experienced first-hand many different times. One such sacrifice included suffocating her own child rather than letting him be taken by the Guardians of the Fulcrum. This act also drove a wedge between Essun and her child’s father/her long-time friend, mentor, and lover, Alabaster. Sacrifice is necessary in unpredictable times. Attachment without fear is a luxury few, if any, can afford.

In my original ThinkING Essay, I chose to write about balance. While the topic of balance remains an important part of the trilogy and relates closely to geological concepts, it is not always realistically attainable. Keeping the Earth restrained to create forced equilibrium will ultimately result in retaliation. As the series progressed, ideas and opinions began to shift. The use of aggressive force to keep balance, or in some cases love, will often end up backfiring. Each relationship that Essun experiences has some sort of impact on her, and causes her life to shift in one way or another.

Every character, in this trilogy as well as in reality, has their own story. Motives cannot always be understood, and decisions cannot always be explained without context. Certain things require trust, which is a difficult request to make when the world is constantly changing and falling apart around these characters. The unique romantic relationships that Essun experiences throughout The Broken Earth trilogy are each important to her development in different ways; with the ever-present yet slightly looked-over message of love being one of the only themes that stays consistent throughout the series. Balance, love, power, and justice are all products of life on Earth.

Balance and safety are something that many people crave, and many people take for granted. Essun had spent most of her life lacking both, or having one and not the other. Orogenes are very rarely safe from threats and unprovoked attacks. Additionally, while the Fulcrum did technically offer young Damaya a form of balance, her safety was never guaranteed. In fact, her first introduction to the Fulcrum was Schaffa, the perfect example of what the Fulcrum represents. Polite, direct, and professional outwardly, but cruel, manipulative, and power-hungry inwardly, Schaffa had Damaya wrapped around his finger almost immediately, as he offered what she lacked: a home with others like her. However, to teach her control, Schaffa broke her hand. Love and power go hand in hand, and Schaffa is a character that knew how to play the game. Offer just enough love while instilling just enough fear. Damaya was immediately attached to him, and probably would have been to anyone who treated her halfway humane. 

There is a strong possibility that Essun reverted back to her younger self and the way Damaya loved. Syenite branched out and finally allowed herself to feel passion and even a bit of safety and comfort. Yet it was all ripped away from her just as her new life was truly beginning. Essun was stunted by her childhood, and repeated the behaviors of the Fulcrum with her daughter Nassun, which did not necessarily work out any better than it did for Essun. Essun had a traumatic childhood, but she didn’t change much for her own daughter. Many children who experience abuse don’t realize what it was until much later in their lives, and by the time this happened for Essun, Nassun’s image of her was already scarred. 

The relationship between Syenite and Alabaster was both tumultuous and beautiful. They were lovers by instruction, and with this assignment understandably brought about feelings of resentment. Forced breeding does not emanate a theme of romantic love, and forced collisions create a reaction that cannot be so easily controlled. Syenite and Alabaster were two of the most powerful orogenes, but with two strong personalities comes stubbornness and conflict. Syen and Alabaster always felt strong emotions towards one another, but these emotions started as negative ones, before slowly turning into love. This love was not strictly romantic, and their relationship always had a deep friendship at its core.

Once they began to trust each other and Syenite started to learn more about the true nature of the Fulcrum, she and Alabaster became a nearly unstoppable duo. Syenite did not ask questions before Alabaster, she simply did what she was told and did it well. Alabaster was a disruptive force in her life, but he also saved her from being a manipulated slave of the Fulcrum for the rest of her life.

Syenite’s time with Innon was the closest she came to a truly balanced life. She could still have Alabaster, one of the only people who really knew her and what she went through, but she could also have a passionate romance with Innon. Innon was the first time that Syenite really let go, and he was also part of her son’s life. While the relationship was short-lived and Innon died like most others in her life, he made a lasting impact on both Syenite and Alabaster that only furthered their intense connection.

Essun’s marriage to Jija was very representative of her craving for normalcy and escape from the chaos and loss in her life. With him she created a new family, became a teacher, and tried to move on. Yet, we cannot always outrun our past, and it will follow until it has been put to rest permanently. Essun could not hide her orogeny forever, especially when it manifested in her children and resulted in Uche’s death at the hands of Jija. Jija’s violent side was something that Essun had not seen before, and it shattered the illusion she had fought to create. She reverted back to her roots, and her decision to kill Jija was quick and solid.

Lerna was a steady presence in Essun’s life. He knew what she was, he was the one who found her after Jija murdered her son, and he provided her comfort in some of the most difficult times of her life. He loved her without an arm and without a breast, and did not show her resentment for the fact that she would not be able to give birth to his child. Lerna and Hoa were some of the most balanced, safe characters in Essun’s life, and also the two she seemed to feel the least passionate about. After Lerna’s sudden death, it took her a moment to even realize he was gone, and then she proceeded to say, “I didn’t even think I loved him.”

Hoa was the safe option for Essun. He was steady and reliable and she would not lose him. He was solid, in more ways than one. Hoa cared for Essun in a way that she was not used to. She was his priority, and he would have done anything to keep her safe. It took Essun a long time to realize this, as years of trauma had not allowed her to imagine a future with someone who could not die and leave her all alone.

Essun spent so much of her life being controlled, that her difficulty with being alone is understandable. The amount of loss and abandonment that she experienced was astronomical. She didn’t realize until she was being asked to make decisions with Ykka that she had choice and free-will in her life. After Schaffa and the Fulcrum, Syenite/Essun jumped from one relationship to the next, looking for comfort and understanding. Essun married Jija after she had lost Alabaster, Innon, and Coru. He was supposed to be her new beginning, but instead ended up killing one of her children and triggering trauma that he could never possibly understand.

Exploitation of both people and the Earth is abundant throughout the trilogy. Nearly everyone has a goal, and for many of the characters this was simply survival. For others, it was domination, power, and control over all. Jemisin states many times throughout the trilogy that the Earth “does not like to be restrained.” Using the Obelisks to fulfill a selfish agenda, and destroying Earth’s people and places in the process is a despicable act that impacted/ended countless lives. Love is arguably the deepest emotion that living beings can experience. Essun had to navigate through surviving life while also finding moments of happiness. She allowed herself to truly let go and love reluctantly, but her moments with Alabaster, Innon, Coru, Ykka, Tonkee, etc. showed her that life did not always have to be completely dark and isolated. Balancing pain and contentment is a difficult act, and the characters of The Broken Earth trilogy passionately represented the struggles of humanity. While a shake in Jemsin’s world results in mass death, the shakes and bumps in everyday life cannot be discounted either. Darkness is different for each individual, but everyone deserves to find a community that will embrace them. As Essun reflects at the end of The Stone Sky, “You keep yours open, though, as the world goes dark and strange. You feel no fear. You are not alone.”

Balance at the Heart of N.K. Jemisin’s “The Fifth Season”

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season contains many interesting interpretations of power and justice through the use of geological concepts. The Fifth Season engrosses readers by exploring the relationship between power, justice, and geological concepts. Jemisin’s “orogenes” have the power to control the inner workings of the Earth. They can calm earthquakes, or “shakes.” 

If you think about it, nature is all just one big balancing act. Tectonic plates, for example. Plates of rock sliding around one another, up and down, disrupting the ground we walk on. Nur and Burgess write, “They are intimately related to the surface topography and deep structure of the earth through a process called plate tectonics, and they cannot be understood in isolation.” When the scales are unbalanced, how is it exactly that we are to survive?

When plates shift, there is an imbalance of power. Nur and Burgess write, “In fact, the overwhelming majority of earthquakes, known as tectonic earthquakes, are caused by motion on faults.” The ground is caught off guard, chaos can ensue, there could simply be a rumble and nothing more. Yet anything that shifts under our feet has the power to throw us off balance. It’s the same with power and justice. When things shift, for better or for worse, a ripple effect is created that could slam some people while completely missing others altogether.

While geological concepts are an obvious example of how critical balance is, power and justice should not be ignored either. The balance of power is so often and easily disrupted in both nature and politics. Ultimately, this is because balance is difficult to obtain. It requires strength. There is a reason young children are encouraged to shuffle precariously across the dreaded balance beam, it builds their core strength, but achieving balance and strength is easier said than done. It is easy to be swayed. One way or another.

I can’t help but believe that the underlying message of The Fifth Season is one of balancing the unbalanced. Pulling shelves of rock back into place. Ensuring that lives aren’t lost simply because people fear the unknown too much to trust it, or them, in the case of Jemisin’s “orogenes.”

To answer the questions: Why should I care about science when I care about power and justice? Or, why should I care about power and justice when I am focused on science? The answer is simple. Why should you really care about anything? People say that they don’t care anymore, I’ve heard it often. In fact, I’ve said it often. That I just don’t care about anything anymore. Everytime I say those words, I know they aren’t true. The fact of the matter is that we’re human. We are preprogrammed to care. Maybe you do care more about power and justice than science, that’s okay. What’s not okay is putting all of your eggs in one basket, which brings us back to balance. 

Perhaps science is not your passion, but that doesn’t mean that you can simply ignore it. Ignoring something does not make it go away. And that is why we need balance. We need to find the space between nothing and everything and settle there for a bit. Really thinks things through thoroughly. Find solutions, innovate. Do not simply look for scapegoats, as Essun, one of Jemisin’s narrators points out. This is Jemisin’s point. Do not treat orogenes like the scum of the Earth but expect them to save everyone when disaster strikes. Another one of Jemisin’s narrator’s, Syenite, has a moment in which she realizes, “We are the gods in chains.” The people preserving life are the ones treated the most terribly. 

Do not give one group all the power. Find a balance, create a balance, much like Ykka did. She found a place to be safe, for the time being, and created a community. The orogenes on Alabaster and Syenite’s island also created their own way of living. They were getting along fine (for the most part) until they were disrupted by the Fulcrum and its Guardians, who could not handle the disruption of their rigid, set-in-stone system. Jemisin writes, “The earth does not like to be restrained.” If I had to guess, I would say the earth would prefer balance over restraint anyday. 

Jemisin writes, in terms of Syenite pondering Alabaster, “Maybe it gives him comfort to think their kind has some purpose, however terrible.” Purpose is as good a driving force as any. Living a life with a purpose, a path, a focus– it must make it easier, right? Or maybe it makes things even harder. Because now there is expectation. And with expectation there comes the possibility of disappointment.

“Even the least of us must serve the greater good,” Jemisin writes. The greater good. That’s always what it comes down to. No matter how many people are hurt or used, those in power only care about their systems, their rules, and inducing fear. Nur and Burgess write, “An earthquake begins at a single point within the earth, where the two sides of a fault start to slip past each other, a location called the earthquake’s focus.” Conflict concerning power can begin with a single person, a single cause. People split. They choose sides. They “slip past each other.” Every disagreement has a focus as well.

I believe that we are a planet of progression. We are placed here, flawed people raised in flawed systems, to learn a lesson. To make choices. To grow. To find balance. Jemisin writes, “‘We pass down the stonelore,’ Alabaster says, sitting up, ‘but we never try to remember anything about what’s already been tried, what else might have worked.’” A classic case of history repeating because people don’t change, they read and repeat. History, or “stonelore,” tells a story. Every story has morals, conflict and resolution, and usually an ending. But stories also teach. History teaches. It is up to the pupil to listen and learn. Nur and Burgess write, “Though earthquakes are unpredictable, they are not strictly random; they shape and are shaped by the structure of the earth as a whole.” Very few events are 100% random. Something usually sets off a chain reaction. Something throws off the balance. 

The way in which Jemisin carved a story with a heart of issues concerning justice and the imbalance of power, but also created an entire world centered around geological concepts, is an impressive feat. Her characters and their flaws beautifully portray the effects of discrimination, strength, courage and perseverance. We all need our rock. Our home. Our core. Sometimes it just needs to be slightly shifted.