The Broken Earth Trilogy as a Study of the Social Sciences

The Broken Earth trilogy tells a story rooted in the social sciences, its gripping plotlines and diverse, complex characters sowing the various branches, with observations and statements about systems of power and the imbalance of justice within these systems unfurling like leaves. 

To recap from my first reflective piece, social science is the study of human society and societal relationships and can be broken down into archaeology, anthropology, geography, history, law, politics, psychology, and sociology, to name a few. For N.K. Jemisin, who has a degree in psychology, her works commonly center around a social system in which, as Raffi Khatchadourian describes it after an interview with Jemisin, “the oppressed often possess an enormous capacity for agency—a supernatural ability, even, that their oppressors lack—but they exist in a society that has been engineered to hold them down. Eventually, the world is reordered, often with a cataclysm.

It’s not just the degree that makes this a subject of interest for Jemisin though. As a Black author, Jemisin is also conscious of the long history of the science fiction genre marginalizing minority writers, continuously failing these authors by putting white men at the forefront of who’s recognized within the genre. As one study of Jemisin’s trilogy presented through a masters thesis by Imogen Bagnall points out, “Science fiction and African-American interests were seen as mutually exclusive categories, as the most dominant representatives of the science fiction and fantasy author—and readership were white men. This assumption, however, is baseless, and is merely representative of the ethnocentrism and racial bias prevalent in almost all social and commercial spheres.

I noted in my reflection on The Fifth Season that Jemisin intentionally combats the racism within the genre by presenting a story told through “a slate of people of different colors and motivations who don’t often appear in a field still dominated by white men and their protagonist avatars,” as Vann R. Newkirk II wrote for The Atlantic. Reviewing the characters of the first novel, I focused on the three main girls and women, all described by Jemisin to be “Orogenes,” a race classified by their “ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to address seismic events,” and how these characters document the systematic oppressions against Orogenes because of their abilities. While the Orogenes do not have visually distinct traits and can be from any region, the main characters are all “Midlatter,” which is a multiracial group. Perhaps this should have forewarned me for what we would discover later in the trilogy, which is that these three girls and women are actually the same person, just broken across periods of her life and accordingly narrated with or through the name she identified with during those times.

Crucially, though, the discovery that these three characters are all the same person does not diminish the character diversity in the novel. In fact, the character diversity increases as more individuals are introduced and the storyline threads deeper into Orgogenic history and beyond. 

During the time of the Orogenes, it is explained through stonelore that Orogenes are “born evil—some kind of agents of Father Earth, monsters that barely qualify as human” and that they are the reason why Father Earth seems to hate the human race, constantly waging war against humanity through brutal Seasons, which lorists say originates with the Orogenes separating the Moon from Father Earth, sending his child out of alignment.

By the third book though, it is divulged that before there were Orogenes, there were tuners who also had abilities and were created in the image of the Niess, a race who was tyrannized through war and defamed. Hoa, the immortal character who we discover has been narrating the sections of the novels told through third person, was once a tuner and he recounts that in the early years of his life, “It became easy for scholars to build reputations and careers around the notion that Niess sessapinae were fundamentally different, somehow—more sensitive, more active, less controlled, less civilized—and that this was the source of their magical peculiarity. This was what made them not the same kind of human as everyone else. Eventually: not as human as everyone else. Finally: not human at all.”

Reading through the abuses to both of these minority groups within the trilogy makes readers aware of the notion that “Trauma and oppression work cyclically, as each generation of oppressors infects the next with notions of prejudice and discrimination, and each generation of the oppressed are re-traumatised by the collective memory of the past,” as expressed by Bagnall. This cycle has been described before as a donut, which is depicted below. There are certain needs, built on social foundations, that all people have and, if these are not being met for all, a whirlpool of trauma is created. However, as seen with both The Broken Earth trilogy and the graphic, social institutions are not the only possible source for trauma since an abuse of the climate can also disrupt the “safe and just space for humanity,” meaning that resources have become so exploited that the Earth is endangered. With the trilogy, we see these lacking social foundations and ruptures of the ecological ceilings lead to the Seasons, a time when societies are forced to reset as the homes they built and the societies they formed are demolished by natural disaster. But each and every time, as we see by the end of the first book, society chooses to once again build the same social foundations and continue to overuse the materials the Earth provides. This is why, in the second and third books, Jemisin writes of love so powerful that it can shake the oppressive foundations society tries to rebuild during the most recent Season.

(Above is the donut graphic that Dr. Reitz introduced us to this semester.)

The first powerful love that Jemisin explores, based on the timeline of events in the novel, has lasted centuries, even as Hoa’s memories of his siblings have ebbed and receded in the vast ocean that is time. Since his existence was also built on social inequity, Hoa and his siblings lived in ignorance of the true severity of their situation until a woman named Kelenli was introduced to them and quickly became “something to lose” to Hoa. She also became a source of knowledge, and as the siblings learned about their conditions and where their siblings who had been taken away were sent, they found a collective desire to overthrow the system. In a heart-rending moment in book three, when the tuners resist at the same time the Moon does, resulting in is misalignment with Father Earth, Hoa recalls, “We entwine our presences in a layer of cold coal, which is perhaps fitting as Remwha sends a hiss through all of us like sand grinding amid cracks. It’s an echo of the static emptiness in our network where Tetlewha—and Entiwha, and Arwha, and all the others—once existed.”

Centuries later, we meet Nassun, the daughter of Essun and a crucial character beginning in book two, and witness her grief and fervent attachments as she learns that blood-related family isn’t always the strongest source of love. After her parents have tarnished her perceptions of the loving relationships they could have had with her, Nassun depends on Schaffa, a Guardian. In order to keep this love intact, Nassun essentially destroys the last Fulcrum, a sort of school where Orogenes were kept and forcefully bent to the wills of non-Orogenic people, when she realizes it was what made her mother “something else” and “wrong” in the sense that she couldn’t love Schaffa, who was also her Guardian, like Nassun does. Although Nassun did this to prevent her love for Schaffa from souring, it also marks the end of the Fulcrum’s presence at this point in the timeline.

Now, the main character Essun experiences many different loves. She loves her children, her romantic partners, and has even come to love the people in the comm that she has been a part of throughout much of the Season. The most powerful attestation of love in her life though is actually her death, when she meets her daughter again after years of searching and, even though they have different motives and beliefs on how to end the Season, Essun tries to laugh with pride as she dies, narrated as, “So rusting amazing, your little girl. You are proud to lose to her strength.” It’s these actions that make Nassun consider that “the world took and took” from her mother as well, though “for some reason that she does not think she’ll ever understand…even as you died, you were reaching for the Moon.” No matter her understanding though, Nassun ultimately decides to use her abilities to bring the Moon back into alignment with the Earth as her mother intended, which ends the Season and will predictably alter social foundations.

You might notice, if you had read my first reflection on The Broken Earth trilogy, that I’ve hardly mentioned geology compared to how in-depth I explored it before. This is partly because I think that after Jemisin drew the attention of readers and proved her wealth of knowledge and ethos with the first book, she could play around with the science fiction elements. Of course, these elements are still rooted in real geology, like the concept of the moon being separated from the Earth and causing the Seasons coming from a question at a NASA workshop that Jemisin attended. Mostly, though, it’s because sociology becomes a driving force as the trilogy progresses, as Essun makes more relationships and experiences more love, which invigorates her desire to quake unjust social foundations and assert her power after others have wrongfully suppressed it for far too long.

Geographically Induced Injustice in “The Fifth Season”: Let’s get to thinkING

N.K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season presents a complex and engaging narrative that seriously  addresses issues of injustice and inequity through her studious worldbuilding. This was evident  from the first moment I picked up the book. I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between the  injustice experienced by the Orogens (enslaved people who can manipulate kinetic energy to  control seismic movement) and the experiences of marginalized and oppressed groups from  throughout the world, particularly the U.S. The Novel incited me to begin to examine the relationship between  justice and geography in an interdisciplinary understanding, which for me led to some  surprising realizations supported by Jemisin’s writing and related research. To put it plainly, it seems to me that Jemisin suggests that injustice and inequity can be exacerbated  and even created by impartial geographical circumstances. 

Before tackling the issues I believe Jemisin is proposing through her writing I will  provide brief context for the novel as a whole. The story itself is set in a region of the world  called “The Stillness” where the earth experiences destructive “seasons” that threaten to destroy  communities and extinct humanity. In order to combat this unforgiving planet, the communities  of the Stillness harness the power of Orogenes, who, as previously mentioned, are enslaved by  the Fulcrum to use their powers to control the earth’s restlessness so it is less volatile.  Communities construct “Nodes”, facilities where Node Maintainers (also orogenes) quell shakes  for communities throughout the Stillness, ensuring no loss of life or destruction of communities.  “In the Equatorials, the nodes’ zones of protection overlap, so there’s nary a twitch; this, and the  Fulcrum’s presence at its core, is why Yumenes can build as it does” (119). Jemisin establishes  that this is an unforgiving environment and the communities in this environment are only held  together by the effort of the Node Maintainers and other orogenes. Every second of existence is a  feat when one considers the how volatile the planet is. The power of the orogenes is all that  keeps the balance. By establishing this fact, Jemisin also introduces the idea of geographically  induced injustice.  

When two orogenes named Syenite and Alabaster investigate one of the nodes in a place  called Mehi, they find the corpse of the node maintainer. Much to Syenite’s shock and horror,  the maintainer is a child. “The body in the node maintainer’s chair is small, and naked. Thin, its  limbs atrophied. Hairless. There are things—tubes and pipes and things, she has no words for  them—going into the stick-arms, down the goggle-throat, across the narrow crotch” (139). Not  only is the maintainer– the person enlisted to control seismic activity in that region– a child,  they are malnourished and abused. In the Stillness, orogenic children can and will be abused,  tortured, and enslaved to ensure the safety of the greater society. The node maintainers stop any  earthquakes that could result in massive destruction. Through this horrifying example of  worldbuilding Jemisin seems to be establishing the case that injustice can often be caused or exacerbated by the demands of geography.  

Luckily, there are other examples of this idea of geographically induced injustice in the  novel to consider that are far less graphic than the abuse of a child. Later in the story Alabaster  and Syenite are taken to safety on a relatively unknown island called Meov after having been attacked by a Guardian (a sort of soldier created to neutralize any rogue or dangerous orogenes).  Syenite describes the island. “The island is nothing but rolling hills and grass and solid rock—no  trees, no topsoil. An utterly useless place to live” (282). Agriculture is impossible on the rocky  island, and keeping cattle is just as unlikely due to the size of the island and its lack of fertile  soil. The topography and geography of this region makes it almost unlivable. So, how do the  citizens of Meov get by? Well, due to the desperation of the topography, the islanders must use their seafaring ways and a little crime survive. “So Meov raids. They attack vessels along the  main trading routes, or extort comms for protection from attacks—yes their attacks” (294). Here  again I found that the geography of the regions in the Stillness create and exacerbate injustice, in this case injustice to the communities of the Stillness. What is interesting  about Jemisin’s depiction of the issue of geographical injustice in this case is that both “sides” of  the story engage in it. In the case of the communities of the Stillness their geographical survival  is ensured by the enslavement and abuse of powerful children. In the case of the community of  Meov, they ensure their geographical survival by killing Merchants, raiding communities, and  taking what is not theirs. Meov must act unjustly to keep their people alive. Now, my interest is not to compare the degrees in which these actions  are unjust or immoral, my only interest is to point out what I noticed, that Jemisin is clearly tying geography to injustice, and after looking at some relevant research presented in class, it is understandable why. 

It turns out Jemisin seems so keen on pointing out the connection between geography and  injustice because it is extremely relevant in the discussion of justice and equity as well as discussions in science. In an article published by the Columbia Climate School titled “Earthquakes May Endanger New York More Than Thought, Says Study”, authors Leonardo Seeber and John Armbruster discuss the risk that seismic activity has on New York City and other places located on minor fault lines, as opposed to major faults like near California and Japan. Their research found that New York City, although not a frequent hotspot for large earthquakes, could be susceptible to high amounts of damage due to the confluence of multiple smaller tremors. Seeber notes that the effects of these tremors would affect some communities in New York City more than others. “Earthquake-resistant building codes were not introduced to New York City until 1995, and are not in effect at all in many other communities. Sinuous skyscrapers and bridges might get by with minimal damage, said Sykes, but many older, unreinforced three- to six-story brick buildings could crumble”. Here, represented in data and research we have an example of real world geographically exacerbated and induced inequity. People from low income neighborhoods which often do not have the money to remodel buildings so they are earthquake resistant, will be disproportionately affected if a natural disaster like a strong earthquake should happen. The marginalized, minority communities which have been oppressed through systematic structural racism in housing communities will feel the ramifications of a natural disaster far more than a wealthier  person in a newer, more expensive building. When geographical disasters take place the oppression minority communities face is only exacerbated. As I am limited in space, I won’t delve into the ways that geography was used to oppress communities in the U.S through redlining, gerrymandering, and other strategies, just note that they are there, waiting for discussion. What is evident is that due to structural inequality, when disaster comes, it is the oppressed communities that unduly feel the ramifications. 

The final example of Geographically induced/exacerbated inequality and or injustice I would like to briefly discuss is a thought I derived while reading the “Guidelines on Preparedness Before, During and After an Ashfall” prepared by International Volcanic Health Hazard Network (IVHHN), Cities and Volcanoes Commission, GNS Science and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). While reading the preparedness guidelines, I noticed a recurring theme amongst the rules: a need for abundance. This can be seen looking at the first page of guidelines. “Enough drinking water for at least 72 hours – one gallon (3-4 litres) per person per day. Enough non-perishable food for at least 72 hours for family and pets…If cold, extra blankets and warm clothing. Extra stocks of medication for both family and pets…A small amount of money” (3). The guidelines state that in order to make it through an ashfall you should have extra clothes, food, medication, water, and even money. Can you think of how inequity might be exacerbated by an ashfall? Start by asking the question: how are people who are poor or oppressed expected to get this abundance of material? If one is to survive an ashfall one must have an abundance of these materials and the ability to stock resources, and until relatively recently the ability to stockpile resources has been a luxury, one not allowed to minority communities.

 I am uncertain where the rest of Jemisin’s Broken Earth series will take me, or how my understanding of her commentary on geography and justice will change, but as it stands right now Jemisin has gotten me thinkING about how injustice is created and perpetuated by things as simple and as impartial as geography. This leads me to believe that an interdisciplinary approach to solving issues of inequality and injustice is essential in getting lasting, meaningful change. Jemisin is toying with the ideas that justice is a relative luxury, and that the need to live can override ideas of justice and equity. She makes this idea clear in her worldbuilding, survival outweighs the luxury found in the concept of justice. I am uncertain if Jemisin is simply challenging the reader to sympathize with unjust people (like the pirates who help our progatogists), or simply stating that the need to live comes before the need to live justly. It is not clear to me what the answers to these questions are, but I look forward to continuing thinkING about these concepts as I read further.

Carving (Y)our (My) Stories

” In love, then, we shall seek understanding.”

  • – N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate

Oftentimes, when I’m writing, I feel as though I’m carving something out of stone — I’m writing and writing and writing and slowly an idea emerges from the haze of dust and rock, at first realized only in rough outlines, in the hint of a general idea, and slowly, s l o w l y I polish away the hard edges.  I have, truth be told, perfectionist tendencies that come into play when writing (when doing anything, really, god, you should have seen me try to play sports — practice does not make perfect when you expect yourself to be perfect on the first try) and these tendencies are most definitely not unusual, especially when many of us are released from a schooling system that incorporates in us  a certain idea not only of writing (how to write, what qualifies as effective and acceptable writing) but how to work. Even now, in writing this, I feel the perfectionism — which is in turn symptomatic of both my education and my anxiety— rising up inside me, in the constant questioning (Is this good enough? Is this long enough? What will they think of this? Is this comprehensive enough? Is this good? Is it great? Is it the best it can be?) of my own work. In writing I sometimes feel trapped in my anxieties, in my thoughts, so judgemental of my own self, my own art, my own individual stories; I am caught in a spiral constantly folding in on itself as I question and question and question. 
Continue reading “Carving (Y)our (My) Stories”

Ex-Machina or That Which Was Formerly Machine

We were constructed as intentionally and artificially as the fragments you call obelisks. We are fragments of the great machine too . . . By our existence, we glorify the world that made us, like any statue, scepter or other precious object. We do not resent this, for our opinions and experiences have been carefully constructed, too. We do not understand that what Kelenli has come to give us is a sense of peoplehood. We do not understand why we have been forbidden this self-concept before now… but we will (Stone Sky 50).

Artificial intelligence.  Robots.  Cyborgs.  The steadfast fundamentals of sci-fi.  From I, Robot to Ex Machina, from the cybermen of Doctor Who to the cylons of Battlestar Galactica, the idea of living and cognizant technology has captured our imaginations for decades.  It’s a fascination that has developed and grown alongside our exploration and use of technology, one that, in a literary sense, likely has roots in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; we are fascinated, in a sense by creating that which is beyond ourselves, fascinated by the idea of becoming becoming almost as god.  In the concept of artificial intelligence we see the ability to not only push the boundaries of knowledge, but to push the boundaries of self.   Continue reading “Ex-Machina or That Which Was Formerly Machine”

On Beauty and Being Stone

In another course myself and Sabrina Bramwell are taking this semester, we are reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a novel based in exploring contemporary ideals of beauty, academia and self.  It is, in fact, a novel almost as completely opposite from Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy as possible, taking place not in a future other-world involving people who move mountains and eat stone, but instead in a contemporary other-but-still-quite-similar university and focusing upon the lives of two families riddled by ideological differences, affairs, issues of ethnicity, and art.  And yet, both Sabrina and myself have been finding a myriad of connections, especially to do with ideals of beauty, between the works, despite their seemingly enormous differences in genre and content.   Continue reading “On Beauty and Being Stone”

Utopetroleum (and Cow Farts™)

Life is sacred in Syl Anagist — as it should be, for the city burns life as the fuel for its glory.

Syl Anagist at first seems a utopia, projecting image of surface-level perfection: a society built around life, around a pure and clean energy source, a source that, in lasting forever, will allow for unhindered progress of the  empire. Yet, Kelenli’s lessons to the tuners break any illusions of perfection in revealing the oppressive framework upon which the empire’s energy, and thus, the empire’s survival, depends.  Continue reading “Utopetroleum (and Cow Farts™)”


By Abby “Opal” Ritz and Helen “Azurite” Warfle

On the first day of class, Professor McCoy asked us what our favorite rock was. Now that the semester is almost over and we have a more advanced knowledge of geology, we have decided to come back to this and give everyone a description of their rocks and note whether or not they are significant in the Broken Earth trilogy. It is clear that in the beginning of the semester, none of us knew the difference between a rock and a mineral as most people chose minerals, except for those who chose igneous rocks, sedimentary rocks, granite, slate, and shale (good job lads, you rock 😉 ).   Continue reading “WHAT’S THAT ROCK?”