Art by Joshua Mays
This essay contains spoilers. Don’t read it if you haven’t read the books!
Themes repeat and evolve in The Broken Earth as Jemisin’s narrative deepens. Seemingly unconnected events line up in strata, revealing Jemisin’s mastery of world-building and emotional resonance. The recurrence of themes raises characters’ pain to a crescendo, illustrating the different types of violence perpetrated by systems of oppression and the effects they have on the mind as well as the body. Jemisin uses the reader’s assumptions against them, challenging the traditional structure of a story and reminding us how complacent we are to accept reality as we first see it.
What Jemisin leaves out of the story is just as important as what she puts in. Damaya, Syenite and Essun only appear at first to be three separate women because we assume they are. Once we recognize that they are three identities of the same woman, we do not expect other characters to recur in the same way. But Jemisin’s work is full of serendipitous meetings and evolving identities: Binof becomes Tonkee, older and wiser than her younger counterpart, but still with the same impulsive curiosity Syenite knew her for. Alabaster meets Essun after he is reborn, but she is unable to recognize him until later. Hoa reveals that he was the stone eater in Allia–and the “I” to Jemisin’s narration of “you”–and exchanges his human-like disguise for the form he has used since he was Houwha. Schaffa slowly and painfully evolves in regret-but-not-quite-redemption, Maxixe reappears extremely changed, and Antimony is unveiled as once-Gaewha.
The Broken Earth shows that identity changes over time like stone deformed under pressure. Not just slight character development, this is the change in structure between sedimentary and metamorphic rock. Although some characteristics stay the same, one cannot be immovable under the weight of tragedy that extends across the Stillness, or the centuries endured by a Guardian or stone eater. Jemisin challenges the reader by initially presenting different iterations as different characters, emphasizing the change that years of pain have caused, but connecting the iterations by their shared histories almost as an afterthought.
The people of the Stillness are so focused on the earth that they do not look up at the Obelisks. They are so focused on the disasters that control their lives that they do not look around to find the source of their pain. Syenite, at first, does not want to speak of the true horror of what is being done at the Fulcrum. Silence and obedience have helped her and every other orogene survive. But as the story progresses, reality changes: Syenite learns what happens at the node stations. Houwha discovers that people cannot be possessions. As the past and its civilizations are slowly uncovered, so is the monstrosity of humanity’s complacency with evil.
The revelation of the sentience of the Earth fits The Broken Earth‘s theme of hidden identities. Although the people of the Stillness swear by the “Evil Earth” from the beginning of the first book, the Earth’s sentience and rage only begin to dawn upon the reader much later. By the end of the trilogy, we know we were wrong to assume the Earth was not alive, and that it could not be hurt. Like Nassun, we empathize with the Earth’s desire for destruction. Like the people of the Stillness who don’t believe that orogenes are people, we viewed the Earth as an inanimate object from the start–a thing, rather than a character.
With these slow but enormous revelations–of personal identities, civilizations built on destroying others, and the identity of the Earth itself–Jemisin underlines that we are all capable of taking reality at face value and remaining blind to what lies beneath the surface. And beneath the surface of the Stillness lies injustice built on injustice–the systematic dehumanization of a people so thorough that none have questioned it in centuries. We are the people of the Stillness, and if we do not look beneath the surface–the way power flows in a society, how it shapes and deforms the lives of individuals, the way history is written, and what is left unwritten–injustice will endure like a bedrock.
The Fifth Season begins with the death of a child–Essun’s son, Uche. The pain of the loss that Essun feels is made worse when we learn that Essun was Syenite, who was forced to take the life of her first son Coru to stop him from falling into the hands of the Guardians–Syenite who knew what had happened to Alabaster’s children and many other children at the Fulcrum. What initially seems like a solitary traumatic event is the aggregate of layers and layers of pain, going back centuries to Houwha’s fear for Kelenli and her child. As The Broken Earth continues, the pain of seeing a child killed increases on the Richter scale, breaking over Essun in a wave of fury when she sees a woman beating an orogene child in Castrima:
“NO I WON’T LET HIM DO IT AGAIN and you are seeing Schaffa, thinking of Jija….Everyone is Jija, the whole damned world is Schaffa, Castrima is Tirimo is the Fulcrum NOT ONE MORE…”
Even in trying to save the life of Nassun, Essun knows she is ensuring that her unborn child will never live, since she will soon turn to stone. After Coru and Uche, this is an unthinkable amount of loss for one woman to carry. We understand why the Earth, raped and all but enslaved, only began its war against humanity after the murder of its child. The Moon is the Earth’s child, heart cut out and flung from orbit, but I wonder if orogenes are also Earth’s children in metaphoric way–their genocide and enslavement driving the Earth to destroy them in mercy as it seeks revenge upon its enemy, as Syenite did to Coru and the Guardians.
The death of so many children is more than just violence–it is the dehumanization of an entire people taken to its logical extent. It is the extermination of the future, a genocide-in-progress, even when it is forced through orogenes upon their own children. I can’t help but think of boys like Tamir Rice, shot for holding a toy gun, and other children murdered by police just in the past year alone–lives and futures cut short. Jemisin’s writing is raw with the emotions which have been boiling in this country for centuries, but are only now becoming visible to people who weren’t paying attention. The Broken Earth cries out for societies built on oppression to be torn down–now, before another child is lost.
“Well, some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place.”
Jemisin shows that the conqueror is “not superior, but simply lucky,” constantly underestimating the power of those it has so thoroughly dehumanized–the same power that brings its downfall. Alabaster, Essun and Nassun bring an end to the old order with the aid–not use–of the Obelisks, containing the souls and memories of thousands of those murdered by Syl Anagist. Even before we know how the Obelisks were made, Jemisin shows that they are sentient, possessing choice and willpower.
But even though a conquering civilization cannot completely rob the oppressed of their power, it can make them complicit in their own oppression, ostracize the genetically “contaminated” groups like Guardians and Conductors, and in turn make them complicit in the oppression of both. The dehumanization of orogenes in the Stillness causes both Nassun and Essun to feel deep shame, self-hatred, and fear that they are truly the monsters people believe they are. A civilization built on exploitation brainwashes those it exploits into doing its work for it, and forces them into monstrous situations where they have to make monstrous choices. It spreads violence and abuse down though every layer of society, from the the state-sanctioned murder of orogenes, to a mother breaking her own daughter’s fingers.
Motifs echo in the revelation of an identity, a child’s death, a broken hand. But Jemisin also uses language in a way that aligns different concepts together and brings them full circle. “Contamination” is the corestone in a Guardian’s brain, and the fear of orogenes hiding across the Stillness, spreading their genetic abilities. “Broken” is the Earth split in two at the Rifting, and the Earth grieving and raging against its tormentors. Even the names chosen by orogenes of the Fulcrum are foreshadowing of their ability to be reborn in stone.
Rebirth was buried within the theme of evolving identity from the beginning. Syenite rejects her past and claims her future by forgoing the name Damaya. Essun is no longer Syenite after the tragedy of Meov. At the end of The Stone Sky, Essun is reborn more literally through Hoa after being eaten piece by piece. Rebirth is the foil to the theme of death, not only reminding us that the world can begin again many times, but that a mother is also a child, in the way that we are everything that we once were and will be.
The Broken Earth reveals the nature of violence and the evolution of identity in layers spanning decades and centuries, grounded in the deeply personal stories of its characters. The Earth, Obelisks, orogenes, and the stone eaters they become were all used as tools, dehumanized until the violence against them seemed not only palatable but good. Their histories and pain are voiced in a catharsis lifetimes overdue.
Jemisin has constructed a complex, nuanced, achingly-familiar world, and drawn out red-hot emotions from its core. Within the rage and pain is immeasurable strength, and the demand that systems built upon injustice be torn down at any cost–a call which becomes more urgent every day. The Broken Earth will revolutionize the genre of science fiction, and on a personal level, it was a revolution to me, and I’m so grateful to Jemisin for creating it.