When the Stone Sky Falls: The Subversion of Power in Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy

My dear friend and fellow author Vanessa has this thing about shoving books into my hands against all my objections. I have a glorious to-be-read pile that I just never get through because I always buy more books before I’ve finished the books I bought the last time I came within two kilometres of a bookstore or literary convention or Vanessa’s house. Well, back in August, she thrust N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season into my hands and said she had the rest of the books in the Broken Earth Trilogy. I muttered something or other about having too many books to read, but when I saw her again a few weeks later, I begged for the rest.

I didn’t really know what to expect, and I had a hard time getting into the first book. The prologue introduced nameless characters and portrayed a critical, cataclysmic event in a land I barely felt I knew. I was lost for some time. I needed a few chapters to begin to feel the world, and then I tumbled headlong into it.

The Stillness, as the single continent is called, is full of wonders. Enormous gemstone obelisks wander through the skies, the stone eaters—people of living rock—transit through the earth, and the artifacts of great civilizations lay hidden all around.

The Stillness is also a place of staggering austerity. Resources are precious and must be used carefully; stores must be maintained in case of a Season, a devastating change in geological and climactic conditions that may last decades. People are organized into castes: leaders and workers, historians and inventors, humans and orogenes.

Essun, a Fulcrum-trained orogene, has taught her daughter to control her powers of orogeny so that she can hide among the “stills”. Her methods were somewhat crude and often cruel, but effective. Nonetheless, when Essun’s husband realizes their toddler son is an orogene, he kills the boy and takes his daughter to look for a place that can teach her how to unbecome what she is. In desperation, Essun attempts to follow them but cannot catch up. Instead, she finds herself in a community that depends on the orogenes for their survival, even as they continue to fear and despise orogeny. It is an uneasy peace but a necessary one. It is in this place that Essun is challenged by Alabaster, her former lover and mentor, to end the Seasons for good.

This world and its people are rich in culture and history; you can almost taste the ash that continuously falls from the sky. But the true brilliance of the series lies in Jemisin’s layered and nuanced portrayal of power. The politics of the Stillness is a deadly game of rock-paper-scissors: every power can defeat at least one other, and no power is indefeasible. Orogenes may be trained by the Fulcrum, but they are killed if they cannot control their abilities—or if they display enough control to command an obelisk. Fulcrum orogenes use their powers to subdue the Earth, and the Earth seethes with hatred for them, as they are descendants of those who tried to enslave it.  The Guardians, who are themselves orogenes, have been surgically altered and trained to ensure that their own kind are kept in check. Meanwhile, some of the stone eaters want the orogenes to command the obelisks but they are at war amongst themselves and with any Guardian who gets in their way.

Those who have gifts are enslaved by those who possess political and social power. Their abilities cannot save them when they are outnumbered and overpowered, or simply robbed of the belief that they are human enough to deserve better. The Fulcrum serves to control other orogenes and maintain the status quo, with the Guardians watching over all of them. This is the crux of the power imbalance. The ability to turn a group of people against itself is the greatest protection an unscrupulous ruling class could ever hope for. Give some of your subjects a degree of autonomy and power—or the illusion thereof—over others and you hold power over all of them. Better yet, your indentured servants will control your slaves so that they may hold on to what comforts you allow them. Coercing the masses into fighting each other means you do not need to expend resources fighting them yourself, especially if you would be outnumbered or overpowered. You enjoy your cake while they fight over crumbs.

What is remarkable, however, is that this war of all against all highlights the ways in which the world could be otherwise. The cooperation between the stills and the orogenes improves everyone’s chances of survival; cooperation between orogenes and stone eaters creates an opportunity to end everyone’s suffering. Most importantly, the resolution of the war between these many factions does not require the victory of one side by means of the destruction or enslavement of another. The future of the world remains uncertain in many ways, but now at least the factions are no longer trying to dominate each other. Now there is hope.

This is no tale of vengeance. Jemisin reflects our capacity to harm and the possibility of what our world could be if we insist on destroying one another; she also shows us that this is not inevitable, although the alternatives will not be easy to achieve. If we seek to destroy the humanity in others, we destroy the humanity in ourselves. To save ourselves, we must recognize and honour the humanity of others.

But of course the Stillness, like the real world, is finite and complex; the humans who inhabit it are fragile, inconsistent, and sometimes irrational. As much as we want to believe that enduring peace and equality are possible, we are forced to recognize the difficulty in achieving and maintaining a just and equal society. There will always be those who try to take and use power for their own purposes. Such people will manipulate or batter others, disconnecting them from their own power until they submit.

Alabaster describes how trained orogenes are deliberately held back by those who want them to be useful and subservient:

The Fulcrum’s methods are a kind of conditioning meant to steer you toward energy redistribution and away from magic. The torus isn’t even necessary—you can gather ambient energy in any number of ways. But that’s how they teach you to direct your awareness down to perform orogeny, never up. Nothing above you matters. Only your immediate surroundings, never farther.

The orogenes were micromanaged through the creation of false boundaries, ensuring they never sought knowledge or power beyond the Guardians and the Fulcrum deemed safe. Such boundaries were claimed to be for the orogenes’ own good, but in truth they served to keep society’s living tools from finding their true power—power that the Guardians and Fulcrum might be unable to restrain. Through attaining autonomy, orogenes become a threat to the ruling class.

Those who abuse power want you to stare down at your feet; they do not want you to look around or else you might realize that the world is different than they claim. There is only one way to find your true strength: look up.

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