A year ago at this time, in the wake of our devastating presidential election, I reviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, two treatises on racism and oppression in America. As I read N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy, it occurred to me that her novels present a perfect fictional account of the same topic. These Hugo-Award-winning stories take place in a world where racial difference leads to oppression, exploitation, and genocide. As a result of this deep man-made fissure between peoples, the Earth itself suffers and is on the brink of complete destruction. Can humanity be saved? Is it worth saving? These are the issues with which the novels’ main characters must grapple as they struggle to survive what might very well be the end of the world.
Book One, The Fifth Season, introduces us to Essun, a woman of color who is a member of the feared, oppressed, exploited Orogene race. Orogenes possess the unique ability to tap into the Earth’s movements and to quell its quakes, which happen with alarming frequency. But their power can be destructive if not managed. Thus the ruling race, the Stills, use a fearsome people called Guardians, who have an inhuman power of their own, to keep Orogenes subjugated. As the novel opens, Essun is devastated to find that her son Uche has been killed by her husband and that he has run off with their daughter Nassun. Both Uche and Nassun possess Orogene power, but Essun had tried to keep her and their Orogene nature a secret. Essun is determined to find her daughter and exact revenge on her husband, but this is complicated by the onset of a “fifth season,” — an environmental event that is dangerously destructive in nature. During a season, which can last months or years, it is as if a long winter has begun, but instead of snow, ash fills the air. Communities are built so as to be able to survive a season with sufficient stores of food and water. This season, however, is different, and Essun can feel it; this one could last thousands of years. Nevertheless, she sets off on her quest to find her daughter, and along the road she encounters few other travelers. Among them are a strange young boy named Hoa, who develops a deep attachment to her, and an eccentric scientist named Tonkee. These three will find their way to a secret underground community called Castrima, which includes a surprising mix of Stills and Orogenes living together in peace, as well as a couple of surprising folks from Essun’s past. As Jemisin takes the reader on Essun’s journey forward, she also takes us back into Essun’s childhood and early adulthood. The treatment of Orogenes is horrific, and “lore” or history justifies it by saying that Orogenes are the reason for the seasons. Father Earth punishes the world with seasons because Orogenes (called by the slur “Roggas”) stole his only child. No one knows the real history, however, and people can only guess as to why large crystals called obelisks can be seen floating in the skies.
In Book Two, The Obelisk Gate, Jemisin introduces the reader to 10-year-old Nassun and takes us on her journey with her father. We are startled to find that Nassun is happy to leave home, that she wants to get away from her mother, that she loves her father but knows that she has to be careful with him. Her father, Jija, hates Orogenes and is horrified to learn that his entire family is Orogene. Because Nassun was always his favorite, he decides to try to save her by finding those who could “cure” her of her Orogene nature. They wind up in a community called Found Moon, which is run by three renegade Guardians, including the Guardian who had once been assigned to Nassun’s mother. Rather than “cure” Orogenes, these Guardians are training them, and in Nassun, they recognize a strength that can be used toward their ends. But what are those ends? Meanwhile, Essun struggles to get along in Castrima. She is obsessed with finding Nassun, but this community is in danger, and while Essun has a hard time forming personal friendships, she cannot help but feel something for some members of this community. Essun is also learning things about Orogeny and its uses that she never knew before and is tapping into a strength that could save the world or bring everything down, including herself. Is the world that hates and wants to destroy her, that has taken every good thing away from her, that has made her a machine of death, worth saving?
Book Three, The Stone Sky, gives us Hoa’s story and the truth about the seasons, the obelisks, and the different types of peoples in this world: Orogenes, Stills, Guardians and Stone Eaters. Book three is where mother and daughter will meet, and the fate of the world will be determined. Jemisin’s characters struggle to decide what is right, while fully understanding that the world as it exists is not right. Can it be saved? Are the various people who live in it worth the effort, or would it be better to let it all burn? What are you willing to do for the one you love the most? What if “saving” looks like dying? It is a testament to Jemisin’s skills as a writer that the reader can understand the attractions of each choice, can understand why oppressed people, victims of millennia worth of abuse and of genocide, might waver back and forth on this question of whether or not to save humanity.
In some ways, Jemisin’s story is biblical: wandering in the desert, sacrificing someone you love, plagues of insects, slaughter of innocents, sacrifice of self, a vengeful “god” in the form of Father Earth. In some ways it reminds me of Native American ideas about the Earth’s sacred nature, that the Earth is a living entity, too. And this story is a sharp commentary on our current social/economic/political situation — our abuse of the earth’s resources, our dehumanizing of people who are different from us, our use of history to prop up ideas of cultural and racial superiority, the desire to constantly increase our own power and wealth at the expense of others. In the words of one character, “The human desire to dominate others, even earth, must make others less than human.” Can humanity change? Is there hope? That is the question