Book Review: The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin (2024)

Book Review: The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin (1)Book Review: The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin (2)Book Review: The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin (3)

Recently, I came across reports of some medical studies about the dermatological condition called rosacea. (I think the studies themselves are fairly recent; here’s a summary.)

The gist of these studies: possible connections, even correlations, between rosacea and the presence on the skin of a common type of mite, and the bacteria that the mite carries in its gut.

Of course, dermal mites don’t (as we understand them) have anything like conscious intent — even less so, the bacteria they carry. But imagine, if you will, that these tiny creatures are conscious enough at least to know that they can get something from human beings that they can get nowhere else — something needed not just to survive, but to flourish. Imagine that they have evolved and are shrewd enough to learn that they can pull even more of this something from us than is available merely on the surface. Imagine the horror when a human host discovers this, begins swatting at its face, douses itself with pharmaceutical and cosmetic substances, trains lasers at itself…

…imagine the fury, the hatred in the human host, then, when it learns that none of these superficial “treatments” helps; they seem, in fact, to make things even worse. How might the human host respond, finally?

And now: picture the Earth, and billions of creatures swarming across it…

Speaking purely intellectually and scientifically, the speculative-fiction author named N.K. Jemisin is a representative of the species known as hom*o sapiens. At another level, though, it’s obvious that she has actually been transported among us from somewhere extra-galactic. How else to explain her 100% convincing knowledge of things human, but outside human experience?

Let us consider the present case, that is, these three justly celebrated, best-selling novels. (Jemisin is the only author ever to have received three consecutive Hugo Best Novel awards, in three successive years, at that.) Each is plenty big enough to stand alone (total paperback length: 1400+ pages). But collectively they depict, in depth, an Earth that no one alive has ever lived on. (Indeed, for a while I couldn’t decide: was this an Earth that existed a million or so years ago? or was it an Earth that will exist that far in the future? or, perhaps, was it Jemisin’s own home planet, its history simply recounted in translated-to-humanspeak form?)

Yet Jemisin’s Earth has many features we might recognize as those of our own Earth — for instance:

  • It’s spherical, its surface comprising both land masses and seas, subject to climatic and geological forces.
  • It has one moon.
  • Of the creatures who populate the surface, humans remain (a bit precariously) at the top of the food chain.

But then, so much about Jemisin’s Earth is so, well, weird… E.g.:

  • Nearly its entire surface area is squeezed together on on one side of the planet.
  • The Moon orbits very eccentrically; it goes away for centuries at a time, and when it returns, it hangs around for only a few days.
  • Humanity, on this fictional Earth, inhabit nothing resembling what we’d call cities (although people call them that) — more like towns, hamlets, villages — because all such settlements survive (if at all) for no more than a couple thousand years, after which they’re all reduced to uninhabitable rubble and ash… all at the same time. Periodically, then, all humans must become nomads, and start something like “civilization” all over again.

So, you might think: this is a novel of Earth, post-apocalypse. But not exactly, no; it’s a novel of Earth, post-apocalyses, plural. Its geology runs amok, unpredictably. And, somehow, a rudimentary humanity carries on.

What an Earth. And especially, what humans…

Occasionally in my nonfiction reading over the years, I’d encountered the word orogeny — always (I think) capitalized in such phrases as the Andean Orogeny and the Alpine Orogeny. I’d never bothered to look up a definition, because (a) it obviously had something to do with mountains, and/or with geologic ages associated with them, and (b) I’d just, well, never encountered it often enough to be more curious about it. (So many words, so little time.) After all, I did get the whole continental-drift, plate-tectonics thing; I’d read plenty about the general concepts. (Among other things, I’d read, and loved, the entirety of John McPhee’s five-book series collectively called Annals of the Former World, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. The word orogeny makes dozens of appearances therein.)

So orogeny, I “knew.” But until Jemisin’s series, I’d never seen the word “orogene.” (I’m confident she must have invented it; it’s perfect for her purposes.) I shall leave the details to your own imagination and curiosity, and perhaps reading, but, on Jemisin’s Earth:

First, the biological taxonomic genus hom*o survives, all right, in good old species sapiens form.

…but scattered around among the humans exist an uncanny subspecies, or perhaps a different species altogether, collectively referred to as orogenes. Outwardly, they differ from “regular” humans not at all, and indeed have all the same physical traits we recognize as human: varying skin tones and hair textures, for example. They have the same skeletal structures, the same eyes, the same number of fingers and toes. Clearly, they’ve evolved from, and alongside, hom*o sapiens.

And as an obviously heavily-outnumbered minority, orogenes suffer all the same burdens of prejudice as so-called “races” and “outsider” groups on our own Earth. The majority fear and hate them for their difference; they sequester orogenes in sub-communities of their own, especially as children who haven’t yet learned their alleged place in the primitive-but-civilized world of the majority. (Orogenes are sneered at, and even assigned their own epithetic slur: they’re called roggas — another very clever invented word, crackling with the same sweeping vocal contempt as its counterparts on this earth.)

So apart from their value as imagined “others,” convenient victims, why do the rest of humanity permit — encourage, even embrace — orogenes’ existence?

Answer: their survival value to the species as a whole. The value is right there, in the word “orogene.” The geologic forces which have come to shape Jemisin’s Earth act not only (as here and now) over the course of eons, but in the form of occasional continental, even global cataclysms — volcanic eruptions and entire chains of eruptions, bursting explosively through the surface, dividing the continent into land masses separated not by water but by fire. The sky, for centuries after such events, rains ash. People forget what sunlight even is. The lucky ones manage to scratch out existence, somehow. In fact, that these events have not completely destroyed all life is attributable solely to the interventions of (yes) the orogenes.

Throughout the time I was reading the series, I thought about natural disasters we ourselves know (or at least know of): hurricanes and tornadoes, tsunamis and floods, earthquakes and volcanoes, meteor and asteroid strikes… We accept, grudgingly, that they constitute a class of events we can do nothing about; we don’t think about them unless they clobber us, personally. And even then, well, what can we do except react to them, ex post facto — organize relief programs, send in the doctors and the undertakers? (This futility certainly lies behind the absurd resistance to climate-change science and warnings.)

With her orogenes, Jemisin has provided an “out” for the rest of us (called “the stills” in the books). For orogenes, it seems, cannot just sense the approach of seismic events; they can counter them. They do so via a pair of organs, part of the neurologic system, called “sessapinae” — the act of sensing such events is referred to as sessing them; the act of controlling them, simply orogeny or, more grandly, geomagestry.

(The stills also possess sessapinae, as do animals, but they’re useful only in triggering a vague sense of disquiet: Something is about to happen—, they think. And then it does.)

So that’s the general geometry, then, of society on the Earth of the stills: simply awaiting the next worldwide disaster, ignoring the certainty until it happens, coping with the aftereffects of the previous one in the meantime, all while living in tremulous, uneasy harmony (which sometimes dissolves into discord) with the orogenes… They, in turn, become tools of the majority, quelling tremors and micro-tremors (while occasionally flaring up in righteous, disastrous anger): managing, to the extent possible, the rebellious Earth.

I won’t get into details of specific characters, plot points, relationships, “the way things work” on, yes, this broken Earth; that’s where your reading pleasure lies ahead of you. I did, though, want to touch on a couple elements of the style in which book’s written.

The first book, The Fifth Season, opens with a prologue called “you are here” (all lowercase). The prologue begins, in turn, like this:

Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.

First, a personal ending. There is a thing she will think over and over in the days to come, as she imagines how her son died and tries to make sense of something so innately senseless. She will cover Uche’s broken little body with a blanket—except his face, because he is afraid of the dark—and she will sit beside it numb, and she will pay no attention to the world that is ending outside. The world has already ended within her, and neither ending is for the first time. She’s old hat at this by now.

What she thinks then, and thereafter, is: But he was free.

And it is her bitter, weary self that answers this almost-question every time her bewildered, shocked self manages to produce it:

He wasn’t. Not really. But now he will be.

I won’t say much about this, other than to note some things perhaps obvious to you already, from what I’ve said so far:

  • The only proper name, Uche, evidently identifies a small person, probably (“he is afraid of the dark”) a now deceased little boy.
  • Something very, very bad has happened — “the end of the world” — is currently happening, has happened before, and will no doubt happen again.
  • The bitter, weary “she” of this passage is an unnamed someone who not only knows what has happened (“She’s old hat at this by now”), but knows that it’s part of a cycle and, perhaps, what her role in it might be. She is horrified not only by what has happened to the world at large, but what has happened, specifically, to her son Uche.

I will say, though, that it took me a long time to work all this out. I started reading the book in early 2019, so can’t claim to have been pandemic-distracted. But I was still working fulltime, and reading, almost exclusively, only in the half-hour or so before conking out at night. I don’t remember and certainly did not record when things changed for me, but it may have been this passage, about a quarter of the way into the book. It’s a fragment of what is apparently some ancient writing which has somehow survived to the present (on Jemisin’s Earth) age:

Listen, listen, listen well.

There was an age before the Seasons, when life and Earth, its father, thrived alike. (Life had a mother, too. Something terrible happened to Her.) Earth our father knew He would need clever life, so He used the Seasons to shape us out of animals: clever hands for making things and clever minds for solving problems and clever tongues for working together and clever sessapinae to warn us of danger. The people became what Father Earth needed, and then more than He needed. Then we turned on Him, and He has burned with hatred for us ever since.

Remember, remember, what I tell.

By this point (Ding!) I was well awake. I still didn’t quite “get” everything; that would all come together at the close of the third book. But yes, it did take me a while to understand and then grow enthusiastic about what I was reading. (Maybe I was simply propelled by the book’s success.) Whatever the reason for my slow start, I read probably the last third or so of The Fifth Season in just a couple of massive gulps.

I was exhausted, thereafter, and didn’t pick up book #2 (The Obelisk Gate) for another year. It, and #3 (The Stone Sky), went down in almost a single stupendous binge-read which just ended last weekend.

Very highly recommended. Bring some patience, and some open-mindedness as well. There’s a lot going on, including shifting points of view and the occasional hand-waving, verging-on-scientific “explanations” of science-fictional/fantasy worlds. (It’s easy to forgive in Jemisin’s world, since science itself has been periodically destroyed and rebuilt many times over the course of millennia.)

But as in so much other great, epic literature, the Broken Earth trilogy has less to do with the sweep of historic global events than with the drumbeat of human decisions and relationships. People — of whatever (sub)species — aren’t just pawns of the storytelling: they’re the whole point.

Book Review: The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin (2024)
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