Frann Michel recommends the award-winning speculative fiction series The Broken Earth by N. K. Jemisin, an epic fantasy of resisting oppression and reclaiming the magic of the natural world.
Good morning, this is Frann Michel here with a reading recommendation for the well-read red who likes fiction: The Broken Earth Trilogy of novels by N.K. Jemisin.
In case you haven't heard about them: The Fifth Season was published in 2015, The Obelisk Gate in 2016, and The Stone Sky in 2017, and these works of speculative fiction are ground-breaking publications in several ways. With The Fifth Season, in 2016, Jemisin became the first black writer to win the Hugo Award for best novel at the World Science Fiction Convention. This so agitated some right-wing science fiction fans that a bunch of them tried to rig the awards system to block future wins by writers of color. They failed, and the next two books in the series also won Hugos for best novel of the year, making Jemisin the first writer to win the award three years in a row, and the first--still so far the only writer--to win for each of the three books in a trilogy. All that is to say these books are really, really good.
As in other high fantasy or epic fantasy--like, say, the Lord of the Rings--the fictional world of the Broken Earth includes sentient non-human species and a rich backstory, signaled in a landscape strewn with the ruins of past civilizations. Unlike many such works, however, the Broken Earth trilogy challenges the power relations that endorse Lords and monarchs and empires.
Jemisin's Trilogy speaks deeply and imaginatively to the experience of living on an earth that is broken in more than one way. Written during the Black Lives Matter uprisings, they particularly and astutely address racial injustice as well as environmental destruction, but they also engage questions of gender, class, disability, the category of the human, the weight of history, parent-child relations, and the possibilities of resistance and rebellion and change. They weave together stories of global, even cosmic developments with psychologically-astute portraits of individual and interpersonal experiences.
Here's a clip from Jemisin's acceptance speech at the 2018 Hugo Awards.
"This has been a hard year, hasn't it? A hard few years, a hard century, for some of us things have always been hard, and I wrote the Broken Earth trilogy to speak to that struggle and what it takes to live let alone thrive in a world that seems determinedto break you, a world of people who constantly question your competence, your relevance, your very existence. I get a lot of questions about where the themes of the Broken Earth trilogy come from. I think it's pretty obvious that I'm drawing on the human history of structural oppression as well as my feelings about this moment in American history.
What may be less obvious, though, is how much of the story derives from my
feelings about science fiction and fantasy. Then again, science fiction and fantasy are microcosms of the wider world in no way rarified from the world's pettiness or prejudice. But another thing that I tried to touch on with the Broken Earth trilogy is that life in a hard world is never just the struggle. Life is family, blood and found; life is those allies who prove themselves worthy by actions and not just talk; life means celebrating every victory no matter how small."
The Broken Earth Trilogy is set on a seismically unstable planet--it's Earth in the far future, although not exactly our earth. It's a world that has adapted to the recurrent catastrophes of frequent earthquakes, large and small.
As the narrator tells us early in The Fifth Season, in a passage typically both lyrical and wry,
“Here is a land.
It is ordinary, as lands go. Mountains and plateaus and canyons and river deltas, the usual. Ordinary, except for its size and its dynamism. It moves a lot, this land. Like an old man lying restlessly abed it heaves and sighs, puckers and farts, yawns and swallows. Naturally this land’s people have named it the Stillness. It is a land of quiet and bitter irony.”
Every hundred or few hundred years these shakes become so extreme that--because of eruptions and disruptions darkening skies or poisoning rain--they set off a life-threatening period lasting a few years; and these periods of destruction, fire, and famine are known as "Seasons" with a capital S.
The first chapter introduces the start of one such Season, and we're told,
“This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine."
In this fictional world, everyone has some ability to sense earthquakes through the fictional organ of the sessapinnae, but a minority are born with a mutation--inherited or appearing randomly--that enables them, at least with some training and development of their skills, to divert, channel, or quell those shakes.
The ideological structures of the Stillness--the stories and histories, laws and legends shared within this world--have led most people to fear and hate those who can manipulate seismic energy--who can start as well as stop earthquakes. Conventionally known as orogenes, derogatively called "roggas", they mostly seek safety either by hiding their power and passing as non-orogene, or by allying with the Fulcrum, the quasi-state institution that trains and controls Imperial Orogenes.
A couple of warnings for readers, on both content and style. Bad things happen in these books: there is violence, cruelty, suffering, injustice; on the first page, a child is murdered. This is not light reading, in either sense. The Trilogy is stylistically complex, and the opening chapters of The Fifth Season especially require careful attention, as the reader pieces together the elements of the fictional world and navigates some shifts in narrative structure, including the use of second-person narration in some chapters. So readers might need to give it a few chapters for the various narrative strands to come together. But the story is not grim, rather it is grappling with the grimness of the world; and the justified complexity of the narrative enriches the reader's experience and discoveries.
It's worth the work--and worth the wait, if you put the books on hold at the Multnomah Public Library.