Saturday, March 12, 2022

Caste and Climate Change in N.K. Jemisin's The Broken Earth Trilogy

The Broken Earth Trilogy tells a story about caste and dehumanization using anthropogenic climate change as a metaphor. The two topics are perfect fodder for exploration through fantasy, but they are different enough that, at least in this story, the mixing of environmental destruction and racism muddies both themes.

The story opens at a breaking of the world. A man channels massive amounts of power into the heart of the city of Yumenes, blasting the seat of the Empire off the face of the Earth.
And then he reaches forth with all the fine control that the world has brainwashed and backstabbed and brutalized out of him, and all the sensitivity that his masters have bred into him through generations of rape and coercion and highly unnatural selection. His fingers spread and twitch as he feels several reverberating points on the map of his awareness: his fellow slaves. He cannot free them, not in the practical sense. He’s tried before and failed. He can, however, make their suffering serve a cause greater than one city’s hubris, and one empire’s fear.
The Earth of this world is periodically ravaged by environmental catastrophes, however the fallout of this man’s actions promises to be thousands of years of the most devastating environmental destruction the planet has ever seen. We see a little of how society adapts in response, shifting from a mercantile and hierarchical social structure to emergency-ordered communism [1]. But the environmental aspects fade into the background, serving more than anything as narrative impulse to characters to travel or argue over resource scarcity.

Instead, what unfolds in The Fifth Season is a satisfying, layered exploration of the pervasive way institutions and social norms oppress the lower caste: the orogenes, people with a genetically inherited supernatural ability to sense and control rock and metal. Our main protagonist, Essun, finds her son murdered by his own father for being an orogene. Her secret orogene status, synonymous with being subhuman, is also discovered and she is reviled by her neighbors and exiled from her home, just as the apocalypse begins.

Through flashbacks to her childhood and her youth, we learn about the Fulcrum [2], an institution run by orogenes and accepted by the Empire only because the orogenic leaders of the Fulcrum keep their fellow orogenes in check: cowed but ready to calm earthquakes and volcanoes when needed. Its members have little choice; society doesn’t permit them to live anywhere else. It’s an interesting examination of how simply giving power to a few members of an oppressed group isn’t sufficient to emancipate the rest.

The Fulcrum carries out a breeding program to ensure its ranks are populated with sufficiently strong wielders of orogenic power. And, most horrifyingly, they cull their ranks of the unruly or incompetent by lobotomizing them into a vegetative state, retaining just enough brain activity to use their instinctive earthquake-cancelling powers, and installing them at "node stations".
“Drug away the infections and so forth, keep him alive enough to function, and you’ve got the one thing even the Fulcrum can’t provide: a reliable, harmless, completely beneficial source of orogeny. (...) The only reason they don’t do this to all of us is because we’re more versatile, more useful, if we control ourselves. But each of us is just another weapon, to them. Just a useful monster, just a bit of new blood to add to the breeding lines. Just another fucking rogga.”
She has never heard so much hate put into one word before.
Essun, under the name Syenite, learns much of this through Alabaster, a powerful orogene who has begun questioning the social order, spurred in part through his discovery that the Empire has rewritten history to make orogenes appear responsible for the Earth’s unstable tectonics.
“Tell me what other way there is, then.”
He doesn’t say anything for a moment. She turns to look at him finally, and he’s looking uneasy. “Well…” He edges into the statement. “We could try letting orogenes run things.”
They find their way to a remote island community, Meov, the only example we see in the entire trilogy of orogenes living in harmony with non-orogenes. Syenite and Alabaster find a sort of peace here, parenting their child together, broken only when Syenite uses her orogenic abilities offensively in a pirate raid. Her location thus revealed, the Fulcrum destroys the community and both Syenite and Alabaster barely escape alive. Syenite kills her son to prevent his being captured (“Better to die than live a slave.”).

So ends The Fifth Season. A fascinating world, if rather grim. The second book, The Obelisk Gate becomes narrower in scope. Essun is sheltered from the environmental catastrophe by an unusual community of both orogenes and non-orogenes led by Ykka, an out-of-the-closet orogene. Unlike on the island of Meov, tensions and suspicions between the two groups rise. However, we are prevented from seeing a true resolution or reconciliation of the two factions by the invasion of an enemy force. Essun saves the day, tapping extra power from the mysterious satellite-like “obelisks” and weaving together both orogeny and magic [3] to defeat the enemy [4].

In the final installment, The Stone Sky, our scope widens dramatically again, now spreading across millenia. Hoa, a member of a strange android-like race of people called “stone eaters”, recounts flashbacks of his early life. His world was one of advanced technology: rapid transit, space travel, beds that cure your wounds. This luxurious world was powered through the literal draining of the lifeforce (“magic”) of orogenes, incapacitated and hooked up to pipes much like the humans in The Matrix. Society, unable to keep up with its own energy demands purely through oppression of its orogenes, carry out a centuries-long plan to tap the Earth’s core for magic instead. This plan involves genetically engineering a new race of particularly powerful orogenes: Hoa and a small handful of others, trained to see themselves not as human but as tools.
Life is sacred in Syl Anagist – as it should be, for the city burns life as the fuel for its glory. The Niess were not the first people chewed up in its maw, just the latest and cruelest extermination of many. But for a society built on exploitation, there is no greater threat than having no one left to oppress. And now, if nothing else is done, Syl Anagist must again find a way to fission its people into subgroupings and create reasons for conflict among them. There’s not enough magic to be had just from plants and genegineered fauna; someone must suffer, if the rest are to enjoy luxury. 
Better the earth, Syl Anagist reasons. Better to enslave a great inanimate object that cannot feel pain and will not object. Better Geoarcanity. But this reasoning is still flawed, because Syl Anagist is ultimately unsustainable. It is parasitic; its hunger for magic grows with every drop it devours. The Earth's core is not limitless. Eventually, if it takes fifty thousand years, that resource will be exhausted, too. Then everything dies.
Discovering the truth of the oppression at the heart of this society, at the crucial final moment in which the obelisks would be switched on, Hoa tries to destroy civilization, only to discover that the Earth itself is also human and very angry. 
We were not the only ones who chose to fight back that day. (...) The Earth sees no difference between any of us. (...) We were all guilty. All complicit in the crime of attempting to enslave the world itself.
Locked in a power struggle with the Earth, Hoa realized that to destroy all of humanity would also be to destroy the woman he loves and her child. Hoa dissipates the massive amounts of stored orogeny and magic by blasting a hole in the moon and knocking it off its orbit and initiating thousands of years of unstable climate.
This power struggle is mirrored in the present day. Essun seeks to restore balance to the Earth by catching the moon and returning it to its orbit. Her daughter seeks to turn all of humanity into immortal stone eaters in a last ditch effort to save a dying friend she has adopted as a father figure. The two of them fight over the power accessible only through the obelisks, and Essun dies in the conflict. Nassun is moved by her mother’s sacrifice of her own life for the benefit of humanity and for the sake of saving her own daughter, and chooses to complete her mother’s task instead.
Because the world took and took and took from you, too, after all. She knows this, and yet, for some reason that she does not think she’ll ever understand… even as you died, you were reaching for the moon.
This is the way the trilogy ends. So where are we on our themes? The environmental destruction caused by mankind has been solved, but only by returning society to an economy of farmers and artisans [5]. There’s no solar-powered rapid transit, or wind-powered restorative beds, no way to have advanced technology without exploitation of slaves or the Earth. Before learning of the Earth’s sentience, Hoa feels that to maintain this level of technology but without exploitation of orogenes would be tantamount to accepting that enslavement was acceptable.
What we are doing is pointless and Geoarcanity is a lie. And if we help Syl Anagist further down this path, we will have said, What was done to us was right and natural and unavoidable.
If this were the conclusions we should draw about climate change in 2022, it would be a depressing, cynical outlook. But, the story isn’t really about climate change, it’s about the oppression and dehumanization of lower castes.
So in what state do we leave relations between the castes? The first encounters between orogenes and non-orogenes resulted in the enslavement of the orogenes at the hands of the Empire [6]. After millennia of deeply ingrained racism, most communities we see show exile of orogenes (Tirimo), uneasy truces between neighbouring communities (Maxixe’s orogenes and their rival non-orogenic raiders), or mixed communities brimming with tension and animosity (Ykka’s community). We see a single example of a people who have truly integrated orogenes and non-orogenes (the island of Meov), but no indication of how to move from say, a Tirimo-like society to a Meov-like society.
“Imprisonment of orogenes was never the only option for ensuring the safety of society. (...) Lynching was never the only option. The nodes were never the only option. All of these were choices. Different choices have always been possible.”

There is such sorrow in her, your little girl. I hope Nassun learns someday that she is not alone in the world. I hope she learns how to hope again.

She lowers her gaze. “They’re not going to choose anything different.”

“They will if you make them.”
She’s wiser than you, and does not balk at the notion of forcing people to be decent to each other. Only the methodology is a problem. “I don’t have any orogeny anymore.”

“Orogeny,” I say, sharply so she will pay attention, “was never the only way to change the world.”

She stares. I feel that I have said all I can, so I leave her there to contemplate my words.
The plot climax is a magical reversal of climate change. The climax of the theme of caste oppression comes half a book earlier: Hoa’s discovery that electricity is harvested from orogenes, and that the Earth (and even one of the obelisks) are sentient and exploited too. This climax is never resolved with a solution, it is simply a revelation, and thematically, it is the same revelation encountered in The Fifth Season, when we discover the lobotomized children hooked up at the node stations. Prejudice, colonialism and slavery are horrifying. Be very careful of excluding people from your definition of "human." I agree, as do, I assume, most readers. Okay, now what? The Stone Sky leaves us without answers, just a plucky girl, void of hope, versus a society still rotten with racism.

* * *

[1] Jemisin put a lot of thought into how societies would restructure in unstable environments. I found the quotidian aspects of The Obelisk Gate to be particularly fun for this exploration. In this interview with Tobias Carroll, she comments
I wanted to show a society that was shaped by its environment and that was shaped by the disasters that had preceded it. All of that came out of me thinking, “This is a society that periodically loses power, loses water, and where it’s very difficult to maintain central control.” This society would not be top-down authoritarian, except on a superficial level. Local control would be crucial. They would have structures in place to cause each community to close within itself and become its own enclosed, self-supporting world for a while. So all of that went into figuring out how the society worked. They abandon capitalism during the Season, because they know that that is a danger. It’s a great way to end up with part of your population starving, and the community doesn’t have enough people to survive and to eat, and then you die. So they turn kind of hard-core communist for a brief period of time, or authoritarian, totalitarian, for a period of time.
[2] The Fulcrum feels like a darker version of The Wheel Of Time’s White Tower to me. Similarly brutal pedagogical methods and similarly mired in political intrigue. The Fulcrum’s stamping out of any form of orogeny that makes use of the “silver” life force is also somewhat reminiscent of the White Tower’s oath rod in that it enforces it limits the magical abilities of its members through the enforcement of institutional laws.

[3] It is not until part way through the second book that we first encounter the word magic, and only then did I realize how very stark its absence was. I had actual shivers run down my spine.
"I want to know what they called it.” It’s a small piece of the mystery he’s trying to shove down your throat. You want to wrap your fingers around it, control the ingestion, at least taste some of it along the way. (...) Maybe knowing the name will give you power somehow.

He starts to shake his head, winces as this causes him pain somewhere, sighs instead. “They called it magic.”

It’s meaningless. Just a word. But maybe you can give it meaning somehow. “Magic,” you repeat, memorizing. Then you nod farewell, and leave without looking back.
Jemisin also does this trick at the end of the first book; it isn’t until Alabaster mentions it (“Tell me,” he says, “have you ever heard of something called a moon?”) that I noticed the complete lack of a moon!

[4] The rest of the novel centers around Essun’s daughter, Nassun. While for most of the series, orogenes are a clear metaphor for the treatment of racialized groups, I took this part of Nassun’s story to be a metaphor for coming out as gay. Her father, having just committed infanticide out of disgust that his son was an orogene, struggles to see his daughter as still his beloved, innocent daughter and also as an orogene. He takes her to what he believes to be a sort of “conversion” camp. She struggles to come to terms with her father hating this essential part of her, a part of herself that she is increasingly starting to enjoy. This arch ends with her killing her father as he turns violent, and with her choosing to destroy all of mankind out of misanthropy. Bleak.

[5] See also, The sentimental criticism of capitalism
[6] That a clash between a people that can harness the power of volcanoes and a people that rely on more conventional weapons went in favour of the people without supernatural abilities I found puzzling. In Naomi Alderman's The Power, we explore the exact opposite idea, that innate magical abilities forms the basis of oppression of the non-magically inclined.

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