Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

It might seem a bit strange to say that The Stone Sky, the concluding volume of the Broken Earth trilogy, had a lot riding on it.  For the past two years, the SF field and its fandom have been falling over themselves to crown this trilogy as not just good, but important.  Both of the previous volumes in the series, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, were nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo.  When The Fifth Season won the Hugo in 2016, it made Jemisin the first African-American (and the first American POC) to win the best novel category.  When The Obelisk Gate won the same award earlier this year, it was the first time that consecutive volumes in a series had won the Hugo back-to-back since, I believe, Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead thirty years ago.  That's probably not considered the best company nowadays, but it speaks to the kind of zeitgeist-capturing work that Jemisin is doing with this series.  In that context, the third volume might almost be looked at as a victory lap, just waiting to be showered with laurels.

To me, however, a great deal depended on the kind of ending Jemisin crafted for her story.  This was a bind she had set up for herself--one assumes in full knowledge--already in The Fifth Season's opening chapter, in which she ended the world.  Even in The Stillness, a planet (strongly implied to be a far-future Earth) wracked by geological instability and prone to "fifth seasons", in which ash released into the atmosphere by volcanic eruptions caused years-long winters, the supervolcano explosion that sets off the series's story was an anomalous event, one that would render the planet incapable of supporting life for millennia.  No amount of preparation or adherence to tradition on the part of the humans of the planet--whose entire culture is designed to survive Seasons--could save them for more than a generation or two.  What's more, Jemisin quickly reveals that not only was the supervolcano eruption (referred to as The Shattering) caused intentionally, but it was done as an act of defiance and revenge by an orogene, a member of a group who have the power to cause or quell geological instability, who are reviled, persecuted, hounded, abused, and murdered by the powerless (or "still") inhabitants of the Stillness.

So, Jemisin starts with a world that is not only doomed, but which doesn't really deserve to be saved, and any reader with even the slightest amount of genre reading protocols will naturally assume that the trajectory of her story will be to fix both of these things.  But, especially given how deeply The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate delve into the myriad injustices and cruelties that govern the Stillness, it's hard not to approach the end-point of that story with a bit of trepidation.  The Fifth Season was a portrait of how the society of The Stillness operated during normal periods, including the systems it had put into place to control and oppress orogenes--the institution of The Fulcrum, where young orogenes were trained, using techniques that liberally employed physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, to control their powers and make them "useful" to the world; and the caste known as The Guardians, who protect, police, and hunt down orogenes, developing sick, codependent bonds with their charges-cum-victims.  The Obelisk Gate shows us how society functions during a Season, and here too orogenes have no place.  One of the tasks of Guardians (who are revealed in this volume to be something akin to vampires, drawing sustenance from a substance found in orogenes' bodies) during a Season is to kill their charges, then go into hibernation until the Season ends.  As both books establish, orogenes are necessary--they quell instabilities that might lead to Seasons and make the Stillness livable--and yet they are also hated and abused.  It was difficult to imagine what solution Jemisin could come up with that would persuasively counter such entrenched, systemic hostility, especially at the same time as she constructs a more familiar quest narrative whose purpose is to save the world from the effects of the cataclysm she unleashed.

Does she manage it?  Yes and no.  One of the problems with writing about the Broken Earth books is that they're completely different works when viewed through the lens of worldbuilding and ideas, and through the lens of character and plot.  On the former level, these are some of the most important, groundbreaking genre books of the last decade.  On the latter, they often struggle and overreach.  (The reason, I think, that The Fifth Season is the best book of the three is that it's the one that achieves its plotting and characterization through worldbuilding, by using its three heroines as points of view to the Stillness's various dysfunctions, and following them as they navigate the systems intended to keep orogenes under control.)  The Stone Sky, like its predecessors, switches between several viewpoints.  In one storyline, Essun, heroine of the previous two books and renegade orogene, struggles with guilt over the multiple acts of violence and mass-murder she committed in her attempts to get out from under the Fulcrum and the Guardians' control.  She hopes to expiate her guilt by saving the world, recapturing the planet's moon, which was lost in the distant past and whose return might permanently quell the Stillness's instability.  In the second storyline, Essun's daughter, Nassun, is traveling with Schaffa, a former Guardian (who, unbeknownst to her, is the person who once hunted down Essun, leading to the death of her oldest child).  Betrayed by both her parents--her mother recreated the abusive training of the Fulcrum in her attempts to keep Nassun's orogeny under wraps, and her father murdered her younger brother when he couldn't exercise the same control--and appalled by the system of injustice and abuse that traps orogenes and stills alike, Nassun is traveling to the same place as Essun, with the intention of wresting from her control of the Obelisk Gate, the system of amplifiers that could allow Essun to catch the Moon when its orbit brings it back in range, but which Nassun intends to use to end the cycle of cruelty by ending all life on the planet.  Intercutting between mother and daughter is Hoa, a Stone Eater--a race of immortal, silicon-based aliens--who reveals to us how the broken system of the Stillness came into existence, and how the Moon was originally lost.

It's a lot, in other words--a quest and a family drama and a portrait of abuse and how people struggle (and sometimes fail) to live with the weight of it--and there isn't quite enough space to do it all in a way that feels organic.  One of the goals of the Broken Earth books is to chart the emotional toll that living under constant racism and abuse can take on a person, even when that person isn't a "sympathetic" victim--when they respond, as Essun and Nassun do, with indiscriminate violence.  It's a project that works fantastically well in The Fifth Season, but The Stone Sky, like The Obelisk Gate before it, ends up telling more often than it shows, especially when it comes to its characters' fraught, complicated emotional states.  These are narrated to us in the second person, in a device that ends up having a purpose but which, in the moment, feels awkward.  When the emotional climax of the novel--and the fate of the world--hangs on whether Essun can overcome her failures as a mother to reach out to her daughter, and whether Nassun can process her many traumas sufficiently to believe that the world might still be worth living in, the fact that we get total insight into both of their minds, with every single emotion and every single step of their decision-making process spelled out, ends up feeling curiously distancing.  It makes them feel less like people and more like cogs in a machine, who make decisions not because it makes sense for them as human beings but because that's what the plot needs them to do in that moment.

Take a slightly broader view, though, and that's exactly what they are.  If I'm lukewarm on the Broken Earth books as the story of individuals, I am all-in on them as the story of systems.  And as a story about the stories about those systems.  It is, in fact, one of the most remarkable traits of this series that no matter how many times you pull back from it, how many layers of metafiction you place between yourself and the text, it still has something eye-opening to say.  At the most basic level of the systems of its world, The Broken Earth is a story about how the Stillness is designed to both perpetuate and benefit from oppression.  But the books also contain and constantly reference the texts that teach the people of the Stillness how to function within that system, reminding us that it is the story the Stillness tells itself about itself that achieves its oppressive effect.  Pull back further, however, and it's easy to see that the Stillness is made of tropes--some of the most common tropes of genre writing, here taken to their horrific but entirely logical conclusions.  And then it becomes impossible not to see that those tropes are integral components of the stories that we tell ourselves, and that, just as they do in the Stillness, in our world those stories feed off, and into, racist and oppressive habits of thought.

You see this most obviously in the books' central conceit, the oppressed superpowered minority, the subject of so much hand-wringing and exasperation in genre and particularly comics fandom.  Most of fandom (and even some creators) seem to have reached the conclusion that The Mutant Metaphor doesn't work, that it is impossible to talk meaningfully about the kind of racism that exists in our world by comparing black people, LGBT people, immigrants, or Jews to people who have tremendous and often destructive powers.  Jemisin instead takes the metaphor and makes it her own, insisting on the possibility of social justice even within a world so twisted that it offers up a so-called justification for racism and oppression.  The scenes set in the Fulcrum in The Fifth Season feel like a deliberate perversion of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, reminding us that it is impossible to simultaneously treat people like a bomb that is about to go off and a person.  In The Stone Sky, each chapter closes with a passage from the notes of a Stillness researcher who reveals the many times in which orogenes prevented Seasons, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, but in many other cases, by revealing themselves after having lived in hiding in still society.  In almost every such case, the people these orogenes had just saved turn on them with sudden, uncompromising viciousness.  It's a powerful statement that even in a world where there is supposedly a reason for it, racism is not rational.  That even when orogenes "prove" that they are good and necessary, the prejudice against them runs deeper.

Something even more powerful emerges when you remember that both of these truths--the danger that orogenes pose, and the fact that they keep saving the world even in the face of abuse and certain death--are choices that Jemisin made in her worldbuilding.  It seems to be a deliberate rebuke to the ubiquity of the dangerous, persecuted minority trope.  Instead of abandoning it, Jemisin compounds it, and then dares us to keep reacting to it from the same place of comfort that originally made it so popular.  What does it mean, after all, to build a world in which there is no choice but to oppress and abuse certain people?  It tells us nothing about real racism, but it might say a great deal about the kind of people for whom that kind of story holds an appeal.  The Broken Earth books are a deliberate challenge to such thoughtlessness.  On the one hand, they don't shy away from the danger that orogenes pose, or from their capacity to do horrific damage--over the course of her life, Essun kills probably hundreds of thousands of people, and her former lover Alabaster (the father of her murdered child and the orogene who sets off the Shattering) kills millions.  And on the other hand, they also reverse the direction of the difficulty posed by these tropes.  In The Stone Sky, it's revealed that Alabaster was motivated not just by rage and vengeance, but by cold reason.  By blowing up the supervolcano, he unleashes tremendous power that can be channeled by an orogene like Essun into the Obelisk Gate, and used to capture the Moon and end the Seasons forever.  "You want to read about worlds where racism and oppression are justified?"  Jemisin seems to be saying to her readers.  "Fine, I'll not only make the monsters of those stories my heroes, but I'll make it so that the only way to fix this horribly broken world is for them to kill millions of 'normal' people."  It's a direct challenge to comfortable readers who suddenly find the cold equations facing in the other direction.

Of course, the problem isn't simply tropes, but how those tropes both reflect and justify real racism.  The Mutant Metaphor may not be a good way of coping with with racism in fiction, but its reverse--the idea that certain groups are inherently dangerous and therefore killable--crops up in reality to justify real harm to ordinary human beings.  When the grand jury testimony of Michael Brown's killer was made public, Jamelle Bouie observed that he spoke as if he'd been facing a superhero, not an unarmed teenage boy.  Television shows and movies, including and often primarily in genre fiction, popularize the narratives that are later used to justify things like police brutality or drone warfare.  Jemisin takes that fact to its logical conclusion in The Stone Sky when she reveals that orogeny was genetically engineered into humanity not as a tool, but as a way of making such racist narratives real.  Having hounded an ethnic group, the Niess, out of existence, and having convinced themselves that they possessed superpowers that justified such hounding, the humans of what would become the Stillness had no choice but to bring the monsters of their imagination into being.
If the Niess were merely human, the world built on their inhumanity would fall apart.

So... they made us.

...Remember, we must not be just tools, but myths.  Thus we later creations have been given exaggerated Niess features--broad faces, small mouths, skin nearly devoid of color, hair that laughs at fine combs, and we're all so short.  They've stripped our limbic systems of neurochemicals and our lives of experience and language and knowledge.  And only now, when we have been made over in the image of their own fear, are they satisfied.  They tell themselves that in us, they've captured the quintessence and power of who the Niess really were, and they congratulate themselves on having made their old enemies useful at last.
A few hours before I sat down to write this review, I read an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which he tries to grapple with the reality of a nation that could elect both Barack Obama and Donald Trump as consecutive presidents.  His conclusion is that America relies on the narrative of white supremacy, but is willing to set it aside when things get bad enough--as they were in 2008 when Obama was elected.  But when the pendulum swings back a little, the need to reassert a white supremacist worldview becomes paramount.  A similar dynamic is observed in The Stone Sky; Nassun and Schaffa advise a group of runaway orogene children to find a community where their abilities will make them useful during the Season.  But, they warn, if it ever looks as if the Season is receding, the children will have to run away, lest the same people whose lives they saved turn on them.

Writing about the role of narrative in perpetuating and obscuring the role of white supremacy in history, Coates observes:
It is not a mistake that Gone With the Wind is one of the most read works of American literature or that The Birth of a Nation is the most revered touchstone of all American film. Both emerge from a need for palliatives and painkillers, an escape from the truth of those five short years in which 750,000 American soldiers were killed, more than all American soldiers killed in all other American wars combined, in a war declared for the cause of expanding "African slavery". That war was inaugurated not reluctantly, but lustily, by men who believed property in humans to be the cornerstone of civilisation, to be an edict of God, and so delivered their own children to his maw. And when that war was done, the now-defeated God lived on, honoured through the human sacrifice of lynching and racist pogroms. The history breaks the myth. And so the history is ignored, and fictions are weaved into our art and politics that dress villainy in martyrdom and transform banditry into chivalry, and so strong are these fictions that their emblem, the stars and bars, darkens front porches and state capitol buildings across the land to this day.
"The history breaks the myth.  And so the history is ignored" feels like the thesis statement of The Stone Sky, a book that is all about pulling back the curtain to reveal the ugly causes of the Stillness's ugly present.  It's not a mistake that the only way Jemisin's characters can find to finally defeat this history and begin again involves destroying much of the world--the weight of hatred, and the unwillingness to admit where that hatred is rooted, are too great for anything else.  And even then, the book's ending is uncertain.  Will peace between orogenes and stills ever be possible?  Will orogenes, finally freed of the Fulcrum and the Guardians, take their revenge and even try to become the oppressors they were once subject to?  Will stills continue to follow the forms of ancient hatreds even when what little reason there was for them is gone?  Is it possible to teach the Stillness new stories about itself, or will those stories, like their predecessors, simply serve to paper over crimes and cruelties?

There isn't another work in science fiction asking these questions.  Not really.  Not with this intensity.  Not with such a clear-eyed look at where so much of the ugliness that underpins our own society comes from.  And not with the demand that we acknowledge how much our own genre perpetuates and intensifies that ugliness.  If there's any justice, these books will represent an upheaval that the genre will never look back from.  No more building worlds to reify narratives that hurt people in the real world.  No more villains whose villainy consists of responding "badly" to their abusers.  No more quick fixes that put everything right without acknowledging how deep hatred and prejudice can run in a civilization.  In hindsight, I shouldn't have worried that Jemisin wouldn't know how to craft the right (I am deliberately not saying "satisfying") ending for this series.  Her certainty and clear vision with it have been apparent from day one, from that first chapter.  It only remains to be seen whether the rest of the genre will follow suit.

22 comments:

Unknown said...

Great review. I was wondering, do you agree with Coates? Do you think building a truly non-racist society in the United States is possible?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I hardly feel qualified to disagree with Coates, and I think a lot of what he says is undeniable. It is plainly true that the narrative a lot of white people, in and out of the US, have been taught about race relations - the narrative of incremental but steady progress, the idea that certain ills, such as slavery or Jim Crow, have been "settled" - is false, and dangerous in its falseness. And I think his argument that white supremacy is at the root of much of what wrong in American society right now is incredibly forceful - as he writes elsewhere, how do you explain Trump except as a sizable portion of the population saying "if a black man is good enough to be president, that means any white man, even the most stupid, selfish, and immoral, can also do the job"?

That said, I don't see Coates as arguing that solving this problem is either possible or impossible. I don't think he's making those kind of pronouncements - he's giving a diagnosis, not a prognosis. And he's saying - and again, I think this is undeniable - that until enough white people recognize the real cause of what's happening in the US right now, it will be impossible to move forward. In a more fantastical, dramatic way, that's also what Jemisin is saying about the Stillness, which is why the two works felt so strongly linked to me.

LondonKdS said...

In relation to the linked Supergirl post, the answer, I'm depressingly convinced, is that 95% or more of fannish political activism around "representation" is largely driven by the desire to support your favoured ship or character by claiming a political justification for it/them. It's threatening to one's self-image to think about whether the world-building or plot of your favourite show is inherently anti-democratic or authoritarian. Whereas if, say, you support #GiveCapABoyfriend you can feel that you're engaging in activism for LGBT+ rights while at the same time having fun imagining Chris Evans doing sexy/romantic things on-screen with your preferred other MCU actor.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't doubt that there's an element of wanting beautiful men to make out with each other in some of the representation activism surrounding popular culture. But I wouldn't want to paint all that kind of agitating with that brush. On Supergirl, for example, not only was Alex's coming out story handled very well, but there have been a lot of powerful reactions to it from viewers, especially considering that the show is watched by young girls, some of whom are just figuring out their sexuality.

As I say, that shouldn't be allowed to obscure the massive problem with Alex's propensity for violence, or the show's general normalization of unaccountable state violence. But I think the storyline itself, and the people lauding it, are in earnest.

Aonghus Fallon said...

'Most of fandom (and even some creators) seem to have reached the conclusion that The Mutant Metaphor doesn't work, that it is impossible to talk meaningfully about the kind of racism that exists in our world by comparing black people, LGBT people, immigrants, or Jews to people who have tremendous and often destructive powers. '

I read a couple of Jemisin's earlier books ('The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms' & the sequel) and enjoyed them. I bailed out on the Fifth Season because I didn't find the basic premise credible. Why - or indeed, how - does one stigmatise the powerful? Isn't the usual pattern of history that the powerful assert those selfsame powers over the (relatively) powerless? The orogenes might be feared and hated, but they would also be in charge: dictators with the power of life or death over their subjects.

Re Coates. Although race was a factor, I wouldn't regard it as the defining feature of Trump's election. Hilary was a terrible candidate who made sure she was the only viable candidate. The republicans treat their electoral base with such contempt that any passing huckster who promised that selfsame electorate something - even if it was just a few soundbites - was bound to beat other republican candidates. Thus one party was hijacked by an insider, and another by an outsider.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I didn't find the basic premise credible. Why - or indeed, how - does one stigmatise the powerful?

Well, I just wrote 3000 words about how the entire point and purpose of these books is to discuss the fact that racism and racist systems are neither rational nor predictable.

More pointedly, during slavery, black people outnumbered white people and had high levels of access to their most vulnerable moments, and yet slave rebellions happened only rarely. That's because slave owner constructed a system of physical, social, and psychological control to prevent just such an event. The same sort of system exists in the Broken Earth books, and not by coincidence - it is a major component of any racist system. Hell, any oppressive system. There are more working class people than 1%-ers, and slightly more women than men, and yet the axes of power and oppression couldn't be clearer in both cases. If history shows us anything, it is that the idea that it is impossible to oppress those who have power is simply untrue - which, again, is one of the points Jemisin is making.

Although race was a factor, I wouldn't regard it as the defining feature of Trump's election

I really have no idea how to respond to this. To suggest that a man who jumpstarted his political career by spending months popularizing the idea that the first black president wasn't American, a man whose campaign was riddled with open, unabashed racism, a man who cheerfully hobnobs with white supermacists groups while lashing out at any POC who dares to criticize him, was elected without race being a "defining feature" is simply counterfactual.

Aonghus Fallon said...

'Well, I just wrote 3000 words about how the entire point and purpose of these books is to discuss the fact that racism and racist systems are neither rational nor predictable.'

Well, I think racism is predictable inasmuch as it is usually based on race. The orogenes seem to be stigmatised principally for their powers. So for me the issue is one of plausibility. A man with a gun in a culture where nobody else has a gun is not going to be treated with cruelty and contempt - he's going to be pandered to.

Re Trump. I didn't discount the issue of race, but I doubt anybody - no matter how racist - votes somebody into power simply because he's a racist, anymore than they might vote somebody into power because he's sexist. Trump appealed to a disenfranchised midwest chiefly by promising them jobs - or at least, that's my impression.

McAllen said...

Well, I think racism is predictable inasmuch as it is usually based on race. The orogenes seem to be stigmatised principally for their powers.

As Abigail says, though, the stigmatization of the orogenes was originally about race.

A man with a gun in a culture where nobody else has a gun is not going to be treated with cruelty and contempt - he's going to be pandered to.

Not if he's been told from birth that he has to be treated with cruelty and contempt for the good of everyone. Not if he's seen other people with guns be horribly killed if their overseers had even a shadow of a fear that they would use their guns.

Re Trump. I didn't discount the issue of race, but I doubt anybody - no matter how racist - votes somebody into power simply because he's a racist, anymore than they might vote somebody into power because he's sexist

The entire history of the US shows that people will indeed do that.

Aonghus Fallon said...

'As Abigail says, though, the stigmatization of the orogenes was originally about race.'

Maybe so, but having them imbued with special powers muddies the issue. Originally I thought that myself and Abigail were in agreement on this point, as she said there was a consensus the mutant metaphor doesn't work. I believe it doesn't work precisely because the mutants depicted invariably possess super-powers (this is why they're being stigmatised) whereas the victims of racism are invariably powerless. It's not a valid analogy (and that's disregarding how 'mutant' is so broad a church as to make categorising them as a distinct group laughable).

'Not if he's been told from birth that he has to be treated with cruelty and contempt for the good of everyone. Not if he's seen other people with guns be horribly killed if their overseers had even a shadow of a fear that they would use their guns.'

I wouldn't agree. If anything, the kind of mistreatment you describe would only make the person all the more vindictive. He might be cowed as a child. Then he'd slowly start to resent how he was treated. And then he'd hit back.

The entire history of the US? Seriously?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yes, the entire history of the US. Pretty much everything you've been saying here is contradicted by the entire history of the US. Every African-American has spent their lives under the psychological burden of being told that they are inferior, and your characterization of how that would "have to" express itself simply isn't happening.

Not to repeat myself, but this is exactly what Jemisin is trying to address with these books. She's coming out exactly against the kind of "rational" analysis of racism that you're applying here, in defiance of mountains of recorded experience, and pointing out that racism is not rational.

Aonghus Fallon said...

I'm not sure the defining feature of US history is its racism (although that is by far and away the ugliest thing about it). Some good stuff happened too, right?

Err….I never said racism was rational. My only point was that the power dynamic in 'Fifth Season' distorts Jemisin's argument, to the extent that a white supremacist (not knowing anything about the author's intentions) might 'read The Fifth Season' as a fable about the beleaguered white man.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

A hypothetical white supremacist who has picked up a book explicitly about racism by an African-American woman can think whatever he wants. That doesn't make the argument that the power dynamic in the books doesn't support racism any more valid, nor does it change the fact that this is precisely the kind of rationalizing that Jemisin is coming out against.

Unknown said...

Aonghus:

"I believe it doesn't work precisely because the mutants depicted invariably possess super-powers (this is why they're being stigmatised) whereas the victims of racism are invariably powerless."

I wouldn't go around conflating physical prowess, no matter how extreme and fictionalised, with political/economic power, which is the actual medium through which racist oppression works.

Plenty of ways you can criticise the whole 'X fictional group of marginalised people as metaphor for Y real group of marginalised people' thing, but I don't think that's a very effective one.

- Tim Ward

Aonghus Fallon said...

'I wouldn't go around conflating physical prowess, no matter how extreme and fictionalised, with political/economic power, which is the actual medium through which racist oppression works.'

I guess that's your prerogative. Most people (myself included) believe all power is predicated on the use of physical force - a riot squad in action being a good example.

Unknown said...

But it's not the riot squad itself exercising power in that situation, it's whoever caused them to be deployed.

Aonghus Fallon said...

And that matters because....?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Aonghus: you're no longer anywhere near the actual topic of this post, nor does it feel like you're having a productive conversation, so perhaps it's time to call it a day.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Fine by me!

skinnyblackcladdink said...

icymi, this https://www.tor.com/2017/10/03/this-future-looks-familiar-watching-blade-runner-in-2017/ seems relevant?

McAllen said...

skinnyblackcladdink:

That is an excellent article. The comments, on the other hand, largely seem to embody exactly the attitudes Jemisin is pushing back against.

LondonKdS said...

Yeah, I shouldn't really have made that slash comment because it came across as too flip and snotty about what fans were interested in. I do think, though, that fannish political activism that is based around suggesting how specific character or plot elements should be developed in order to explore or express particular political views will always be more comfortable and more popular than thinking of the kind you talk about here, about whether certain essential elements of a work or wider conventions of the genre are fundamentally incompatible with the political values and policies that you want to see in the real world.

Stephen said...

Marvelous, insightful review, as yours so often are. I think I liked the latter two books better than you did; but what you said about them, both positive and negative, was, as always, insightful.

If you don't mind, a few minor corrections:

• The Shattering is not, as you twice say, the damage that Alabaster does in the preface to v1. That is the Rift or the Rifting. The Shattering is the primal disaster that sets of the cycle of seasons, which occurred 100 years after the first attempt to operate the Plutonic Engine aka the Obelisk Gate. This is most clearly stated in the last page or two of "Syl Anagist: Zero" when Hoa states that "It was not the cleansing fire that the Earth sought, but it was still the first and worst Fifth Season— what you call the Shattering."

• It's not accurate to say that "her father murdered her younger brother when he couldn't exercise the same control": he murdered him because he found out he was an orogene, nothing more; it's just the evidence that he saw/sessed/felt the diamond in his pocket (that is proof of his status) that sets him off. There's no lack of control involved.

• This one may be a deliberate skewing to avoid spoilers, but of course the stone eaters are not aliens — they are transformed from the six tuners in Syl Anagist (transformed by the Earth), and ones they built/created/gave birth to afterwards. As Hoa insists multiple times, he is human.

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