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.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.
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.
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.