In her brilliant short story collection, How Long Til Black Future Month, N.K. Jemisin’s lead-off story “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” riffs on Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” to devastating effect. I’m not a crier under most circumstances, just ask my wife and she’ll confirm that. But at the end of Jemisin’s story, I cried because her vision for how life could be was so beautiful. LeGuin’s story essentially asks the question: “If a society’s thriving required the exploitation and suffering of a single individual – just one – would that be worth it?” For those who can’t agree to that condition, their “only” choice is to walk away. And I use those quotes because Jemisin’s response is exactly the right one when presented with binary options: look for a third way.
I remember a professor encouraging us to walk that very road. It’s very rare that there are only two options, and typically when given only two options to choose from, neither is adequate. So, find a third way.
Jemisin’s third way is to stay and fight. Fight the system that demands either submission or exploitation. Neither option is good, so let’s fight for a third way. A way in which justice and mercy meet, and everyone has the chance to truly thrive. No one needs to be excluded or exploited. No one.
The Broken Earth trilogy feels like an extended meditation on the same theme. What would we do if an entire group of people is subjugated, oppressed, made into chattel, feared, controlled, and lynched for the benefit of everyone else? Does that sound like any society in the primary world? Mmhmm.
Would we buy into the system and seek our own personal thriving within it? Would we remove ourselves and live isolated from everyone else? Or would we break the intentionally flawed system and build something that works for everyone?
Unsurprisingly, most people in Jemisin’s world make the same choices that white America made throughout its sad history. Buy in wholesale, or pretend the problem doesn’t exist. But we don’t have to choose between maintaining the status quo and burning the whole thing down. We, like Jemisin’s characters, can choose instead to bring justice. That will require burning. It will also require maintaining parts of the status quo. But the end result needs to be a new thing entirely.
You see, Jemisin brilliantly places her readers inside the perspective of people within her world’s exploited group. We see how they feel when they are bred like cattle, threatened with death for simply being who and what they are, when their emotions are manipulated and twisted against them, and a whole host of terrors are inflicted upon them. And she does this by laying the groundwork in book one. She shows how the exploited participate in their own exploitation, and believe the lies that this way is truly what’s best for everyone. We see how they are taught to buy into the system as the way things “have to be.” In book two, she spells out the options and makes the sides clear. And because she recognizes that this is not a binary decision that is stuck in a duality of warring opposites, there are more than two sides. Finally, in book three she advances the story to its beautiful conclusion while narrating the history that brought us to where her story started.
Since I just mentioned the ending, let me digress for just a moment to say that Jemisin’s ending is one of the best I’ve ever read. Wrapping up a series in a satisfying way is hard. I know this, not because I’ve done it, but because I’ve read enough series to see that not every one can do it well. But the ending to The Broken Earth trilogy is so good that I reread it several times, and I teared up each time. (I know! This, from the guy who rarely cries!) Jemisin’s ending is just so fitting, so relevant, so necessary. When it comes to making the world better, “Don’t be patient. Don’t ever be. This is the way a new world begins.” (Man! Even typing those words gets me again.) Channeling Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Jemisin emphasizes that we cannot wait for a “more convenient season.” (And yes, I feel the resonance between the imagined convenient season in Dr. King’s quote and the Seasons in Jemisin’s world.)
Because of course there can’t be a more convenient season when the third way – the way of justice – requires a breaking. The old way must be broken for a just way to emerge. Would the city of Castrima be what it is without the magnitude of this Season? No. Would any see the need for roggas and stills (I’m deliberately using the in-world, offensive slang here – and you don’t need to try hard to hear the phonetic resonance between rogga and a different slur in the primary world) to work together if not for the destruction Alabaster brought about? Not a chance. But the destruction opens the door to a new world. No Fulcrums. No Guardians. Just people.
The destruction of this trilogy is not senseless. It is like rebreaking a bone so it can set properly, so real healing can take place without further pain and deformity. It is not wholesale, wanton destruction. It is targeted. Intentional. Hopeful.
The same can be said of the entire trilogy, in fact. It is targeted, intentional, and hopeful.
The exploitation built into the system of Jemisin’s world goes all the way down and all the way back. Society in the present is structured around use castes. It’s incredible. Because the earth is broken by an exploitative system, even the way humans view themselves and each other has been broken. The focus shifts from personhood to utility. And this is narrated powerfully in the story’s main character. In her story, yes, but mostly in her names. You see, she was given the name Damaya by her family, but that family feared her and didn’t know how to love. So, they gave her away to the Fulcrum where she was given the name Syenite. But at the Fulcrum she was exploited and treated like an animal that could be bred and controlled. Finally, there’s Essun, the name she chooses for herself, the name she is called by those who come to know and love her.
Going back in time, Syl Anagist used the lowest caste as literal fuel for their progress, and when they recognized that those resources would eventually be used up they began to adjust the definition of who fits in that lowest caste. Who can be used and who cannot? But they know, too, that even with an ever-adjusting and expanding lowest caste, their resources are finite, and so they need a new option. They have a chance to choose a third way, one that refuses systemic exploitation. But instead, they are unable to see that such a system is evil, even when it no longer exploits people (now, the lowest caste probably wasn’t seen as human, and in the backstory we’re given Houwha, Kelenli, Gaewha, and others like them that certainly aren’t). So, they direct their exploitative system toward the Earth itself – the very source of their life and their magic. Oh yeah, magic! Tons of it.
And it’s at this point, that Jemisin draws a line between social justice and environmental justice. It is the same culture of oppression and exploitation that treats people, plants, animals, water, land – all the things on which our lives depend – as mere things to be used. It is a system that cannot see other living beings as worthy of dignity and respect even though they have lives of their own and we all have creaturehood in common. The environmental drama is the sea in which the drama of social justice swims (forgive the sloppy metaphor). Oh, and by the way, the only people who can avoid the Seasons (unavoidable environmental catastrophes that occur about once a generation) are those who are truly in power. The Guardians alone have the luxury to retreat from the Seasons and are therefore unaffected by them. So too, the rich and powerful in our world continue to exploit and strip-mine our planet while believing they will be insulated against the consequences.
This is one of the reasons I love good fantasy. It takes reality in the primary world and makes it strange. And in so doing, it helps us see the primary world more clearly. In The Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin repositions the direction of oppression and exploitation to roggas (those who can do magic), while imagining a world where the social construct of race isn’t a thing and everyone accepts people we would place within the LGBTQ+ community. In this world, people are people, unless they can do magic. Then they’re dangerous and in need of exploitation. A narrative must be created that will convince roggas (orogenes, magic-users) that they are dangerous and must be controlled for the safety of the world. By clearly transposing the direction of fear and hatred from race and sexual identity to magic in her secondary world, Jemisin makes the parallel unmistakable. I can’t read the trilogy and miss the tragic parallel with the primary world. We have done and continue to do to people of other “races” and “sexual orientations” what they did to their orogenes. We too are exploiting the planet so that some can experience short-term gains. But it doesn’t have to be this way!
We can make a better world, one that works for everyone. It won’t be easy, and it will be costly. But a world built on cooperation rather than exploitation is worth it.