Two months after Hurricane Maria raked Puerto Rico, wide areas still lack power. Suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, thousands are fleeing the ravaged island. Numerous Caribbean paradises were destroyed, turning from lush green to barren brown. In Houston, flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey sent toxic chemicals bubbling out of the earth. One man died a gruesome death after contracting a flesh-eating infection. Then wildfires ravaged 250 square miles of northern California, and deadly earthquakes rattled Mexico, Iran, and Iraq. In addition to killing people and destroying homes and crops, these disasters completed the extinction of numerous endangered species.
Humans are responsible for the ferocity and frequency of most of these “natural” disasters. Climate change, the mass extinction of plants and animals, dying coral reefs, rising sea levels, massive deforestation, oils spills, air and water pollution—the litany of insults goes on. Could it be that the Earth is fighting back, punishing humans for so blithely raping the planet?
That’s one of the premises of the timely science-fiction/fantasy trilogy The Broken Earth by N.K. Jemisin. In these books, the Earth is a living, thinking entity that is wounded and furious. Nurturing Mother Earth has become punishing Father Earth. He does not speak in words, nor does He know how to kill the people who are doing the raping. Instead, He punishes humanity as a whole. Seismic activity gives the first book in the trilogy its title, The Fifth Season, a time of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis. In the aftermath of these events, ash-falls block the sun for years, and acid rains destroy crops, vegetation, and animals.
We have our weather forecasts and states of emergency; the people of The Broken Earth have their Stone Lore—advice and laws on what to do when a fifth season strikes. We build in anticipation of “natural” disasters; they prepare for recurring, extinction-level fifth seasons by stockpiling food and water, and by erecting walled compounds to protect against bands of starving marauders. In our world and theirs, casualties are inevitable. Plants and animals are destroyed, food and water become scarce, people suffer and die en masse.
The trilogy is set on a planet Earth, long after our 21st century civilization is dead. At least one new civilization has come and gone since ours, leaving behind fragments of mysterious but potent technology. They, too, pillaged the Earth, but in their own very different ways. Now a new civilization is under attack from a vengeful planet Earth.
When I resurfaced from hours of immersion in this mind-bending fictional world, events on my newsfeed turned Jemisin’s allusions into something far more concrete than fantasy. The trilogy reads like a parable.
I’ve never much cared about writers’ intentions. What matters is why a book speaks to me. Or, as Proust put it, “In reality, every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument, which he offers the reader to permit him to discern what, without the book, he would perhaps never have seen himself.”
There are many ways to read Jemisin’s trilogy. Because of current events, I happened to be most fascinated by Father Earth and the purity of his vengefulness. As the trilogy states, “The Earth did not start this cycle of hostilities (and) it did not plot to enslave humans in an unending nightmare. It did not start this war, but it will rusting well have. Its. Due.”
If my newsfeed had been flooded with yet another cop getting away with killing an unarmed black person, I might have read the books as an allegory about racism and the oppression of African Americans. The inhabitants of Father Earth are divided between “stills” and “orogenes,” also known by the derogatory term “roggas.” (The similarity to the n-word is the trilogy’s only direct metaphor.) Orogenes are capable of triggering or stopping seismic events, a power that can be constructive or lethal, and therefore they’re despised and enslaved in a magic school that couldn’t be more different from Hogwarts. Unschooled and untrained roggas, “the ferals,” are killed.
This is a veiled allusion to the racial oppression prevalent in today’s world. The fictional oppressors go to great lengths to make subjugation look like justice, fairness, even love. These oppressors assure the oppressed that if they try hard enough, behave well, and don’t make any trouble, they’ll have a rewarding career and a wonderful life. It’s all a lie. In interviews, Jemisin, an African-American woman, has said the orogenes were her way of processing systemic racism.
Yet another thread that runs through the trilogy is a complicated love-hate relationship between an orogene mother and her daughter. The daughter resents the mother for putting her through rigorous training to protect her from getting unmasked as a feral, and killed. As Jemison writes, “But that’s no different from what mothers have had to do since the dawn of time: sacrifice the present, in hopes of a better future.” I’m sure many other mothers will share my own feelings of regret about having had to make such sacrifices. That’s what we do when we read books: We take what we want and need at the moment we read it.
The Stone Sky, the last book in The Broken Earth trilogy, has just been released. The first two installments won the prestigious Hugo Award the past two years in a row—the first time this has happened since two installments in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series won back-to-back in 1986 and ’87. The Fifth Season is currently in development for a TV series on TNT.
From the opening sentences of The Broken Earth, it’s clear that we have left behind not just everyday reality but also the world of old-school fantasy novels. No white males and their medieval European settings, no immortal elves, no dragons, no magic that can solve any problem. Jemisin’s magic echoes Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law of Science Fiction: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
The Broken Earth might also be read as a call to arms on an unimaginable scale. It suggests that it might be best to end this world of suffering and injustice—kill the slaves and the slavers alike—and make room for something new. A world without any fifth seasons. A world at peace with Father Earth.
That’s how I read these earth-shattering books. You’ll read them in your own way.