N.K. Jemisin had a haunting dream of a woman so stricken with grief and rage, that she moved mountains. That paired with a class by NASA on what would happen to the Earth if we lost the moon, inspired the first book of the Broken Earth trilogy. Gabe explores the world of the Stillness unpacking the heavy themes throughout the book. This one is gonna hurt. Kat explains the fate of the world if we lost our moon. How could we survive? Are the "seasons" in Jemisin's work based in reality?
*Contains spoilers for The Fifth Season and some for the Broken Earth trilogy.*
Sources in this Episode: N. K. Jemisin’s Dream Worlds Oh, Oppression! How much we’d like for you to leave… 7 Ways Earth Would Change If Our Moon Were Destroyed What would happen if the Moon disappeared? Further Reading on Broken Earth: Afrofuturism and Generational Trauma in NK Jemisin's Broken Earth Trilogy The entanglement of climate change, capitalism and oppression in The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
Media from this week's episode:
The Fifth Season (2015)
The Fifth Season takes place on a planet with a single supercontinent called the Stillness. Every few centuries, its inhabitants endure what they call a "Fifth Season" of catastrophic climate change.
The Fifth Season: When a Woman's Righteous Anger Moves Mountains by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
*Note: We will be revisiting the Broken Earth trilogy in the future as I have only read Fifth Season fully and am working through Obelisk Gate. The trilogy as a whole has so much more to explore and I look forward to diving into the entire series at a later time. That being said, this section is really only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much that can be said and explored, it a work of media literacy art, a profound and deep piece of literature that I could never cover in my lowly 30 minutes!
In The Fifth Season, the stillness is a land ravaged by climate and geological disasters. This otherworld features “seasons” in which Father Earth exacts his vengeance on the populace in the form of “seasons.” The Season of Teeth, caused by an earthquake and eruption resulted in the fragile bones of northern populations. The Madness Season caused by an eruption that blotted out the sun for ten years, leading to increases in mental illness. This is a world suffering from the choices of its predecessors.
Further, Father Earth, in an attempt at control, created a race of people known as Orogenes who control tectonic plate activity, siphoning heat from the earth and living beings around them to move the very Earth beneath them. These Orogenes, essentially earthbenders, having this phenomenal power are predictably feared by the Stills (normal folk) and therefore oppressed by those who don’t understand their power. Orogenes live in fear too, their fates tied to the populace’s whims. Some are murdered by the townspeople around them, even their own families are a risk (Jemisin shows us this immediately). Others are enslaved by the Fulcrum (a school-ish program) which hones their skills to be used for “good”, here they are used as tools and are under the control of the terrifying Guardians who can nullify their powers and existence (yeah, I said it. They can NULLIFY their EXISTENCE, just straight up UNMAKE you – Terrifying). Others still, survive long enough to control their powers and successfully hide them, allowing them to live amongst the Stills, they’re known as Ferals (learning outside of the Fulcrum and so a bit more dangerous and untamed). There is one even more horrifying fate of the Orogenes but I won’t spoil it.
The story follows three Orogenes. Essun, an older and mysterious Orogene who just lost their son tragically. They (or rather ‘You’) set out to find their other child, still alive and in danger. Syenite is a Fulcrum-trained Orogene. She has 4 rings (the Fulcrums status/tier system) and is setting out on a challenging mission with a temperamental and complicated 10-ringer, Alabaster. Finally, Damaya a young Feral Orogene is discovered in her home to be a “rogga” (the slur for Orogene) and is given to her terrifying new Guardian who brings her to the Fulcrum for taming.
Throughout the book, we journey alongside these protagonists. They encounter unspeakable horrors, reckon with oppressive forces, find love, lose love, and more. A beautiful and heartbreaking story of perseverance in the shadow of a dying planet. When we start at the end of the world, where do we go from there?
A Dream of Retribution:
As we mentioned in our last episode, N.K. Jemisin’s ideas start first with a dream. Here’s a bit about her dream as explained in the (incredibly helpful) New Yorker article titled, N. K. Jemisin’s Dream Worlds by Raffi Khatchadourian, “Several years ago, N. K. Jemisin, the fantasy and science-fiction author, had a dream that shook her. In her sleep, she found herself standing in a surreal tableau with a massif floating in the distance. “It was a chunk of rock shaped like a volcanic cone—a cone-shaped smoking mountain,” she recalled. Standing before the formation was a black woman in her mid-forties, with dreadlocks, who appeared to be holding the volcano aloft with her mind. She was glaring down at Jemisin and radiating anger. Jemisin did not know how she had triggered the woman’s fury, but she believed that, if she did not ameliorate it quickly, the woman would hurl the smoldering massif at her.
Jemisin awoke in a sweat and jotted down what she had seen. “I need to know how that person became who she is—a woman so angry that she was willing to move mountains,” she told me. “She was angry in a slow burn, with the kind of anger that is righteous, enough to change a planet. That’s a person who has been through so much shit that she has been pushed into becoming a leader. That’s an M.L.K. I needed to build a world that would explain her.”
It’s fascinating to imagine this dream and a class she attended by NASA explaining how doomed Earth would be if we lost our moon inspired the saga of Fifth Season. Each of the books in her Broken Earth trilogy won the Hugo Award (First time that has ever happened AND she was the first black person to win the Hugo, period). At the core of her series, is a story about humanity. Just as Octavia Butler confronted and addressed the flaws in our society, doomed by our hierarchical nature, prejudice, and short-sightedness, Jemisin too envisioned a world that although fantastical is so very honest. Akin to a mirror. I spoke with a friend who read the series and described it as another place, another world and with alien-folk. I couldn’t disagree more. For me, this book was not science fiction but instead, speculative fiction. Sure, we cannot move the earth now but I’ve no misgivings on the power of our planet, our connection to nature, and how the Earth will always put itself first, healing, shifting, unmaking, and remaking itself into something we’ll need to adapt to.
N.K. Jemisin’s work is often steeped in deeper meaning. Her world is a replica of our own, full of pain, turmoil, and resistance. Though each of her books is unique, a world built from dreams and research, they have similar foundations throughout.
Oppression - During a live panel about Worldbuilding at a convention, Jemisin explained that when building your world you must ask yourself, “Who is being oppressed? Why? And by whom?” because someone is always being oppressed in society. It’s a given. The stories that matter are here, under the heavy weight of prejudice and fear.
In the stillness, there have been beings throughout history with immense, natural power. I’ll explain some of the native peoples a bit later but we get a good dose of the world’s prejudice towards Orogenes in Fifth Season. The Orogenes, are villainized. They are feared for their power and painted as a punishment, not a gift. Their treatment is not subtle, a blatant reflection of our society’s colonialism and institutionalized racism. Other tools of oppression represented in the trilogy include capitalism, advanced technology, and commodification.
The Stillness is literally a caste-system with people’s names relating to their role in society. Their use-castes connecting to breeding, manual labor, and innovation. With survival at the forefront of their minds, storytellers are seen as archaic and useless. But Orogenes don’t get even that, a use-caste name, instead reduced to a sub-human designation, a trained-but-not-to-be-trusted monster.
After her dream of the woman, Jemisin began mapping out the world of Broken Earth, the stillness. She envisioned a somewhat metropolitan hub, a central power and place of stability. She asked herself why this woman would not reside there, where does the story take place? What has caused her strife? In a later interview about her dream in which a woman moved a mountain with her rage, Jemisin said, “That was the summer when, just about every other minute, there was the unjustified killing of a black person at the hands of police. Ferguson was happening, and I was angry myself. I wanted to throw a mountain myself.” This made me think of how Essun, who’s son is murdered at the beginning of the book, explains that she hadn’t been able to teach him control. He hadn’t known how to hide his orogeny, to know that what was in him was wrong. In Obelisk Gate, how little he knew about his own villainy is painful. His naivety, a perceived safety, causing his death. This education that Essun planned to show her son, had presumably showed Nassun her daughter (and even then, she didn’t fully understand the danger either), reminded me of “the talk” that many Black parents have with their children. Warning and preparing them for interactions with police and others who will see them and only see violence, fear, and retribution. It makes me think of all the young Black kids who didn’t get the talk and are no longer here. Like Uche, they live in the understanding that their children, safe and understood to be harmless, not as monsters to be feared.
The Problem of Tradition/Inheriting Generational Traumas - One of the themes I found the most prevalent and telling was that of the problem with Tradition. Tradition can oftentimes stifle the growth and advancement of humanity. How many times have revolutionaries and those daring to question the status quo been met with excuses of “that’s the way it’s always been done,” when trying to make a change? Throughout the journeys in The Fifth Season and the Broken Earth trilogy as a whole, we get a glimpse into the world as a whole. After each chapter, Jemisin gives us a snippet from the Stonelore (written warnings/instructions). The Stonelore are followed quite strictly by the people in the Stillness. They offer words of advice for preparation for surviving a Season. They warn of the dangers of the powerful Orogenes, emotional beings that, left to their own devices or feelings, could end us all. But we also learn in Fifth Season, that the Stonelore the characters grow up with, the words of wisdom, are not limited. There are more out there, hidden, apocryphal texts.
This truth is revealed by my favorite character, Alabaster. He serves as a wise, voice of reason (though he is labeled as “crazy” throughout) and continuously reveals to Syen the truth of their kind. That they have more power than she could imagine and that it is this power the “ones in charge” fear. There is an entire history of oppression of Orogenes and other peoples that refused the status quo. Their power and strength have been erased or repressed from history, leaving only fear of and hatred for the peoples left.
Generational Trauma is a strong theme within works of the Afrofuturist genre. Afrofuturism is defined by Ytasha L. Womack as “an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation.” The term was coined by Mark Dery in his 1993 essay, Black to the Future, where he imagines Afrofuturism as a possible response to his question: Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?
Within Fifth Season and the rest of the trilogy we can watch as these questions are actively asked and solved by the protagonists. Syen/Essun/Damaya are indoctrinated into the Fulcum’s lies and later into the revolution. If you are told your entire life that you and people like you are wrong, evil, to not trust your instincts, that you are deadly; you’ve no choice but to believe that. We, as readers, learn of the cultural truths alongside these protagonist and with them too, deconstruct those ideologies to reveal a history of oppression and a possibility for redemption.
Climate Change Woes
The series reveals a history of the Stillness. One ripe with oppression, control, and magic. Long before the existence of the orogenes, there were a group of magical peoples, the Thniess. This history is explored in The Stone Sky, the last book of the series (I have not read this so I am only just learning too!). The Thniess mirror our native peoples, understanding the magic of the world to be not a commodity but a living thing. Hoa, a character in the book explains, Magic is everywhere in the world. Everyone sees it, feels it, flows with it. In Syl Anagist, magic is cultivated in every flower bed and tree line and grapevine-draped wall. Each household or business must produce its share,which is then funneled away in genegineerd vines and pumps to become the power source for a global civilization. It is illegal to kill in Syl Anagist because
life is a valuable resource. The Niess did not believe this. Magic could not be owned, they insisted, any more than life could be - and thus they wasted both, by building (among
many other things) plutonic engines that did nothing. They were just… pretty. Or thought-provoking, or crafted for the sheer joy of crafting. And yet this “art” ran more efficiently and powerfully than anything the Sylanagistine had ever managed. (209-210).
While the Syl Anagist sought to cultivate and commodify the magic of the world, the Thniess looked to respect it. And so, the Syl Anagist colonized and later annihilated the peoples for this.
In a blog titled Oh, Oppression! How much we’d like for you to leave…, writer Jose Romero compares the description of their treatment to that of the “Indian Removal Act” stating, On page 209, it states, “The Sylanagistines took their land. The Niess fought, but then responded like any living thing under threat–with diaspora, sending whatever was left of themselves flying forth to take root and perhaps survive where it could.” As I was reading this, I was instantly reminded to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which was a law passed by congress to remove Native Americans (a very socially and politically oppressed group) from their eastern homelands and forced them to move west. Like these individuals who had to migrate west, Niess too were managing to “keep hold of who they were, though, [and] continuing to speak their language even as they grew fluent in other tongues.” Later on in the text, it is revealed that Sylanagists were committing genocide against the Thniess since they couldn’t understand their magic and realize that they did not have to conform to treating magic as only a commodity. And so, they took control of their power in the system, and removed that oppressed group from their society. The “scornful dismissal of Niess efficiency as a fluke of physiology–was superior and infallible” as mentioned on page 211.
As we discussed in our Eco-Horror series, there are many activist groups in the country fighting climate change and the harmful acts by those in power. These groups are often by, led, and maintained by Indigenous peoples. Atwood, in explaining the horrors of The Handmaid’s Tale, explained that nothing in her book was made up, everything that happens has happened to someone, some people, at some point in history. For Jemisin, this is also true. Under the guise of the fantastical, the magical, there is truth and the very human reactions to such elements. In their section, Kat will explore the real horrors that we may face were we to lose our moon. A tragedy, a volatile end to our monstrous reign on the planet. But if we find ourselves persisting on this planet, despite it’s annihilation, finding it and us transformed, I’ve no doubt we’d not learn from these traumas but instead will perpetuate them for eternity. I haven’t finished the series, so I don’t know if Jemisin offers us hope in the end. All I know is that she starts us at the end, in the cold, dark, and emotional grief of the end. And she reminds us of this end whenever she can. I look forward to seeing how it plays out.
Some final thoughts by Khatchadourian, “It could be read as an environmental parable, or as a study of repression, or as a meditation on race, or as a mother’s post-apocalyptic quest. Jemisin wove in magical elements, but she systematized them so thoroughly that they felt like scientific principles—laws of an alternative nature. She evoked advanced technology, but made it so esoteric that it seemed like magic.” N. K. Jemisin’s Dream Worlds
What Happens to Us If We Lose the Moon? by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Moral of the story is our planet would be royally F’d if the moon was destroyed. It’s already royally f’d because of climate change, but we’ve talked about that a million times at this point. The worlds that NK created center around many things, but one big one is the destruction of the moon and the impact that had on both human evolution, as well as the seasons and the planet.
What would happen if the moon was destroyed? A helpful article on Forbes, titled 7 Ways Earth Would Change If Our Moon Were Destroyed by Ethan Siegel and Starts With A Bang details what this would mean.
The destruction of the moon would result in potential debris flying very quickly towards the earth. This may or may not be life-exterminating. This really depends on how the moon was destroyed. The article outlines the way in which this might happen. The destruction of the moon could happen in a handful of ways. It really would depend on the magnitude of the impact, and if it would completely destroy the moon, break it into a few pieces, or break into debris. Each version of this would have a slightly different result. If the moon split into smaller pieces, they would likely re-form into one or more smaller moons. Those pieces could break apart into a ringed system around earth, but over time the lunar fragments would de-orbit because of Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in multiple impacts over time. This would not destroy the planet, but would be destructive. However not as destructive as the asteroids or comets that we fear, as these fragments would have less energy upon impact. They’d slow in the atmosphere before falling to earth, instead of how comets or asteroids would. Even if these were big chunks, larger than what took out the dinosaurs, their speed on impact would make them somewhat less deadly because they have less energy. This is because “Asteroids or comets striking Earth move at twenty, fifty or even over a hundred kilometers-per-second, but lunar debris would be moving at a mere 8 km/s, and would strike only a glancing blow with our atmosphere.” Damage would still happen, and many life forms, including humans would die, but it likely wouldn’t drive humanity to extinction, at least not right away.
The impact would be less than 1% the total energy of a comparably sized asteroid. For this reason, we would likely survive the impacts, if they were small enough. The size of the chunks would be a deciding factor there. The real problems would come if you survive any of these initial impacts. The change could be gradual or fast, it really depends on the exact circumstances. The debris from the moon would likely result in problems anyway. Ranging from destroying any and all things in our current orbit, satellites, etc to collecting in our atmosphere and forming a Saturn like ring, gradually releasing debris to burn up before it reached the planet’s surface. This ring would likely also destroy satellites and make it very difficult to leave the planet unscathed. If satellites were destroyed there would be impacts that would affect the ability to send cell phones and other kinds of signals into space and back with the losses of these satellites. This might also impact internet and other connectivity services - although that’d depend on how things on land fair, post moon explosion. There have been many books and movies positioned around the destruction of the internet and global connections, so I think it’s reasonable to assume the fallout of that would be negative. There is another possibility, which would involve the tiny pieces dissolving in the earth's atmosphere and further heating the planet, potentially to inhabitable levels over a very long period of time. However the moon itself might not be able to produce enough debris and dust to have such an impact, but it also could…it would have to be the perfect storm. The heating could however, be enough at the very least to melt what’s left of the arctic, forgoing any dramatic axial tilts that push us into an ice age. The result of that would be water levels rising and land decreasing exponentially.
The largest impact would likely come from the destabilization of our axial tilt (Our placement and how we rotate on an axis). “Earth spins on its axis, tilted at 23.4° with respect to our orbital plane around the Sun. (This is known as our obliquity.) You might not think the Moon has much to do with that, but over tens of thousands of years, that tilt changes: from as little as 22.1° to as much as 24.5°. The Moon is a stabilizing force, as worlds without big moons -- like Mars -- see their axial tilt change by ten times as much over time. On Earth, without a Moon, it's estimated that our tilt would possibly even exceed 45° at times, making us a world that spun on our sides. Poles wouldn't always be cold; the equator might not always be warm. Without our Moon to stabilize us, ice ages would preferentially hit different parts of our world every few thousand years.” This would put us in the position that NK describes as seasons. Times in which the earth destabilizes and the planet is impacted in different ways. Humans in many ways would need to return to nomadic ways of life in order to survive. We’d find failure in structured locations and inability to change. We’d need to be adaptive and revolve our ways of life around the changing planet structure. This ultimately would mean a permanent end to convenience, which with climate change, is likely a thing that will happen anyway. The destabilization of earth would lead to other impacts that drastically affect weather, plant life and overall biodiversity, as well as the evolution of humanity, and other animals. There would likely be creatures that out evolve us (humanity as we are now), that would either place us in a position of prey or drive extinction like events. Whether that’s a break off from our current homosapiens, or another species entirely. Thinking of aquatic life, where dolphins, octopi or other creatures that develop higher adaptivity to the changing planet. It is possible that humans with the powers described in NK’s book in origins and stone eaters could develop to meet evolutionary needs, and that eventually Stills or humans without the adaptive requirements would be unable to survive many seasons of planetary change. What is difficult about thinking this through is that the changing of the planet would be unexpected in its shifts. It would be hard to adapt to, and it is very likely that countless people would die.
What else would happen as a result of the moon’s destruction? Some lighter results would be that the night sky would be brighter. Unobstructed by the moon, our vision of space would be clearer. The new night sky would likely be extremely beautiful. With this there would be no more eclipses. The length of our standard days would also remain constant, or could potentially decrease. The moon impacts the speed of the earth's rotation, slightly slowing it over time. This has impacted the time of our days by slight increments over centuries. Without a moon we would have constant 24 hour days until the sun dies, or a decrease in the hours of days. If the rotation of the earth sped up, wind and other weather events would likely increase. This would make it very hard for birds and bugs to survive, and would likely make it very difficult to fly planes. Tides would also be impacted by this, dramatically impacting sea life. In an article on Royal Museums Greenwich titled What would happen if the Moon disappeared?, they elaborate on the climate impact that would take place in the absence of the moon. While tides would not cease to exist, they would shrink forming more constant mini tides that are still influenced by the sun, but they would be unchanging and significantly smaller than our current tides.Tide pools hold some of the oceans richest biodiversity, so the decrease in tides would impact this, and as a result could decrease the biodiversity of the ocean. Animals that depend on tides like crabs, mussels, starfish, and snails would likely go extinct.The result of this would not only impact sea life, but also impact land animals who rely on the coastal ecosystem as a food source. The impact on the tidal movements would also deregulate the planet’s climate. As ocean currents are driven by tides, they distribute warmer water around the globe and impact the global climate. Without these currents, temperatures could potentially grow more extreme.
In terms of additional effects this would have on animal life, it would likely spur a rise in prey, and a decrease in predators. The lack of moon would impact many predators who use the moon's light, and the advantage of the night’s darkness to hunt. Prey would fare better because predators could no longer use the light of the moon to help them hunt. This wouldn’t impact all predators, as ones with decent night vision, or echolocation would likely do okay. From an evolutionary standpoint it’d likely change the way in which eyes develop and evolve in wildlife as well. We could possibly see developments in thermal based vision, or heightened other senses if the predators survive the change. It’s more likely that many would die off, especially if already at lower numbers from the impact of human intervention.