Updated: Aug 21, 2021
Worldbuilding in The Broken Earth Trilogy
“Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall; Death is the fifth and master of all.”
― N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season
There’s a moment very early on in The Fifth Season that you realise you are reading something highly original and personal. In much the same way the Broken Earth doesn’t care about the world that came before it, N.K. Jemisin repeatedly does away with the old conventions of the sci-fi/fantasy canon to build something new from its ashes. The trilogy isn’t beholden to the genre, and is built chiefly from personal experience.
The trilogy follows the growth of one character, throughout the many stages, and many names of her life. Damaya grows out of childhood to become Syenite, who in turn loses everything to begin a new life as Essun. We are introduced to all three of these characters at the beginning of the first book, charting a large portion of the world’s recent history while also uncovering new connections between younger and older versions of the same character. It’s this twist on the ensemble cast technique fast becoming familiar in fantasy that works to develop a multi-faceted character in a relatively short book. While Martin uses the technique to cover a vast geography, Jemisin uses it to cover a vast personal history.
The character of Essun is essential to the success of the worldbuilding of this trilogy. Essun is a orogene, a person with the ability to manipulate rock and earth with their mind, and with this novum, Jemisin explores how individuals shape their surroundings, and how in turn they are shaped by their environments, to the extreme that a powerful enough orogene must pay for their power by becoming slowly turning to stone.
Great science fiction often relies on the worldbuilding to explore deeply personal stories. There is a connection between the world, the novelties of that world, and the struggle occurring within protagonists. Rarely is that connection explored as concretely as this. Through Essun’s multiple perspectives we explore a harsh and unforgiving world created by humanity’s own greed and disregard for the environment. People are judged only by their usefulness to survival, and cast out if their trade- communicated by a person’s surname- is not needed. Orogenes are feared, killed when discovered, and only allowed to live if they serve under the oppression of Guardians. In many ways The Broken Earth lays out a cautionary roadmap for one direction our society is heading towards, a harsh and unforgiving landscape with natural disasters occurring every thirty years, where those with the ability to soothe the planet are downtrodden and oppressed. Humanity tears it itself down instead of banding together and rising above. Greed ravages all.
One community manages to provide a more hopeful alternative, compromised of characters from all walks of life, whether still or orogene or stone-eater. In a bleak world, solace may not be found, except perhaps in a glimpse of a different direction for future generations. Maybe that’s enough.