The Stone Sky

The Broken Earth: Book Three

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Normal warnings aside, I am really, really going to spoil this trilogy in here, so if you don’t want to know exactly how ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ ends, don’t read this.

Um, I’m also going to spoil several movies.

You know that theory (we’ve talked about it before) that there are only, like, seven plots in all of literature? They, supposedly, are:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

And they’re pretty self-explanatory. The theory goes that all the works of literature are just attempts on these seven basic plots: retellings, new perspectives, embellishments, interpretations. That these are the only stories there are.

OK, well, that may or not be true*, but I do know that, when you read a lot of stories, you notice that there aren’t so many different things to say as there are books. It’s not just plots – characters, premises, dilemmas, it all comes around again and again.

*I’ve never really been satisfied that any of those plots describes ‘Jurassic Park’. Maybe this is just me getting hung up on dinosaurs again, but ‘Jurassic Park’ doesn’t really fit any of those, does it? Which could it be? The Quest [to get out of Jurassic Park]? Overcoming the Monster [actually many little monsters and no one really overcomes them, just runs away]? I’m not buying it. I propose a new list: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, Rebirth, Jurassic Park.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter whether there are seven plots or seventy, or whether the above list is exhaustive. The fact is, when you read a lot, the landscape of fiction does becomes familiar to you.

Which can be kind of nice. Familiar landmarks help you orient yourself. They signal to you what kind of story you’re reading, what kind of lessons you’re meant to learn, what sort of characters you should expect to meet and what might happen to them. Often, they tell you how the story wants to be evaluated: it doesn’t, for example, make any sense to complain that there weren’t enough battles between zombies and werewolves in ‘The Notebook’ – ‘The Notebook’ isn’t that kind of story. How do you know that it wasn’t that kind of story? It didn’t have any landmarks of the kind of story where zombies and werewolves battle – no weird contagions which make people sort of bitey, no bodies of eviscerated sheep showing up around the village after the full moon, stuff like that.

But surprises are also nice – think how great it would have been if there had been even one zombie in ‘The Notebook’. Surprises make you realize that life isn’t over yet, that the world is still turning, that it’s worth trying new things, or reading new books. That, even if people have exhausted all the basic plots, they haven’t stopped thinking up new things to decorate them with.

And they don’t need to be big surprises, either; they can be small adjustments to old things, as long as you’ve never seen them before.

Which, I think, in the end, is the thing I ended up liking the most about ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘. Yes, the story was quite strong, and it was never badly written (which is about as good as it gets for genre fiction), and it didn’t get soggy at the end, but what I really ended up loving was that it surprised me.

And it surprised me in the most unlikely way: the villain surprised me!

Villains are never really surprising – even “surprise” villains aren’t really surprising, because you know that, according to the Laws of Fiction, you have to have been introduced to them already. And since, in any given story the number of named characters is relatively small, and since you must be prepared, according to the Laws of Fiction, for any character to turn out to be a surprise villain, even if you are surprised by who the villain turns out to be, you aren’t really surprised surprised, because you knew it had to be someone.

Which is why the last time I was really surprised by a villain was when, in the first ‘Saw’ movie, the villain turned out to be the dead body on the floor in the background! Because that dead body wasn’t a character, really – he was scenery. And scenery doesn’t usually turn out to be the villain*.

*Although, now that I think about it, why, then, wasn’t ‘The Happening’, by M. Knight Shamaylan, a movie in which the villain also turned out to be scenery (trees), more surprising? Maybe because, by the reveal, you were too irritated to be surprised.

This same mechanism is at work in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘, but not in a cheap, one-shot reveal sort of way. The villain in ‘The Broken Earth’ is also scenery, but in the most fundamental way that there is: the villain is…the Earth.

I know that this sounds cheesy, but it kind of isn’t. I thought it was going to be cheesy, too: when I started picking up on the hints that the Earth was somehow malevolently set on destroying humankind, I thought for sure I was in for some irritatingly-heavy-handed climate change metaphor, where the Earth wasn’t really alive, but had become so destabilized by hubristic human overreach that it was functionally hostile to human life, yadda yadda yadda, we must all honor Mother Earth, so on and so forth, and I was like, anticipatorily bored.

No, that’s not what happens. In ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘, the Earth is alive. Alive and conscious, and angry. It is a living, thinking, speaking core of molten rock and hot gas in the center of the planet, and it hates us.

It’s..pretty weird, actually. It’s a great surprise, because it’s both functionally impossible to imagine ahead of time and totally easy to imagine afterwards: it’s hard to think of dirt as part of any living thing, but the Earth’s molten core lends itself right away to personification. It’s scary and angry already! All of which makes the premise (that we have failed to notice that the earth was alive this whole time) kind of plausible.

The Earth itself is the slow-reveal antagonist of the entire trilogy, but I didn’t begin to really grok that that until the end of ‘The Obelisk Gate‘. Which meant that ‘The Stone Sky‘ was a fun journey of dawning implication for me, especially as I began to figure out that the pseudo-villains of the first two books, the Guardians, are really just under the control of the Earth, via pieces of the Earth’s core which have been lodged in their brains.

N.K. Jemisin (Picture taken from newyorker.com)

Which, again, sounds super cheesy when I say it like that, but it doesn’t play out that way! It’s actually pretty elegant, the way Jemisin rolls everything out, and lets the five or six separate mysteries she has created inform each other until, piece by piece, you realize that they are all the same mystery.

And it takes a while to knit the whole picture together, a satisfying, leisurely length of time, which wouldn’t happen if ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ weren’t surprising. The only way that mysteries can afford to be leisurely (and ‘The Broken Earth’ is a mystery, at the end of the day) is if they are very, very sure you aren’t going to solve everything before the end and get bored waiting for the text to catch up.

And it worked! I didn’t figure it all out because I didn’t expect the, like, ground beneath everyone’s feet to be the bad guy. Who expects that?!?

As I said at the beginning, there is a lot going right in these books. And there is more to say, I’m sure, about the moral of this story, and about the humane character of the books, about what they mean and about how fun they are. There is a lot to be said for how strongly they are executed, how tight the writing is and how well-paced and well-structured the story is – this is really, really strong world-building.

But I’m mostly just so happy to have been surprised. I’m always grateful for a good story, surprising or not, but a story that shows me something new under the sun? Rarer and rarer, and the more precious for it.

The Obelisk Gate

The Broken Earth: Book Two

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

So, now I’ve had some time to think.

Sometimes, when you’re flying through a book, you don’t stop to think about why you’re loving it so much. This is especially true with plotty books – you don’t need to think about why it’s working, you can just lie back and enjoy the ride.

But it’s a worthwhile exercise, once you pause for breath. And I had a busy week at work, and so was forced to spend time NOT reading ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, and so I thought about it.

I want to be clear: this pause was not voluntary. I need to work to eat; otherwise, I would have chewed all the way through the series without washing or sleeping. But, like I said, it was a busy week, so I only just now finished ‘The Obelisk Gate‘, the second book in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ series.

And I know that ‘The Obelisk Gate‘ is technically a separate book, but the entire series really reads like one book, one story, and I am only taking the time to stop and write about this installment for the sake of personal discipline. So, for coherence, I will probably refer to the trilogy as a single work, which it clearly is.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about why the trilogy is so good. And…

I don’t know.

The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is about a world that is ending. And I suspect that, like all stories that are about the world ending, it is really about the evil which people do, which comes out of us naturally, inevitably, like breath. About the primitive, tribal cruelties that we perpetrate, in all times, all places, when we are frightened.

There’s a question I wonder sometimes: do you have to understand a novel to love it?

There are two ways to say what a novel is about. Let’s take an easy one: what is ‘The Scarlet Letter’ about? Well, technically, it’s about a woman being punished for adultery through sartorial intervention.

But, obviously, that’s not what it’s really about about. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is about sin, and guilt, and hypocrisy. It’s about how God is all-knowing and all-loving and we are not, and so when man’s law tries to approximate God’s law, the discrepancy will necessarily result in injustice. It’s about humility.

See what I mean? There’s about, and then there’s about about.

I know what ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is about. Jemisin is a clear, effective writer, much more than most science fiction or fantasy writers. Even when she is describing things which are actually beyond description, she is never hard to follow or understand. She’s really good.

But I am not at all sure that I know what this trilogy is about about.

On the most superficial level, ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is an allegory about racism and xenophobia and otherness. It’s about human cruelty, and about whether we are capable of preserving our humanity, our ability to be kind to the other, when we are desperate, or in danger, or facing extinction. And the fact that this allegory is obvious a) doesn’t mean that it isn’t a valuable metaphor (it isn’t as though we’ve solved this problem, so, by all means, let’s keep working it through in prose) and b) doesn’t mean that it’s all that’s going on in these novels.

I also suspect that it is about about climate change. Bear with me: the premise of ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, tectonically-speaking, is that humans, at the acme of their civilization, committed an act which so permanently destabilized the earth’s crust that it threatens the survival of everything on it. This is understood by all living human inhabitants of the earth as its revenge, that the earth is essentially, permanently, hostile to human life. That seems pretty clear to me.

But the problem with explicating allegory is that it makes the work seem preachy, or academic, or pedantic, and that is emphatically not the case here. In fact, the lack of pedantry is partly why I’m having trouble discerning the allegory.

So, am I allowed to love a story without understanding the allegory?

Obviously, the answer is yes – I can enjoy it any way I want. I can even enjoy it while totally misunderstanding the allegory. But (and honestly, this may be wrong) I think that understanding the allegory makes the experience of the books richer. And I know that this makes me sound like a complete nerd, but I am a complete nerd, and I really do enjoy a book more when I understand not only the story, but also the other stories which the story is referencing, the moral questions it is obliquely pondering, the historical events which it is recapitulating. They make me appreciate the story more, the skill of its writing, the depth of its thought.

And when you know, or suspect, that a story has these extra layers, and you aren’t quite getting them, it’s disorienting, like when you fall asleep in the middle of a movie and miss a whole bunch of plot. You might technically understand the ending, but can you say that you really understood the movie?

Not really, and so I don’t feel like I can say that I understand ‘The Obelisk Gate‘, and it’s making me feel very insecure, because I really, really like it. I want to understand it, and so I’ve been thinking about it.

N. K. Jemisin

One of the most salient threads which runs through the first two novels of ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ is that our fundamental selves are revealed through our treatment of our children. This is true on the level of the society as well as on the level of the individual. Children are a major, major part of ‘The Broken Earth’ books – love for them, grief for the loss of them, rage at the people who hurt them.

And cruelty to children winds through the books. There is an idea which pervades the entire trilogy (so far) that, in health, children are loved and cherished, protected and cared for. It is only in sickness that we allow them to be tortured or mutilated, abandoned or killed.

Earth has become a sick place, and the question which Jemisin is asking is, is it possible to be a healthy person in a sick place? Can you bring children into a sick world, raise them in a sick society, love them healthily when you cannot truly keep them safe? When the society in which they will grow up might abuse or murder them, use them or break them? When the very earth on which they walk might drive them and every one they love to extinction at any moment?

What does parental love even mean in that context? Parents love their children, ideally. Parents will do anything, risk anything, for their health and happiness – what does that mean in a world where health and happiness are impossible? What happens to love in a world like that?

It curdles, turns inward into rage, becomes destructive, deadens. Twists and becomes murderous in its turn. Even love becomes impossible, in a sick world.

Now that I think about it, this is kind of what ‘1984’ is also about. Actually, this is exactly what ‘1984’ is about: the idea that in a totalitarian society, even love, even private, romantic love, is impossible, because there is no private space for a human heart to have something normal and good, like love.

And, in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, that’s true of parents, too: on a hostile earth, where we are threatened at every turn, where constant fear and danger have made us base and mean and vicious, we can’t even love our children. Because loving children is hopeful, and hope requires a future, and in a world with no future there’s no way to love them – it’s too painful.

I know that I’m not making ‘The Obelisk Gate‘ sound fun – I’m probably making it sound like the world’s bleakest book about parenting. It is fun, in a bleak, scary way. It’s one of the most absorbing books I’ve read in years, and, as I mentioned last time, I honestly just resent the time I have to spend here, writing about it, instead of thinking about it. It’s so, so good.

The Fifth Season

The Broken Earth: Book One

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I think that prejudices must be a little like guns: just as likely to hurt their owner as they are to hurt anyone else.

I’m just going to say this, straight-out: I’m always a little embarrassed to be seen reading a fantasy novel. I’m not defending this position – I know that this is shallow – I’m admitting this as the shortcoming is it.

But there it is: I’m always a little embarrassed to be seen reading a fantasy novel.

Because they look bad. I’m not saying that they are bad; certainly, they aren’t all bad. But they all look bad. For some reason, the marketing for fantasy novels has evolved certain universals (thin covers, big, serif-fonted, foreboding titles with moody, dramatic art behind them) that signal badness. The books all look cheap, interchangeable, and plotty.

See?

Which, fine. Nothing wrong with cheap, interchangeable, and plotty, if that’s what you’re in the mood for. But it’s not ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’, is it? And it always gives my vanity a little twinge, to be caught reading one. It makes me feel defensive, like I want to announce to everyone on the red line train with me, ‘I just finished ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, and so I’m just taking a little break!’

Which is vain and insecure, yes, and emphatically my own problem (no one on the red line gives a flying fuck what I’m reading, I promise). There’s a reason we have that old expression, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, and even though that expression usually applies to people, turns out it applies just as well to actual books! Because if you avoid books just because they have fantasy-looking covers, sometimes you miss really good books.

I’m trying to explain how it is that I came to be the last person alive to have discovered ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy by N. K. Jemisin: I ignored it because it looks like a bad fantasy novel. I’m sure that I have walked by it in bookstores a thousand times, sorting it pre-consciously into “garbage” into my head and moving on. Even if I picked it up and looked at the back, I would have immediately put it down and walked away, because the back cover makes ‘The Fifth Season‘ look like a garbage book.

But the other day, I was with a friend in Trident Bookstore and she spotted ‘The Fifth Season‘ on the Staff Recommendations rack and said, ‘You’ve read that, right?’

And I said, ‘No, I haven’t even heard of it.’ Which, given the look she then gave me, is clearly much more embarrassing than reading a fantasy book on the red line.

I now know, of course, that ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy has made N. K. Jemisin the only author ever to win Hugo awards three years in a row. The third installment, ‘The Stone Sky‘, also won a Locus and a Nebula. The praise for ‘The Fifth Season‘ is so over-the-top it sounds sarcastic (“These novels are a gift to the whole of our culture,” says The Guardian – seriously?).

I’m not sure even how to describe ‘The Fifth Season‘ in a way that is going to do it justice. I’m worried that a description of the plot mechanics is going to make it sound…generic? And I don’t think that ‘The Fifth Season’ is generic. To be completely honest, I finished it about fifteen minutes ago, and I haven’t had time to digest it yet.

I know I loved it. I loved it so much that I’m feeling frankly kind of resentful that I have to be here, writing about it instead of just starting the next book in the series, ‘The Obelisk Gate‘.

I don’t know whether I loved it because it was “good” – I’m way, way past caring. I just know it’s a great story, an absolutely phenomenal story, set in a world which is complex and well-imagined and dark.

Fantasy is like any genre: it has threads that it can pull, values it can adjust, which are known to its readers, and which refer to the genre as a whole while still belonging to the story specifically. Part of what you admire when you admire a piece of genre fiction is the way that this particular story has used those conventions, has toggled those toggles. It’s a form of creativity within limits, and when it’s done well, the limits make the creativity even more impressive.

And so ‘The Fifth Season‘ plays with some ideas that will be very familiar to even casual readers of fantasy (or even just to people who have seen ‘Game of Thrones’). It takes place on an Earth subject to terrible seismic upheaval; severe tectonic activity causes global catastrophe every few centuries, periods of darkness and apocalyptic death: these are the fifth seasons.

Human civilization has learned to weather these periods of mass extinction through community stability and the careful husbanding of resources. However, planning alone has not saved them – magic is also necessary. For there have evolved among them humans capable of channeling and controlling seismic activity: the orogenes. Orogenes are very powerful and very dangerous, and normal people revile them. It is more common than not for young orogene children to be killed upon discovery in rural areas.

But, whenever possible, the forces of empire gather young orogenes and bring them to be trained in the capital. There, they are taught through brutal lesson to control their powers and put it to good use.

The Fifth Season‘ tells the story of three orogenes, all women. One is a child, just discovered and nearly destroyed. Another is a young woman, advanced in her training, as she is given for mentorship to the most powerful orogene alive. And the third is a mother, trying to live in secret, in hiding, after she discovers that her husband has just discovered the gift in one of her children, and so has killed him.

N. K. Jemisin

I’m making it sound kind of garbage, I know. It’s difficult to write about some of these things without sounding silly, and I’m just not a good enough writer to throw around made-up words for magical beings convincingly.

But, and this is all that really matters, N. K. Jemisin is. I made it through this entire novel without rolling my eyes once. That’s astonishing. There is something about the word ‘fantasy’ that sounds soft; it makes people (maybe just me?) think of Tolkieny shit, of mages and dragons and Chosen Ones, where the deepest and darkest metaphor is racism between dwarves and elves.

There’s nothing silly or soft in ‘The Fifth Season‘. Quite the contrary – this novel is dark, brutal, mean. It is violent, even wrenching. It’s characters don’t find relief anywhere, and neither will you. I don’t know if it’s a metaphor for anything (again, it really has been only fifteen minutes – I’m still sitting in the same chair, for fuck’s sake); sometimes a dark story is just a story about darkness.

But what a story it is.

The Bone Clocks

By David Mitchell

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Sometimes bad novels are so good.

I’ve just finished ‘The Bone Clocks‘, by David Mitchell.  It was a bad book, but not the sort of bad book that you resent having started.  It didn’t have the sort of badness which makes you angry at the author for trying, for his pretensions or mistakes.  It was the kind of bad book you love, that you tear through.  It was a Great Bad Book.

David Mitchell.jpg
David Mitchell

I’m not saying that David Mitchell is a bad novelist, or a bad writer (which are different things); he’s not necessarily either.  He’s definitely not a bad writer: his prose ranges from competent enough to ignore to quite good, depending on the book and the time.  I would say that he’s actually a decent writer.

And, though I have only read two of his other books, ‘Cloud Atlas‘ and ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet‘, neither was a bad novel.  ‘Cloud Atlas’, it’s true, hovered around the same kind of badness that ‘The Bone Clocks‘ possesses, but was original enough that, I think, managed to just avoid the downward spiral of real badness.

And ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet‘ was great.  It was a lovely novel, moving and human, one of the very few books that has ever made me cry.  I think, perhaps, the discrepancy between ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ and both ‘The Bone Clocks‘ and ‘Cloud Atlas‘ has something to do with their genres.  ‘The Thousand Autumns’ is simply a little love story; it isn’t science fiction or fantasy, which the other two are.  I think that, perhaps, science fiction and fantasy (certainly fantasy) slide more easily into plotty badness.  Something about the genre tempts authors to the sort of over-written theatrics which make books bad but fun to read.  Novels grounded in reality tend to be a little bit tighter.

The Bone ClocksThe Bone Clocks‘ is, in many ways, ‘Cloud Atlas‘s half-baked little brother.  It is also a story which follows multiple characters, all supernaturally connected, through time.  But while ‘Cloud Atlas’ follows what seem to be incarnations of one or two people through many, many generations, ‘The Bone Clocks’ is about one long human lifetime, namely the life of Holly Sykes, as it is crossed, intersected over and over, by a, uh, group of reincarnating mystics at war over the harvesting of human children to feed their eternal lives.

It’s exactly the sort of grandiose and silly premise that Great Bad Books are made of.  ‘The Bone Clocks‘ is the story of a magical war between good and evil, and like all such stories, the joy of it is in the ludicrous, and yet somehow absorbing, details.

In the world of ‘The Bone Clocks‘, there exists a class of immortals, called Atemporals, souls which involuntarily reincarnate 49 days after their deaths into the body of a dying child.  One group of these Atemporals, calling themselves the Horologists, are at ‘psychosoteric’ war with the Anchorites.  The Anchorites were once just regular mortals, but they have used dark technologies, gifted to them by the Blind Cathar, to achieve immortality.  However, in order to achieve this, they must routinely sacrifice a child.

Holly Sykes is a psychic, and so her life becomes tangled up in this psychosoteric war.  ‘The Bone Clocks‘ takes places in six chapters over the course of her long life, starting in 1984 and ending in 2043, in a very different world than ours.

And it’s just silliness, from beginning to end: joyful, diverting silliness.  David Mitchell has great strengths as a storyteller: he has a gift for the demotic (his characters sound and act like people on TV), and he’s great at constructing the elements of plot: pacing, building to a climax.  He gives scenes texture, but doesn’t linger – he’s very plotty.

And he’s just the right amount trashy, at least in his sci-fi/fantasy novels.  A multi-generational war of magic between the Evil Anchorites and the Good Horologists, which will culminate in a battle in the Temple of the Blind Cathar?  Come on, that’s almost unspeakably cheesy!

You know what it made me think of?  Do you remember that South Park episode, ‘Cartman’s Incredible Gift’, from Season 8, where Cartman pretends to be a psychic and ‘battles’ a bunch of other fake psychics?  Where all the psychics stand opposite each other and touch their temples and go, ‘Wa na na na’?

The whole book is like that.

And it’s not that Mitchell is pretending that it isn’t cheesy – ‘The Bone Clocks‘ isn’t pretentious, not at all.  Rather, he simply doesn’t seem to care whether or not it’s cheesy, which means that, in a weird way, you don’t.  If he were looking down his nose, using the Anchorites and Horologists as some highbrow metaphor, then ‘The Bone Clocks’ would be insufferable.  But I, at least, didn’t get the sense that that was what he was doing.

Rather, ‘The Bone Clocks‘ feels like David Mitchell got a neat idea for a story and decided to tell it: wouldn’t it be kind of interesting if reincarnation were true, but only some people had the ability to do it?  And then some other people figured out how to do it, but they had to do something terrible in order to achieve it?

What terrible thing would you do to achieve immortality?  That is an old question, one that we ask ourselves over and over.  What price would be worth your boundless life?  At what point during that evil eternity would it cease being your life?  At what price, once paid, do you stop being yourself?

We are obsessed with that question not just because we are fixated on our own deaths, because we are devoted to avoiding them – we ask that question because it’s an essentially fun question to ask.  It’s a fun problem to think about, and it’s fun to think about it here.  It’s not sophisticated, it’s not ‘good’, but it is fun.

Sometimes, silly scenarios are the best way to explore the scariest and most important questions.  Sometimes, silly meditations are the best meditations.  But, honestly, it doesn’t matter, because they’re fun.