Sad Puppies and Happy Queers: Vibrations Along the Interstices in N.K. Jemisin's 'The Broken Earth'

Holly Voigt
Book Review

N.K. Jemisin
‘The Broken Earth Trilogy’:

The Fifth Season
Orbit, 2015

The Obelisk Gate
Orbit, 2016

The Stone Sky
Orbit, 2017


Science Fiction is defined by the winners. Heteronormative whiteness, as the relational nexus, the perspective through which a reader encounters the future—the “strange newness” (Wälivaara 2016, 81)—has been a dominating feature of the science fiction canon (Thibodeau 2012, 264). Reinforced through award ceremonies, conventions and publishing houses, the old white boys’ club of science fiction has nevertheless been inflected and infiltrated by outsiders since the genre’s conception; there remains a continuing contest for science fiction’s role, function and definition (Alter 2016; Bebergal 2015; Newkirk II 2016; Obeso 2014).

In an interview, N. K. Jemisin said, “I think it does take an outsider to a degree to come in and look around and read the stuff that’s key in the genre and be like, whoa something is really missing here” (Newkirk II 2016).

Science fiction, as a genre, has been led by the strange, the unconventional and the divergent (Obeso 2014, 25-26; Wälivaara 2016, 70). That is its stock and trade. In constructing this essay, a love letter to the queerness that is rupturing the genre, I absorbed real life noise around the genre as it became the ideological locus of debate in the 2013 through 2015 Hugo Awards scandals. The noise began with Larry Correia instructing his online followers on how to game the Hugos for his own mediocre work (Bebergal 2015; Heer 2015). He did this on the supposed grounds that science fiction as a genre had been overrun by what he calls “heavy handed message fic”, favoured by the “left wing literati” (Correia 2013). As he defines it:

The vast majority of people who read do so to be entertained. Adventure, comedy, tragedy, whatever… Only a tiny percentage of whiny white guilt liberals buy books based upon the author’s race (Correia 2013).

Larry relies on a false dichotomy here, one that betrays the white universality of his perspective. Either a book is entertaining, or it is only being bought for the author’s race. In this view, readers are white; and people of colour do not write entertaining books; and books that deal with issues can’t possibly entertain. Also, critically, a book either belongs to a genre, or it is literature.

Enter N. K. Jemisin and her action-packed, high sci fi trilogy, The Broken Earth. Andrew O’Hehir in his New York Times review calls the style of these books, “a minimum of exposition and a maximum of action” (2017). Yet, Jemisin may be seen as the visible spearhead, leading the charge of “message fic” with her diverse cast of characters and challenges to the tropes and conventions of the work’s genre (Faucheux 2017, 563). She is, in fact, Larry’s worst nightmare.

Lenses, biases and wishes

‘Worse still is the white person who might be willing to entertain the possibility of said racism, but who thinks we enter this conversation as equals. We don’t.’ (Eddo-Lodge 2017, xi).

In writing on the presumed universality of the white and hetero perspective (white readers, white writers, white heroes), I wish to identify myself as white, feminist and queer. Those are my cards and they both inform and limit my perspective. That is to say, I must attempt to counteract the contraction of my own vision with wide reading and self-awareness and open myself up to criticism. On writing, particularly on this trilogy and its queerness, books that so beautifully speak to issues and experiences of racial oppression, I recognise that my voice may not be the most critical. This is not despairing, but a reality to deal with.

I analyse the trilogy, The Broken Earth, through a kyriarchical—rather than patriarchal—conception of power: “Kyriarchy is the intersecting matrix of systematic oppressions, including sexism, racism, LGBT-phobia and many others” (Walsh 2015, 62). This view acknowledges intersectionality, one of the key concepts to this essay as it originated and has been metaphorised in the influential “Mapping the Margins” by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. The complexity and diversity of topics that Jemisin handles in the text requires an understanding of the interlocking structures of domination (Crenshaw 1991). Also, similar to Crenshaw’s “potential coalitions” (1991, 1299) between marginalised groups, Jemisin also permits a broadness of interpretation and insight within the trilogy and gestures towards an ideology that disrupts unitary identifications as “exclusive or seperable” (Crenshaw 1991, 1244). Jemisin states in an interview on the trilogy: “As I read about the different sets of people who have been oppressed and the different systemic oppressions that have existed throughout history, you start to see the patterns in them” (Newkirk II 2016). Jemisin’s fiction utilizes an “queer afrofuturist objective” in its manipulation of historical knowledge (Faucheux 2017, 565). She draws from various oppressive regimes, as broad as Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge or Third Reich Germany, as well as America’s history of slavery and its present day consequences (Newkirk II 2016).

Reynaldo Anderson, in his ‘Afrofuturism 2.0 & The Black Speculative Arts Movement: Notes on a Manifesto’, explains: “Afrofuturism is a critical project with the mission of laying the groundwork for a humanity that is not bound up with the ideals of white Enlightenment universalism” (2016, 228). He cites many artists of the “Black speculative movement” including Jemisin’s forebears in science fiction, Ocatvia Butler and Samuel R. Delany. Particularly, this essay examines Jemisin’s work as it contributes to a field that scholar Amandine Faucheux calls “queer afrofuturism”. Anderson allows for a fullness and richness in approaching art, that the Black Speculative Arts Movement, “in contrast to the occidental speculative [approach]” (2016, 228), embraces a radical and genre-rupturing text. “This integration generates overlapping zones with other knowledge formations when formulating or conceptualizing theory and practice in relation to material reality” (Anderson 2016, 228).

This essay explores Jemisin’s practice as it relates to reality, to explicate her queer afrofuturist project, The Broken Earth. The trilogy is examined in three parts. This begins with the many-headed hydra of oppression and the ways it is exposed and delineated through Jemisin’s world-building and use of form. Oppression is an organizing feature of the plot, one that operates variously on the macro- and micro-level. The second part illuminates acts of resistance as they occur in the novel, the implications of the novels for gender and identity, queer happiness and the queer anti-imperialist project. The third part is an ode to Jemisin’s revolutionary expression, the hopefulness at the heart of her dystopian trilogy, the ultimately utopian queer protagonist that leads her plot and the “rupture”/rapture (Ferguson 2004) that her novel imposes upon her readers and on science fiction: the genre in which she operates, the genre that she obliterates, the genre that she rebuilds.

  1. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earthmakes science fiction fluctuate, vibrate in its genre, to imply the intersections that complicate rather than divvy up reality, and opens the genre to a utopian futurity, one that is, amongst other things, queer.

The Puppies of Oppression

In a review of The Broken Earth’s first book, Naomi Novik writes: “N. K. Jemisin’s intricate and extraordinary world-building starts with oppression.” (2015, 20).

Larry’s 2013 campaign to win a Hugo with his book, Monster Hunter Legion, failed. But his campaigners, named Sad Puppies, grew in numbers and were joined by a second, alt-right flank called the Rabid Puppies (Bebergal 2015; Heer 2015). They grew more overt in their spite not only for literary science fiction but for or POC [1] and LGBTQ+ [2] writers, claiming that the Hugos had turned into an “affirmative action award” (Torgersen quoted in Heer 2015). George R. R. Martin of A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) fame, claimed that the Hugo Awards were “broken” by the Sad and Rabid Puppies, possibly beyond repair (quoted in Heer 2015).

In 2015, the Puppy campaigns peak, with the Hugo Award judges being forced to attribute “No Award” in several categories as Puppy-selected works swamp the nominations (Bebergal 2015; Heer 2015). It is in this year, the first of the trilogy, The Fifth Season is published.

Naomi Novik’s review of The Fifth Season continues“Systems of power stalk her protagonists” (2015, 20). The first book establishes itself through three, distinct perspectives on the same harsh world. In the dystopia of this trilogy, “Father Earth” is alive, an embodiment of the planet, one that intermittently destroys with “Seasons” of environmental catastrophe. The only figures in the text that may disrupt the workings of “Father Earth”, particularly his near-constant earthquakes, are a telekinetically-empowered people called “orogenes”. Orogenes live in service to humanity and are widely hated and stigmatised. N. K. Jemisin, like her perhaps most direct forebear, Octavia Butler, makes “revolutionary use of neo-slave narrative” (Thibodeau 2012, 268). The orogenes are certainly analogous to the US history of slavery and racism, most tellingly in this passage, describing one orogenes use of a slang term for their people:

Syenite flinches, just a little, at his rogga… she doesn’t hear it much—just the odd muttered epithet from people riding past them, or [orogene apprentices] trying to sound tough… It’s such an ugly word, harsh and guttural; the sound of it is like a slap to the ear. But Alabaster uses it the way other people use orogene. (Jemisin 2015, 120).

  1. K. Jemisin is direct in making her analogies direct with her word choices: orogenes may, for example, be “lynched” (Jemisin 2015, 124). Jemisin, however, as stated in her interviews, takes as representational inspiration within The Broken Earth trilogy many historical examples of persecution [3] as her inspiration for the orogenes (Newkirk II, 2016). There is a particularly poignant thread in the fiction, one that is drawn painfully and extensively in all three books, of how an orogene may be born to human parents without that human knowing and the horror of parents in discovering this truth about their child—which happens, typically as they grow towards adolescence. The first book begins as the protagonist’s (Essun’s) son is killed by his father for being an orogene. These tales of the “invisibility” of orogenes, their ability to pass among humans, the disgusted reaction of parents attempts to quell the orogene behaviour in order to refute the orogene identity, the violence of humans upon discovering an orogene—especially within the family—strongly corresponds to the traumatic “coming out” narratives that are familiar to any contemporary reader. This is particularly drawn out in the interaction between Jija and Nassun, Jija’s daughter. Jija murders his son upon realising that the boy is an orogene. Nassun, secretly also an orogene, finds Jija immediately afterward. On discovering this, he kidnaps her:

“We’re going to take you somewhere you can be better,” he says gently. “Somewhere I heard of, where they can help you.” Make her a little girl again, and not… He turns away from this thought. (Jemisin 2016, 11).

This recalls ideas of fundamentalist Christian reprogramming camps and Jija often uses the gendered language as in the above: “They can cure you, Nassun… I want my little girl back” (Jemisin 2016, 114-115). That is what he demands of Nassun: either she is a “little girl”, the dutiful and gender-conforming and thus human daughter, or she is a rogga-orogene: non-conforming and non-human and therefore open to violence. Orogenes exist outside of the exclusive domain of personhood and belong instead to Otherness. They are queer in that they are “the point of convergence for a potentially infinite number of non-normative subject positions” (Jagose quoted in Hollinger 1999, 312).

The orogenes are, however, subjects rather than objects. The protagonist, Essun, in particular, invites the reader’s empathy as she is portrayed compellingly through use of second-person form. Upon the death of her son at the hands of her husband, Jija, in the opening chapters, Essun’s perspective breaks down grammatically, a technique used by Jemisin in several iterations to convey pain:

They. (He.) Killed your son. (Jija killed your son.)
… The whole rusting town is Jija.
(2015, 58-59)

Here, Jemisin refers to the ways in which the majority mindset, the point of view enforced by the mainstream through stigma may create a context in which violence is permissible. Essun is alive to the reader in her grief through the fragmentation Jemisin variously employs in the novels. The first book, in particular, is a fragmented text, divided in its viewpoints chapter-to-chapter, and yet the three personalities depicted are fully recognised individuals. This is, perhaps, one of her greatest achievements in form throughout the trilogy: in the first book, Jemisin manages to conceal from the reader that these three protagonists are the same person at different points of her lifetime. She invokes a technique that Faucheux identifies as crucial to queer afrofuturism: “[subverting linear] narratives that produce various forms of violence against racialized and/or queer bodies” (2017, 565). In a chapter in which the curtain is definitively pulled aside, the text breaks into chunks, sailing in and out of plot and discursive thought, stating directly: “Even the hardest stone can fracture” (Jemisin 2015, 440). This moment is one of great trauma inflicted on the protagonist, who is going by the name Syen at this point in the novel. It destroys Essun’s first queer relationship­—one to be discussed further in the next chapter. She is forced, by the institution that regulates orogenes, the Fulcrum, to witness the death of a lover and to murder her own child so that he may remain “free” (Jemisin 2015, 441). In this fractured passage, the second-person voice used in Essun’s chapters slips into the Syen chapter and out again. The “who” of the story vibrates and, under horror, breaks. In the queer afrofuturist vein, this also participates in what José Esteban Muñoz, in his book Disidentifications: Queers of Colour and the Performance of Politics , refers to in the practice of writing as “disidentificatory”, a presentation of the self “whose relation to the social is not over determined by universalising rhetoric of selfhood” (1999, 18). The protagonist is Essun/Syenite/Damaya, different personalities—part of which keeps the narrative conceit sustained­—responding differently to the oppressive forces they encounter. Jemisin conveys the fragmentation of self that occurs due to traumatic experiences of oppression: “You’re not quite Essun. Not just Essun. Not anymore” (2015, 397). Jemisin’s presentation of liminal protagonist(s) enables the reader, through form and technique, to experience the shattering weight of systemic oppression. Jemisin reveals the repeating/regrowing/multitudinous hydra heads of oppression, that though the target may change and their manners of dealing with that context may change, persecution rends and degrades wholeness.

Novik’s review continues of the world of The Fifth Season, that it is inhabited by: “[Systems of oppression] so vast that resistance seems impossible even to contemplate.” (2015, 20)

The end of the Seasons. It sounds… unimaginable. (Jemisin 2016, 172).

“A Site of Radical Possibility, A Space of Resistance” [4]

The science fiction community revolts. In 2015, Connie Willis pulls out of presenting the prize, refusing to “lend cover and credibility” to the Sad and Rabid Puppies chosen nominees (Barnett 2016). Several authors, upon finding they are a Puppy candidate find various modes to undercut or reject this. To reiterate, the World Science Fiction Society voted “No Award” (Barnett 2016) rather than choose these nominees—this can be experienced as defeat and resistance; this, too, can be non-binaric.

In creating the trilogy, Jemisin includes and refashions generic elements of “old boy” science fiction. A motto belonging to Cuban-American queer icon, Carmelita Tropicana, is central to Muñoz’s 1999 work on intersectionality, Disidentifications, an idea that threads through Anderson’s conception of afrofuturism and Faucheux’s analysis of queer afrofuturism:

“your Kunst is your Waffen” “your art is your weapon”

Jemisin uses and flips and subverts science fiction’s conventions. The trilogy vibrates within the genre, wavering in and out to strike a note that is not still, that falls in and out of tune with the canon’s norms, to create a text that is suffused with strangeness, queerness, that recalls the old to summon the new—to “disidentify” science fiction.

Those books belonging to what is often called the Golden Age of science fiction are often driven in plot by an “imperial ontology” (Thibodeau 2012, 267). Planets are terraformed, alien species invaded/invading with big, thick rocket ships (Heer 2015; Nicosia 2011, 83; Thibodeau 2012, 267). These novels also often function according to a linear and dominatory notion of time as progress. White men travel through space, at the peak of human technology, plunging their big-boy rocket ships deep into space and discovering. There is a binaric rendering of “primitivism/modernity”, that one is open to be conquered and one that has ascended, that is clean, progressed to the point of undeniability, and white (Faucheux 2017, 576). This narrative trope appears in flashbacks in the third book, The Stone Sky. Humanity uses the earliest orogene peoples to travel into space. In this narrative, there is an exposure of brutality dressed in high technology. The human project of unlimited progress and world domination reveals a ruthlessness and fatal hubris in the treatment of the early orogene people and its consequences for the Earth when the Moon detaches from orbit as a result. Thibodeau calls the colonial impulse “one of the most heteronormative forces in history” (2012, 267). As in Thibodeau’s analysis of Octavia Butler and James Tiptree Jr.’s science fiction, Jemisin “[queers the] traditional space exploration and ‘final frontier’ narratives, which typically rely on a heteronormative imperial thrust… [the authors] take the traditional generic conventions of space travel and morph it into something radically dangerous and wickedly resistant” (2012, 263). Jemisin reimagines a core component of Golden Age fiction and reveals how that same component harks back to “ideals of white Enlightenment universalism” (Anderson 2016, 228), notions of an empire’s spread and acquisition as the desirable pay-off for technological prowess. Jemisin resolves this arc similarly to the Butlerian story of Thibodeau’s analysis, in that the people of earth “give in trade” (2012, 266) to the planet. The moon is restored to Earth in the critical feat of the series’ plot. Again, this occurs in an reformation of the discovery narratives; it requires a feat of enormous human prowess and technological ability. However, it radically, queerly, occurs in the story through an orogene fusing with technology and the desires of the planet, a mingling of the human with the planet and with technology. Agency is granted where an essentialist/imperialist view could not allow for it. Technology is not a tool of the empire and the planet is not a surface to be mapped. Time is not linear, an engine of forward momentum and perpetual material gains. Jemisin’s queering of science fiction reimagines the genre’s perhaps most prevalent plot in a “disidentificatory” manner. She engages in what Muñoz calls “strategies of iteration and reiteration” in order to “deform and reform” the genre’s long-held ideals (quoted in Wasson 2016, 136-137). The books enjoy a state of flux within and outside the genre, obeying its conventions while subverting the “paradigm of normalcy” (Faucheux 2017, 576), unsettling it and revolting against it “wickedly”. Jemisin’s art, science fiction, is her weapon. She uses it to subvert the matrix of domination that is the kyriarchy—imperialism, hegemonic whiteness and the heteropatriarchy. In attuning to queer afrofuturist methods, in fluctuating in and out of the genre, Jemisin’s resolution of the imperialist trope, the happy ending, opens her science fiction world to “endless queer utopian possibilities” (Thibodeau 2012, 277).

Science fiction, as Faucheux points out, still struggles to permit intersectional identities—“a character is either black or queer, but rarely both” (2017, 576) as Essun is. Jemisin populates her trilogy with complex, rich, queer characters and grants them what is so often denied to queer characters in fiction, something denied with stereotypical and enforcing frequency—they are happy. For the moments in the narrative that are most queerly erotic or romantic, Jemisin constructs queer utopias and radically, wickedly utilises “the potential for science fiction to imagine new worlds and modes of thought that may posit a livable world for queer subjects” (Thibodeau 2012, 265). These backdrops for queer love and joy are, notably, forms of oases, bubbles or wrinkles in time. The setting in which Tonkee, a trans character who travels alongside Essun, finds love is a sparkling “geode”. It is a glittering, underground orb made of crystal that has been built, inexplicably, into a city—one that is at risk of being unearthed. Essun’s own queer self-discovery occurs on an island, one that “isn’t even on many maps” (Jemisin 2015, 345-346). In this place, “there passes a time of happiness” (Jemisin 2015, 361) in which Essun enters a relationship with two men and explicitly sleeps with both of them, together: “He and Alabaster are always beautiful together” (Jemisin 2015, 371). Their relationship and Essun’s desire hinges on the three, rather than the two, “an affection dihedron” (Jemisin 2015, 372). The queer utopia is not only sex however, or even romantic love. It is unquestioned acceptance:

[Essun] doesn’t think overmuch about what she does with her bed time or how this thing between them works; no one [on the island] will care, no matter what. That’s another turn-on, probably: the utter lack of fear. Imagine that. (Jemisin 2015, 371).

Jemisin radically takes what Anna Carastathis, in her book Intersectionality, refers to as “multiply-oppressed” subjectivities and grants them the time and space for love and acceptance—certainly, a utopia. Jemisin insists on the articulation of specificity in Essun’s queerness, the “intersectionalities within” (Carastathis 2016, 188) her characters. By defying the tokenism that marks science fiction, even in its attempts to be radical, Jemisin in her intersectional protagonist and varied characters adheres to Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality: “suggesting the breadth of its potential to undo positivist, essentialist and segregationist habits of thought” (Carastathis 2016, 199)—or rather, habits of science fiction. As Veronica Hollinger asserts, heteronormativity is often embedded in both theory and fiction as universal and that science fiction is an overwhelmingly “pressed into the service of a coercive regime of compulsory heterosexuality” (1999, 23-24). Science fiction, however, demands exploration of the new, the imaginative and the non-normative. Jemisin exists at this meeting place, supplying science fiction with radical utopias—fragile and abstracted oases though they may be—and filling them with queer characters that are insistently, specifically divergent and wickedly happy.

Rupture or “All things change in a Season”

A minor clarification for folks that need it: that was not anger you saw, when I gave that Hugo speech. I was accepting an award! I was delighted… Some of us black folks gloat when racists are mad! Welcome to Giving Marginalized People Awards 101. (@nkjemisin, 21 August, 2018)

As the Sad and Rabid Puppies are resisted and thwarted in the years following their 2013-2015 campaigns, N. K. Jemisin is the first African American author to receive the Hugo for Best Novel (Barnett 2018; Newkirk II 2016). She goes on to win the “threepeat” with all three novels, The Stone Sky receiving its Hugo on the 19th of August, 2018 (Barnett).

This is not to insist—at least, not only—on a linear perspective; time is not carrying us in a predetermined straight line from a science fiction that is regressive to one that is progressive. The detour into Puppy-land was recent and unexpected and easy—and who knows how damaging in its popularisation of misinformation and hatred as well as in demeaning the successes of LGBTQ+ and POC and all marginalised writers. And this is one award ceremony. Yet, it is the opening of one door. Yet, it is a “ruptural possibility” (Ferguson 2004).

Roderick A. Ferguson’s notion of “rupture” is useful in analysing The Broken Earth’s impact on science fiction and implications for identity. In Aberrations: a Queer of Color Critique, Ferguson writes:

We must read African American literature as a cultural form, that is, to show how it disrupts [canonical and white heteronormative] ideals by referring to a gender and sexual multiplicity… possibilities outside the normative parameters and racialized boundaries of those canonical structures. (2004, 26).

  1. K. Jemisin, as argued previously in this essay, both permits the hallmarks of “canonical genealogies” as Ferguson would term it while resisting and subverting the ideals that have typically underpinned the canon: its “its reliance upon and privileging of the normative heterosexual subject idealized by the West” (2004, 26). The possibility for radical imputations and a revolution in science fiction encouraged and embodied by The Broken Earthis explored in this chapter via the most crucial use of the concept of “rupture” as it appears in Ferguson’s Aberrations.

Jemisin employs an icon of science fiction in raising the ambivalent figure of the android. Stone eaters, particularly in the third and final book, are revealed to be something akin to a cyborg. They communicate not only with stone, but technology. They have a seemingly limitless lifespan and are at least partly deliberate constructions. They are continually described in robotic terms, as almost emotionless and distinctly non-human. Jemisin even seemingly refers to the famous notion of the “uncanny valley” in the following passage:

He moves slowly again. They don’t do this often, stone eaters. Movement is the thing that emphasizes their uncanny nature, so like humanity and yet so wildly different. It would be easier if they were more alien. When they move like this, you can see what they once were, and the knowledge is a threat and warning to all that is human within you. (Jemisin 2017, 27).

Here, the android—stone eater—poses a traditional problem of the android in science fiction: their proximity to humanity. [5] They exist as a blurring of boundaries, the “ultimate fear” of a society that rests upon binaric definitions and hegemonic categorisations (Nicosia 2011, 93). This adheres to the “canonical genealogy” of science fiction (Ferguson 2004, 24). However, The Broken Earth books, “as discourses of mimicry, they estrange themselves from the normalising knowledges upon which canonical literature is founded” (Ferguson 2004, 26). Jemisin’s android intimates a radiantly non-defined, multiplicitous sexuality and thereby suggests an escape route from the kyriarchy. The protagonist’s, Essun’s, relationship to Hoa, the stone eater/android, reveals an abject and enigmatic sexuality. Their relationship is ambiguous and yet undeniably romantic. Essun, in using the extremes of her powers, turns her arm into stone. Her stone limb’s desirability to Hoa is evident, “your flesh is pure, perfect” (Jemisin 2016, 379). There is a blurring between Hoa’s hunger and love. Every other character perceives the stone eater’s desires as grotesque, “revolted by the idea of Hoa chewing the arm off” (Jemisin 2017, 19). This moment of consumption is spelled out in erotic language: “Slowly, slowly… His stone hand slides against yours with a faint grinding sound. It is surprisingly sensual, even though you can’t feel a thing” (Jemisin 2017, 27). The scene culminates in a body-horror moment—“His mouth opens. Wide, wider, wider than any human mouth can open” (Jemisin 2017, 28). Jemisin creates a sexuality in the fiction that is utterly alien to the reader and impossible in the real world. Much as in Thibodeau’s reading of a Butlerian story of alien-human breeding, there is a “utopian queerness in the eroticism of the unknown and incomprehensible—the desire across a boundary we consider uncrossable” (2012, 273). Androids in science fiction theory have often been posed as signifiers for queerness. In Hollinger’s “(Re)reading Queerly”:

As has been frequently pointed out, the techno-body reiterates itself through replication, not through reproduction, and it does not require the heterosexual matrix as the space within which to duplicate itself. Given the emphasis in theories of performativity on reiteration and citation, the techno-body as replicated body points us towards the utopian space of queer excess. Perhaps all techno-bodies are, at least potentially, queer bodies. (1999, 31).

The love between Hoa and Essun is not “heteroproductive” (Thibodeau 2012, 266) as is encoded into conventional utopias of science fiction, nor does it fit the “replication” of an androidal futurity (Hollinger 1999, 31), queer though that may be. As Essun is, at the end, consumed by Hoa, he then transforms and rebirths her body: “Your rise from [the geode’s] spent halves, the matter of you slowing and cooling to its natural state” (Jemisin 2017, 397). Her transmogrification into a form of stone eater—“locs of roped jasper… skin of striated ocher” (2017, 397)—is inherently connected to Jemisin’s utopic/restorative ending to the series. This ending requires a calming and course-setting of the Earth and Moon in order to banish the world-ending Seasons. Radical change is the key feature of The Broken Earth’s utopia. As in the opening of Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia:

We can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality… [Queerness is] a doing for and toward the future. Queerness is essentially about the rejection of the here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility in another world. (Muñoz 2009, 1).

Jemisin insists, all must change: the planet, the peoples that populate it and the world’s systems and institutions. Essun’s queer bodily shift represents the over-arching revolutionary call-to-arms in the trilogy. As she is newly reborn as a stone eater and as she and Hoa provisionally commit to being together, explicitly the text reads, “This is the way a new world begins” (Jemisin 2017, 398). Jemisin’s android is “estranged” from its typical readings in science fiction as is Jemisin’s utopia utterly distinct. The Broken Earth, rich with “ruptural possibilities” and utilising “mimicry” (Ferguson 2004, 24-26), conceptualises utopia not as a cyborg replication, after all recreating only itself, or through the idylls of hetero-reproductivity. Rather, it must be regrown anew, emerging in a similar but fundamentally changed shape. There must be a micro- and macrocosmic revolution, presented in the fiction from the cells of the protagonist’s flesh to the literal planetary alignment of the Earth in the universe.

Jemisin, to re-iterate, vibrates the genre. The greatest “site of rupture” (Ferguson 2004, 26) in The Broken Earth trilogy occurs within the transforming, punctuated and discontinuous protagonist. As referred to earlier in this text, there is a fragmentation of Essun that continues to be meaningful beyond its narrative reveal moment. The second book opens:

A person is herself, and others. Relationships chisel the final shape of one’s being. I am me, and you. Damaya was herself and the family that rejected her and the people of the Fulcrum who chiseled her to a fine point. Syenite was Alabaster and Innon and the people of poor lost Allia and Meov. Now you are Tirimo and the ash-strewn road’s walkers and your dead children… and also the living one who remains. Whom you will get back. That is not a spoiler. You are Essun, after all. (Jemisin 2016, 1).

Again, Jemisin thwarts binaric thought. She deploys a Judith Butler-esque denial of a “vital and sacred enclosure” (quoted in Constable 2018, 287) that is unitary and essentialist personhood. Essun is defined for the reader, or rather obsessively documented, by another character—Hoa, the character behind the second person perspective—as himself and herself just as she is the towns and peoples and grief that she has known. Tellingly, Hoa breaks the fourth wall in referring to “spoilers”. This occurs frequently in the books. Hoa’s perspective—the second person passages as well as interludes where Hoa speaks more directly to Essun, the “you”—escapes linear time and, at times, seems to speak the language of the reader’s world to the reader. The style with which Jemisin portrays her protagonist inflects that character with other characters. Essun resists the unitary, single-axis identity that would enable her to be tokenized, to be a safe exception to the rules of white heteronormativity. She is queer and sexually “deviant”, at times. At others, she is a submissive mother or an obedient servant of the Fulcrum—the oppressive regulatory institution that enslaves orogenes. As she appears by different names in the books, we see a representation of identity—bound up with gender—as “performative” in the sense of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. There is no real Essun under these differing identities: “her identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results” (Butler 33).

Essun is human and orogene and stone eater. “All things change in a Season” is echoed throughout all three books, which is to say, as earlier in this essay, under the extremes of trauma there is fragmentation. But also, that fragmentation may be a “rupture”. In evading essentialism, by eliding Essun/Damaya/Syen and even Hoa, Jemisin destabilizes the singularity of identity itself. Jemisin manifests the inadequacy of categories that Crenshaw’s intersectionality asserts. As Hollinger writes of queer theory, the trilogy goes “against the grain of heteronormativity, so that we can also begin to think ourselves outside the binary of oppositions of a fictively totalizing feminine/masculine divide” (1999, 25). Beyond this, Jemisin invokes a multiplicitous identity, one that cannot be pinned. The Broken Earth exposes falsely universalizing and categorising ideologies of identity; she variously treads on binaries in favour of multiplicities. If the Other may not be explicated and thusly caged, then the One also remains open to the slings and arrows of interrogation or, perhaps, elimination. This is the “ruptural possibility” of Jemisin’s trilogy.


In the making of The Broken Earth, Jemisin participated in “disidentificatory” practices, not discarding the old but altering it (Wasson 2016), queering it, to make something useful, a form of generative recycling of the canon’s modes and manners. It can be read as Muñoz reads queer art forms: “an insistence on something else, something better, something dawning” (Muñoz 2009, 189). By acknowledging the interstices, by singing along them, Jemisin’s The Broken Earth is a science fiction that is “multivocal, multiracial, multidimensional, that isn’t limited to a single privileged narrative” (Obeso 2014, 26).

The Hugo Awards represent something of a popular election. They reflect a democratic form of award-giving, to the extent that is allowed at such a prestigious level. As Jemisin took the stage for The Broken Earth’s third and final Hugo Award for Best Novel, she was dressed in a cloak of stars. There is something about her clothing choice that signifies her success: she is draped in the genre, wears it like the garment of a ruler. As the popular choice, the threepeat winner, the undeniable champion, she takes her trophy. A trophy that is incredibly phallic and also reflective, a dark void of a mirror that bounces back at the audience, that deforms and reforms as it re-iterates. Jemisin shakes the science fiction genre and ruptures its binaries and barriers. She is a ruler with a cape and a scepter but also a rebel in a cloak with a gun (her art is her weapon). The speech goes:

I look to science fiction and fantasy as the aspirational drive of the Zeitgeist: we creators are the engineers of possibility. And as this genre finally, however grudgingly, acknowledges that the dreams of the marginalized matter and that all of us have a future, so will go the world. (Soon, I hope.)

But this is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers—every single mediocre insecure wannabe who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor, that when they win it it’s meritocracy but when we win it it’s “identity politics”—I get to smile at those people, and lift a massive, shining, rocket-shaped middle finger in their direction. (quoted in Cunningham, 2018).


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[1] POC here means “people of colour.” POC remains an imperfect umbrella term, “a collective name for disparate groups, who all share one thing in common—not identifying as white” (Pearson 2017).

[2] LGBTQ+, standing in for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans Queer Plus—a plus sign used to indicate a spectrum of possibilities not attributed a letter within the acronym—is used to signify non-cissexual, non-heterosexual and non-normative genders and sexualities as they are part of identity. Additionally, I take up Amanda Thibodeau’s definition of queer: “that which is outside or resists regimes of the normal” (2012, 265).

[3] ‘I’m not drawing solely upon my own racial experiences. There’s some stuff that’s going to happen in the third book that’s sort of hinting at the Holocaust. You can see hints of stuff that happened with the Khmer Rouge at varying points in the story. You see the ways in which oppression perpetuates itself, one group of people teaches every other group of people how to do truly horrible things. I was drawing in that case on King Leopold of Belgium’s horrible treatment of people in the Congo—chopping off hands for example—and how in the Rwandan Civil War they chopped off lots of hands’ (Jemisin qtd. in Newkirk II 2016).

[4] bell hooks urged Black feminism to transform marginality from “a site of deprivation” into “a site of radical possibility, a space of resistance” (quoted in Carastathis 2012, 98).

[5] Roboticist Mashiro Mori proposed that after a certain point increasing anthropomorphic realism in a machine “would result in decidedly negative reactions… It was troubling, Mori decided, when a machine, acting as an artificial agent, came too close to passing itself off as human and was subsequently “caught” by the perceptual skills of the human involved. Mori named this phenomenon “bukimi no tani,” or the “uncanny valley,” a term that has become synonymous with the constellation of negative emotions and behavioral responses demonstrated by humans in the presence of lifelike machines” (Laue 2017, 1).

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