ASAP/11 seminar paper: The Stillness as Land, The Broken Earth as Fantasy

This is my contribution to a seminar at ASAP/11 this past weekend in College Park, MD on NK Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, a text that, I am sure, needs no introduction.

The seminar was amazing and I want to thank Leif Sorensen and Jessica Hurley for organizing it and inviting me to be part of it. The other contributions were great and the conversation was among the best I have ever had at a conference–both very smart and very much a geeking out session.

In my current book project, Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History, I begin by theorizing the relationship among fantasy, science fiction ,and horror in order to examine what avenues for thought each genre opens and closes. This theorization leads a reconsideration of fantasy’s development and reception as a genre, especially insofar as fantasy, in its fullest expression, actualizes a ground for history that history cannot provide for itself (a problem historicist genres such as sf often fail to acknowledge and one that antihistoricist genres such as horror do not acknowledge as a problem so much as a given). Fantasy thus acts as a foil for neoliberal capitalism, especially with regard to the latter’s antihistoricist operations, which dovetail with certain aspects of science fiction and, in the end, come to resemble horror. Here, I think about The Broken Earth as fantasy in the context of another of this century’s greatest crises (or constellation of interconnected crises), what we conceptualize by way of “the Anthropocene.” Under the Anthropocene (or one of the many terms competing to identify the broader concept), humanity and its institutions come to understand how the destabilization of the conditions of their history and, thereby, the destabilization of those processes of valorization or meaning-making dependent on historicist and critical thought. The Anthropocene not only reveals the impermanence or finitude of human subjectivity, institutions, nations, and so on—the very impermanence and finitiude that under whose shadow anthropocentric valorziation becomes necessary and possible. The Anthropocene also reveals the impermanence and finitude of the condition for human subjectivities, institutions, nations, and so on—the allegedly stable or “set” materialities that subtend all life on this planet. (Of course, the responsibility for, awareness of, and consequences of the Anthropocene are unevenly distributed across the abstraction “humanity,” to say the least.)

The generic responses to the Anthropocene and the end of the world it threatens us with closely mirror responses we already see in public discourse: a push for further invention and innovation that will allow us to progress past and beyond this problem (the sf response), an acceptance of this condition under the assumption that human labor is meaningless in the face of deep time and planetary-scale forces (the horror response), and, least palatable of all for modern sensibilities, a belief that all will be well through divine providence and/or our return to a pre-industrial, “natural” state (the fantasy response). Taken separately, these three responses are inadequate, each presenting its own impossibilities. Further technological innovation might alleviate some of what the Anthropocene has wrought, but at what cost? What unforeseeable consequences will come with this innovation? What new innovation will we need to solve the problems created by the last? Acceptance and resignation (whether to simply die or to mine the earth of its resources and profit to the very end) perhaps align even better with the capitalist drive to expansion than a historicist or technocratic progressive approach that claims it can solve the problem. Fantasy’s solution, which would see a return to a prelapsarian state or a leap to an altogether new state unburdened by the problems of history, seems the least palatable of all to those of us conditioned to think historically.

Jemisin’s trilogy presents a vexing problem for scholars of popular genres insofar as it does not neatly identify itself as “science fiction,” “fantasy,” or “horror,” although it includes aspects of all three. Of course, few texts do fall neatly into one genre or another, but these things matter to scholars and fans whose personal preferences, political commitments, and methodological imperatives often lead to turf wars and border policing. The Broken Earth may be set in the far future of our own Earth or it may take place on another planet in our universe, which might make the trilogy science fiction or horror—both genres tend to involve or even require some relationship between the worlds they describe and the world in which the reader reads and the writer writes. It may take place in a secondary world or universe without any relation to the primary world in which we read and Jemisin writes. If such is the case, it would be fantasy, a genre that tends to involve worlds with no spatial or temporal relationship with our own (you can’t travel there through any known mechanism or wait for it to arrive). Insofar as the humans of Syl Anagist seek to bend the world to their will, and insofar as the remnants of the Sanzed empire seeks its immortality through the exploitation of orogenes and the destruction and editing of historical records, we are reading something close to science fiction. Insofar as the trilogy involves subjects coming to understand the degree to which their knowledge of their world has never been true, that there are forces at work beyond their reckonings and imaginations, suggests horror in the mold of Algernon Blackwood and HP Lovecraft or, more recently, Jeff VanderMeer and China Miéville. Insofar as much of the trilogy involves characters discovering the extent to which they “enjoy” a fundamental and material relationship with the earth, we are reading fantasy (if we take this relationship to be potentially liberating and meaningful) or horror (if we take this relationship to be a necessity tantamount to an absolute bondage that precludes any hope for difference or novelty). The precise answer to the question of the trilogy’s genre is less important here than the stakes it suggests. To read The Broken Earth as fantasy (and to a lesser extent sf or horror) now, suggests modes of thought beyond the historicist, critical, and instrumental modern forms we have inherited and deploy despite the fact that they all too often dovetail with the very objects and structures we seek to undermine, subvert, and destroy. Although space does not allow me to discuss such matters, The Broken Earth can be productively read alongside works of Afrofuturism and indigenous futurism by Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, Nendi Okorafor, Octavia Butler, Gerald Vizenor, Daniel Heath Justice, and others, all of which understand knowledge practices, subjectivity, “nature,” history, and so on quite differently than do Eurowestern philosophies and aesthetics precisely because they start from radically different assumptions about the world and those who occupy it.

With this claim in mind, I want to examine how The Broken Earth takes up and revises the convention of the land in generic fantasy. In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute defines “land” as follows: “The mere backdrop to the action, as in almost any novel set in Fantasyland, is not a land but simply a venue. For our purposes a land may be defined as a secondary-world venue whose nature and fate are central to the plot: a land is not a protagonist, but has an analogous role.”1 Clute here opposes lands to mere settings. All fictions require, at least implicitly, some time and place where they are “set” (a term that refers both to that time and place, and also to a certain “fixedness” that assumes the stability of that time and place and its appropriateness as a condition for narrativization and meaning-making). By contrast, fantasy works to actualize lands that involve times and places incommensurate with traditional settings to the extent that they entangle the heroes of quests and other subjects within the secondary world in ways that extend beyond the accidents of history. In other words, between subjects of much conventional fantasy and their environments or material conditions, there exists an unconstructed bond that guarantees the meaningfulness of their actions outside of any given historical circumstances. In fantasy, if one encounters bad weather, it is very likely the case that this weather means something and is not simply the result of natural processes independent of the subjects who encounter it. Likewise, one belongs to a land regardless of narratives of nation or blood. Narnia, which guarantees the meaning of the Pevensie children as Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, and Middle-earth, in which hobbits (and to a much greater extent elves) exist in fundamental harmony with their worlds, are lands. It should be clear, of course, that the land of much generic fantasy is an object of nostalgia if not outright conservatism and atavism, or even racism and fascism. The Broken Earth departs considerably from these antecedents insofar as the land cannot, for the orogenes at the very least, be an object. Moreover, it re-imagines the land and the form of subjectivity it might possess (especially in the form of Father Earth). The lands of traditional fantasy (very often written by white men, redolent of settler colonialism and other politically noxious points of view) often imagine harmony with the land for those characters or races it deems “good,” and a combative relationship between the land and those it deems “evil.” In The Broken Earth, Jemisin gives us the Stillness, a world whose dynamism is stabilized for the sake of traditional meaning-making operations (the creation of an empire, most obviously), even as the dynamism is cast in opposition to the subjects who stand upon it.2

This revision of one of genre fantasy’s most significant conventions in turn forces us back to a consideration of The Broken Earth’s genre. Science fiction often stages an encounter between the subject and what Darko Suvin once called “the novum,” the new thing whose appearance does not so much add mere novelty to the world as it does transform all social relations and therefore history itself.3 For example, faster than light travel forces societies to rethink their places in the universe and has repercussions for trade, politics, subjectivity, and so on. However, even when a novum is another subject (e.g. an alien or AI), science fiction still tends to understand the condition of the encounter between subject and novum as a given. Even if this given, this materiality, remains imperfectly understood sf tends to understand it as potentially comprehensible by current or future knowledge practices developed in the course of history as advancements over previous knowledge practices. Thus the subjects of science fiction may change, may be dynamic, but that dynamism and the historical difference it suggests emerge against the background of sameness, a setting whose stability is governed by knowable rules against which critique can judge the adequacy of representations. Planets may blow up, but such destruction only means something in relation to the subjectivities that produce or encounter it. Rarely does sf describe setting as subject, and then only in rather heterodox texts such as Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (a novel about the impossibility of human science understanding the other as other) or Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (a series less science fiction than horror or new weird). Generic fantasy has long imagined and narrativized the subjectivities of its lands and the interactions these subjectivities have with more conventional ones, those of humans and other intelligent creatures. However, Jemisin’s trilogy does not content itself with anthropomorphizing its land, nor does it imagine a land that merely embraces the subjectivities of those who live upon it in order to grant them an essential and inalienable meaning (as does fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia). Rather, the subjectivity of Jemisin’s Father Earth remains alien to the subjects of the Stillness even as they maintain some awareness of it. The stillness of the Stillness, the condition that allows human activity tout court, is a product of human labor—that of the orogenes whose enslavement allows the Empire to survive over thousands of years—rather than an assumption of human thought. That it must be actively maintained as a form of combat, and does not exist merely as an assumption, is a function of the fact that the Stillness itself is actively hostile to the humans who live there. The Stillness, in its planetary “identity” of Father Earth, is a subject in its own right and, crucially, in its own terms, according to its own logic. The relationships The Broken Earth imagines among its various subjectivities, the interactions each can have with its others, and the narratives the arise out of these interactions depart considerably from modern critical knowledge practices and thus hint at a means of knowing—concern—apposite the Anthropocene.

The historical materialist approach to fantasy—exemplified by Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, and Carl Freedman—correctly tells us that fantasy cannot be critical, namely because it does not—indeed cannot if it is to be fantasy—deal in the materiality, the factuality, of the primary world. It does not assume the same condition or ground that historical thought and critique do. However, this becomes its strength as we think about the Anthropocene, a condition that tells us that however open the earth is to our knowledge practices, these same practices cannot help us solve the problems created by their interactions they produce with the earth. Briefly, then, I want to (finally and very briefly) turn to two important moments in The Broken Earth that help make clear what fantasy might offer us.

Famously, The Broken Earth begins with the end of the world:
This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say “the world has ended” it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine.

But this is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
For the last time.1

Every end imagined by modern thought practices and narrative forms seems an iteration of ending, one more instance of an event repeatable and witnessable by virtue of an imaginary that tells us what conditions endings—not to mention beginnings and middles—cannot itself end in any meaningful sense. In contrast to this modernist, subjectivist, and critical imaginary, The Broken Earth makes clear the crucial relationship between the human stories made meaningful by virtue of their beginnings, middles, and ends and the condition of all such beginnings, middles, and ends. What ends in this moment is not (only) the empire and subjects who depend on the Stillness as a condition for the possibility of meaningfulness, nor is it (only) the Stillness itself as a material condition. What ends here at the beginning is the relationship of condition to meaning, of subject to object (or rather of subject to subject insofar as Father Earth has a subjectivity of its own). And this ending provides the possibility of a beginning not determined by what has come before.

At the end of The Stone Sky we learn why Hoa has been the narrator of the trilogy all along, namely because Essun, in becoming a Stone Eater and taking on a new form of subjectivity, cannot recall the events of her life under the condition of a different subjectivity. In much fantasy, amnesia (often that of the king or hero) must be overcome so that the land may be restored (in much the same way as the restoration of the Fisher King;s genitals allows for rebirth). Here, amnesia comes at the end and signals the possibility of something new, something not determined by any prior condition. This groundless ground, this condition outside of or beyond history, is precisely what fantasy can describe. Whether we can develop forms of thought adequate to this groundless ground, forms of thought that do not instrumentalize the groundless ground or seek to historicize it, remains to be seen.

Notes (sorry for their low-techness)
1. John Clute and John Grant, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999). Although the EoF seems at first glance a reference work, Clute’s linked entries provide the basis for one of the most provocative theories of genre fantasy to be found anywhere. For a more sustained reading of fantasy landscapes see Stefan Ekman, Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2013).
2. In case this point is not clear, the Stillness may be a land, but it is not a land that is “for” or supportive of those who live there in the manner of Middle-earth, which is clearly “for” hobbits and elves (and to a lesser extent humans).
3. See Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2016).
4. N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season, (New York, NY: Orbit, 2015), 14.


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