The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

What’d I miss? The voters of the 2018 Worldcon awarded The Stone Sky the Hugo award for best novel, the first time in the award’s history that any author had won for best novel three years in a row, and also the first time that all three parts of a trilogy had won in that category. (I voted the year before and the year after, but not that year; I’ve read two other of the six finalists from 2018.) Clearly the book is held in high regard by one of its main audiences, one that I am a part of, but, like Doreen, I was not particularly taken by The Stone Sky. So what’d I miss?

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

Or maybe instead of asking what I missed, it’s better to consider what I did catch from the Broken Earth trilogy. The Fifth Season saw the world sundered, with vast amounts of death and destruction unleashed deliberately, and human civilization plunged into a Season where the other four are out of kilter and survival is the only law. Over the course of the book, readers saw how and some of why a powerful wielder of earth magic chose to kill millions. It is a bleak but compelling book. The Obelisk Gate shows life during the Season, how some people and some communities meet its tests and either pass them or fail them, with life being the usual stakes. Jemisin shows more of how the world came to be as it is, and how some few of the orogenes, the earth magicians, may access power even greater than the craft that ripped the world’s crust apart at the start of the trilogy. At the very end, she introduces the hope that the world does not have to remain as it is, with civilization coming close to collapse every time a Season strikes.

That question lurks over The Stone Sky: Can the world be redeemed? Should it be? In the third volume, Jemisin shows much more of how the Seasons arose, in a frame that makes answering “No” to the second question at least a possibility. As in the first two books of the trilogy, Jemisin divides her tale among viewpoints: Essun, a strong orogene who was trained at the world’s foremost school of earth magic, and who has gone on to gain even more skill and power from other teachers and experience; Nassun, her daughter, who fled south at the start of the Season and who is now also able to access the world-spanning network of obelisks, and who may be able to end the cycle of Seasons entirely; and finally an initially unnamed narrator to takes readers back to the advanced civilization of Syl Anagist. This narrator shows how the world came to its cycles of destruction and presents one side of the argument at the heart of The Stone Sky.

Say nothing to me of innocent bystanders, heartless vengeance. When a comm builds atop a fault line, do you blame its walls when they inevitably crush the people inside? No; you blame whoever was stupid enough to think they could defy the laws of nature forever. Well, some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place. (p. 7)

The matter of the book is deep and interesting. The action of the book follows as the community she has joined deals with the fallout from the events at the end of The Obelisk Gate. They are forced to journey in search of a new home, facing the perils of a Season along the way. The action also follows Nassun across the far southern lands of the continent, as she searches for connections to the obelisks, which she will need to end the Seasons’ cycle one way or another.

If a reader were so minded, it would be possible to look at the story of Syl Anagist as either an Eden story or a Babel story. For most of the civilization’s inhabitants, it must have felt like Eden: their needs and most of their desires met by the technology around them, leaving them free to pursue the things that they valued. Human struggle was still present, of course; Jemisin shows competition, emotion and power games among the scientists engaged in the great enterprise that those chapters depict. When civilization comes crashing down, for those who survived it must have felt like expulsion from the Garden. For people who knew more about the basis of Syl Anagist’s power and plenty, it is more of a Babel story. Humanity strove for perfection and built and built until finally they encountered a being far greater than they, one who smote their puny works and reduced the civilization that they in their hubris had erected.

It is also possible to read the story of Syl Anagist as neither of these, but as the story of justice done to smash a system of unspeakable exploitation. The plenty offered by Syl Anagist was created by the unwilling suffering of many people, and when some of them had the power to end that suffering, they struck down the civilization to do so. They become the walls of the narrator’s question.

That choice becomes the crux of the novel’s completion, because, despite the way that the narrator would like to frame the question, crushing millions is a choice. Walls stand or fall as inanimate choiceless objects. Shake their foundations, and they will fall. People, however stony some of them may be in this book, are different. Shake their foundations, and they will keep making choices, they will keep taking actions, they will keep living with the consequences.

Reading along, I found The Stone Sky only occasionally connected to the questions at its core. The end of The Obelisk Gate seemed to me to promise something different, though I do not know exactly what. More interaction with the possible solution? More consequences once it is enacted? More of a struggle to make the thing happen? Possibly, possibly. The Stone Sky seemed to me to be two linear narratives that meet at the end and come to a fairly rapid conclusion, interleaved with a background story that sets the moral stakes. I found the questions — such as the two sketched above or possibly a set of parallels with slavery and the construction of America — more interesting than Essun’s fights on the surface or Nassun’s journey through the underworld. This may also just be how I react to the way Jemisin constructs her larger works. I remember much preferring The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms to the other two books in her Inheritance trilogy.

When I was a Hugo voter, I gave my top vote to her short story “The City Born Great.” The other voters gave the nod to someone else, and preferred her novel to its competition. So maybe I didn’t miss anything in particular, I just saw it from a different point of view. I agree with Doreen, though: stories of Ykka and Tonkee that didn’t try too hard to engage with great questions would be a lot of fun, and might wind up doing something with those questions all the same.

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  1. I’m comparing your review with mine and feeling like such a millennial. I know we’re both Gen X but still ;P.

    On a more serious note, I thought Syl Anagist more of an Omelas correlation myself, and actually enjoyed where Ms Jemisin went with that (barring the again terrible magic-science conflation.) What the tuners did about it felt like one of the more organic notions of the book, but the aftermath continues to make no fucking sense to me. This book honestly felt like having to listen to a bad mother bullshit about her problems while her kid actually does something world-changing, no matter what said daughter chooses. It’s sort of a chosen one narrative from the perspective of the crappy mom. Omg, I just realized that it’s as if Buffy’s story was told entirely from Joyce’s perspective! Only with lower stakes because things will get better, if different, no matter what Nassun chooses. God, that still irritates me.

  2. Douglas Coupland is a friend of a friend of a friend, so I have set aside my natural tendencies and embraced generational identity.

    I suppose I should finally read Omelas? I thought about that correlation but didn’t want to write along those lines without having read Le Guin’s story. It’s Omelas in the other direction, too, though. The destruction that Alabaster unleashes, to say nothing of what the future Stone Eaters do, set up societies based on suffering.

    So I don’t buy Hoa’s reasoning. People are moral agents, not walls that fall because gravity commands. Hoa’s is a world of unredeemed, irredeemable original sin, a world in which Anastasia deserves to be machinegunned because she was born a Romanov. If that’s the best he’s got after forty thousand years, it’s not been time well spent.

    1. Why yes, you should definitely read Omelas! It is very short and will take you no time. Please also consider reading Rosaria Munda’s Fireborne, which deals with the aftereffect of bloody revolution (leaning heavily on the real world Russian and French for inspiration) and was one of my favorite books of 2019. I don’t necessarily think that societies need to have a definite structure in place before changing an existing system, or that sometimes just burning something down to the ground isn’t beneficial in the long run, but it is good at the very least to have a constructive, practical vision of what comes next. Alabaster’s lack of such was only one reason I was so very tired of his nonsense.

      Hoa, well. I honestly did not understand his motivations in the present with Essun and Nassun, partly because I didn’t care. He’s just some dxm who shows up to move people places and save lives. Meh. I dug his stuff in the past, and felt he was more justified than Alabaster in trying to foul up his society (iirc, Hoa just wanted to mess up the perpetual engine, whereas Alabaster knew he was going to kill millions; plus Hoa didn’t have a lot of options whereas Alabaster absolutely did.) Tho honestly, by the time we got to the satellite, I didn’t really care about the Evil Earth stuff and didn’t think any of the sci-fi/magic made sense. I’m still mad about that latter honestly.

      1. Thanks for the recommendation! I should read some Isaac Babel, too, speaking of Russian revolutions. His collected works have been on my tbr shelf for mumblety-mumble years, and I hear they’re really good.

        I coded all or orogeny as earth magic from the very beginning, I guess because that was my first reaction to expending mental energy to affect geology. Later on, when Jemisin brings in a more generic life force as magic, I thought it was more of the same if less structured. What led you to coding orogeny as sci-fi?

        Yes, just scuppering the engine is what Hoa and his cohort planned to do. I don’t think anyone knew, or within the setup of the story could know, what that would entail. It’s an interesting parallel: if the slaves of the 1830s could have destroyed every cotton gin and sugar mill, and also had a magic power that would have would have prevented these from ever being invented again, you might get the kind of continuous rise and fall that the Broken Earth shows. Actually, that would be a much weirder world, a little like The Black God’s Drums. Hmm…

        I had a strong emotional resistance to the idea that the earth is intrinsically hostile/evil. I’m still not sure why I resist it, maybe just not wanting to consider a universe in which that’s true.

        As for Alabaster, I kinda think that Jemisin started with the image of someone ripping apart the continent and worked backwards and forwards from there. What could prompt someone to do a thing like that? What kind of world does that even happen in? What happens next? He’s an anarchist blowing up the Tsar, not Lenin trying to seize power for his party. But yeah, as smart as he is supposed to be and as long as he has supposedly been planning his action, you’d think he would consider something beyond “rocks fall, everybody dies.”

        1. I think I coded orogeny as a sort of genetic manipulation/implantation tuned into seismology in the same way that the mathematical battles of Yoon-Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire worked for me: you know it’s nonsense but everything is based on scientific concepts we recognize and accept as real. I will willingly accept as sci-fi the concept that humans can innately sense and manipulate kinetic and even molecular/quantum forces. What I refuse to accept is that such is “magic” simply because the author refuses to continue to do the work. I mean, Ms Jemisin researched the shit out of the physics and geology, astro or terrestrial, of Book One. I felt sincerely cheated that she decided to dispense with scientific fidelity in favor of magic and, ugh, the completely absurd idea of a genetically tied perpetual engine in the following books that made me want to scream. It was like following the career of Dr Oz, going from genuinely insightful, educational stuff to doing little better than peddling the same kind of nonsense Gwyneth Paltrow sells.

          As for the Evil Earth, it didn’t bother me any more than the idea of a (fictitious) passive/neutral/vengeful God does. My personal theology is different, but given the nihilistic viewpoint of many of the book’s characters, it felt like par for the course for this author.

          Also, if only Alabaster had been intent on destroying merely one man or one signifier of power. He considered the entire city-state and its citizens complicit in the oppression of his people, and wanted to revenge himself, uncaring of the utter hypocrisy of his actions. Sure, fine, understandable, but neither sympathetic nor heroic. Reminds me a bit of reactions to the terrific Netflix show, You, that I’m covering for work (deadline tonight!) Cool motive, STILL MURDER.

          1. The start of this New Yorker profile


            shows that I wasn’t too far off with my guess about how the Broken Earth got started. And ok, I agree with you on the jump between the thought-through orogeny of the beginning and the much vaguer silver-string magic of the later parts. That shift felt off for me, too.

            Also, Alabaster is problematic no matter what because, for example, the Bolsheviks really did believe (or claim to believe) that the kulaks were oppressing the poorer peasantry and standing in the way of the revolution. Pretty much every genocide stems from sincerely held beliefs, and Alabaster really does it: kill ’em all and let the Evil Earth sort ’em out.

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