The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin (2017) (read in 2018)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is the third book of the Broken Earth series. The underground city of Castrima is no longer habitable after the epic battle at the end of the Obelisk Gate. Alabaster is gone, having been turned into a stone eater. Essun’s arm below the elbow is also stone, leading her on the same path as Alabaster. This means that she can no longer perform orogeny without sacrificing parts of her body to stone. She can choose, though, so after the first time, where she loses a hand and part of an arm, she funnels the damage to a breast instead. But it’s not really stone, is it? It’s solidified magic and she is growing ever more adept at manipulating the magic that underlies orogeny, that is it’s founding principle.
Jemisin weaves the massive myth ever larger, telling us of the deep history of mankind. How mankind built the obelisks to harness magic power, how humanity enslaved a race that was the master of deep magic, but not the master of technology. She tells of how this race was wiped out, but rebuilt in the form of several adepts who would become the original stone eaters (including Hoa). The ossification process Essun is undergoing—and which Alabaster completed—is the stone-eater’s form of reproduction, of getting new members of their ancient race.
The story tells of how mankind bored down to the core—through the core—to tap what it thought would be an unlimited supply of magic, how humanity sought to harness this power with the original stone-eaters from a moon base and using the massive obelisks to focus their power. She tells of how Father Earth exists—and that he’s pissed. He struck back, taking over some of the obelisks, thwarting the process, making humanity blow the moon out of orbit and starting the first of the Seasons that would plague the planet for dozens of Millennia.
The story of the Guardians is also fleshed-out: they are agents of Father Earth, imbued with magical power through a bit of the Earth’s core lodged in their sessapinae (in their brains). The technology and the world and the history and myth is a wonderfully imagined and woven tale, bringing together many elements of magic and science and also strongly reflecting our own history, predilections and prejudices.
The plot follows Nassun as she ends up in a colony in Antarctica with her father Jija—and under the tutelage of Schaffa, her mother’s former Guardian. Schaffa has changed, though, and is no longer fully under the control of Father Earth. He wants to help Nassun achieve her goal of burning everything to the ground—destroying the Earth and humanity that would produce such a blighted landscape and unending torture for her and her people (orogenes).
For this, she ventures to Corepoint, but first travels to an ancient city from which the attack on Father Earth was originally launched. Here, we learn more about its history, before she and Schaffa take an ancient monorail through the heart of the planet to Corepoint.
At the same time, Essun and the rest of Castrima adventure their way to Rennanis, the city that they defeated at the end of the second book. They establish themselves in this old and enormous city, but Essun knows she must move on. She must accompany Hoa, her stone-eater, to try to right what humanity broke many, many years ago. All of her friends come with her, traveling in a group through the center of the Earth, slipped through the strata by Hoa. They are attacked by other stone eaters along the way and there is attrition.
Essun seeks to recapture the Moon and put it back in orbit, to make peace with Father Earth and put an end to the seasons. She must fight Nassun on this—who wants to use the Obelisk Gate to plow the Moon into the Earth and kill everyone.
Having seen how the stone eaters live, Nassun changes her plan (she’s only 10 or 11) and decides to use the power of the Obelisk Gate to change all of humanity into stone eaters instead. Essun battles against her, but eventually gives up, expending her last power to let her daughter have her own way and turning to stone. Nassun takes pity and fulfills her mother’s plan instead, using the power of the Obelisk Gate to align the Moon back into its former orbit. Father Earth is pleased and agrees to a truce with mankind.
In the epilogue, Essun awakes as a stone eater and starts to pick up the pieces of an Earth that knows peace with Father Earth, that once again has a moon, with hopefully much-humbled humans and no more Seasons.
“When a slave rebels, it is nothing much to the people who read about it later. Just thin words on thinner paper worn finer by the friction of history. (“So you were slaves, so what?” they whisper. Like it’s nothing.)”
“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.”
“For a very long time I could not tell the difference between one of their kind and another. They all look different, but they have the same non-presence within the ambient. I still have to remind myself that hair textures and eye shapes and unique body odors each have as much meaning to them as the perturbations of tectonic plates have to me.”
“Perhaps this is because we have earthtalk?”
Earthtalk seems to be a lot like the Adem sign language from the Kingkiller chronicles. It functions differently but serves the same purpose.
“They’re afraid because we exist, she says. There’s nothing we did to provoke their fear, other than exist. There’s nothing we can do to earn their approval, except stop existing—so we can either die like they want, or laugh at their cowardice and go on with our lives.”
“It doesn’t matter what we do. The problem is them.”
“Even the idea of Yumenes is hard for Nassun to comprehend: millions of people, none of them farmers or miners or anything that fits within the range of her experience, many of them obsessed with strange fads and politics and alignments far more complex than those of caste or race.”
That is what mystifies me about our world: so many people with no worthwhile capabilities feel entitled to so much. The most naturally useless are somehow the wealthiest.
“Would’ve been nice if we could’ve all had normal, of course, but not enough people wanted to share. So now we all burn.”
“[…] the people of the world would not survive without it. Orogenes are essential. And yet because you are essential, you cannot be permitted to have a choice in the matter. You must be tools—and tools cannot be people. Guardians keep the tool … and to the degree possible, while still retaining the tool’s usefulness, kill the person.””
“It is the way of the world, but it isn’t. The things that happen to orogenes don’t just happen. They’ve been made to happen, by the Guardians, after years and years of work on their part. Maybe they whispered ideas into the ears of every warlord or Leader, in the time before Sanze. Maybe they were even there during the Shattering—inserting themselves into ragged, frightened pockets of survivors to tell them who to blame for their misery, and how to find them, and what to do with the culprits found.”
“But there are none so frightened, or so strange in their fear, as conquerors. They conjure phantoms endlessly, terrified that their victims will someday do back what was done to them—even if, in truth, their victims couldn’t care less about such pettiness and have moved on. Conquerors live in dread of the day when they are shown to be, not superior, but simply lucky. (Emphasis added.)”
““The Leadership families of Yumenes believed that orogenes once ruled the world,” he says. “That their duty was to keep your kind from ever regaining that much power. That you would be monstrous rulers of the world, doing back to ordinary folk what had been done to you, if you ever got the chance. I don’t think they were right about any of it—and yet.” He gestures, as she stands there illuminated by the fire of the earth. “Look at you, little one. If you are the monster they imagined you to be … you are also glorious.””
“Magic, Steel called the silver. The stuff underneath orogeny, which is made by things that live or once lived. This silver deep within Father Earth wends between the mountainous fragments of his substance in exactly the same way that they twine among the cells of a living, breathing thing. And that is because a planet is a living, breathing thing; she knows this now with the certainty of instinct. All the stories about Father Earth being alive are real.”
“There’s some solidity to it; as they draw closer, Nassun can detect anomalies dotting the surface of the bright sphere, made tiny by contrast—even as she realizes they are obelisks. Several dozen of them, jammed into the heart of the world like needles in a pincushion. But these are nothing. Nothing.”
“When the Earth speaks, it does not do so in words, exactly. This is a thing you know already, but that Nassun only learns in this moment. She sesses the meanings, hears the vibrations with the bones of her ears, shudders them out through her skin, feels them pull tears from her eyes. It is like drowning in energy and sensation and emotion. It hurts. Remember: The Earth wants to kill her. But remember, too: Nassun wants it just as dead. So it says, in microshakes that will eventually stir a tsunami somewhere in the southern hemisphere, Hello, little enemy. (This is an approximation, you realize. This is all her young mind can bear.)”
“The silver—magic—comes from life. Those who made the obelisks sought to harness magic, and they succeeded; oh, how they succeeded. They used it to build wonders beyond imagining. But then they wanted more magic than just what their own lives, or the accumulated aeons of life and death on the Earth’s surface, could provide. And when they saw how much magic brimmed just beneath that surface, ripe for the taking … It may never have occurred to them that so much magic, so much life, might be an indicator of … awareness. The Earth does not speak in words, after all—and perhaps, Nassun realizes, having seen entirely too much of the world to still have much of a child’s innocence, perhaps these builders of the great obelisk network were not used to respecting lives different from their own. Not so very different, really, from the people who run the Fulcrums, or raiders, or her father. So where they should have seen a living being, they saw only another thing to exploit. Where they should have asked, or left alone, they raped.”
“This is only fair, it reasons—coldly, with an anger that still shudders up from the depths to crack the world’s skin and touch off Season after Season. It is only right. The Earth did not start this cycle of hostilities, it did not steal the Moon, it did not burrow into anyone else’s skin and snatch bits of its still-living flesh to keep as trophies and tools, it did not plot to enslave humans in an unending nightmare. It did not start this war, but it will rusting well have. Its. Due.”
“Once, after all, I believed I was the finest tool ever created by a great civilization. Now, I have learned that I am a mistake cobbled together by paranoid thieves who were terrified of their own mediocrity. I don’t know how to feel, except reckless.”
“He doesn’t want you to hear him say “like one of you,” Remwha signals, humming with irritation at my obtuseness. And he doesn’t want you to know what it means, if he says it. He reassures himself that he is not like the people who made his own life harder. It’s a lie, but he needs it, and he needs us to support that lie. She should not have told us that we were Niess. We aren’t Niess, I gravitic-pulse back. Mostly I’m annoyed that he had to point this out. Gallat’s behavior is obvious, now that Remwha has explained. To them we are.”
“Later, when we process all this, I will tell the others, She wants to be a person. She wants the impossible, Dushwha will say. Gallat thinks it better to own her himself, rather than allow Syl Anagist to do the same. But for her to be a person, she must stop being … ownable. By anyone. Then Syl Anagist must stop being Syl Anagist, Gaewha will add sadly. Yes.”
“Nonliving, inorganic things like crystal are inert to magic. Therefore, in order to help the fragments initiate the generative cycle, raw magic must be used as a catalyst. Every engine needs a starter. Enter the sinklines: They look like vines, thick and gnarled, twisting and curling to form a lifelike thicket around the fragment’s base. And ensnared in these vines— We’re going to see them, Kelenli told me, when I asked her where the Niess were.”
“You cannot go to people like that and ask them to fund a research project that makes heroes of roggas! You just can’t. They’ll faint, and when they wake up, they’ll have you killed. They’ll destroy you as surely as they would any threat to their livelihoods and legacy. Yes, I know that’s not what you think you’re doing, but it is.”
“Corepoint sits at the peak of an enormous underwater shield volcano, and the first few miles of the hole drilled at its center are actually lined with a hollowed-out complex of living quarters, laboratories, and manufactories. These underground facilities, originally meant to house Corepoint’s geomagests and genegineers, have long since been turned to a wholly different purpose—because this flip side of Corepoint is Warrant, where Guardians are made and dwell between Seasons.”
“Threads of silver roam over her body, determining her discomfort by touching her nerves and then repairing her bruises and scrapes; other threads whip the particles of the bed until friction warms them; yet more threads search her skin for infinitesimal dry flakes and flecks of dust, and scrub them away.”
Magic as nanotech? Nanotech as magic?
“No wonder the people who built the obelisks needed so much silver, if they used it in lieu of wearing blankets, or taking baths, or letting themselves heal over time.”
“What follows won’t be good, but it’ll be bad for everyone—rich and poor, Equatorials and commless, Sanzeds and Arctics, now they’ll all know. Every season is the Season for us. The apocalypse that never ends. They could’ve chosen a different kind of equality. We could’ve all been safe and comfortable together, surviving together, but they didn’t want that. Now nobody gets to be safe. Maybe that’s what it will take for them to finally realize things have to change.”
“Some accept their fate. Swallow their pride, forget the real truth, embrace the falsehood for all they’re worth—because, they decide, they cannot be worth much. If a whole society has dedicated itself to their subjugation, after all, then surely they deserve it? Even if they don’t, fighting back is too painful, too impossible. At least this way there is peace, of a sort. Fleetingly. The alternative is to demand the impossible. It isn’t right, they whisper, weep, shout; what has been done to them is not right. They are not inferior. They do not deserve it. And so it is the society that must change. There can be peace this way, too, but not before conflict.”
“No one really wants to face the fact that the world is the way it is because some arrogant, self-absorbed people tried to put a leash on the rusting planet. And no one was ready to accept that the solution to the whole mess was simply to let orogenes live and thrive and do what they were born to do.”
“That he was the scion of a people abused; that those people’s forebears were, too, in their turn; that the world as he knew it could not function without forcing someone into servitude. At the time he could see no end to the cycle, no way to demand the impossible of society”
“I see the elegant vinework on the surrounding buildings and I know that somewhere, a biomagest is tabulating how many lammotyrs of magic can be harvested from such beauty. Life is sacred in Syl Anagist—sacred, and lucrative, and useful.”
“Because this is what the Sylanagistines truly made us for: to affirm a philosophy. Life is sacred in Syl Anagist—as it should be, for the city burns life as the fuel for its glory. The Niess were not the first people chewed up in its maw, just the latest and cruelest extermination of many. But for a society built on exploitation, there is no greater threat than having no one left to oppress. And now, if nothing else is done, Syl Anagist must again find a way to fission its people into subgroupings and create reasons for conflict among them. There’s not enough magic to be had just from plants and genegineered fauna; someone must suffer, if the rest are to enjoy luxury.”
“[…] this reasoning is still flawed, because Syl Anagist is ultimately unsustainable. It is parasitic; its hunger for magic grows with every drop it devours. The Earth’s core is not limitless. Eventually, if it takes fifty thousand years, that resource will be exhausted, too. Then everything dies. What we are doing is pointless and Geoarcanity is a lie. And if we help Syl Anagist further down this path, we will have said, What was done to us was right and natural and unavoidable.”
“Remember, too, that the Earth does not fully understand us. It looks upon human beings and sees short-lived, fragile creatures, puzzlingly detached in substance and awareness from the planet on which their lives depend, who do not understand the harm they tried to do—perhaps because they are so short-lived and fragile and detached.”
“As big as the world is, Nassun is beginning to realize it’s also really small. The same stories, cycling around and around. The same endings, again and again. The same mistakes eternally repeated.”
“Yet for all its grandeur, despite the evidence it offers of feats of geneering long lost to humankind, Nassun cannot bring herself to be impressed by it. The hole feeds no one, provides no shelter against ash or assault.”
I like that the planet is alive, an implacable life-form bent on shaking these meddlesome ticks from its skin. It wants neither peace nor symbiosis. It wants them gone. They dared to try to enslave it. No soft Gaia, this.
“It knows she means to bring the Moon down, and that this will create a cataclysm far worse than the Shattering. It wants to live.”
“I don’t bother to explain that just because something is horrible does not make it any less true.”