History and SFF: Historical Sources and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy

History is the interpretation of the past based on written and recorded texts. These texts are known as historical sources and they are the sine qua non of history writing. Over the past centuries, techniques have developed for how to categorize, evaluate, and analyze historical sources. Being a historian means that you dedicate a substantial amount of your time mastering these techniques in order to make your interpretation of the past valid and reliable.

In The Broken Earth trilogy, N.K. Jemisin uses historical sources to tell the history of The Stillness, a seismically overactive continent where human civilization is repeatedly destroyed through prolonged cataclysmic events known as Seasons. Individuals called orogenes have the ability to quell earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, thus limiting some of the havoc The Stillness wreaks upon its population. Though crucial to the survival of humanity, orogenes are discriminated against, despised, and shunned.

The main narrative of The Broken Earth follows the orogene Essun as a new Season begins. At the same time, there is a parallel story that runs counter to the main narrative, told through historical sources the way historians encounter them when they do research—fragmented, unprocessed, and out of context.

 

Categorizing the Sources in The Broken Earth

Historical sources are divided into three main categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. Of these, primary sources are the historical documents created by people in the past. Secondary sources consist of published research, while tertiary sources consist of encyclopedias, indexes, and other reference resources. The Broken Earth contains all three categories.

Primary sources are divided into further categories and of these, The Broken Earth contains two types—narrative sources and legal sources. Narrative sources are represented through diaries, journal entries, personal letters, and researchers’ annotations and reports. Legal sources are seen in the books in the form of decisions regarding the legal status of orogenes, and three Tablets that set down the rules for civilization.

Based on the information provided by a primary source, it can be classified as either a direct source or an indirect source. A direct primary source contains the information that you are immediately looking for, such as a diary, which is also a narrative source. Indirect sources are sources that provide indirect information; for example, to find out how a person who didn’t keep a diary lived, historians look at inventories of their belongings at the time of their death. Based on the objects and assets of that person, it’s possible to learn about their standard of living. The Tablets in The Broken Earth are indirect legal sources that tell us about the civilization that created them.

Sometimes a source can be both direct and indirect. In The Fifth Season, the first book of The Broken Earth, there is a research excerpt describing the physical properties of the sessapinae, an organ found in orogenes. The excerpt is a direct, narrative source about orogene anatomy, and is accompanied by an annotation that reads,

Nandvid Innovator Murkettsi, “Observations of sensual variations in overdeveloped individuals,” Seventh University biomestry learning-comm. With appreciation to the Fulcrum for cadaver donation.

The annotation provides direct information about the name and academic affiliation of the author. Indirectly, we also learn: that dissections are performed on deceased orogenes for research purposes; that the Fulcrum, the boarding school that trains orogenes, donates the bodies of their students instead of burying them; and, considering the age group of the Fulcrum students, the dissected bodies are likely those of children.

 

Evaluating the Sources in The Broken Earth

Evaluating a primary source is to determine its reliability by how well it meets the following criteria: authenticity, originality, proximity in time, and bias. Authenticity means determining whether or not the source is a forgery. Originality means that the information in the source is unique and not copied from an older source. Proximity in time concerns the time passed between the event and the creation of the source that describes it. Bias, of course, is bias. The ideal for any historian is to find an impartial, original source created immediately after an event. However, as any ancient or medieval historian will attest, most often all we have are copies of copies of a lost original created sometimes centuries after the fact.

None of the historical sources in The Broken Earth fulfill these four criteria in a satisfying way. They are all heavily biased. The closest a source comes to a date is by referencing an entire Season. We don’t know much about the level of originality or authenticity because all we have are excerpts.

However, there are clues. In The Obelisk Gate, book two of The Broken Earth, Journeywoman Fogrid Innovator Yumenes writes a report that mentions caverns filled with corpses and Tablets written in verse in a strange language. This entry does not have a date, but placed in the context of the main narrative, it would seem that Journeywoman Fogrid is investigating the remains of the civilization where the main character, Essun, once lived.

 

Analyzing the Sources in The Broken Earth

When historians are confronted with fragmented source material taken out of context, they use so-called inductive analysis to make sense of it. Inductive analysis is when you take information from several different sources and analyze them together to try and create a fragmented whole.

In The Broken Earth, inductive analysis can help make sense of the Tablets. Journeywoman Fogrid writes that there are five Tablets, but the books only mention three: Tablet One, “On Survival,” Tablet Two, “The Incomplete Truth,” and Tablet Three, “Structures.” We don’t know who made the Tablets, when they were made, or why, nor do we know the material they were made from. Several verses are missing; on Tablet Three only three verses have survived. On Tablets One and Two, verses are stated as being partially “obscured.” We are not told what this means; however, the placement of the word “obscured” indicates that the two Tablets are placed next to one another and the same object blocks them from view.

When analyzing the fragmented information, we learn about the civilization’s social groups. We learn how to prepare for a Season and how to survive the aftermath. The use of the word “flesh” instead of “meat” indicates that these people included humans in their diet. The prohibition against putting a price on flesh indicates that slavery existed but was not sanctioned. We learn that there were different versions of the Tablets.

In The Fifth Season, Tablet Three verse 1 reads, “Set a flexible central beam at the heart of all structures. Trust wood, trust stone, but metal rusts.” In The Obelisk Gate, the same verse reads, “Stone lasts, unchanging. Never alter what is written in stone.” Because the Tablets are without context, there is room for interpretation. Through the placement of the verses in the narrative, we can assume that the second version is in response to the first. One way of reading is that the civilization altered what was written in stone, and replaced old values with new. Or, the civilization went from being flexible in their survival strategy to becoming rigid. Either interpretation is valid based on the information available, and the conclusion ultimately remains the same—this civilization caused its own demise.

In The Broken Earth, N.K. Jemisin uses historical sources to clarify, obfuscate, support, and undermine the main narrative. In doing so, Jemisin takes the historian’s craft and drives it in reverse, putting the reader in the role of the historian who must piece history back together again.

Erika Harlitz-Kern is a freelance writer and historian with a PhD from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. When not reading and writing about fantasy and science fiction, she teaches history at Florida International University in Miami, and spends her free time in Florida’s wetlands, silently thanking the alligators for not turning her into a snack.

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