In “Syl Anagist: Two,” Kelenli reveals a terrible, uncomfortable truth to the tuners. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Broken Earth.
Trigger Warning: For extensive discussion of slavery, cultural assimilation, colonization.
Hi. HELLO. This chapter???? Is???? So much???? I’m reeling from how much was revealed about the history of the Stillness, but also, this chapter’s placement after Nassun’s? Brilliant. BRILLIANT. Because now we know definitively what those weird vines were for: an elaborate, citywide system in which all residents of Syl Anagist funneled their magic to power the plutonic engines. Jemisin manages an unparalleled feat here, y’all. Syl Anagist is not just the origins of the current conflicts in the Stillness. It’s a powerful, cutting, and devastating metaphor for the violence of colonialism; for cultural assimilation; for how genetics and biology are used in deeply misinformed and vicious ways; how all of these things are rooted in fear and terror.
Nothing is hard and nothing is bare and I have never thought before that the chamber I live in is a prison cell, but now for the first time, I do.
I believe you can analyze Kelenli’s actions from multiple directions, but one thing I can’t really escape is this idea that she is slowly eroding perception. Up until this point, the tuners have believed very specific things about themselves and the world around them. Actually, on that latter part: the world around them was always a chamber, one which they weren’t allowed to leave. So, the very act of taking them outside is a means of shifting a paradigm. It’s one thing to learn about the world through lectures or books or film. It is entirely something else to go to a place and learn by being there. It is one of many things I miss about the world in the current state. Travel is my way of trying to understand this planet we live on! I actually have this whole obsession of mine where I love going to new locations, especially outside of the US, and spending hours wandering and observing. In particular, one of the first things I do is find the nearest supermarket or grocery store or whatever equivalent a city or town has. Because you can learn so much about a people and a culture by seeing how they organize a store! What foods are in the front of the store? What is there a lot of? What is there NONE of?
I know that’s a very specific thing that’s not entirely applicable to the tuners’ journey. At the same time, it’s all about the details. Sometimes, we cannot conceive of how other people live until we witness it, plain and simple. That’s what I was thinking of as Hoa and the other tuners repeatedly lost their shit over the smallest of things. Well, small relative to me! To them, each new detail is a revelation. The idea of a comfortable home? Unheard of for them. Why do they need comfort? It’s meaningless to a tuner. Personal belongings? Why do tools require a belonging? They exist for one purpose.
And then there’s the old man, the one who calls them “Niesbred” and “mistakes” and says they should have been wiped out. At the time, I struggled to understand this. I got the sense from the last two “Syl Anagist” chapters that the tuners were not seen as normal people. But if they were decanted as tools to be used, why on Earth would someone wish for them to have been wiped out? I thought they were necessary to Syl Anagist.
They are, of course, but it’s not until Kelenli takes them to the home she grew up in that I came to understand the full extent of the horror of this place. I love that Jemisin toys with all of this: On the surface, Syl Anagist seems like a success, a gorgeous, fully functional city that is literally alive in every sense. Like, I would totally dig living in a place where plant life covered all the buildings and was encouraged as part of the aesthetic and the function of a city! Again, though, Jemisin is much more interested in the rot at the core, the hidden poison beneath the surface. What is the actual cost of maintaining a world like this? Who suffers so that others may experience joy, may be wealthy, may be alive?
That’s the open secret of Syl Anagist. I say open secret because I think the old man’s anger reveals one aspect of this that I hadn’t considered. Do the vast majority of the Sylanagestines believe that the Niess—now existing as the decanted tuners—were completely wiped out? (Which touches on a completely separate aspect of imperialism: the myth of disappearance. An example of this is how frequently in US schools students are taught that the indigenous population of North America was wiped out or disappeared. I certainly was taught this!) It would explain why so many people reacted as they did to them. The Niess are a nightmare myth to the people of Syl Anagist. They were sold a very specific story, and then, even more ghoulishly, the tuners were created to fit that myth. But let’s say that I misinterpreted this part. Does that mean that everyone knows what the tuners are used for? Oh god, do they know, and because of the bigoted story told about them, everyone accepts what is done to them??? Oh, that’s probably what is actually happening here. Look, sometimes I have to work out my understanding of a text in the review itself. Still, the question is there: What do most Sylanagestines think they know? What are they told now?
But look, even using the word “know” is faulty. Sylanagistines don’t know the truth because they’ve never been given an opportunity to. That’s the function of empire as we see it here. (And make no mistake, Jemisin is very clear that this is an empire. The Stillness was once three lands until the other two were conquered. In the one example we’re given of this, Jemisin brilliantly captures how imperialism is an intentional act of violence. It’s not just taking of land: it’s the diaspora. It is the crushing of specific cultural traditions through assimilation, even as a people cling to what made them who they are. In this case, the Niess had a very specific cultural belief that set them apart from the Sylanagistines:
Magic could not be owned, they insisted, any more than life could be—and thus they wasted both, by building (among many other things) plutonic engines that did nothing. They were just… pretty. Or thought-provoking, or crafted for the sheer joy of crafting. And yet this “art” ran more efficiently and powerfully than anything the Sylanagistine had ever managed.
But even reading that… they didn’t do “nothing.” The Niess simply had a different value set. The act of creation had meaning. The existence of art was a meaning. At the end of the chapter, we even learn that there WAS a purpose to those engines: they were used by lorists to tell their story!!! Yet the conquerers, these goddamn imperialists, couldn’t just let this exist. Couldn’t just let these people exist. And this is where Jemisin really digs in, and she talks about fear in such a precise way. Yes, people can be afraid of difference, and I fully understand why we use that to talk about behavior like this. However, Jemisin goes one step further to indict conquerers, and I LOVE IT SO MUCH:
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. Conquerers live in dread of the day when they are shown to be, no superior, but simply lucky.
WHEW. THAT IS IT. RIGHT THERE. And look, let’s pull this book into 2020: How many of you have witnessed this exact fear unfolding? I see it everywhere, and not just this year. But, as a specific example, the idea of reparations being paid to the descendants of chattel slavery in the US is often met with this same anxiety. Lots of people see it as revenge, rather than a compensation for this country being built with the labor of enslaved people. They view the dismantling of the police, or redlining, of the various tools of systemic anti-Blackness, as an act of violence against them. Why can’t these people just move on? Racism is over, right?
What a fucking fantasy. But it’s all a fantasy. A carefully constructed one, I might add, that stretches back to the very myths we are taught about the land we stole, about the foundation of our “democracy,” about the glory and progress of the American Empire. But there are other myths we were sold, and Jemisin gets more specific about the violence of stripping people of their personhood, something we’ve seen throughout all three books in this series. And here’s the devastating blow she delivers in regards to the fallacy of racial and biological supremacy that still haunts our world to this day:
After all, if the Niess were just ordinary human beings, then on what basis had military appropriations, pedagogical reinterpretation, and entire disciplines of study been formed? Even the grand dream itself, Geoarcanity, had grown out of the notion that Sylanagistine magestric theory—including its scornful dismissal of Niess efficiency as a fluke of physiology—was superior and infallible.
If the Niess were merely human, the world built on the inhumanity would fall apart.
So… they made us.
I used this term below when I was taking notes during my first read, but I want to bring it back up again: The tuners are literal strawmen. In our world, the powers in charge construct strawmen in order to justify their treatment of those they disenfranchise. Here, though, the Sylanagistine powers LITERALLY CREATED THE VERSION OF THE PEOPLE THEY CLAIMED WERE INFERIOR. It wasn’t enough to claim they were; they wanted to parade around the Niess to fit their violent fairy tales. It’s so fucked up, y’all, but within this nightmare is the spark that Kelenli is trying to ignite further. I believe that her actions will be the accelerant that the tuners need. As the text notes:
But we are not the Niess. We aren’t even the glorious symbols of intellectual achievement that I believed we were. Syl Anagist is built on delusions, and we are the product of lies. They have no idea what we really are.
It’s up to us, then, to determine our own fate and future.
And what better way for that to happen than for Kelenli to give them information? The tuners are deliberately kept in the dark about their creation and the metaphorical purpose for their existence. They only know the literal one: as tools. This is the first time that any of them are told that they are also scapegoats. That they are the monsters in the horrible stories told to children, believed by the adults, and passed on to every new generation. So there’s something so deeply powerful in Kelenli choosing to become something that was nearly lost to the Niess: a lorist. No one has allowed the Niess to tell their own story, not in ages. But the reader knows that the Niess are lost to time. We never hear about them in the future. So what happened? How did this story disappear? Even more imporantly: Who destroyed it?
Oh god, I am also worried about the third and final place they’re going to visit. The Niess aren’t “dead,” are they? I’M AFRAID.
- okay, I’m so eager to find out what kelenli is going to show the tuners!!!
- WHY IS SHE TROUBLED BY THAT QUESTION
- oh my god look! Hoa is thinking about how deeply uncomfortable his chamber is!!! SHE IS DOING THIS ON PURPOSE
- omg wait this old man. wait what???? why is he saying these things????
- “pretending to be gone” WHAT THE FUCK
- oh shit, kelenli’s answer to why that old man was so angry
- “With every glimpse of normalcy, the city teaches us just how abnormal we are.” OH MY GOD THIS BOOK
- oh my god natural imperfection. she’s showing them natural imperfection
- this is fucking incredible
- OH NO
- THAT LINE FROM EARLIER. ABOUT HOA AND LOVE
- OH NOOOOOOOOOOOO
- Okay, so why this little house?
- oh. IT’S HERS
- HOLY FUCK, HOLY FUCK.
- holy shit, the commentary on genetic degeneracy and how its used to control people and deny personhood
- I feel like I’m vibrating because of how tense this is
- no oh my god don’t break away!!!! come back!!!!
- oh wait
- I actually forgot that it was three lands lmao
- so… colonization???
- OH OH FUCK. THE THNIESS HAVE ICE WHITE EYES AND ASHBLOW HAIR
- OH MY GOD. okay I was like… approaching being right about the magic and the plutonic engine? I mean, I was definitely wrong, but it makes so much more sense that it was a society-wide effort. everyone produced magic to feed it away in those vines!!!!!!
- OH MY GOD
- THE ART
- HOLY SHIT. THE ENGINE THEY JUST SAW.
- MAGIC CAN’T BE OWNED
- I am losing it THIS IS ONE HUGE METAPHOR FOR THE VIOLENCE OF CULTURAL ASSIMILATION AND COLONIZATION.
- sakljf;adsljfa;sdfads;fjsa this is fucking incredible.
- holy shit. the Niess were the source of this whole nightmare. or rather, what was DONE to the Niess on a systemic level
- HOLY FUCK. THE TUNERS ARE THE ENGINEERED PROGENY OF THE NIESS
- they are literal fucking strawmen. oh my god.
- there’s another component??????
- THE MOON. HELP
- YES I WAS RIGHT
- okay, but question: what happened to these lorists? none of these stories survived to the present in the Stillness!
- wait… what emotional resonance?
- WAIT. WHERE IS SHE TAKING THEM???? OH NO. if you can’t kill anything in this world… oh, I’m scared. I’m so scared.
- oh wow: “How can we prepare for the future if we won’t acknowledge the past?” THIS BOOK IS INCREDIBLE.
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