The Obelisk Gate, chapters 13, interlude, 14

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Chapter 13

Essun applies her harsh teaching methods to the orogene children of Castrima, preparing them for the moment when the stills of Castrima rise up to kill them. Essun continues to learn about magic from Alabaster. He reveals that the Guardians are the third faction in the war between Father Earth and humans. He also describes how he used the obelisk network and node maintainers to open the Yumenes rift. Rennanis is mentioned as a centre of surviving node maintainers. Ykka enlists Essun to remove Tonkee from Castrima's conrol room. Ykka tells the story of how the Castrima stills didn't turn against her when she revealed her abilities, and Hjarka comments that Castrima is a new type of place. Tonkee lets Essun (and others) into the control room. They investigate a plinth that guards some shards of rusted iron. Tonkee and Ykka argue over Tonkee's acess to the control room. Tonkee grabs one of the iron needles, it burrows into her, and Essun saves Tonkee at the cost of amputating her arm with magic.

Interlude

Hoa describes "killing" several stone eaters near Castrima and mentions another powerful stone eater assembling human forces to attack Essun in Castrima.

Chapter 14

Six months have passed for Essun as she settles into life in Castrima. Tonkee and Hjarka start a relationship. Tonkee describes the pressing need for meat to Castrima's leadership. Rennanis declares war on Castrima, by both killing a hunting party and by a grey stone eater appearing in the middle of Castrima (with Hoa's arm). Rennanis seems to have adopted the "scrap of fine cloth" signifier of the equatorial people feeling Yumenes. Essun uses an obelisk to detect what's around and discovers an army marching on Castrima. The stone eater gives Renannis's terms. Essun attacks the stone eater, who leaves. Essun finds most of Hoa in her room. She feeds him his stone "meal" and Hoa reforms, inside another geode. Hoa is revealed as the stone eater inside the garnet oblisk at Allia.

The chapter endnote is the declaration of orogenes being non-human.

Questions

  • Does the notion of Guardians being the "third side" make sense?
  • There is a lot of reincorporation of earlier elements (the things in Guardians, rusty iron needles, scraps of fine cloth, magic to affect living tissue and poison, Hoa's stone food, the garnet obelisk). When all these pipes were laid, introduced, they didn't seem connected. Has the earlier confusion been worth it? Have things paid off? Would the book be better or worse if these factors were introduced now, rather that callbacks from earlier?
  • There's a lot of action in these chapters, and action is something Jemisin does well. Does she do it well in these chapters? How does she do it, and what techniques can we learn from her?

Comments

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    > * Does the notion of Guardians being the "third side" make sense?

    I didn’t really get that they were the third faction from the text, though I did get that their motivations are complex. I’m not sure if it makes sense; I always thought they represented or worked for humanity, so I would have placed them on that side, and the mysterious silver strands inside Schaffa as somehow being the third faction. But now that magic is also described as looking like silver strands I’m starting to lose the thread, so to speak.

    > * There is a lot of reincorporation of earlier elements (the things in Guardians, rusty iron needles, scraps of fine cloth, magic to affect living tissue and poison, Hoa's stone food, the garnet obelisk). When all these pipes were laid, introduced, they didn't seem connected. Has the earlier confusion been worth it? Have things paid off? Would the book be better or worse if these factors were introduced now, rather that callbacks from earlier?

    It’s not paying off for me, because I no longer remember the significance of these things or their context. Did they all have context to begin with? We did kind of wonder why rest, in particular, was a swear word. Does the fact that rust can magically burrow into your skin really explain that? I don’t think so. So what conclusion am I to draw at this point? These are just more hints piling on, and I’m losing track of them.

    > * There's a lot of action in these chapters, and action is something Jemisin does well. Does she do it well in these chapters? How does she do it, and what techniques can we learn from her?

    It hadn’t occurred to me that she writes action particularly well. I do agree there’s a lot more going on in these chapters and it feels like the pot is starting to simmer, so that makes things a little more interesting. However, this is probably also responsible for my feeling that in getting lost. Instead of a pipe laying metaphor, maybe the laying of carpet would be better to illustrate how I feel. In this case, the carpet is starting to bunch up in front of the door and preventing me from Seeing the pattern on it and, maybe worse, preventing me from opening the door. I need someone to come and pull the carpet flat again.
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    At least things happened...

    I'm still not clear about the state of intelligence in this world (in the military sense, not the cleverness one). So far as I can tell, there seem to me multiple methods - these may be connected, but then again they may not. There's obviously the direct looking around that stills can do. Then there's sessing (and it's not clear to me now whether everyone can sess a bit, in the sense of intuition, or whether it is just orogenes) which has more range. Then there's Essun's trick with obelisks, which one imagines few people can do (but my suspicion is that we're going to come across ever more of these). Then there's the stone eaters' reconnaissance trips (and it now seems that the stone eaters are all over the place, choosing sides. I'm totally lost as to what is common knowledge and what is specialist, and the dividing lines keep changing as to how well-known something is (similarly to what happened about the word 'moon' a while back).

    I thought the whole description of Tonkee's investigations in the control room was really well done, especially when nobody (not even her) can actually read the signs, and are just trying to understand what glyphs / icons might mean. It reminds me a lot about trying to puzzle through an app user interface where the icons are obvious to the coder but opaque to everyone else. So the whole business of the warning signs which - we infer from the burrowing-into-arm bit - really meant "these are really really dangerous and you really really mustn't mess with them" but was interpreted as "think twice before you grab them but it's OK in an emergency". I suppose we infer also that Castrima was a kind of research base long long ago. That section was probably for me the single best bit of world-building I have read so far in these books.

    Re the reincorporation of earlier elements, I guess it didn't work for me on any very deep level. At least, I didn't have an "aha that's what they're for" moment. I think ultimately that's because I'm just not drawn into the books or the characters to any extent that I feel I care about them.

    In passing, the six months between the two chapters serves (I think) to link up the Essun and Nassun timelines, though Essun might still be a bit behind Nassun in terms of the clock. Aside from that piece of narrative information, it didn't feel plausible to me that there would be a whole six months between the crisis in the control room, and the next thing of importance. Really? Why wait so long? And it also perplexes me about Alabaster's state - every time Essun meets him he's like got hours to live, and yet then a casual six month gap is slipped in. I suppose it's what you might call plot armour - Alabaster will live just as long as he needs to live for plot purposes, no less and no more. Hmmm

    And thinking about Alabaster, I saw this on a walk over towards the Langdale Pikes and thought of his hand
    ...

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    Another comment...

    Hi all, I was thinking today about these books during a long painting session at the pub (when we're finally allowed to reopen we shall be the smartest we've ever been :) ). In particular about the whole prejudice / lack of morality thing. By coincidence I have read in two quite different books recently about the Underground Railway which operated in the US during the latter years of slavery. I hadn't come across this before, but it seems (please US friends correct me if wrong) that this consisted of a network of people who actively assisted runaway slaves to make their way from the southern states to areas where they could live freely. This constituted considerable risk for the people involved, because of potential retaliation from slave owners, plus the fact that (at the time) their actions were against the federal law. They were typically motivated by moral and/or religious reasons.

    Anyway, it struck me that there is nothing like this in the Stillness. So far as we have seen so far, there is no systematic underground movement amongst the stills acting to liberate orogenes, on the moral basis that they are entitled to human rights along with everyone else. (As I mentioned before, there seems to be no moral basis for anything). This is especially odd when you recall that an orogene can be born to still parents, so it's evidently not a hereditary thing. It seems to me that this also makes weird the whole declaration we closed chapter 14 with, in which orogenes are said to be "an inferior and dependent species". How can this be, if they might well be born to "normal" parents? "Species" is a very strange word to use here.

    Also, an orogene cannot (so far as I recall) be recognised as such by external appearance, only by use of specific training and "magic", eg by Guardians or fellow orogenes. Orogenes don't look different to stills. People are acutely aware, in a rather touching way, of differences of appearance from different parts of the continent, and also the numerous ways mixed race can show itself. So people look different to each other, but orogenes don't look different to stills.

    Then there's the odd choice of word that Ykka chooses when talking about how her comm became aware that she was an orogene - "outed", which, at least in the UK, is specifically used to refer to voluntary or involuntary revelation of sexual orientation. 

    All of which made me reflect that (perhaps contrary to what we have often assumed) orogeny is not really like racially-motivated slavery. This has typically been based on external appearance, family or geographical background, and an assumption that different looks mean something about inferiority and superiority. So far as I can see after an afternoon painting, an orogene is more like a person whose sexual orientation or personal choices might be disapproved of by society at large. For lots of history, such folk have tried to conceal their choices, often successfully unless bad luck or poor timing have exposed them. Orientation is also, often, unrelated to that of parents.

    Does this change any part of our reading of the book? I don't think so (at least, not for me). If NK Jemisin is trying to position orogeny as parallel to sexual orientation, she is not doing it any favours by her presentation of orogenes' characters or relationships, which we are all agreed is routinely brutal, uncaring, and unappealing. Knowing what we do so far, would any of us want to join a club of orogenes?

    Thoughts and comments welcome - it seems to fit with large parts of the books, with the exception of the declaration we finished last week with, which reads much more like a kind of racist manifesto "they're not like us you know", and seems to me to be at odds with almost all other information we have been given (not that NK Jemisin is always consistent herself).

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    @RichardAbbott said:
    By coincidence I have read in two quite different books recently about the Underground Railway which operated in the US during the latter years of slavery. I hadn't come across this before, but it seems (please US friends correct me if wrong) that this consisted of a network of people who actively assisted runaway slaves to make their way from the southern states to areas where they could live freely. This constituted considerable risk for the people involved, because of potential retaliation from slave owners, plus the fact that (at the time) their actions were against the federal law. They were typically motivated by moral and/or religious reasons.

    That's an interesting thought, but we've not seen anywhere in the Stillness for an Underground Railroad to transport people to. The US one moved slaves from where they were slaves to where they could live freely. Where would orogenes go in the Stillness? The only place we've seen is Fulcrum.

    It doesn't help that orogenes seem to be discovered when they get angry, lash out, and kill someone. Untrained orogenes are dangerous, even if they don't mean to be.

    All of which made me reflect that (perhaps contrary to what we have often assumed) orogeny is not really like racially-motivated slavery. This has typically been based on external appearance, family or geographical background, and an assumption that different looks mean something about inferiority and superiority. So far as I can see after an afternoon painting, an orogene is more like a person whose sexual orientation or personal choices might be disapproved of by society at large. For lots of history, such folk have tried to conceal their choices, often successfully unless bad luck or poor timing have exposed them. Orientation is also, often, unrelated to that of parents.

    An interesting thought. Another model could be religious non-conformity, where the presence of a heretic could bring down holy damnation on a whole community. In both cases, there's the element of danger, with the orogene/gay/trans/heretic bringing corruption and destruction to their community, and thus justifying the actions against them.

    I won't say more, as this is (unsurprisingly) a theme that Jemisin returns to and develops in the books, and I don't want to give something away.

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    > @NeilNjae said:
    > (Quote)
    > That's an interesting thought, but we've not seen anywhere in the Stillness for an Underground Railroad to transport people to. The US one moved slaves from where they were slaves to where they could live freely. Where would orogenes go in the Stillness? The only place we've seen is Fulcrum.
    >

    Yes, that did occur to me. But then, we've seen several places already which seem to be out from under official scrutiny. Island life on Meov, for example (and one assumes there could easily be other similar islands). Found Moon. The mysterious Antarctic Fulcrum. Castrima. It has always struck me as improbable in the extreme that Sanzed could maintain any kind of real control, at the level of communications and technology we have seen, over a land mass the size of the Stillness (it took Jija and Nassun about a year to cross it). So it seems altogether likely to me that, notwithstanding the Sanzed rhetoric, there are actually independent autonomous regions scattered here and there. Yet, not a whisper of escape routes for disaffected orogenes! Even Ykka at Castrima doesn't seem to want to gather orogenes (using her mysterious come-hither call) because she cares for their suffering, but because she wants recruits.

    > I won't say more, as this is (unsurprisingly) a theme that Jemisin returns to and develops in the books, and I don't want to give something away.

    :)
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    We’re talking about a whole planet, here. It’s completely unbelievable to me that a whole planet will subscribe to a repressive system and not a single group of peole will oppose it. There will always be a place for Orogenes to go, even if they have to make it themselves. Just look at all the historical cultural difference in the UK that are only a few miles apart. The Stillness is a planet under upheaval. In evolutionary terms, that ought to mean more diversity, not less.
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    Another model for stills hiding orogenes could be people hiding Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. People were kept safe, at great risk to the custodians, even though there wasn't any easy way to get the hidden person to safety.

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    @NeilNjae said:

    Questions

    • Does the notion of Guardians being the "third side" make sense?

    Really? :D

    • There is a lot of reincorporation of earlier elements (the things in Guardians, rusty iron needles, scraps of fine cloth, magic to affect living tissue and poison, Hoa's stone food, the garnet obelisk). When all these pipes were laid, introduced, they didn't seem connected. Has the earlier confusion been worth it? Have things paid off? Would the book be better or worse if these factors were introduced now, rather that callbacks from earlier?

    It is what it is - a book where unspeakable people do unspeakable things to other unspeakable people, and we are entertained by the vile gory mess - whatever order anything was presented in. If it all ends in any other way than the last two disgusting dicks tearing each others eyes out on a dung heap, I shall be disappointed! :D

    • There's a lot of action in these chapters, and action is something Jemisin does well. Does she do it well in these chapters? How does she do it, and what techniques can we learn from her?

    She does it well. There is immediacy and clarity in her descriptions of action. On this I have no problem. I am aquiver with anticipation of the description final eye-tearing!

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    @Apocryphal said:
    We’re talking about a whole planet, here. It’s completely unbelievable to me that a whole planet will subscribe to a repressive system and not a single group of peole will oppose it. There will always be a place for Orogenes to go, even if they have to make it themselves. Just look at all the historical cultural difference in the UK that are only a few miles apart. The Stillness is a planet under upheaval. In evolutionary terms, that ought to mean more diversity, not less.

    Well, being completely unbelievable has never stopped Jemesin before! Nothing I have read is actually believable.

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