The Broken Earth trilogy is Hugo Award winning – it’s the first time every book in a trilogy won the Hugo Award. It’s a phenomenal story set very very far in the Earth’s future, after the continents have re-merged back into a new Pangea. But the planet is also a lot more geologically active, with supervolcanoes erupting and earthquakes happening all the time. Every so often, an event happens that basically ends the current civilization – those events are called Fifth Seasons.
There are people – called oregenes – who can control the Earth and they have been enslaved by the people in power. Their lives are basically forfeit – they reproduce with whom they are told and when they are told, they are taken from their parents as children, if they’re born from regular folks, they go where they are told and do what they are ordered to. It’s not a pleasant experience.
The action is driven by the beginning of a new Fifth Season. Our heroine, Essun, fights for herself, her people, and her family. I don’t want to say more than that about the plot. The Broken Earth trilogy really is that good. They are highly recommended.
The Underground Railroad was, as we all learned in history class, the network of people who helped slaves escape the American South. In Whitehead’s book, the railroad is a real thing, with tracks and trains running at irregular intervals to which people away to the next station.
Cora is a third-generation slave who decides to use the railroad to escape once it becomes clear that rape is in her immediate future. She runs from Georgia to the Carolinas, to Tennessee, to Indiana to show all of the different ways to be enslaved: plantation labor, in the city (the work program she’s in turns out to be part of a larger eugenics plan), hiding in a small nook in a hot summer attic for weeks on end.
She’s pursued by Ridgeway, a slave catcher by nature. He’s evil and wears a necklace of human ears to show that he’s also somewhat deranged.
There’s death all over this book. Cora kills a young man who is part of a search party that temporarily catches up with her and her two fellow escapees. Ridgeway kills so many people as he hunts Cora. The town where she hides in the attic regularly lynches anyone even suspected of helping blacks.
Slavery and racism are ugly, violent, brutal things. The Underground Railroad makes that clear. It makes me, the white reader, feel guilty and uncomfortable. And it should. Slavery is one of the foundational sins of America, something we have never fully atoned for. Listening to its stories, bearing witness to something I’ve been taught to look away from is a start. But only a start.