WEEK 11: Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine”

This is an open thread on N.K. Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine” (2010). This thread will remain open until 9pm on Monday, 21 November.

Also, if you enjoyed “The Effluent Engine” and have a few dollars to spare, please consider making a donation to one of the charities identified by the Story for Haiti project. While the Port-au-Prince earthquake was back in 2010, the UN has identified 1.4 million people in need of ongoing humanitarian assistance following Hurricane Matthew. Your donation would not go amiss!

24 thoughts on “WEEK 11: Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine”

  1. In “The Effluent Engine,” we have another example of counterfactual history. This week, then, I want us to repeat the “mapping” exercise we used a few weeks ago to start making sense of Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine.

    Where is the point of difference (or the” crowbar moment”) in Jemisin’s short story, and what might that decision tell us about this narrative’s priorities, themes, or central concerns? (You may wish to compare “The Effluent Engine” to The Difference Engine at this point, although this is not required.) What are the “consequences” that follow after this moment of historical difference? How do these new circumstances appear to have shaped a new world — in terms of its social structure, its economy, or its politics? As before, you may wish to discuss a small, apparently insignificant detail in your response, or to try instead to tackle more global, sweeping changes.


    1. Mark Taylor

      The “crowbar moment” in N. K. Jemisin’s The Effluent Engine takes place in Haiti when an unnamed person of Haitian descent invents a use for the steam and gases from sugarcane distilleries to make hot-air balloons and blimps. This change secures Haiti’s position as the “foremost manufacturers of dirigibles” (airships) in the Americas and helps them maintain their freedom against the French. From this point onward, history diverges. Dirigibles seem to have become the foremost form of transportation within the world and technology of war is heading towards a sharp increase in violent potential. Economically, Haiti has taken a large step forwards with their newfound technological advances, but politically they still find themselves very much threatened by the advancing French troops set on returning Haiti to the fold and quelling the slave rebellion.

      This all seems to point to the author’s focus on themes of freedom, technology, and war. How might technology in the right hands work to bring power to the weak?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Jian Zhang

        Technological empowerment, perhaps not necessarily in the “right hands’, but anyone’s hand in essence, would bring power to the weak. This can be depicted in history as economic races for technological pursuit, ie, the race to the moon, nuclear arms race, power satellites, etc etc.
        In the “Effluent Engine”, the case is quite clear for the Haitians as their “foremost manufacturers of dirigibles” in the Americas helps them maintain their freedom of the French.
        I would like to also bring attention to the sugar canes mentioned briefly in the text, it is the harvesting of gas as a technological function from these sugar cane plants, that essentially is the fuel for the dirigibles. Their race towards pursuing a more effective resource, “Effluent Engine” as we know it, is the main plot of this text. This technology in the hands of the Haitian’s would definitely be a progressive step forward to maintaining their freedom from the French.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Samantha Hamilton

        I completely agree with everything you said about the dirigible travel being the “crowbar moment”, as well as the fact that Haiti was economically advanced but struggling politically with France for power. In addition to these points I think it is significant to mention that dirigible travel was said to be “inexpensive”. This is relevant because it would indicate that dirigible travel was an old technology because usually new technologies are rather expensive (look at early airplane travel). Thus, the Haitians and the French were looking for the newest technology which would logically be the rum effluent which would cause a redistribution of power away from the French. Which leads me to agree with what you stated the author’s main point was, by giving the rum effleunt to the Haitian rebels, they have power over the politically stronger and wealthier French and technology thus shifts the power dynamic in this war.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Lorenzo Marcil

        Hey Mark,

        Part of what I found interesting in regards to “hands” and “technology” are the hands that are doing the development of technology. In the scene where Jessaline meets Eugine and Rillieux I noticed that the women effectively push Rillieux out of the conversation regarding science and technology. It certainly has an interesting implication that women are providing the necessary contributions to the scientific process that can vastly improve the lives of disaffected citizens.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. The point of difference in the history of “the Effluent Engine” is the development of technology, namely dirigible aircraft, operating on the methane gas which is a byproduct of the manufacturing of rum from sugarcane. This contributed to more violent revolution against the colonial French and led to a Haiti that, while not too prosperous financially, is more socially progressive and a larger presence internationally than otherwise. Women are allowed to work and fulfill both military and espionage roles, and same-sex marriage is both legal and tolerated.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Chrystiana W

      From what I’ve read, the point of difference is this novelette is the creation of dirigibles. The creation of dirigibles enables the Haitians to secure freedom and wealth from the French. The consequence that follows is that Haiti becomes a target for the French and the Americans. The engineering power of Haitians and the freedom of the black population puts the country in a dangerous position.

      However, what captured my attention was the protagonist and the many ways in which she is depicted in this story. A woman, unconventionally attractive and in love with another woman. Jessaline is a multifaceted person and one would consider her ahead of her time. Jessaline also mentions that she is the illegitimate daughter of Toussaint l’Ouverture. L’Ouverture was the leader of the Haitian Revolution. How does this shape her identity? What are her views on the African Americans slaves and the Haitians who enslave them alongside the Americans? I would I would have like the author to delve more deeply in her past, to see how the identity of her father, her illegitimate birth and her sexuality shaped her as a person.

      Colourism is also a recurring theme in this novelette, there is obvious animosity between Blacks of pure African descent and biracial or multiracial people, which is reminiscent of the “one drop rule” frequently alluded in this story and still in use today.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kate Anderson

    From what I’m able to tell from the clues in the story, the turning point that separates this story’s history from fact is the creation of the dirigibles. Jessaline states in the story that the Haitian people took their “torment,” the sugarcane and the distillery of it, to create hot-air balloons, blimps, and dirigibles, which helped them take back their country and make Haiti a manufacturing powerhouse. This moment of historical difference results in a kind of advantage for Haiti in its quest to maintain its independence. The consequence of this is fully explained by the narrative: “all the world, it seemed, wanted the newborn country strangled in its crib.” The whole plot turns on the Haitians’ attempts to keep their country free, and the economic and political circumstances surrounding it. France wants to take Haiti, and their newly earned monetary resources, back by force through the stolen dirigible technology. The Order of the White Camelia wants to stop Haiti from fighting back successfully through any means necessary. Haiti has economic power through their sugar resources and transportation technology, and wants to keep control of it. In short, the creation of the dirigibles emphasizes and shapes the economic and social relations among these three nations in the narrative. France’s theft of the dirigible technology drives Jessaline to seek improvements to the original technology, leading to advancements in technology and in social relations between races. That’s just my take on it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mykayla Bergie

    The crowbar moment in Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine” is the invention and progression of dirigibles. This moment is significant because it secures the country’s independence and recreates it as somewhat of a powerhouse.

    This seems to me to be a comment on how structures of power work within a society. The rich become rich through inventions of war and convenience, and the ability to mass create dirigibles in Haiti in this short story increase the country’s ability to transport resources; something all countries strive for as a means to secure wealth. By introducing a means for monetary gain in Haiti, this leaves the people vulnerable to the French. It seems as though money dictates freedom, and although the dirigibles offer a method for Haiti to gain wealth, it appears that the country will always be vulnerable to countries with more money.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Blandon Tang

    In N.K. Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine”, the point of difference is seen when Jessaline reveals to Eugenie the true nature of her being in the Americas along with her true identity. The creation of airships by the Haitian people allows them to make a stand for their own independence. It is here in which the story diverges from being focused around Jessaline to one focused on the struggles of a newly formed free country.

    Jemisin utilizes the short conversation between Jessaline and Eugenie to highlight the depravity of slavery. Through Jessaline’s experience and her talk of the way of life in Haiti, the importance of freedom for all is shown. The importance of this freedom exemplified by the ability for “a woman to head a family with another woman, and even raise children if they so wish”. These new circumstances of newly formed free country also helps to highlight the cruelty of the older imperialistic view. This is highlighted with the cruel methods used by the French commander Rochambeau to quell further thoughts of revolt. By linking such terrible actions to the suppression of freedom the author is able to prioritize the right to freedom for all.

    Ultimately, Jemisin uses the short story to advocate freedom at all levels, from the smallest detail in freedom of choice in union, to the freedom of an entire nation from its opressors.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Caitlyn Bennett

    The point of historical difference, is that the Haitians have developed drigibles, and are on the way to utilizing gas extracted from effluent, as fuel for these vehicles.
    The consequence of this is heightened risk of conflict as French actors would like to get their hands on the plans for this new technology.

    As well, regardless of the fact that the Haitians can now transport goods and earn more income due to the drigibles, they are not treated as a legitimate economic force, but rather seen as a threat that needs to be dismantled.

    Would it have been better for the Haitians to have continued contributing to the current power structure, through labour, rather then disrupt it by making their own inventions to become and independent economic force?
    Had the plans for the methane extraction from effluent come from a country of European descent, would countries have reacted in the same way, or would they have answered this development with new trade, technological advances, and partnerships?

    The themes of the story seem to be race, power structures, and politics, as they relate to each other during times of development or tension.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Cyrus Yu

    We can see a switch within “The Effluent Engine”, in relations to the independence and advancement of technology, when the invention of the dirigible was made. We can see how the position of power has changed in relations to the implementation of advancements Haiti has made. This passage also signifies the ideals of independence, weather it relates to Jessaline’s relations to the dirigible technology, or her independence as a person.

    “The Effluent Engine” can be related to our era in which, technology influences the state of power one holds over others. It could also be said that, with the inventions of these transportation devices, we can see it being implemented within different sectors, such as war and transportation.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jane Wishart

    The turning point in N.K. Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine” is the introduction of the effluent Jessaline demonstrates to Rillieux and his sister Eugenie. The effluent from the sugar cane factory and rum distillery has been successful in enabling the Haitians to use it for gas power, thus making the once subordinate country powerful against their French colonizers
    This historical alternative to reality creates a world where Haiti is now able to secure and maintain it’s independence. This has made the Haitians vulnerable to the French who want to regain power of Haiti through the use of this technology. The international circumstances within the short story have changed in order to further develop this idea of technology as a means for political and racial freedoms. Although there is still ramped racism seen when Jessaline encounters any white man, the situation in Haiti is on its way to being solved through the use of technology and development.
    The conversation that Eugenie and Jessaline have beneath the willow tree further suggests just how free technology has made Haiti. It is no longer a country that houses slave owners or oppressive imperialistic expectations of traditional marriage. Jessaline and Eugenie are able to show their love publicly as an interracial gay couple without the bat of an eye. This is contrasted very much with how on edge the White Camellia has made the life of Jessline while in New Orleans.
    The themes stressed here are the power of technology creating freedom, race, sexuality, and power struggles.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The “Crowbar Moment” in The Effluent Engine is both the creation of dirigibles, and the ability to use spent sugarcane to fill the dirigible’s balloon (the two technologies being needed to create a working dirigible). This choice tells us that the author intents to showcase the technological as the key difference. Instead of the historical Haiti achieving independence against the superior weaponry of the French, the Haitian of Jemisin’s story are placed on a more equal footing, though Jessaline tells Eugenie that this is quickly shifting in the favour of the French. This causes a host of societal and political changes. The most notable is the gender equality and acceptance of homosexuality that we see amongst the Haitians. Jemisin explains this as a very utilitarian social adaptation to help manage the pressure from the fighting off the French forces. The Order of the White Camellia is another major change in this timeline. Historically, the United States supported Haiti as a way to disrupts France’s trade route in the Caribbean, however they switched against the Haitians when they fully embraced the ideology of slave revolution. This story gives us no indication about the United States’ position on Haiti, however the presence of this secret pro-slavery societies does suggest that that perhaps American-Haitian relations are on good or at least neutral terms. At the end of the story, aside from the dirigible technology, very little seems to have diverged from the way that things are in the real timeline. However, the new technology that Jessaline and Euginie bring to Haiti do have the potential to dramatically alter the course of history as we know it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Zach Morrison

    Jessaline’s agency as both a female and a person of colour is presumably subversive in nineteenth century New Orleans, where “the women of Eugenie’s class had few options in life” due to the strict limitations placed on the freedom of women and people of non-European or mixed descent. She epitomizes the opposite of the suppressed passivity represented by women of the upperclass gentility such as Eugenie, embodying characteristics which Victorian society would have classified as decidedly not-feminine: a tendency towards violence, open expression of homosexual desire, and an utter disregard for the social protocol imposed on women. The ending of the story, therefore, comes as a surprise, when resolution is suggested in the form of confining Jessaline to a more domestic role: “there’s no reason for you to work when I can keep you in comfort the the rest of our days.” What does this ending suggest? Why does Jemisin choose to end a story of female liberation and homoerotic love by suggesting that her empowered protagonist assume a traditionally female role?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Joshua Simpson

    The point at which the Effluence Engine turns from reality is the point in which the Haitians are able to use the byproducts of their sugarcane distilleries to create dirigibles and build them at a pace that is able to outmatch the forces of their French suppressors. They are thus able to mount a successful rebellion and take Haiti for themselves, freeing themselves from the oppression of the French. Yet, this is seen to be a tenuous freedom for the Haitians must constantly fight to maintain it. Here the reader my view the themes of slavery, freedom and racism. Furthermore, the text wonderfully develops the themes of a characters sexuality and gender. Jessaline falls for Eugenie and wishes to take her back to Haiti where their freedom extends beyond mere freedom from bonds. Freedom in Haiti means complete freedom, where a person is able to live as who they are free of prejudice or judgement. Additionally woman are given far more power of class within Haiti, being the equals of men. This further develops the theme of fighting for ones freedom. While many today don’t have to fight for freedom from bonds, some unfortunately still having to, many must still fight for their freedom within the modern world, their freedom to simply live as who they are free of prejudice. Finally i found it an interesting notion that the key to the Haitians freedom lies in the luxury of the European world. It is the byproduct of creating rum that may be used to finally assure Haitian freedom. As well as the steam from the distilleries being what allowed the creation of the dirigibles in the first place. The Haitians turned the luxury of their oppressors into their weapon of freedom.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. The development of the dirigibles definitely seems to have played a central role in altering the history of the Haiti that’s presented in the book. This technology is presented as having played a key role in helping keep the French forces at bay during the post revolution era. I think this development helped change Haiti from a seemingly passive island nation into a nation where technological ingenuity helped cement their place in the world as a small but technologically advanced country. Despite Haiti’s ability to use technology to keep the French at bay, the story places them at a crossroads where they need to keep up their technological advancement in order to defeat an upcoming new French threat. In order to keep up their technological advancements they need to reach beyond their borders to outsiders with the ability to craft the machine they need and this puts them in a fragile place.

    Based on the little I read (wiki) it would seem like the story takes place sometime around the early 1800’s following the execution of Toussaint Louverture (Jessaline’s father). I’d say this is where the real history and the imagined history begin to diverge.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Rebecca Scott

    The ability for such a Crowbar Moment to radically alter Haiti’s political and economic power is based entirely on a crucial aspect of steampunk theory: namely, the importance of utilizing outdated or inconsequential methods to recycle into innovative technology.

    The black slaves brought over to work on Haitian sugarcane plantations were systemically oppressed for economic gain, and yet the gases from the distilleries were harnessed for blimps as a source of transportation and superior firepower over the French. Jessaline refers to the rum effluent as “until lately regarded as simply the unavoidable price to be paid for your pleasant afternoons”; meaning that the workers’ labour and the pollution from the factories were treated as acceptable casualties for producing the luxuries of wealthy people. Jessaline’s plans to transform the effluent into a fuel source reflects the value of cleverness and sustainability – a philosophy with political ramifications as well as ecological.

    When Jessaline is undercover and bribes a servant with grapes to send a message to Eugenie, she tells him to burn the seeds to avoid punishment from his master. Instead, he promises to “plant these near the city dump… maybe I’ll bring you wine one day!” The resolution to prosper through the discarded waste of others is a quality that the black community of New Orleans fosters, allowing them to retain hope and push for liberation despite their hardships. I’d say that the initial Crowbar Moment sets off more than Haiti’s revolutionary advantages, but also a stronger push for black rights in the Deep South of the United States. Eugenie’s willingness to adapt from her pampered lifestyle to pursue her scientific aspirations also shows the possibility of black solidarity between wealthy mixed-race Creoles and the more impoverished slaves of Louisiana.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Monique D

    The crowbar moment in Jemisin’s “Effluent Engine” is when Jessaline has met up with Eugenie and has revealed her true self to her. At this time they begin to discuss the importance of what Sugarcane did for their country. “The papers says your people used the steam and gases from the distilleries to make hot air balloons and blimps.” This is the turning point in their history because the Haitians are able to gain independence from the French. After this we understand why there is such contempt at these people being independent and why there is still such prominent racial discrimination. We have already learned that the colour of your skin establishes the validity of your research and proposals via Rillieux proposal refusal and thereafter his refusal of Jessaline purely for her gender and different race. At this point it seems that historically there is a lot of racial discrimination because in the past Haitians were slaves and not considered people. This ideology and racism allows discrimination and hate to prevail against them throughout this story. The main premise for Jessaline to complete her task to save her people but it is interesting how instead of remaining vigilant in her Social Justice she gets easily distracted by a love interest. Why might the author add a love interest in this story rather than having Jessaline and Eugenie remain like business partners?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rebecca Scott

      The Effluent Engine was not only a story about racial prejudice, but also overcoming misogyny and fostering solidarity in women in all aspects of their existence. Jemisin was interested in alternate structures of a family than the traditional model poses, and how the people of Haiti adapted to allow lesbian partnerships equal weight in order to maintain their independence despite facing heavy losses. I agree on the one sense that the story could be told without a romance between Jessaline and Eugenie, but as a lesbian I personally see immense value in telling a variety of stories that include women falling in love with other women in many different genres, time periods and mediums.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Elusha Baird

    The “crowbar moment” in the Effluent Engine by N.K. Jemisin is where the Haitians have developed dirigibles. This is introduced in the story when Jessaline shows Rillieux and Eugenie the effluent; a potential fuel source that would render the Haitians a powerful threat in the eyes of the French. The French are doing everything they can to stop the Haitians development of the effluent as a fuel source in its tracks.
    This alternate reality where the effluent can be used to push the Haitians into a position of power also analyzes and ridicules gender roles during this period. In the scene Jessaline first introduces the effluent, Rillieux is immediately concerned with what he could gain from helping her whereas Eugenie begins formulating plans and her body language conveys excitement. Instead of recognizing how properly refining the effluent for fuel would benefit their society as a whole, Rillieux disregards Jessaline because she is a woman. “You have a comely face, Madamoiselle Dumonde, and it does not escape me that dusky women such as yourself one seduced my forefasthers into the most base acts, … If I were a white man hoping to once more profit from the labor of an honest Creole like myself … I would send a woman like you to do the tempting.” (2.20) When Rillieux says this to Jessalin, Jemison is using this conversation and the entire story to show how the sexual views of women during this alternate time period (which is much like our own societal views in the pre-Industrial revolution era) hindered the development of technology and society as a whole.

    Ultimately, the story links the importance of treating all humans as equals, despite their gender, race, sexuality or societal position.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. In The Effluent Engine, binaries are continuously being broken that normally wouldn’t be in the Victorian Era. Not only are women resourceful enough to be able to take care of problems on their own, as Eugenie offers to help Jessaline with the plans for the Methane extractor when Norbert won’t. As well, women of colour hold a firm position of power in this story, the direct opposite of a (sadly) well-used stereotype that many authors take advantage of.

    What are some other interesting binaries that N. K. Jemison disrupted? How did these disruptions contribute to the story.

    On the other hand, what binaries did Jemison keep? Why do you think that those un-broken binaries are important? Did he include them purposefully, do you suppose?

    Liked by 1 person

  16. The “crowbar moment” of this fictional timeline, as others have already pointed out, is the Haitian invention of the dirigible. Furthermore, this technology led to the Haitians not only having an easier time throwing out their French slavers, but also providing them with a means of competing on the global stage as both an economic and a military power.

    I personally find it fascinating how this version of the Haitian Revolution seems to have had a similar effect on Haiti as the second World War had on the United States – their society has leapt forward to a liberal state of tolerance and equality, much like our present-day society. In this alternate Haiti, homosexuality is just another part of every day life, and one’s class has nothing to do with the number of X-chromosomes they possess. Racial issues are minimized in Utopian Haiti, and people of a lesser standing see the nation as a beacon of hope which they can flee towards. The parallels to post-WWII America are interesting, when examined.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Brittany Groebmair

    An identifiable moment of difference in Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine” is the creation of dirigibles and the recognition of the use of effluent from sugarcane and rum as a form of gas for the dirigibles, hot air balloons and blimps. This shifts the politics within the narrative as it becomes evident that Haiti’s technological advances gives the nation the ability to establish independence and power over the French, which in turn creates conflict between the two nations.
    The shift in power and politics changes the dynamic of the social structures in the narrative; Jessaline is not a slave but is not initially respected as anything better, as she is surrounded by a society that divides her based on the colour of her skin. The social structure was debilitating for many as displayed by the narrative: “The Creoles of New Orleans were a closed and prickly bunch, most likely because they had to be; only by the rigid maintenance of caste and privilege could they hope to retain freedom in a land which loved to throw anyone darker than tan into chains.” The incapacitating social structure leads the other characters in the narrative to be quizzical of Jessaline’s motives and legitimacy initially, which creates a power-struggle between characters as well. The way in which Jessaline successfully found a way to get plans made for the utilization of effluent and successfully attained Eugenie’s heart, suggests that while social structure was debilitating in New Orleans, moments of difference (such as the creation of dirigibles) allowed Jessaline to utilize new-found power and knowledge to her advantage, to benefit her nation of Haiti.

    Overall, there are a wide variety of themes within this narrative as identified by others on this forum: race, power, freedom, technology, social structure, sexuality, etc., which proves the variety of dimension in this story. To consider the theme of sexuality: how does Jessaline’s utilization of her sexuality benefit or hinder her plans? In addition, how does the social structure in New Orleans, as discussed above, affect the way in which she exerts her sexuality?

    Liked by 1 person

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