You ever feel like you can finish the things you need to do if you just pump yourself full of coffee or energy drink? You ever feel like you’d get more done if you just… didn’t sleep? Like you’d type much faster if you had fingers made of gold alloy? Like you’d be able to fit exercise into your schedule if you had super-fast legs? Like you’d become someone truly impressive and valuable if you just… transcended your mortal form and became a super-powerful being that no one could ever think of as useless?
No? Not even a little bit? C’mon, maybe just a little bit.
It may come as no surprise to you that I like making things. I write both fiction and essays for fun, and my job also involves creative research, i.e. a lot of reading and a lot of writing. It may come as no surprise to you that I, like a lot of people in my generation and in my sort of field, often feel like there is a gargoyle sitting on my shoulder tutting and tapping its gnarly, warty chin, muttering “You haven’t done enough today. You could have read more pages or written more words. You could have at least watched or read something that you could write about in future. Don’t go lie on the couch watching Vine compilations! Hiss, alright, you can lie on the couch watching Vine compilations, but you’ll feel a little bit bad about it the whole time!”
“Make things!” it caws. “That’s what you do! That’s how you justify your existence on this spinning hell planet!”
I am trying to get better at hitting the gargoyle off my shoulder, even if a baseball bat is required, and even if I feel, deep down, that I should probably keep listening to it. That maybe having gold-alloy hands to super-type with would be pretty cool, actually.
Land of the Lustrous tells the story of a group of humanoid gem creatures living on a post-human earth, trying to go about their days while avoiding being captured and turned into jewellery by the sinister Lunarians, who descend from the fractured moon on sunny days. Everyone has a role to play: the strongest of the gem-folk—the diamonds, the zircons, Morganites and Tourmalines and Amethysts, those who sit high on Moh’s Hardness Scale—are on guard duty, scouting and fighting off invaders. Jade is in charge of running the home base, Rutile is the doctor who can put their pals back together (literally) if they get injured, Alexandrite handles research and development when it comes to the Lunarians, Beryl is the resident tailor… there’s something for everyone to do, except for Phosphophyllite, the youngest and most fragile of the gang.
Phos wants to do something, but the fact is if you quite literally run the risk of falling to pieces when hit from the wrong angle, sending you into battle is more than just an Operational Health and Safety concern. Phos breaks terrifyingly easily—even being hit by the soundwaves from a particularly angry shout from their Sensei is enough to shatter them. Of course, given the way their bodies work, being shattered is often more of an inconvenience than a major concern. So long as you can find all the pieces of yourself, you can be put back together. No biggie.
At first, Phos feels useless in a broader, little-sibling-left-behind sort of way. They groan their way through the job they are given because their desire for purpose is more a desire for status and adventure. They want to get out there and fight baddies like the coolest of the gems, and there is nothing cool about putting an encyclopedia together!
Their motivation shifts over the course of the series, however: at first, they’re elated when they get new legs and can run fast enough to be of use in the field. When faced with the reality of a Lunarian attack, though, they’re paralysed with fear. Everybody turns out okay, but the event instils a further sense of uselessness in Phos, and a frustration with having to be saved again that inspires them to stay awake through the winter while the rest of the gems hibernate. Nothing keeps you up like a crippling need to prove your worth.
In the winter, Phos faces failure and their own sense of helplessness again, this time with much more dire consequences: their patrol partner Antarcticite is taken by the Lunarians while Phos is trapped inside the molten gold alloy that they were attempting to use as prosthetic arms. Phos screaming “do what I say, you useless garbage!” at their own body is perhaps one of the most heart-rending moments in the series, and crystallises (if you’ll pardon the pun) their central conflict: the very essence of who they are means they keep failing in ways that damage them and the people around them.
When the rest of the gems awake, they find a very different Phos: tired, serious, sporting a different haircut, and a pair of new arms made of gold. At long last, Phos’ body is the subject of celebration rather than derision, with everyone rushing around trying to get a look at their alloy powers. It is, in theory, what Phos wanted—they even get to team up with Bort, the strongest of the diamonds! But their dreams of battling and being cool and useful and adored seem hollow once they play out in practice. Phos comes full circle, looking back on their childish self from the beginning of the series, and wonders how on earth they could have been so silly.
This could read as a tale of dreadful hubris on Phos’ part, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s difficult to say until the story is done (and the manga is ongoing), but I feel like this is less about punishing Phos for the naïve ambitions they had at the start of their Hero’s Journey. After all, Phos didn’t lose their arms and legs on purpose—though they were very nearly tempted to by the siren call of the ice floes, which Sensei did say echo and amplify the anxieties of the gems who listen to them. Phos simply gets swept up in a system where they must prove their worth through physical deeds, and, when they can’t achieve those deeds, they are crushed by increasingly unbearable amounts of guilt and feelings of uselessness. And when their implicit weaknesses are equated with that failure, with that uselessness, they become willing to lose more and more of themself to become stronger.
When the gems lose parts, they lose fragments of their memory. This raises the stakes for our immortal cast, of course, but it also brings a philosophical question into play at the series’ heart, especially with Phos as our focal point: where does the self lie? Is it in the body, in the arms, the legs, the mind? The soul? The heart? How much of us can we replace and have us still be ourselves? It’s a discussion Phos ends up in the thick of, as the series progresses and they undergo more and more modifications. When you’re no longer 100% Phosphophyllite, are you still the person known as Phosphophyllite?
And if not, is that something you’re willing to give up just to be a more “useful” member of society? Wouldn’t you get more done if you just didn’t have to sleep? If you had gold-alloy hands to work faster and make more things?
Of the many themes we can draw from Phos’ story, creative Millennial burnout is perhaps not the most obvious nor the most poignant. But Phos is a character who has resonated with so many viewers and readers for all sorts of reasons, some specific and some more universal, and I definitely think one of those is that their quest is ultimately to prove their worth through their actions. They want to be liked and celebrated. They want to contribute to the world, and they want, they need, to be useful. Phos lags behind others because it’s just the way they are, and their response to this is not self-acceptance but a rigorous, self-punishing process of overwork and self-modification. The fact that they’re met with such acclaim when they finally become “useful”, after enduring trauma and a complete reworking of their body to the point where they’re slowly losing their sense of self is… well, I think there’s something to be said there about how sci-fi always plays with and just-barely-exaggerates concerns that we have in the present day, on the macro or micro level.
I haven’t literally fallen to pieces since beginning this PhD/creative hobby combo, but I feel like a few times I’ve come close. We shouldn’t take for granted that we can be put back together if we do fall apart. The sensible thing to do here is not dream of infusing my body with gold to strengthen it, but maybe instead to better understand and respect the limits I already have, and make a more concentrated effort to take care of myself and do what I can within those pre-existing parameters. It’s okay to be fragile, it’s okay to have days where you “don’t do enough” because your worth is not measured by the number of words you type and get out in the world. You’re only made of what you’re made of, and we ought to remember that sometimes that’s enough.