“So we thought, why don’t we all marry each other?”
“And if that’s not human enough for you, we throw in a little being born and some dying …”
“We’re very sorry for your marriage.”
“We tried to cover as many celebrations in the human lifespan as we could.”
– Pearl, Peridot, Lapis Lazuli and the Crystal Gems, “Gem Harvest,”
It took me a while to get into Steven Universe. I didn’t know what to think when I first heard the title and even when I saw more about it, it reminded me more of a contemporary version of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Power Puff Girls: a good cartoon but not one with which I was personally interested. On the surface, it looked like a generic superhero cartoon story arc: with a young boy wanting to become the youngest member of a league of superheroes that protect the Earth from alien invasions and other threats. Even more, at the time I first saw Steven Universe, the titular character of the show, he felt like a blatant attempt at audience-identification: a young boy trying to be a hero for a child audience watching the show.
I have talked about Steven Universe before outside of Sequart and how this first impression stuck with me for a little while before the show finally reached its stride: revealing a massive amount of Rebecca Sugar and her creative team’s world-building, character development, and powerful interpersonal relationships. And even when you discount the show’s world-building, there is also that notion of a young boy trying to prove himself in a league of female superheroes, of heroines, called the Crystal Gems along with the revelation that they are a family which makes this cartoon unique even from a gender or a social perspective: if only as an interesting addition to, and subversion of, the “Magical Girl” trope.
As such relationships and transformations are a very important part of Steven Universe. In fact, the most blatant example of these relationships as living, thinking, feeling forces in their own right is through a transformative process called Gem Fusion. But before we look at Fusion, we need to consider the Gems of Steven Universe. The Crystal Gems Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst are part of an extraterrestrial species who are literally Gems. They seem to be mineral based lifeforms fully formed out of the inorganic materials of the planets that their species and civilization colonizes.
Originally, each Gem is made to fulfil a specific task. For instance, Garnet is made up of two other Gems – Ruby and Sapphire – who are a soldier with a fire element, and a seer respectively. Pearl seems to be part of a servitor class: a prestige Gem that serves other Gems of greater power as something of an assistant, adviser, or perhaps more. Amethyst is an altered version of a Quartz soldier: they are generally larger and more elite combat oriented, but in Amethyst’s case due to her growth on Earth she is smaller and focuses more on speed and shape-shifting.
They are reminiscent of two ancient Greek ideals: the Autochthonic myth and the Myth of Metals. The Autochthonic myth is something that has been documented in many ancient Greek city-states and the Mediterranean: specifically the idea that the inhabitants of a nation sprang fully-formed from the land itself. According to the myth in Thebes, Spartoi soldiers were created through Cadmus sowing dragon’s teeth into the soil. This is an excellent parallel with the Gems: who are part of the Great Diamond Authority and are mineral-based lifeforms that develop members of a military caste from the soil of worlds they develop for that purpose. The Myth of Metals is similar, but it has another distinction. The philosopher Socrates, or at least his student Plato who writes his persona in the dialogue of The Republic, each citizen of the State is born out of its soil with particular metals that determine what their role will be in that society. However, what is interesting to note is the fact that Socrates makes a point of stating that this is something of a “necessary lie” to make his ideal of Kallipolis, of the perfect city, actually function. As such, many of these roles are portrayed as being a natural consequence of a citizen’s being, while they are really artificial designations and assignations instead.
This last idea jives well with the Crystal Gems in particular: as they are what’s left of the Rebels on Earth who, thousands of years ago, rebelled against the Greater Diamond Authority and attempted to make their own lives outside of the Gem caste-system. And at the core of all of this change is Fusion.
First, there is the world-building element of Steven Universe to consider with regards to Gem Fusion. Gems can actually combine with each other to form an entirely new being. Superficially, it’s like Dragon Ball Z team-up fusions, or even Zords coming together to combine into a larger Zord to fight a monster in Power Rangers. This act seems to fit well into that particular trope of the animated superhero genre. However, even this trope is explored further in Steven Universe.
We find out that Gem Fusions still possess their individual memories and the thoughts they had as a Fusion when they separate. At the same time, the Fusion herself – as, again, most of the Gems are identified under the female gender – has her own thoughts, feelings, abilities, and personality beyond the Gems that make her. It is similar to how many gods throughout human mythology have different anthropological aspects that can be considered to be separate divine beings but can also be identified as one. Neil Gaiman’s Dream from Sandman, for instance, has different incarnations in various universes but while they are their own selves they also make up the totality of Dream himself.
Fusions, under the Great Diamond Authority, seem to happen for solely utilitarian purposes: such as when a team of Rubies fuse into one in order to combat an enemy more effectively. There also seems to be a social order or culture that determines Fusion: with some Gems being of a “higher quality or society” while others of a lower one. For instance, Sapphire is considered to be a noble of Blue Diamond’s court, while Ruby is just a common soldier. Their Fusion, who is later named Garnet, is considered an abomination to the court and rule of Blue Diamond and Ruby is given the punishment of shattering – of permanent destruction of her Gem and her life – by Blue Diamond for such an act.
But then we have the second element of Fusion to consider: the interpersonal relationship aspect. I’ve already touched on this, but it is a good segue into looking at Fusion with regards to the Crystal Gems on Earth. For the Crystal Gems at least, Fusion has other connotations. It’s true that Fusion still has practical purposes. Certainly Garnet (Ruby with Sapphire), along with Opal (Pearl with Amethyst), Sugilite (Amethyst with Garnet), Sardonyx (Pearl with Garnet), and Alexandrite (made from the trio or quartet of Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst) are excellent in combat situations.
Yet the audience is given to believe that Fusion, at least to the Crystal Gems, is for more than utilitarian purposes. Pearl seems to believe that Fusion is something sacred and intimate. Certainly, her Fusion with the Crystal Gems’ previous leader and the founder of the Rebellion against their Homeworld Rose Quartz, in the form of Rainbow Quartz lends some credence to that statement. It should also be noted that Pearl was very much in love with Rose Quartz and that it is pretty clear the two loved each other: affecting their relationship and the manifestation of their Fusion. There is also the fact that Pearl tries to block Steven’s sight when Garnet and Amethyst fuse into Sugilite for the first time in the series. And Garnet herself, the Fusion of Ruby and Sapphire, is almost always in this form. She hardly ever separates: as she symbolizes the love that the two Gems have towards each other embodied and made into its own person.
This phenomena points towards the idea that the relationship between each Gem determines the personality of the Fusion Gem they make together. As I mentioned earlier, the Fusion of the Rubies is essentially a giant version of themselves made to aid them in combat: seemingly nothing more and nothing less than that. But then you have Fusions such as Sugilite who was made to destroy objects and take great joy in her demolition and power, while Opal is calmer, more zen and in the moment, yet in a lot of ways more forgetful and more prone to Defusing. Both Fusions are casual, but one gets caught up in her own love for aggressive actions, while the other is a brief bit of serenity on the parts of both Pearl and Amethyst before their different personalities and insecurities come back into play.
Then you have someone like Sardonyx who is witty and clever and only occasionally occurs, yet who is extremely valued when she does. Sardonyx likes to exist and make much entertainment in order to keep herself around. This is, in part, due to the fact that Pearl loves what she sees as the perfect Fusion in Garnet and because she is lonely and wants to be a part of that beauty, she tried to Fuse them as much as she can. This has caused some interpersonal conflicts between them due to issues of truth and consent as at least one occasion Pearl engineered some situations in order to Fuse with Garnet under false pretences.
As such, consent is extremely important in the formation of Fusions. Whether an incarnation of violent passion like Sugilite, fleeting self-acceptance and serenity like Opal, or perceptive wittiness and indepth entertainment bordering on self-indulgence like Sardonyx, each Fusion has to be brought about through either a fusion dance or at least an acceptance of two or more Gems together to fulfil a common goal. If there is a conflict between the Gem parties, the Fusion Gem will destabilize and eventually collapse back into their separate selves.
From an adult perspective, Gem Fusion may well be the closest thing to sex or even procreation to which Gems are capable, baring the creation of Kindergartens that the Crystal Gems and in particular the former Homeworld Gem character of Peridot allude to being responsible for the making of whole new Gems. It is also useful to bear in mind that each Gem might see Fusion as something different from one another, and vastly more alien than anything a human can understand. Garnet sees it as an embodiment of love, but also something casual and useful in sharing perspective and experience. Pearl sees it as intimate but also practical. Amethyst also perceives it as useful and fun.
We also get an interesting glimpse into what it must be like for a Gem to be part of a Fusion. Some have manifested their own inner worlds for participants to interact inside. Thoughts and worries can manifest as psychic phenomena such as glowing butterflies. They can combine their powers and work in tandem while, at the same time, learn how to meditate and deal with their issues to maintain their sense of cohesion and an intimate sense of teamwork.
Of course, there is the other side of Gem Fusion. Even though natural Fusion is something that needs to be consensual, sometimes the reasons for this can be less than positive. When Lapis Lazuli and the Homeworld Gem Jasper fuse to create Malachite, they do so out of a sense of mutual hatred: Lapis for her previous imprisonment and being used as a pawn by Homeworld, and Jasper for her defeat by the Crystal Gems and what the Rebellion once cost her. It becomes fairly clear, however, that Malachite is an inherently unstable: becoming an incarnation of a toxic yet intoxicating dysfunctional relationship of hate – an eldritch abomination – that wants to obliterate everything in her path before she is forcibly Defused by the Crystal Gems.
Then there are the Artificial Fusions and the Cluster. Artificial Fusions are essentially the shattered Gems of captured Rebels experimented on, reformed and forced into Fusions to guard old Homeworld sites on Earth. If you look at Fusions as consensual relationships, then if the analogy holds Artificial Fusions – and the Cluster which is a mass of such made of millions of Gem shards engineered to Fuse and obliterate the Earth by the Greater Diamond Authority – are the product of rape or at least violation of the highest order.
The distinctions between consent and non-consent in Fusions as relationships and what they will produce become fairly clear throughout the series, yet Fusion itself plays a much greater role in the world of Steven Universe when you consider its protagonist: Steven himself.
Steven Universe is also a Fusion, but he isn’t a traditional one if such a thing is to be said. That is to say, Steven is the result of the union between his human father Greg Universe and his Gem mother Rose Quartz. Gems themselves are fascinating life forms in that they are composed of solely a Gem that creates a body or form of their choosing. When a Gem’s projected form is damaged beyond repair, they retreat back into their Gem core until they can heal and return. When Rose was pregnant with Steven, using Greg’s genetic material as a human pair would, she reached a point where she had to materialize Steven at the cost of her own form. As far anyone knows, Rose’s consciousness has disappeared and her Gem has become Steven’s.
Steven is a Gem Fusion created through birth and between two separate species of organic and mineral-based lifeforms. Steven has aged, mostly, like a human child and learned as such instead of being ready made and able like an ordinary Gem. What’s more is that Steven himself can Fuse with humans, such as his friend Connie Maheswaran (into the gender non-binary Fusion Stevonnie), and Gems such as Amethyst (as the gender non-binary Smoky Quartz).
It didn’t take the loss of both of his parents’ individuality to make and maintain him. Steven also is male and has so for only fused with female-identifying counterparts: each of them taking on the gender pronoun of “they.” He is literally something new that the Crystal Gems had been trying to figure out, but ultimately just accepted and made a part of their family.
What is also interesting is that generally, from what has been seen on Steven Universe so far, Gem Fusions tend to be much larger than their singular participants. It is reminiscent of another account from Plato. This one comes from his Symposium, in which Socrates and a few other ancient Athenian luminaries are sitting around and reclining at a party talking about the nature of love. It is Plato’s portrayal of the comedian Aristophanes that is the most interesting, an account that I have referred to both in my “Sebex in the Universe of ODY-C” article, and outside of Sequart in discussing the nature of the Miracle Family in Alan Moore’s run of Miracleman. Aristophanes tells this story about how ages ago, human beings were multi-limbed giants whose powers challenged the gods so much, that Zeus himself severed these beings into two halves. From then on, people have been trying to find their other half and this is the origin of love.
However, Rebecca Sugar’s Gems take this idea further. It isn’t so much that the Gems are two parts of an original whole, but rather there can be multiple Gems that can create a variety of relationships of all shapes and sizes: that they can become something more, but that they find something different with each person that they take the time to discover. Sometimes, it almost feels like a polyamorous form of Aristophanes’ myth of love: that the existence of Fusion Gems are an example of love, trust, communication, constant self-discovery, and acceptance in a non-traditional family structure.
But how non-traditional is the family or life that the Gems and their Fusions really have? On one level, Steven is the son of a woman who died at childbirth, who is visited by or sometimes visits his father, who lives with his mother’s friends who sometimes Fuse and other times do not, with some remaining constantly in Fusion, along with the two other Gems Peridot and Lapis having their own place and visitations. Sometimes, when you watch the series, the Crystal Gems seem a lot like Steven’s aunts, or cousins. Other times, it feels as though they are his sisters or even his various mothers. It’s only recently that, with the development of his powers both as a Gem and in his Fusions with Connie and Amethyst that he is starting to be treated as an equal comrade and friend.
The point is, Fusion is more than just two or more Gems combining. The epigraph at the beginning of this article is taken from the episode “Gem Harvest,” Steven Universe’s Thanksgiving Special which was written by Raven Molisee. The dialogue between the Gems best personifies what Fusion and Gem existence is ultimately like. It is a fluidity of relationships and perceptions of space and time. It is accepting the death of yourself when you Fuse and Defuse, and the life that you make when you do so: to the point where this is little difference. It is an understanding of differences and change while celebrating the fact that you are alive.
And then there is this moment when you realize something. Garnet at some point in the series calls Steven a Fusion. Out of the rest of the Gems, she seems to understand human beings the best and it is more than just the precognition of probabilities that she inherits from Sapphire. Garnet sees there being an extremely fine line between organic and inorganic life. While Gems are ready made from the ground and Kindergarten chambers, humans and some animals combine their own DNA together. Humans and some animals are already Fusions even without Gem influence. They are Fusions of meiosis and, ideally, also Fusions made of love or some conscious or unconscious form of intent.
The idea that Gems and humans can be formed from love, that they can embody that love, that Fusion represents love and understanding, is a powerful statement that transcends concepts of gender, ethnicity, and differences while, at the same time, celebrating those varying parts. Moreover, it says something about human beings and, just perhaps if nothing else, Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe provides just one more new myth that can prove beneficial for humanity to embrace.
Life and death
and love and birth…