17 January 2008

The city of Ember

My twelve year old friend Cam (that's him, on the left) recommended that I read Jeanne DuPrau's The city of Ember, and loaned me his copy.

I'm very glad that he did.

This is an "ark" story, like Daniel F Galouye's Dark universe, or Ursula K Le Guin's Paradises lost, but told through the eyes of two twelve year olds, Lina and Doon. (I can easily picture Cam in the part of determined, resourceful Doon.)

Ember is a city built within an underground cavern, its day and night artificially created by electric lights run from a hydroelectric generator buried deeper still. Intended to safeguard a sample of humanity through an anticipated catastrophe, the city was designed to last for 200 years. At the end of that time, a sealed box of instructions for leaving the city would automatically unlock; but the box was mislaid, and 241 years have now passed ... probably more, since the clocks are increasingly unreliable, and there are no other ways to measure time.

Nor are clocks the only casualty of time and wear. The generator and electrical system are wearing out, so blackouts are increasingly common. Supplies in the warehouses are running low, so shortages abound - many things can be recycled but food and light bulbs, both essential to life, cannot.

This is not a society which has collapsed into tribal barbarism, as in Dark Universe, but nor is it focussed on a sense of its own planned destiny as in Paradises Lost. Apart from a myth of "The Builders", all memory of Ember's origins has (like the box) long been lost. The population have no knowledge of the outside world. As a result, it offers up mirrors to ourselves, the readers.

As people become more frightened by the breakdown of their world, they react in ways all too familiar from our own. There is an End Days religion, whose believers look forward to salvation by the return of The Builders. A relaxed regime of mutual voluntary assistance is threatened by the beginnings of a repressive strong state. There are the abuses and venality of power, fuelled by both selfishness and stupidity. But there is also a strong fabric of warmth and humanity.

Lina and Doon leave their last day of school and enter the adult world of Ember as new young workers. They have lively, curious minds. Doon is keen to find solutions to Ember's problems, Lina to find a world she believes to exist outside her own. To find out how they achieve both aims, despite their limitations and the efforts to restrain them, you'll have to read the book - and I recommend that you do.

Every story, of any kind, is always a thought experiment. The best science fiction, or speculative fiction, or whatever you prefer to call this, has always been a laboratory for using such experiments to look inward and examine ourselves. Fiction is always a good way to get past our ingrained habits of thought, to look at things in a fresh way, but it is especially useful in some circumstances. Cold War fiction (especially science fiction) from the closed societies of the eastern bloc was a particularly striking example.

Less dramatically, but in many ways more challengingly, childhood and adolescence are countries in themselves. They are even harder to access from outside than those beyond the iron curtain. Adolescence, and especially adolescence where twelve year olds live, is particularly sensitive territory. Very few adults can go there with sufficient insight and humility to communicate anything of value to its shell shocked citizens. Fewer still authors can write for them in a way which offers anything relevant to both their own world and that which they will inhabit in less than a decade from now. The city of Ember (like Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines) is a rare and precious exception.

To understand why an Official Secrets Act (for example) comes into being is simple enough. But how do you present the essential argument over the balance between the need for secrecy and the need for openness? "Curiosity ... A dangerous quality..." says Ember's mayor, at one point, to Lina; "Ember, as you know, is in a time of difficulty. Extraordinary measures are necessary." And Lina herself cries to Doon, later, "...if we'd told people right away, even just a few people ... if we hadn't decided to be grand..."

Both Doon and Lina also have a lot to say in reply to the question posed a couple of days ago (also, note, in relation to a science or speculative fiction) by Thinking Through My Fingers: why does humankind explore? As an (adult and boring) scientist, my answer to that question might well be something along the lines of "because humans are animals, and all animals have built into them the hard wired survival need to know and understand their environment" - but what use is that, to an endlessly energetic young mind, full of possibility, for whom the limits have yet to be imagined, never mind surveyed or fenced? None at all. Jeanne DuPrau has much more useful answer ... again, you'll have to read the book to find it, but a short hand for where it starts might be "because we can, and because we delight".

In case all this (very adult and boring, alas!) philosophising puts you off, I'll stop there and say: please, don't let it. This is, first and foremost, a story. An exciting story. An engrossing story. A story which Cam presented to me, unbidden, with words like "wicked" and "really, really cool" - which has to be the best recommendation there is.

  1. Jeanne DuPrau, The city of Ember. 2005, London: Corgi.0552552380 (pbk.)
  2. Daniel F Galouye, Dark universe. 2000, London: Gollancz. 0575071370 (pbk.) [original publication 1961, Bantam Books: New York.]
  3. Ursula K Le Guin, The birthday of the world. 2003, London: Gollancz. 0575075392 (pbk.)
  4. Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines. 2001, London: Scholastic. 0439979439

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