OK, I’ve been promising a blog on Ben Bova’s End of Exile
End of Exile
is the third in a trilogy which can be read alone—this is good as I can’t find the other two yet.
Many years before, a group of people left Earth to found a colony. In one of the previous books they decide to bypass a passable planet in favour of a perfect planet. This proves to be a mistake when something goes terribly wrong, the hull is breached and the crew, with the exception of Jerlet, is wiped out.
Jerlet decides to make the best of things, and begins raising a batch of one hundred babies, but realises that he is going to die before they are grown. He leaves for the outer hub where the gravity is lower, but before he goes he programmes the machines to look after and to educate the children, and, because they are children
leaves a warning that they should not try to fix the machines. The children grow up, the machines begin to break down, and the story opens.
Superficially, this looks a lot like City of Ember
but there is one crucial difference: Jerlet knows that what he is doing is a really bad idea. He can’t help but do it, there isn’t an alternative, and he does his best to try to make it work, but he acts within the sum of human knowledge. The founders of the City of Ember didn’t.
Pat wrote Amanda Craig, in The Times of Jan 15th, compares the notion [of City of Ember to Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ which also describes ‘a society turned in on itself’. She goes on to talk of how the protagonists have ‘defied the increasingly corrupt and dictatorial authorities,’ and how the book ‘asks moral questions: what if the world as we know it came to an end, and only a few could survive? Who would be chosen? What kind of society would we create, and how?”
But in City of Ember
the corruption appears to have no sense. The book functions as if people do bad things because they are bad people, but most of the evidence is that when it comes to politics, most people think they are acting for the best.
In End of Exile
everything that happens next happens within the already established continuum of bad decisions made for the best. When the story opens, two young men are beginning to compete for leadership, Monel ostentatiously, Linc without realising that he is doing so. There is a young woman with power too. Magda is the High Priestess, empowered to push the button that brings Jerlet’s voice to them—he always says the same thing, because it is a recording. All of them are ignorant and undereducated because the teaching machines have broken down.
Of the three, Linc seems set out to be the hero, Magda to be the misguided priestess doomed when elightenment dawns, and Monel is the malicious villain. But Bova doesn’t play it that way, instead he shows us how each of the three genuinely wants the best for their colony, but each has reached a different set of decisions as to how that can be achieved. Linc, the technologically curious, wants to fix things, and once he meets Jerlet and discovers that the ship is actually going somewhere, he wants to make sure they make it. Monel thinks that there is nowhere to go, that this is it: given that, he wants to create a moral society, and it is these terms that he starts talking about food rationing as a punishment:
“You know people are always doing wrong things,” Monel said. “Not working hard enough, getting angry, not meditating when they’re supposed..” (31)
Linc gets straight to the heart of things when he asks “And who decides when someone’s done something wrong>” (31)
“Why, the priestess will decide, of course,” Monel said. “Assisted by these chips and those who know how to work them.” (32).
Magda, who seems at first to be a superstitious fly by night, willing to sell herself to the strongest man, turns out to have been playing a very complicated game, balancing Monel and Linc, and later Stav, the farmer, in order to create checks and balances in the system. Although the book opens with easy villains, by the end, every character has acquired a complexity of motive.
They have also gained skills: not knowledge, but skills
. There is a big difference and it is one reason why this book works as science fiction and City of Ember
didn’t. In City of Ember
the children may be curious, but they are mostly lucky, They never think anything through logically or make anything from what they have. In contrast Bova portrays a make do and mend culture, handicapped by education, but basically curious and capable of reason, so when Linc first attempts to mend a machine, he can because he has developed that far through basic human talents:
“Over the years, Linc had gradually figured out that each little light on the screen stood for different rooms of the Living Wheel, and even for different machines within the rooms. Whenever a symbol disappeared from the screen, a machine went dead…
One of the biggest thrills of Linc’s life had been the moment he realized that the straight lines on the screen stood for the wires that stretched long the passageways behind the plastic wall panels. The lines were even colored the same way the wires were…”(39)
Later he will be able to proceed on a much more ambitious project because, although Jerlet had hoped for an educated population, he had understood it might not happen: when the instructional computer Linc uses realises he cannot read, it shows him pictures, repeating them until he can understand. Unlike City of Ember
with its job lottery and the end of education at the age of 12, there is no engineered ignorance here, an engineered ignorance which leads me to react to Pat’s comment “what type of society would we create” with incandescent rage at du Prau.
When Linc finally meets Jerlet, Jerlet teaches him electrical engineering, but the most important thing Jerlet teaches him is how to read. This is the skill that will save Linc: when Molen is trying to space him, Jerlet can read “EMERGENCY PROCEDURE”. This is utterly different to the finding of candles and a box of matches in an underground tunnel in City of Ember
. The only lesson learned from Jeanne duPrau is that fortune favours the lucky. Bova teaches that fortune favours the prepared and the planner: don’t just make one plan, make several…assume failure and argue with it.
And this is where we come back to Pat’s comment about suspension of belief. Bova requires us to suspend belief in what is currently possible, but he does not expect us to suspend belief in human capabilities. In this, he is an optimist: dump humans on an ice flow, he is saying, and they will work out how to build igloos. Du Prau wants us to believe that humans can only work with what they already have (although I admit now that I haven’t read the sequel, and don’t intend to) or are given.
Pat wrote: “I am fascinated by seeing the children’ learn and grasp solutions in the context of what we, the implied reader, can connect up with the world we know.”
But there is a difference between completing jigsaw puzzles and building with mechanno. Du Prau’s book only allows the children to complete the picture that has already been drawn, its simplistic construction of morality teaches children that they can judge people by the ends, not the intentions, it has a moral dualism missing from End of Exile
. Maybe Pat is right and this book is a fantasy. I’ve been saying this a lot recently but increasingly one of the ways I see the dividing line between fantasy and sf is that science fiction wants to argue with the universe, and make it succumb to the rational. Fantasy, on the other hand, wants to make the universe moral
. In these terms, Bova wrote an sf novel and Du Prau, using the same material wrote fantasy.