Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Education is, as Education Does: Peter Baltensperger, Guardians of Time (Three Trees Press: Toronto, 1984)

Finnegan lives in the future in an Earth where everything is controlled by the Chairman and the Ten, and by Politicians. The future is not terribly imaginative, it is essentially Asimovian with walking robots and lives very like ours.

The world relies on computers for planning and the elite are those trained to program and interpret the computers. The elite is hereditary and Finnegan is being trained to follow in his father’s footsteps. He spends his days on his own in his study being drilled by his Wall in mathematics, and using virtual reality to relax. Even these scenes are chosen for him by the computer. Finnegan finds out, and reveals to his mother, that they are all being programmed by a White Room (the vision eye) at the centre of the house. At this point his father and the whole family are dispatched as ambassadors to the planet of Kalimar where humans have grown huge.

Up until now this has been a rather dull dystopian novel which seems designed to make children satisfied with the more rambunctious world in which they live. But threaded through this first part is an argument about education and control of children’s lives and what children are for. Children of Politicians are “educated in isolation and trained for their one great purpose in life” (8) Finnegan’s father has little interest in him “Years ago he had played the role of parent and enjoyed the game—for a while, until the novelty wore off and Finnegan grew from a baby into a boy.” (18)

For a while this works really well, there is a strong sense of Finnegan as a child in a repressive society that claims to operate for his well being. When he gets to Kalimar, he is inducted into their society’s education system. I perked up a bit at this, it sounded promising. Kalimar doesn’t have teaching machines, “We learn from each other…Machines can’t think, and that’s what Kalimarian philosophy is all about—the development of thought.” (68) Then we get to what is taught, “philosophy and psychology and spirituality….Literature, poetry, art, all the important things?” (69). Now, I don’t mind the argument for a well rounded education, but maths and science are dismissed here.

Later we are told that on Kalimar people have moved beyond hard work, that everything’s being looked after “You’ll have to realize that we are not a technological society. We moved beyond that a long time ago.” (71)

At which point Finnegan—a sensible, science trained boy, asks, “Into what?” and his mentor dismisses him with the comment that he will find out in good time. A seeming educational liberation proves just as closed as the prison from which Finnegan has escaped. Eventually, inducted to the planet’s secrets, Finnegan will discover that they do have technology. Telekinesis allows them to work with fundamental particles. Baltensperger, does a good job describing this, making it seem like science rather than magic:

“Day after day, the two worked in the laboratories of the Academy, studying the intricacies of the Kalimarian technology, poring over tapes, and performing complicated experiments. Rammassoon helped Kendor [nee Finnegan] to develop and sharpen his brain, his body, his entire nervous system, until he learned to store and transform energies he had never known existed…
A whole new world opened up for Kendor, aworld of the most intricate processes, involving energy transitions across complicated circuitry connected sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly through Rammassoon to Kendor’s central nervous system and to the very core of his brain. (104)

Ok, so it’s handwaving, but it is recogniseably hard sf hand waving.

At the end of course Finnegan/Kendor decides to stay, his father goes home, transformed by Kalimar society. Mostly, this story confirms to that outward trajectory I have been looking for.

The snag is what Finnegan travels outward to. For in rejecting Earth for Kalimar, it turns out that Finnegan has rejected a petty patriarch for a truly godly father. Kalimar is in the business of civilization rescue. They are a highly technological civilization who have developed their minds as well and appointed themselves Guardians of the Universe (79-81). This is such a common sf trope that I have no right to complain, but the effect in this book is to dampen the sense of adventure. Everything Finnegan/Kendor does is supervised by someone, and this is reinforced by the writing style. Just the one example (above) is enough. The story is told in a voice of mild condescension, hard to pinpoint but one which assures us that Finnegan is on the right path, that any conflict we see will be part of this path. It’s all terribly dull and teacherly. The Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, or a school exchange, rather than Adventure.


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