Saturday, January 22, 2005

Some Very Curious Monkeys: Ben Bova, End of Exile (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975).

OK, I’ve been promising a blog on Ben Bova’s End of Exile for days.

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.


Blogger JeffV said...

It's almost as if you're admonishing the characters from City of Ember for not being as practical and logical as you'd like them to be? I'm sure I'm mis-reading you, but are you gauging all "systems"/"character trait sets" in these books against some finite, scientific set of norms/desirables? Wouldn't that be predicated on your being the knower-of-all-things? :)

I once wrote a story in which, in a far future setting, a man searches in a ruined city for the remnants of advanced technology that will allow her to find/construct an artificial heart for his ailing sister. Aboriginal SF sent me a rejection note that read, "We have artificial hearts available today, so this doesn't make sense." I think that reader was working from a "sum of human knowledge" assumption, and thus rejected the premise of my world, although the premise of my world was clearly plausible, in the context I'd chosen for it. Or are you saying the context of City of Ember doesn't allow for the events that occur within its pages/streets?

One further question: Where is the triumph in categorization? I'm truly curious. In other words, determining that one book is SF and another (S)F doesn't strike me as either all that valuable or all that analytical? I must be missing something.

Re City of Ember. I did an informal survey amongst friends. It's an immensely well-known book over here. And both types of child readers, as you define them, in my small survey, loved or liked the book very much. This doesn't necessarily mean anything--a lot of people like John Grisham, which doesn't make him good--but it is interesting that the book appears to have worked for them.


8:40 AM  
Blogger Farah said...

Hi Jeff,

The difference for me is that your character *was* acting in a science fictional way, he searched for things to *make* something. If you see my next post, I think you''ll see that works for me because it is the search for learning something. Although I can also see that it could be read as "found knowledge" because he is looking for old materials, If what he was looking for/had found, was an intact new heart that miraculously worked, I'd have balked. But he wan't and didn't. And as you point out, the society you set it in is ruined, so that the fact that we have working artificial hearts is his motivation--not senseless at all.

Categorization isn't a matter of "triumph"--I suspect that is something you are reading into my posts because of the way I write, which is a lesson to me to be more careful. Categorization is useful because it enables us to ask questions both at the heart, and at the edge of the category.

But, and it's a very big bu,. I defend to the end my right to decide to dispose of the categories at the end of the project and opt for others, which may or may not overlap, but which give me other hearts and edges of which to ask interesting questions.

Categorisation is a tool, not an end in itself. It's just tough sometimes to keep that in site.

Re City of Ember: I can quite understand that some people will like it. Any book that is published will be liked by many--it wouldn't have got that far if it hadn't got something going for it. What I am interested in--and you can ask for me--is what about it they liked?

9:23 AM  

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