Monday, January 03, 2005

Very Stupid Monkeys: Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

One of my convictions about science fiction is that whether it is optimistic or pessimistic about the future it should have an idea about human beings that is roughly consistent with what we know about the species. I don't have a problem with post-disaster stories that decide we are all going to die if this is because we over reached ourselves, or were short sighted about how to use our planet, or just decided to have a war, but stories that rest on presumed stupidity drive me nuts.

The City of Ember is the only book I have liked so little that I decided not to give it to a charity shop but sent it back to the publishers with a list of my objections. Annoyingly, I can't find the letter any more, so the following is a reconstruction.

Plot: The City of Ember has no sky, no moon, no stars. It seems to be underground, and the people in it refugees from a great war. They are running out of food and of raw materials. The protagonists, Doon and Lina, will have to find the way out.

The things that made me scream:
This is a culture that depends on the abilities of its children to stay alive, yet jobs and training are assigned by lottery.
There is only one route out--the instructions have been written on *one* piece of paper, placed in *one* box, and put into the care of *one* person.
The clock which records the passage of time is an analogue clock which has to be wound up. People have forgotten and no one actually knows how much time has passed--ad the founders never heard of atomic clocks?

Things that just annoyed me:
The city's main crop is potatoes. Okay, so there are no insects, but doesn't it strike anyone else that this is not a good choice?
Objects are used until they fall apart, but there seems to be no recycling even of the make do and mend variety.
When the children find the tunnel, they discover candles and matches. Sadly the gas explosion one might expect never occurs.
We discover that the community was established by elderly people and babies. Given what we know about young people -- especially young men--it's miracle it made it past twenty years.
The idea of deliberately imposing ignorance is also bizarre--how? People know stuff they don't know. They pass it on. Children ask questions. Which moves me to the last point.

The assumptions that moved this book from bad to appalling:
No one in this society learns anything new. The only knowledge is old knowledge and that is being lost. I don't have a problem with the idea of Dark Ages, but no Dark Age has ever been static in this way--humans are basically clever monkeys: they see problems and they seek to solve them. This society is colouring in by numbers--it has no sense of inquiry. It hasn't even developed a mythology for the information that is missing.

I disliked The City of Ember because it's "lesson" seemed to be that humans have no ingenuity. Even the protagonists only escape with "found" knowledge, with the aid of "found" materials. It isn't that the people of Ember aren't curious or ingenious that bothered me, it was that they were depicted as if curiosity and ingenuity were a very rare trait. Any consideration of a favelas or one of the many communities of people who live off trash heaps rubbishes this notion immediately. But perhaps DuPrau peopled Ember with mall rats?


Blogger Cheryl said...

So the kids don't succeed through their own ingenuity, instead the solutions fall into their path. Does that mean that they were somehow fated to succeed? And if so does that make the book more fantasy than SF?

2:46 AM  
Blogger Andy Sawyer said...

Don't know how you found the time . . . I reviewed City of Ember for School Librarian and seemed to have liked it a lot more than you did. I took it that curiousity had in some way been bred out or lost or discouraged, which is the problem -- as in John W. Campbell's "Twilight" and "Night". Quite a lot of sf assumes this . . . it goes back at least as far as Forster's "The Machine Stops".
But I should be working . . .

5:46 AM  
Blogger Farah said...

Hi Andy

The problem is that 220 years isn't enough to breed in anything. That's only four generations.

Du Prau tries to solve this problem by starting with tiny babies brought up by grandparents, but that breeds ignorance, not incuriosity.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Farah said...

Oh, and I forgot to say: it definitely isn't fantasy. Wish fulfilment maybe.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Lazygal said...

Interesting comments. My 6-8 grade students love this book (they aren't as enthused about People of Sparks, the sequel). Perhaps they're being uncritical, but since the goal is to get kids interested in reading that's less important that having them read it, finish it and want more.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Farah said...


I have very mixed feelings about this argument.

Yes, it's great to get kids to read, but there isn't all that much evidence that they go on to read other things (sales of Harry Potter in the UK haven't boosted children's book sales generally).

And increasingly (having been on your side for years) I have another nagging doubt: if I swap the book, for food, ie make the same argument with a burger and fries from a chain restaurant I will not name, would the same argument be accepted? Fast Food today, tomorrow Cordon Blue?

I would never stop a child from reading a book--I read enough Blyton myself as a child. But part of my interest is in those children who might go onto sf--would this tempt them towards that genre or leave them puzzled or hostile? A can do kind of kid might find it rather frustrating.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Farah said...

Lazygirl, is there any chance of you getting in touch with me off-list? I'd love to hear more detail about your experiences with your class, what they liked about the book, what they didn't, how you used it with them. At the moment I'm just reading lots of books, but later I want to try and get comments from readers--especially readers who like the books I have problems with.

Farah (

7:29 AM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

:P these books rock u guys should rly read the people of sparks

6:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some books are purely written for the enjoyment of reading.

6:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This book was ok in the fant that it was suspensful. the plot was a little weird and until the end u cant see whyor where the city is, also u dont know where the city is in time until the people of sparks. however it was for the most part thrilling and had a hooking end.

1:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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1:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i thought that this book was very fun book. i read this book in like a week it was so good.

1:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought this book was very fun. I think everyone how reads this book will love it. I think it was an awesome book!

1:19 PM  
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