City of Ember

December 10, 2008 at 10:14 pm | Posted in Arts, Economics, Technology | 3 Comments

The science fiction trope of the “isolated city“, be it underground, domed over, or hurtling through space, in which the inhabitants know nothing of the outside world, has been quite common in the past fifty years or so.  I’ve lost count of how many stories I have read involving an “isolated city” — some good, and some rather stale.  So, when I picked up City of Ember, I was rather surprised to find a fresh, original story.

I would have completely missed this book had it not been for my son, who picked it up as a prize for a summer reading program at Barnes and Noble.  He devoured it, which piqued my interest since he is usually rather choosy about the books he reads, especially science fiction.  So, I sat down to glance through it, and soon found myself a couple chapters in, marvelling at what the author had been able to pull off.

By and large, “isolated city” stories are the science fiction equivalent of “coming of age” stories, in which the protagonist discovers a wider world outside the oppressive or benighted confines of his insular society.  (For example, Logan’s Run is really a story about how the 1960’s hippies learn to stop hiding from real life and grow up to become commodities brokers.)  City of Ember  is also an obvious coming of age story, as it begins with two graduates of Ember City’s school being assigned to jobs in the city’s infrastructure.  Through their eyes, we quickly learn about the architecture of Ember City, which is lit entirely by electric lamps, and the people who inhabit it.  This is where the book really shines, as the author intricately describes the daily ins and outs of a society that is neither barbaric nor advanced, but rather has an almost Dickensian quality about it.  Ember City is really only the size of a small town, which brings the human element to the forefront.  Her cast of characters is drawn with rather broad strokes, but they all seem to come alive, even as their city slowly dies from the ravages of time and human frailty.

The book is obvously written for youth, as the plot, while complicated, is quite easy to follow, and the author carefully tips her hand here and there so as not to lose the younger readers.  But, in this day and age, the adult reader can find much to identify with in the comments of the weary adults the youths encounter as they pursue the McGuffin of Egress from Ember.  The adults intuitively know that their way of life is unsustainable, yet they press for technical or political solutions as their city inexorably runs out the finite store of supplies that has kept it thriving for two centuries.  Some wax philosophical, some riot, some find solace in artificial religion, and some simply give up.  But none have any answers.  And in our own uncertain times, when the great economic boom of the Twentieth Century seems to finally be running out of steam, we hear the same voices ringing hollow in our ears.  But has the Author tipped His hand and shown some of us a way out, or do we just hope against hope as the edifice we have raised to human entrprise comes crashing down around us.  Maybe the next generation will have the answers, as this book is really written for them.

Postscript:  Yes, I know this book has just been made into a major motion picture starring Bill Murray.  We tried to go see it, but alas, it was relegated to the matinee showings only.  It’s on the queue at Netflix….



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  1. I just saw the movie last night. Without having read the book, I thought the film did a pretty good job of creating the “world” of Ember. I won’t spoil any other details, though, since you have it waiting for you on Netflix.

  2. I’m looking forward to it. It’s at the top of the list now, so as soon as we can get around to popping one of the other DVDs in the mail, it should be on the way. However, there’s so much good stuff to watch via Tivo that the Netflix DVDs are starting to gather dust….

    Read the book if you can! I have a feeling the movie ends much differently. The second book in the series is worth reading as well, although it has a much different theme than the first.

    • Well, we finally got to see City of Ember on DVD last night. It wasn’t bad, especially if one had read the book. There were a lot of interesting details that would be lost on folks experiencing Ember for the first time, which helped lessen the impact of some of the liberties that were taken with the plot. Overall, the script was very faithful to the novel, and I think I can see why the additions were made to speed up the pace of the movie.

      The direction and visuals were a real treat, which made up for some iffy CGI and modelwork in places. Also, watch for fun performances by Bill Murray and Martin Landau. My main complaint was that a lot of the film seems to have been left on the cutting room floor, which makes for some strange editing in places. The script introduces a lot of complications into the already complicated plot, but fails to resolve half of them. Frex, when Doon asks his father why the moth he had found had grown to gargantuan proportions, his father quickly snaps, “Don’t ask so many questions!” I guess that remark was intended for the audience, because we never find out either. Unfortunately, this has the effect of running roughshod over DuPrau’s carefully constructed world. With half the questions left unanswered, there is no incentive to follow the clues to the answers that are tucked away in the small world that is Ember.

      Overall, though, the movie manages to even accentuate the theme that echoes through the novel. Our industrial society is winding down, and those in control seem either oblivious or resigned to the fact. Is there a fresh approach that can lead us to a new world of light?

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