Recently I checked out Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember from my library and I've been trying to read it. I understand the general concept of the book already, because we watched the movie a year or two ago, but the movie wasn't as interesting as I'd been hoping, and indeed I distinctly remember Husband falling asleep during it from sheer lack of interest in either plot or characters. Still, I've always understood perfectly that a book shouldn't be judged by its movie, so I gamely put the book on hold at the library and promptly forgot all about it until it came available to check out this week.
Results thus far are mixed, and it's been slow going. I love the premise - some three hundred years ago, the last of humanity was quietly sealed away in a protective underground city for them to await a time in the future when it might be safe for them to return to the surface. Unfortunately, the instructions from The Builders have been lost to the public consciousness and no one remembers that there is anything to the world around them except the darkened world they inhabit. This in itself would be bad enough, this loss of racial memory and of their need and destiny to return to the surface, but supplies are rapidly running out and it is just a matter of time before the great generator that powers and lights their city shuts off entirely.
How can you not like that? Everything about that description fills me with all kinds of wonderful tension - all my fears of being trapped, of tight spaces, of absolute darkness, and of impending doom are delightfully titillated by the whole setup. And maybe we're planning to get there in due time... but for the moment, I'm terribly confused by the world building and by how it has completely failed to affect the characterization (thus far) in the way I would expect.
You see, every character in Ember so far - and mind you, I've only really seen children / young adults up to this point - feels like a completely modern copy of you or I, only with wiped memories of the surface (and a complete incuriousness about the world around them), and dropped down into this underground city. Two passages from the first chapter particularly disturbed me:
When the lights were off, as they were between nine at night and six in the morning, the city was so dark that people might as well have been wearing blindfolds. -- City of Ember, pp. 7
The city of Ember was old, and everything in it, including the power lines, was in need of repair. So now and then the lights would flicker and go out. These were terrible moments for the people of Ember. As they came to a halt in the middle of the street or stood stock-still in their houses, afraid to move in the utter blackness, they were reminded of something they preferred not to think about: that someday the lights of the city might go out and never come back on. -- City of Ember, pp. 7
There are 24 hours in my day and, presumably, the Emberites measure their time similarly. Nine hours of their day - from 9pm to 6am - are spent in a blackness so total and absolute that they might as well be completely blind. One-third of their lives are spent in complete, total, utter darkness. The rest of their time they spend under the watery, dim lights of the city lanterns - the first chapter heavily emphasizes the long shadows that everyone casts, and how the children in school labor to see their papers through the heavy shadows that the lights cast over the childrens' desks.
This world, a world where a person's sense of sight is no longer catered to by their surroundings, is all the Emberites have ever known. And yet... and yet... none of this incredibly intriguing world building seems to have affected the Emberites' characterization at all. I would expect a world where the inhabitants live in a constant state of semi-blindness shading into complete-blindness to be a world where other senses kick in to fill in the gaps that sight cannot. I would expect a novel with a premise like this to have clear and frequent mentions of the smells and sounds around the characters, with the clear implication that the characters use those details to help them navigate through their daily lives.
I would expect that in a world where a good third of the day is spent in complete darkness, power outages might be frightening and disruptive in day-to-day life, but they're not going to absolutely prevent Mom from finding the bathroom while she waits out the power outage or Dad from getting a snack from the kitchen while he privately appreciates the unexpected downtime - they'll find their way around the house during the 6pm unplanned outages in the same way that they do during the 9pm planned outages. The alternative - that everyone lies motionlessly in bed and no one moves a muscle from 9pm to 6pm - is unthinkable to me because humans don't work that way.
This completely lack (thus far) of non-sight sense descriptions has been particularly disappointing to me, since smell and sound and touch are relied upon so rarely in books, and City of Ember seems like a perfect opportunity to bring some balance to the literary world. Indeed, we could even have had a main character who was partially or fully blind and therefore affected by the "light shortages" very differently than the characters around her - but so far, the pages have just been filled with people exactly like me, but with a stronger state of amnesia.
And this amnesia is, in itself, also terribly odd and off-putting. I may have no idea of what life was truly like for my ancestors from 300 years ago, but I do know their general history. We each, all of us, have general concepts of the last 300 years; we can understand the concept of the European migration to the Americas, the American revolutionary and civil wars, and the vague lifestyle details that have been related to us in stories and books - words that are part of our cultural consciousness even if we've never encountered them in real life: petticoats, butter churns, handkerchiefs, wild turkeys, tall black pilgrim hats with solid silver buckles, kind and wise American natives teaching the hungry Europeans how to plant dead fish with their wheat fields.
Now, probably very little of this cultural memory is true. It's been whitewashed and simplified and caricatured and twisted into candy floss, and the end result is something simple and pat and sugary, but we at least have the stories. We teach them, repeat them, and make our children re-enact them in yearly school plays. It's a part of our cultural memory not because we were lucky enough to have access to paper and pens and video tapes and audio recordings and Betamaxes and DVDs and Blu-Rays, but rather because humans crave cultural history and social memory and will always find a way to pass on these stories, regardless of how accurate they are or aren't. And when humans don't have access to recording devices, they use themselves - they become bards and create story frameworks and hang the tales on those frameworks time and time again, gathered around the nightly fires - or, in the case of the Emberites', gathered around the nightly blackness.
So far, all of that essential humanity seems to have been tossed in order to make the "lost instructions" premise really, truly work for the story - but the result is that the characters seem less like actual humans and more like human-shaped automatons who I can't identify with. The children learn to read and write, but so far we're given no concept of what they read - in a world without a shared cultural history, what really is left to read?
Maybe I'm being unfair - maybe all this is dealt with later in the book. Or perhaps all this is occurring in the background and we readers just can't glimpse it meaningfully because the main characters are all in their early "tweens" - they graduate from school and start work at the age of 12 - and the histories and stories aren't shared until much later, perhaps in an attempt to shelter the children from hard realities and crushing disappointments. And yet... and yet... even in that case, even if every new child of Ember from the very first generation had been taught "it's always been this way" by well-meaning but misguided adults who wanted to protect their children from sorrow, I would still expect histories and mythologies to spring up around this false version of history, because that's what humans do.
Ultimately, a world of darkness where everyone relies solely on their eyes and a world with a lost history where no one attempts to fill in the blanks with a new mythology just rings utterly false to me. And while I don't necessarily hold it against the author for wanting to plow past the world building and its implications for characterization, I can mourn the lost opportunities - unless the later chapters of City of Ember are very different in tone from these first ones, I can't imagine it can be anything more than a good novel, where based on the premise I was expecting a great one.