Tropes: The Characterization Effects of World-Building

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.


JarredH said...

Your point about storytelling and bardic traditions is particularly valid, as storytelling was something that was often done to help pass the time during the twilight hours and dark times before people went to bed.  As such, you might expect it to become an important part of a civilization that constantly lives in twilight with regular periods of total darkness.

Of course, the comments about running out of supplies and a great generator that could quit at any time leaves me with all kinds of questions?  What supplies are they running out of and why?  Did the first generation of the colony really stockpile 300 years worth of certain necessities?  Which ones?  Is the generator running out of fuel.  Again, what kind of fuel does it run on and how much had to be stockpiled to keep the generator running for 300 years.  And how can people smart enough to figure out how much fuel and how many supplies they will need for 300 years (none of our current civil engineers seem to be able to plan that far ahead, so the founders of Ember must've been mega-geniuses by comparison) totally fail to ensure the continuation of their history throughout those same 300 years?

cmerced said...

 Good post Ana. I had been thinking of reading the book having already watched the movie.  I went to Wikipedia to check on one little thing about the movie and, unable to stop myself, ended up reading the pages on each book. :/  

The history part is perplexing indeed. But, I have to suppose they teach past history. I assume that they know that they are there because something happened to "above" but that, no one else knows about the way to escape. Those were my assumptions having not read the book.

Cupcakedoll said...

My reaction to City of Ember was similar.  I expected a great distopia and got... a good book that could have been great if it had played the tropes better.  I suggest This Time of Darkness by H M Hoover instead.  It does the "rotting underground city" concept better, and in half the pages. 

Ana Mardoll said...

@309c56667ee9b28daec59e51eb5bc586  Thanks for the recommendation - I'll have to check that out!

JarredH  The scarcity of supplies and the REALLY GOOD stockpiling so far bothers me a bit too. They were originally supposed to be down in Ember for ~250 years, and it's now in the ~300 year mark. And they're having shortages of a lot of stuff, but especially certain kinds of light bulbs. They still have paper and stuff though. Well, so far - like I said, I've stalled a bit on my reading attempt.

cmerced   You are so very clearly a spoiler hound like me, haha. :D

Carrie said...

 This reminds me of why I do not write fantasy anymore, and also of David Eddings. 

David Eddings, in some of his books, has an underground society called the Ulgos who, like the folks in Ember, live their whole lives out underground. His main character is not an Ulgo, so we don't get to play with that so much as we might like. However, the Ulgo have a great reverence for the beauty of caves and for echoes. Their lives are primarily dictated by religious rites and rituals and time is kept based on when echoes fade. The one Ulgo character we get to know well has a special affinity for rocks and, importantly, has overwhelming agorophobia on account of having been in a system of caves for his entire life. He cannot abide the sky. 

If I may ramble, it reminds me of why I do not write fantasy precisely because it has always seemed to me that fantasy requires the setting and the characters to interact in a certain way that I have always found difficult to grasp. I once, as a very young girl, tried to write a story (influenced by the Ulgo) about people living in a system of caves. It was probaly not dissimilar from Ember. Humans retreat from a Great Threat to caves, (or whatever) thinking that it will be temporary, but end up staying there for hundreds of years, and forgetting that the surface is a viable option, even though people have been carrying on up there just fine for the past couple of centuries. 

This story did not go well for several reasons. One is that I was thirteen and it is very hard to write a novel when you are thirteen. Another is the worldbuilding and the way that if would effect my characterization. I meticulously tried to figure out how they would masure time, and what they would eat, and how they would provide light for themselves. I wanted their world to coherent and not too foreign, but also to be in caves. The only really clever thing that I remember is that they based a large number of things around the female body. An average menstrual cycle lasts about 28 days, so a unit of 28 days was important to my cave-dwellers, as was the four or five days of the average period. 

The point is that it was hard. There was a lot that I didn't or couldn't know and I gave up. My story didn't feel coherent without the details, but the details bogged down the story. That is why I don't write fantasy anymore, but it is also why I feel the unmost sympathy for anyone that does. 

Ana Mardoll said...

  What a wonderful ramble! I feel the same way and it's one reason why I've really struggled in the past with complex stories I've tried to write. I do understand your tension between world-building and just getting on with the story.

LOVE the menstrual cycle idea, though. Assuming everyone is eating enough to stay regular, that would be a really awesome way to mark the time. (I wonder how non-regular women would be seen in society? Interesting possibilities for more world-building!)

I wonder if fan fiction is so fun to write because the complex world-building has already been accomplished and thus one doesn't have to fret over balancing the pace with details.....?

Silver Adept said...

There are several books to Ember, so perhaps some of the things discussed here are more fully fleshed out in the sequels. You're right - a lack of mythos and storytelling is problematic when you have a society that spends is time in darkness for a significant period. One of the things we do really well in the dark is tell stories.

Also, nobody has discovered a bio-luminescent animal or fungus in Ember and hasn't aggressively cultivated it so as to provide light in the times of darkness? Really? Unless Ember was sealed really, really well for those 300 years, something has to have gotten in, or already been in, that glows in the dark.

aravind said...

 I think the biggest problem I had with the movie (I haven't yet read the books) was the timeline. The idea of a blue sky above that's intangible and unreachable eventually evolves into a religious expression. The death penalty for an attempt to leave made sense when the surface was uninhabitable and the city needed to keep its population intact and adequate for recolonization of the surface. But. Those sorts of cultural changes don't happen overnight (ie: in 300 years) and it all seems painfully rushed. To say nothing of my confusion about why isolation from the surface is only needed for such a short time.

I don't want to sell the story short though. We have far more resources and a far larger population "pool". I think those differences could explain a sudden loss of historical knowledge (but, like you said, not a loss of history, which people at least somewhat will recreate when they don't have it). The way I think about it, there's this city that's stuck underground - they have  to devote a lot of the population to menial labor so they can be self-sufficient, and a really insanely large amount at that because they have to be self-sufficient in an environment that humans aren't really designed to occupy. In that context, I can see history getting garbled at a faster rate because people are more focused on immediate survival than transfer of accurate cultural knowledge. 

None of that really comes to the surface in the movies, and by the sounds of it is completely lacking in the books. I guess it's nice to not wear the world-building on the sleeves, but you would think it would a little more present, right? 

PS: Agreed on the menstruation as time-keeping tool. There are ways that could be equally empowering for women and dehumanizing (in addition to baby factories, now women are clocks!). It's chilling to think of how, like Ann sort of suggested, a woman with an irregular cycle might be viewed as basically a broken electronic calendar. *shudders*

Carrie said...

Oh, geez. I'd just like to say that, in a universe of my invention, I think that menstruation-as-calendar would have been neither empowering nor dehumanizing, merely a fact of life. It's possible that such a thing is not especially viable, but it's what I had planned. The story was to be set several hundred years into people living in caves, so the unit of measurement was going to be one that people were already familiar and comfortable with. You don't need to measure your months by the moon anymore when you know how many days are in them. That sort of thing.

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