Written by Tracy Lawson.
City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau is a perfect stepping-stone to prepare middle grade readers to embrace and appreciate Ayn Rand’s 1938 novella Anthem.
The main characters in both books seek light, though in Ember the literal search for light is necessary for survival, and in Anthem, the light is not as much about the electricity discovered by the young man Equality 7-2521, as the illumination of the mind and soul that comes with an intellectual awakening.
The underground city of Ember was created and stocked with supplies to last two hundred years, which its Builders assumed was long enough to protect its people from the fallout from a nuclear war. An escape plan was in place, but somewhere along the way, the instructions detailing exactly how to get out of the city were lost.
Now, the city has survived well past its life expectancy, and the citizens of Ember are running out of food, clothing and supplies. Their electric generator is slowly dying, and temporary blackouts become more and more frequent. A few people try to venture into the vast darkness beyond the lighted city, but return in defeat.
Life goes on within the city, and twelve year-olds are given their first work assignments. Lina is assigned to work below the city in the Pipeworks, while Doon draws the job of messenger. Paper is scarce, and messengers have the very important job of delivering verbal messages all over town. Both children are disappointed with their job assignments. First jobs are for a three-year period, and may be switched if the young worker shows more aptitude for another job. But Doon can’t wait that long. He knows that the light brought by electricity is essential to Ember’s survival, and he’s determined to find a way to make electricity that can be carried, so people can search for a way out of the dying city. He asks Lina if she’ll trade jobs with him, and she happily agrees.
Lina and Doon discover corruption within the government. The mayor has been keeping a secret stash of supplies for himself so that when everyone else runs out, he’ll still have food and light bulbs. But they also find the Instructions for Egress left by the original Builders. The instructions have been badly damaged, and they have to literally piece together what remains and solve the puzzle that will help them find the secret door out of Ember.
When they report the Mayor’s hoarding to the city guards, they are accused of spreading vicious rumors, and a warrant is issued for their capture. The only way to escape from the guards and save everyone in the city is to follow the Instructions for Egress, which leads them to the thing they most fear—the rushing Underground River.
City of Ember offers an introduction to many dystopian themes, including:
-corrupt leaders that cling to a crumbling society
-a system where individuals are assigned jobs with no regard for their aptitudes or preferences
-frustration for individuals who can make legitimate contributions to better society, but are turned away by those in power
-the freedom found in exile for those brave enough to seek it
In Anthem, as in City of Ember, there are secrets to be discovered and adventures to be had in the tunnels under the city streets. But Anthem paints a grim picture of a collective society that punishes any form of individual expression. Family units exist in City of Ember, but in Anthem, children never know their parents. They are raised by the state, educated by the state, and given life Mandates, assigning them to jobs when they are fifteen years of age.
Equality 7-2521, the protagonist in Anthem, desires more than anything to be assigned to the Home of the Scholars and to be allowed to study science. He hopes to advance technology beyond the latest invention, which was found only one hundred years before, of how to make candles from wax and string. When he is assigned to be a Street Sweeper, he is crushingly disappointed, but accepts the Mandate as a way to atone for his sins against his brothers. For any thought that does not consider everyone is a sin. But he is unable to keep his thoughts strictly collective.
He singles out one young woman, Liberty 5-3000, and holds her in higher esteem than any other woman, which is strictly forbidden. In his mind, he calls her the Golden One.
He collects things that interest him and hides them in a tunnel under the street. After two years of study he builds an electric lamp. He presents his invention to the Council of Scholars, but instead of being grateful for his service to society, the Council demands that the lamp be destroyed. He escapes with the lamp, but is damned to exile the Uncharted Forest. Two days later, the Golden One joins him in exile. After many days they come upon a house from the Unmentionable Times, and sets about learning the wonders of the civilization that has passed away. They live as a young couple in love, and start a family. Equality 7-2521 takes the name Prometheus, who in mythology was the bringer of light, and renames the Golden One Gaea, after the mother of the earth.
In both City of Ember and Anthem, the main characters find freedom in exile, and plan to share the wonders of their new worlds with people who are trapped in the societies they left behind.
What Ember doesn’t, and shouldn’t, examine are the horrors of life in a totalitarian collective society that brainwashes its population with statements like, “What is not thought by all men cannot be true” and eliminates the singular pronoun from the language to deprive people of the sense of independent thought.
Ayn Rand states in her introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Anthem that “reason is the property of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain.”
I’ve mentioned in other posts that the nucleus of the idea for COUNTERACT, my first novel, began as a writing prompt proposed by a student I was mentoring. His exact words? “What if everyone were on LSD and all thoughts were communal?”
If there is no such thing as a collective brain, collective thought would only be possible if it were coerced.