**spoiler alert** If there are no wrong answers, can we really say that something has any meaning?
It is very easy to start an interesting science fict...more**spoiler alert** If there are no wrong answers, can we really say that something has any meaning?
It is very easy to start an interesting science fiction story. Simply begin with a mystery. Don't explain things to the reader and leave them in a state of wonder. In this way, everything will seem interesting, intriguing, and worth exploring. Tap into the reader’s powers of imagination and allow them to make your story interesting in ways you need not imagine, and perhaps cannot create. This is a good plan for starting a science fiction story. Lots of science fiction stories begin in this way. On television, almost all of them do – ‘X-Files’, ‘Lost’, ‘Battlestar Galactica’, ‘The 4400’, ‘The truth is out there.’ ‘They have a plan.’
‘The Giver’ starts in this way. In the first few pages as the setting unfolded, I was struck by the parallels to China after the cultural revolution – the bicycles, the uniform-like clothing, the regulated life, the shame based culture, and ‘the sameness’. I also thought of China, because I immediately grasped that this had to be a culture which was designed to gently crash its population. There were many clues that the world was heavily overpopulated and the primary goal of the culture so described was to crash the population without descending into society destroying anarchy - the highly regulated birthrate, which was insufficient to sustain the population. To sustain the population, more than 17 out of each 25 females would have to be assigned to be birth mothers, and this clearly wasn’t the case. The replacement rate for a society is about 2.3 live births per female (maybe 2.1 in a society that is safe and careful) – clearly they were implied to be below this ratio so clearly this was a society that was trying to shed population.
Equally clearly, this was a society that engaged in widespread euthanasia for the most trivial of causes, which hints at a culture which doesn’t value life because people are in such abundance that they can be readily disposed of. I suspected that ‘Release’ was euthanasia almost immediately from the context in which it was introduced, and this was almost immediately confirmed when it was revealed that infants were subject to ‘release’. Clearly, infants can't be meaningfully banished, so clearly release was euthanasia. So I was intrigued by the story. I wanted to see what happened to Jonas and his naive family who had so poised themselves on the edge of a great family wrecking tragedy in just the first few dozen pages of the story. I wanted to receive from the storyteller answers to the questions that the story was poising, if not some great profound message then at least some story that followed from what she began.
But it was not to be. The first clue that the whole construct was to eventually come crashing down was that Jonas clearly didn’t understand ‘release’ to mean ‘euthanasia’. Nor in fact did anyone seem to know what ‘release’ meant. This shocked me, because in the context of the setting it was virtually impossible that he and everyone else did not know. I could very easily imagine a stable society where human life was not prized – after all, societies that believe that human life is intrinsically valuable are historically far less common than ones that don’t. We know that the society is life affirming, both because we are told how pained and shocked they are by loss and by the fact that Jonas responds to scenes of death with pity and anger. What I could not believe in was a society which held the concept of ‘precision of language’ so tightly and so centrally that the protagonist could not imagine lying could in fact be founded on lies. That’s impossible. No society like that can long endure. Some technological explanation would be required to explain how the society managed to hide the truth from itself. If release took place in some conscious state of mind, then surely the dispensers of Justice, the Nurturers, the Caregivers, and the sanitation workers would all know the lie, and all suspect – as Jonas did – that they were being lied to as well. Surely all of these would suspect what their own future release would actually entail, and surely at least some of them would reject it. Surely some not inconsequential number of new children, reared to value precision of language and to affirm the value of life, would rebel at the audacity of the lie if nothing else. Even in a society that knew nothing of love, even if only the society had as much feeling as the members of the family displayed, and even if people only valued others as much as the Community was shown to value others, surely some level of attachment would exist between people. Soma or not, the seeds of pain, tragedy, conflict and rebellion are present if ever the truth is known to anyone.
Nothing about the story makes any sense. None of it bears any amount of scrutiny at all. The more seriously you consider it, the more stupid and illogical the whole thing becomes. We are given to believe that the society has no conception of warfare, to the point that it cannot recognize a child’s war game for what it is, and yet we are also given to believe that they train pilots in flying what is implied to be a fighter craft and that the community maintains anti-aircraft weapons on a state of high alert such that they could shoot down such a fighter craft on a moments notice. We are given to believe that all wild animals are unknown to the community, yet we are also given to believe that potential pest species like squirrels and birds are not in fact extinct. How do you possibly keep them out of the community if they exist in any numbers elsewhere? We are given to believe that technology exists sufficient to fill in the oceans and control the weather and replace the natural biosphere with something capable of sustaining humanity, but that technological innovation continues in primitive culture. We are given to believe that they are worried about overpopulation and starvation, and yet also that most of the world is empty and uninhabited or that this inherently xenophobic community lives in isolation if in fact it doesn’t span the whole of the Earth. We are given to believe that this is a fully industrial society, yet the community at most has a few thousands of people. Surely thousands of such communities must exist to maintain an aerospace industry, to say nothing of weather controllers. Why is no thought given to the hundreds of other Receivers of Memory which must exist in their own small circles of communities in the larger Community? Surely any plan which ignores the small communities place in the larger is foredoomed to failure? Surely the Receiver of Memory knows what a purge or a pogrom is?
How are we to believe that Jonas’s father, whose compassion for little Gabriel is so great that he risks breaking the rules for his sake, whose compassion for little Gabriel is so great that he risks face by going to the committee to plead for Gabriel’s life, whose compassion for little Gabriel is so great that he discomforts himself and his whole family for a year for the sake of the child, is the same man who so easily abandons that same child at a single setback when he has witnessed the child grow and prosper? Doesn’t it seem far easier to believe that this same man, who is openly scornful of the skills and nurturing ability of the night crew, would more readily blame the night crew for Gabriel’s discomfort? I can only conclude, just as I can only conclude about the illogical fact that no one knows what release is, that everything is plastic within the dictates of the plot. Jonas’s father feels and acts one way when the needs of the plot require it and feels and acts in different ways when the needs of the plot require something else. What I can’t believe is that this is any sort of whole and internally consistent character or setting. Every single thing when held up to the light falls apart. There is not one page which is even as substantial as tissue paper.
It is almost impossible to draw meaning from nonsense, so it is no wonder that people have wondered at the ending. What happens? The great virtue of the story as far as modern educators are probably concerned is that there are no wrong answers. What ever you wish to imagine is true is every bit as good of answer as any other. Perhaps he lives. Perhaps he finds a community which lives in the old ways, knowing choice – and war and conflict (which probably explains why the community needs anti-aircraft defenses). But more likely from the context he dies. Perhaps he is delusional. Perhaps he gets to the bottom and lies down in the deepening snow which the runners can no longer be pushed through and he dies. Perhaps he dies and goes to heaven, maybe even the heaven of the one whose birthday is celebrated by the implied Holiday. Perhaps it is even the case that he was sent to his death by the cynical Giver, who knew his death was necessary to release the memories he contained by to the community. Perhaps he didn’t just die, but was slaughtered as the sacrificial lamb – killed by a murderous lie from the one he trusted too well. For my entry in the meaningless answers contest, I propose that the whole thing was just a dream. This seems the easiest way to explain the contradictions. A dream doesn’t have to make sense. And the biggest clue that it is a dream is of course that Jonas sees the world in black and white, with only the occasional flashes of recognized color around important colorful things as is typical of that sort of black and white dream. Perhaps Jonas will wake up and engage in dream sharing with his family, and they will laugh at the silliness and then go to the ceremony of twelves. Or perhaps the whole community is only a dream, and Jonas will wake up and go downstairs and open his Christmas presents with his family.(less)
The observation is hackneyed by this point, but the book just screams 'Harry Potter' knockoff from page one on and very rarely lets up.
The writing is...moreThe observation is hackneyed by this point, but the book just screams 'Harry Potter' knockoff from page one on and very rarely lets up.
The writing is pretty good. The story is adequate, although the big twists are pretty well obvious and the author does little to conceal them. The author is particularly good with action scenes and wisely decides to stick to what he does well. The attempts at witty, angsty teenage banter often seem forced and clichéd. One of the biggest virtues of the book is that it is short and doesn't drag.
Compared to the first book of the Harry Potter series, I was much less bored by 'The Lightning Thief'. But on the other hand, I was at the end a lot less satisfied. I found 'The Sorcerer's Stone' to be dull and drag and was on the verge of giving it up several times, but Rawling's excellent story telling skills made for an ending that was sufficiently dramatic and unexpected that I was willing to give the second book a go. Likewise, the Harry Potter stories are infused with a deeply thoughtful morality and occasional flashes of brilliance that made them more than simply good kid's fare. I rarely got the same feeling from 'The Lightning Thief' and was left with little to chew on or anticipate, so it seems unlikely that I'll follow Percy Jackson's story further any time soon.
I also got the feeling that this book simply couldn't have been written without Harry Potter as a template.
One concern about this book is that I can't figure out really what age of reader is appropriate for it. The book deals with a lot of tough mature themes which I'm not sure I'd consider appropriate reading for a 12 year old, but the language seems more geared to 6th graders. My guess is that by far the biggest audience for the book is adult readers of Harry Potter. While the substance of the book is perfectly appropriate given its genesis in the wildly amoral Greek myths, it stands in marked contrast to the sensitivity of the Harry Potter series which successfully matured its characterization of evil to match the maturity of a reader of roughly the same age as the main character.
Besides all that, my single biggest complaint though is a nerdy one. In the book, several characters are said to be the children of Athena. Athena however was a fiercely virginal goddess both by oath and inclination and it’s completely out of character of the chaste mythic goddess to be having casual affairs with either gods or mortals. Like Artemis, she is supposed to be unconquerable, even by Eros. (less)
'Rite of Passage' is one of science fiction's more overlooked and lesser known masterpeices.
Really, they did know what they were doing when they gave...more'Rite of Passage' is one of science fiction's more overlooked and lesser known masterpeices.
Really, they did know what they were doing when they gave this book a Nebula award.
I think one of the reasons it hasn't maintained the enduring audience of some of other classics from the golden era is that it is a book that suffers from having an uncomfortable relationship with any of its potential readers. On the one hand, adult readers may be put off by a book which appears at first in both its language and ambitions to be little more than reutine young adult fiction in an exotic setting. On the other hand, younger readers may find the book ultimately dark, disturbing, unsettling, and at times too graphic. (Adult readers who have finished the book are probably similarly unwilling to put the book in the hands of their children.)
For my part, I think pretty much everyone is rewarded for pushing through the difficulties. This is a great book that I find myself chewing over in my head time and time again, and repeatedly drawing on for insight. Having become a parent has only deepened my appreciation for the subtleties of the book.
To begin with, it is a great coming of age story. Refreshingly it has a young complex female protagonist - far different from the sort of simple boy-men that typically populate SF coming of age stories. Likewise, this a character that truly comes of age in every way that it is possible to come of age, which I find incredibly appealing compared to the typical 'how I learned calculus and 20 other ways to kill' of more boyish SF. Not that our heroine doesn't learn calculus or... but that might be giving too much away.
On that level alone, 'Rite of Passage' has much to recommend itself. But I'm also repeatedly struck by the insight Panshin shows into humanity and human social structure. Ultimately, this is book about the value of life, about the value of living well, and about what really makes an adult.
I highly recommend this novel. Especially in a time when adults are embrassing young adult fiction, its time to reexamine this little gem.(less)