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Headscratchers / The Books of Ember

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     Flaws in the plan 
  • I only saw The Film of the Book, but there was some Fridge Logic in there that I wonder if it was in the book. I understand the Builders not wanting people to go to the surface for 200 years, but why such a convoluted plan where so much could go wrong? I mean the whole thing with the boats and the secret rooms upon secret rooms and the wheels getting stuck and the dangerous rapids. Why not just hide a giant elevator that you need the cards to operate?
    • The same problems you have listed were also present in the book, but I think you're making them out to be a lot worse than they truly are. Firstly, a majority of the issues the main characters come across in their attempt to escape is that the instructions are in pieces due to Lina's sister Poppy chewing on them. Thus, not only do they have to figure out for themselves what words are being used, but also in what context and therefore what they could mean. Also, the Builders had to make the way out more convoluted than a simple door to ensure that no one would come across it by accident or before the time was right, the water wheel getting jammed was due to the entire cit operating 41 years past the day it was supposed to, and the wild, rickety ride out is discussed below.
    • The water wheel is a movie invention, the book version just has the characters riding downstream, and it's not clear that the river was quite that wild when the city was built.
    • The rooms aren't as secret as they appear to be- the instructions are quite clear on how to get them, they're just tucked out of the way where people won't stumble on them. If the mayor had read the instructions and led the city as they were supposed to, it would have been a relatively simple task.

  • Where are the telephones gone? No more that ten years before the events, there should have been quite a number (Lina keeps an automatic secretary cassette with her father's voice). No longer than a decade, and they use runners as voice messengers?
    • This leads to Fridge Brilliance. Electricity is scarce and valuable to produce light, so to conserve energy probably only wealthy people can afford the energy for telephones. As for the secretary cassette, it was powered by Lina pedaling, so they would not have to pay for the electricity.
    • In addition, they have a whole society of people, most of whom have nothing useful to do except recycle their dwindling supplies. People with nothing to do get *really* antsy. This troper assumed right off that runners exist only in order to keep young people busy.
    • The phones weren't in the book. They were in the movie for a plot point though, so they came, served their purpose and left.
    • It's pretty likely that at some point all of the telephones in Ember simply broke and stopped working, at which point none of the Emberites knew how to fix them and just threw them out and resorted to messengers.
    • Just as likely the copper in the phone lines was stripped for repairs to the power grid as wiring supplies ran out. Phones were a luxury, but power is life.

     Wooden rail ride 
  • A two-century old wooden water rail, in a cavern no less? And still so solid?
    • Again, this was added to the movie to add drama. I suppose they chose wood because it was lighter, so easier to move, than stone or metal.
    • See the folder called "Riding out". It's subtly implied that the path with the wooden rail system was the one that was used to ferry the first Emberites into the city and wasn't supposed to be used again after that. Besides, wood that's completely submerged allegedly does not decompose as quickly as wood that's exposed to oxygen and such. And since it's the water bearing the weight of the boat anyway, I don't see why the wooden chute would be more likely to collapse as the boat went down it than it was before or after.

  • Where is knowledge? They have computers (or what else opens the door when they use the plastic key, or keeps the year count in the case?), but every bit of human knowledge is in crumbling books. Way to go.
    • The Builders probably attributed the conflict that started the wars to people becoming lazy because of technology. Also, they didn't want to have the citizens of Ember to have knowledge of the outside world, because that could cause them to try to leave and, y'know, die.
    • This was probably down to bad planning on the Builders' parts, or possibly the Mayors of Ember deliberately erased the data on computers.
    • Where do you get the idea that the Emberites had access to computers? The card keys unlocking the door was something the Builders designed - there's no reason to assume that the residents of the city would've known or had access to it. And the inner workings of a clock tower are a lot simpler than a full-on computer.

  • Weapons. Probably Ember was meant to be a Utopic peaceful place, but huge bugs and mammoth moles would make guns a requisite to survival. And no one knows what lurks outside.
    • There were no bugs or moles to provide Nightmare Fuel in the book, in case you were wondering.
    • The Builders had no idea what would become of Ember - they couldn't have figured that radioactive, mutated moles would have ever come into the picture.

     Lack of sunlight 
  • How are the Emberites not all dead already due to a lack of sunlight?
    • Also, I'm no doctor but since they spent their whole life in a dimly-lit underground city, I'm pretty sure the powerful sun will have blinded them, at least temporarily.
    • It sort of does, temporarily. In The People of Sparks (when the majority of Ember arrives on the surface) everyone is shocked and stunned by the sun, which I assume would amount to flash blindness.
    • They wouldn't die from lack of sunlight, as long as they get their vitamin D elsewhere.
      • The book explicitly mentions that the Emberites take vitamins with their meals, so that's probably how they get their D.

     Light bulbs 
  • In his review, Roger Ebert pointed out the fact that the whole city has been lit for two centuries by unreachable light bulbs, the kind that barely last half a decade nowadays.
    • Light bulbs can last for far longer than half a decade.
    • Even our best LE Ds last thirty years at the most. Still strange. But this takes place in the future, maybe they have better lightbulbs.
    • Not strictly so. Look carefully at the bulbs as shown. They're not LED, naturally, but they're also not modern-type tungsten filament bulbs. That glowing, curly filament looks just like a carbon filament bulb of the type produced until around 1902. Carbon or graphtized carbon filaments are peculiar compared to the bulbs we're used to, since they have a negative temperature coefficient of resistance, meaning that as they heat, they actually get more efficient. These bulbs are known for extremely long lifespans - the so-called Centennial Light at the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department in Livermore, CA, has been burning nearly constantly since circa 1901. While its output has tapered off over the years, declining from an original strength of between 40 and 60 watts to a dull 4 watt glow today, it's nevertheless still working. Since the Ember bulbs both shown in the film and in the cover art of most editions of the book look like carbon filament bulbs, it's reasonable to conclude the Builders used those rather than more modern tungsten or similar bulbs simply because they will last longer.
    • This leads to some fridge brilliance: if the bulbs have been getting steadily weaker over the years, it explains neatly why the Emberites are unprepared for sunlight. Their city may originally have had daylight-level lighting, but with the city so far beyond its design life, the bulbs are fading.
    • Also, what makes you say the bulbs are unreachable? You take a stepladder to the roof of any given building, and you can probably reach and replace any one of them pretty easily.


     Giant wildlife 
  • Again this is coming from a Troper who saw only The Film of the Book, but where did that giant mole come from?
    • This troper's guess is that they were somehow shrunk down to minuscule size so as to require fewer resources, which might make sense if civilization were collapsing from a shortage of resources. What just bugs me is this: at the end of the film, we see the protagonists, having made it to the surface, look straight down upon Ember through a very deep hole in the ground. Doesn't this suggest that Ember should have rained every time it rained above?
    • The mole and the moth seen in the film were both supposed to be taken as being caused by radiation from the wars that had been waged on the surface - if the modern technology we have today is any indication, the wars were most likely nuclear. Obviously, the moth could travel through the crack in the cavern's ceiling, and moles pretty much make their livings underground anyway.
  • Why not eat the giant moles?
    • They hadn't run out of food yet, and they aren't shown to have any weapons, especially not ones that would be useful against a huge, vicious mole who lurks primarily in the dark and away from people.

     Surviving on the surface 
  • Another thing to think about is how the three kids reached the surface and then walked off into the sunset. How on earth are they going to survive on the surface alone for the time it takes for everyone else to come join them?
    • It's been a year or so since I read the sequel, but IIRC they're up there for a day or so, and the lady who supported them has the note they dropped, so after a while the rest of Ember comes up to the surface the same way Lina and Doon did, or something very similar, and then they run into a group of surface-dwelling people who grudgingly teach them how to survive.
    • In both versions of the story, the note is found by someone trustworthy down in Ember, and it doesn't take that long to reach the surface once you know what to do. It would probably only take a day or two for everyone to get organized and make their way out. And in the book, Lina and Doon found food by following a fox to a plum tree and finding a spring they could survive off of until everyone else made it.
    • Also, the evacuation took longer in the book because the person who found the note showed it first to the mayor and then waited for days for him to announce it before they did so themselves. (The mayor tried to escape first and ended up falling into the river.) In the film, the mayor is already dead due to having been eaten by that mole, so Loris won't have to waste so much time going to him with the note.

     Bringing it with them 
  • Umm, why didn't they bring any of the technology with them from Ember?
    • Things got bad really fast at the end, basically, and it's amazing anybody got out. (I believe it's made clear in the fourth book that some people didn't, in fact, get out in all the chaos.)
    • Not to mention, most of the technology was either too big (stoves, fridges, etc.), and even what wasn't would've been useless without electricity to power it. They didn't have any portable forms of light, remember?
    • In the fourth book, they actually mount an expedition back to Ember to gather what's left of its resources - and since they have the diamonds that can convert sunlight into electricity, that includes things like lightbulbs.

     Assignment Day 
  • The way they choose people's careers in Ember. Kids basically pull a piece of paper from a bag and hope they get something they have some skill in. The generator is failing, supplies are running out, and the best way they can think of to assign jobs is the luck of the draw. You would think it would make more sense to assign people with some actual skill with machines or mechanics to work on the generator, since it's so key to their survival.
    • I second this.
    • Well, the current Mayor is not the sharpest tool in the shed. His goal seems to be to maintain morale and hope things fix themselves. He figures drawing jobs out of a hat is fair, since it's unbiased. The problem is, in a survivalist society you kinda have to be a little biased towards people with the skills necessary to keep things going.
    • Lina and Doon trade their jobs as a Messenger and a Pipe Worker respectively. I think a blind eye is deliberately turned to this because as long as the jobs are done, who cares who does them?
    • I don't think the current Mayor came up with the idea. It's probably been part of the town from the beginning, which is in keeping with the characterization of The Builders and their odd ideas for keeping everyone happy.
    • None of the jobs mentioned in the book require much talent or know-how: you don't need to have a special aptitude for collecting garbage or delivering messages. The only "sophisticated" career mentioned in the book is electrician, but even in that case, it's explained that they just replace broken parts instead of proactively trying to keep the generator running. Also, Lina's boss mentions that there's an evaluation after five years and people can switch jobs then. The Emberites have been sheltered all their lives while their society slowly declines: they've never had to do anything more than maintain their world for so long that all the knowledge to fix anything has been lost and the whole concept is absurd to them. They even read the Builders' book as a sort of bible and just assume that they'll be saved again.

  • In the second book, one of the attempted projects was making a creek so they could swim in it. But wait, how would the Emberites be able to swim?
    • I guess some of the Sparks residents could teach them or had taught them?

     Reaching the surface 
  • One last thing: at the end, they reach the surface... by cascading DOWN a river which is already located near the city, dozens if not hundreds of meters under ground. How do they end up on the surface?
    • Stairs. Hundreds and hundreds of stairs that the Builders purposely built far away from the city so that no one would find their way out of Ember until the time was right.
      • Also, a set of switchbacks was explicitly mentioned in the books.

     Riding out 
  • In the film, what were the Builders thinking when they built the funhouse ride out? Were they giggling to themselves about how many of their older descendants would have heart attacks on their way out?
    • The ride out was so tumultuous because Doon and Lina were forced down a wrong path partway through. The river came to a fork at one point, with one direction leading through an obviously man-made tunnel that they were supposed to go through. The problem was that their steering mechanism broke off before they could turn that way, so their boat got swept down the other, less-stable path. (Possibly the one that was used to reach Ember in the first place.) All they needed to do is mention this in the note for the rest of the Emberites and they'll all know to follow the proper course.

  • The generator is on fire. This is bad. But the generator appears to be run off a gravity-powered paddle wheel. So what's exactly on fire, and why do the lights stay on (even intermittently) during and after the fire?
    • Probably whatever converts the energy of the paddle wheel to electricity. Or maybe some electrical cables with bald patches sparked and some rubber/wood/lube oil/whathaveyou caught fire.
    • Since we're dealing with either an alternator or a dynamo (AC versus DC) capable of powering Crapsack Town by itself, it's going to be a machine with a heavy rotor. A lack of lubrication can easily start a fire. Even more likely, opens in the coil windings (the wire wound around and through the stator in the core) will cause bridge shorts that can easily start a fire. Cable insulation can burn, and the arcing shown in the film will melt or ignite insulation (there's a reason arcing is avoided in power plants). Equally likely, though, is the possibility that one of the numbskulls "working" on the generator managed to start the fire accidentally, dropping something into it, mishandling a tool like a welding torch, or just bridging phases and causing a short fire. In a properly run power plant, if the generator catches fire, Step #1 on the emergency checklist is "SHUT OFF GENERATOR," (actually about six steps) but since this is the only power supply for the city - and has taken on a practically religious function of reverence - shutting it off is probably completely outside consideration for the Emberites.

     Why was she chosen? 
  • The female protagonist of the third book. In the epilogue, she is somewhat elderly and chosen to be one of the very few original inhabitant of Ember. Why is she chosen? Unless she has some indispensable skill such as incredible engineering or agricultural knowledge, which she is not stated as having, she does not makes sense as someone to be part of the city. It is difficult for women to safely have healthy children at 40+ and nearly impossible without medical help at 60+. For any society to last further than a generation, the people in it must either be able to reproduce at sustainable numbers or have immigration to supplement their population.
    • Wasn't her dad involved in the building of it or something? Don't remember too well.
    • I just recently re-read the ending of the first book, so I think I can explain this: 1) The protagonist of the third book is the one who leaves behind the journal that Lina and Doon eventually find in the first book; in this journal, she states that part of why she thinks she was chosen was that she lived on a farm. 2) ALL of the adults that go are over sixty; they are not expected to reproduce, but are each given an infant to care for and raise. They are also partnered with another adult to form a sort of family. There are 100 adults and 100 infants that are originally sent to Ember. The reason that the adults are all older is that so by the time the babies are in their twenties or so, all of the previous generation that remembers life outside of Ember will be gone so that soon no one remembers the truth of the city.
      • Two hundred people, only half of whom will reproduce? Not a sustainable population... But if Ember was intended to preserve knowledge (which it wasn't, or they did a bad job of it), it would be the most knowledgeable people and best teachers who get to live there.

     Further precautions 
  • Why didn't the Builders take any more precautions to ensure the box wouldn't fall into obscurity like it did in the film? The book answered this question better by having the box be stored in the mayoral office in the basement of the gathering hall, and by explaining that Lina's great-great-she-doesn't-know-how-many-greats-grandfather took it from there without telling anyone because he thought it held something that would save him from sickness. The movie, however, has each mayor seemingly carry the box everywhere with them, and the one holding it when it was lost simply drops dead.
    • But if he thought that, he already didn't know what the box was.
    • Right, but the box was still in an accessible place, where each new mayor would be able to find it. There's still the potential for it to be lost, true, but it's a safer plan than letting each mayor carry it with them wherever they go.
  • Another grand idea would've been to have an alarm sound when the box opened; that way it wouldn't have gone unnoticed even by Lina's family.

     Sul's job 
  • How could Sul not know where the key to the generator room is when his job whenever a problem with the pressure occurs is to go and fix the water wheels, which are in the generator room? Wouldn't a job like that require knowledge of how to get in?
    • Not necessarily. The only knowledge really necessary is knowing who to go to. He doesn't need a key, just someone who has one to let him in.

  • Why didn't the Builders just call the instructions the "Intructions for Exit", instead of using such a comparatively complicated word? I don't know many people who would even know what 'egress' means, and if it's urgent for people to leave the city once 200 years have passed, shouldn't the mayor be able to have an instant idea of what the instructions are for as soon as the box opens?
    • There really isn't any indication that a rapid exit would be necessary at the planned 200 year mark, just that it's time to go back to the surface. As a result, the Builders may have wanted to add some gravitas to the situation, to make people view it less as "walk to the exit, folks" and more of a grand transition, making them feel that this is not something that should be ignored or undone once done. Language is also heavily subject to fashion; there's a chance that the word "egress" was simply in fashion when the instructions were written, or that the writer was given to using highly formal tones.

     Building the city 
  • In the film, how did the Builders get down to the city and back up to the surface while they were building it? In the book, it's implied that they cut a path leading down into the Unknown Regions and a tunnel that led outside, but in the movie, that path was replaced by just a crack in the ground, that now opens up onto the top of the cavern rather than into its side, so there was no way the Builders could've used it to build the city unless they built some sort of pulley system or something, which seems inefficient.
    • Given that the city was meant to be a shelter for some global catastrophe, the crack in the roof likely wasn't there when the city was built; it opened up due to natural erosion and weathering during the two-plus centuries between sealing at the events of the book/film. As for the way the Builders put the thing together, it wouldn't take much effort to sink a large elevator shaft or two to ferry materials and personnel during construction, then demolish the shaft to seal the route when they were finished.

  • Considering that the Disaster was made so disastrous due to such technological advancements in terms of warfare, why would the Builders think it smart to give the world a jump-start into those same kinds of advancements by leaving the diamonds behind for the Emberites to use? Especially since their intention was for them to be found when they first emerged from underground, i.e., before the disputes with the inhabitants of the surface world?
    • It's a survival situation. The Builders would anticipate that the Emberites would need every possible advantage in whatever world they were coming up to (and remember, the Builders weren't even sure 200 years would be enough time). So they made sure to stack the deck for the Emberites as much as they could. The diamonds may have contributed to the collapse of civilization, but Ember was a completely different situation, and the survivors would need every bit of help they could get. Portable, efficient power supplies would go a long way to helping the survivors; the Builders probably just didn't anticipate that they'd all be dumber than dirt by the time they emerged and wouldn't be able to harness those power supplies meaningfully.

  • Why does everyone in Ember have such weird names? I can understand after 241 years have passed, certain names would be more and less common than they are today...but even in The Prophet of Yonwood, Nickie's children are said to be named "Star" and "Forrest." I know the Builders wanted them to be as cut off from the outside world as possible, but did this really have to extend to include their names?
    • Language changes over time. It's a fact of life. If you want, look up common names from the mid-1700s and you'd be surprised how much it's changed since then.
    • Nickie and her partner may have named the children Star and Forrest in remembrance of those things, since they'd no longer be able to see the stars or forests in an underground city.
    • I don't think they knew the city would be underground, though.

  • Why did the Builders leave behind the diamonds for the Emberites to find, but not any technology for them to power? True, they didn't know what would be left after the Disaster, but why not pack in a few dozen light bulbs just to be safe?
    • They did. Just running the town's ambient light involves hundreds of bulbs, all of the houses are electrically-lit, and we hear (or read) people talking about light bulb shortages. The problem is that the Emberites overstayed their timeframe by a significant margin; the supplies that would have helped them transition had already been consumed keeping Crapsack Town limping along far past its design life.
    • True, but the issue is that all those lightbulbs were left back in Ember; they had to mount an expedition back some time later to go and get them all, and only did so using a way back underground that Lina and Doon only happened to find. If the Builders were counting on the Emberites bringing some technology with them, they might've thought to mention it in the original Instructions.

     The mayor’s secret room 
  • The book implied that the room where the mayor hoarded all of his food was actually his office, which is described at one point as being in the basement of the gathering hall. The film, though, shows his office as being a separate room and that he has to go down into the Pipeworks in order to access the hoard. But if he has to do that every time, wouldn’t someone working in the Pipeworks have noticed him before?

    Legalities of Yonwood's actions 
  • To those who don't know, the third book centers around people in a certain town interpreting the mumblings of a comatose woman as instructions by God — anyone who doesn't abide by the mumblings gets a bracelet slapped on them that emits constant noise until they agree to stop the unwanted behavior. This seems to be done entirely outside of the law, as the one time we see it happen, the preteen kid pretty much gets ambushed by a small group of ordinary civilians. It doesn't seem like dictating behavior according to a supposed religious prophet should be legal, and it definitely doesn't seem like slapping noisemakers onto people if they don't comply would be legal, so why didn't anyone consider reaching out to the authorities, on the state level if not locally?

Alternative Title(s): The City Of Ember


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