City of Ember – HUMS:291 Confronting Climate Crisis (Spring 2022)

The “City of Ember” is a novel that was published in 2003 by Jeanne DuPrau. The story follows a girl by the name of Lina Mayfleet who lives in an underground city, Ember, with her grandmother and little sister. Ember was built as a post-apocalyptic city with enough resources for its residents to survive for about 200 years. Inside Ember lies a box with instructions on how to escape Ember and return above ground once the city’s 200 year lifespan is up. Ember’s 7th mayor, however, stole the box and died before he could return it to the next mayor. The 7th mayor ends up being Lina’s great-great-grandfather. As such, the box is hidden somewhere in the Mayfleet household. Lina’s little sister Poppy finds the box, but (thinking it’s a toy), tears up the paper inside. Lina finds the paper and tries to piece it back together. The message on the paper is typed up which leads Lina to believe that it was a message from the original builders of Ember – as nobody in Ember can type. Ember is now 241 years old, the city’s supplies are running low, and the power seems to be running out. This inspires Lina and her friend Doon to set off and try to piece together the instructions of the original message in order to save Ember’s citizens from Ember’s inevitable demise. 

When I read “The City of Ember” as a child, I thought of it as a cool concept for a dystopian novel. When I reread The City of Ember as an adult, I wonder if the formation of an underground, post-apocalyptic city, like Ember, will become a reality during my lifetime. As I write this, we’re living in the middle of a major Covid-19 pandemic, we might be in the midst of a catastrophic war with Russia, and the effects of climate change will become irreversible in a little over 7 years. Just yesterday, my roommate, Lupita, and I were joking about checking where the nearest fallout shelters are – just in case Russia decides to nuke New York City. All of this is happening only 19 years after the novel was originally published. 

Still, the greatest news stories of 2003 had some eerie parallels to the ones from today. War was actively taking place between the US and Iraq, the SARS virus (a relative of Covid-19) had infected thousands across the globe, California wildfires had scorched nearly 1 million acres of land, and the DPRK had withdrawn from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The concerns were somewhat different, but still mostly the same: nuclear war, global pandemic, and a burgeoning climate crisis. Meanwhile, when asked where the idea for the conception of “The City of Ember” came from, author, Jeanne DuPrau, stated that the book was inspired by her experiences having grown up in the midst of nuclear tensions in the 1950’s. According to her, Ember is supposed to be set in the future: “a far future, which [she hopes] we never get to”. 

I hope we never get there either, but having grown up with my life heavily influenced by 4 different nuclear powers (Pakistan, India, Russia, and America), I find it difficult to believe that our society won’t have to grapple with the consequences of some kind of nuclear detonation during my lifetime. If the world above the ground does end up becoming uninhabitable, however, I’m sure society will find a way to continue allowing human beings to proliferate either underground or up in space. Let’s just hope that the founders of said society leave us with an escape plan once our resources run out. 

Sources:

News Stories of 2003

Jeanne DuPrau Interview

City of Ember Book Summary