Friday, March 4, 2011

Review: Incarceron

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

Published: May 3rd 2007 by Hodder Children's Books
Word Count: 96201
Series: Incarceron, book one
Source: library audiobook

Synopsis from Incarceron -- a futuristic prison, sealed from view, where the descendants of the original prisoners live in a dark world torn by rivalry and savagery. It is a terrifying mix of high technology -- a living building which pervades the novel as an ever-watchful, ever-vengeful character, and a typical medieval torture chamber -- chains, great halls, dungeons. A young prisoner, Finn, has haunting visions of an earlier life, and cannot believe he was born here and has always been here. In the outer world, Claudia, daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, is trapped in her own form of prison -- a futuristic world constructed beautifully to look like a past era, an imminent marriage she dreads. She knows nothing of Incarceron, except that it exists. But there comes a moment when Finn, inside Incarceron, and Claudia, outside, simultaneously find a device -- a crystal key, through which they can talk to each other. And so the plan for Finn's escape is born ...

Incarceron is basically a tale about what happens when human society attempts a Utopia. We know from history that theoretically a Utopia works perfectly –  but in practice, the natural inclination of man toward greed and power makes this an improbability. Incarceron’s premise is as old as Thomas Moore’s influential book, and even older besides, but set in a futuristic society that is at once more technologically advanced and intellectually primitive. These conditions, paired with a Protocol that superimposes an eighteenth-century time period and forces everyone to live within the confines of that period, gives the idea new dimension and gives us new things to consider about human nature and what happens when you strive to create a perfect society.

Besides the evident theme of how a Utopia is first created and then inevitably destroyed by descending into crime and chaos, Incarceron holds a myriad of fundamental themes. These include ideas such as considering the essential nature of man; the essential nature of change, how to stop change, or why things change at all; and what technology does for us or how it can work against us. It also explores the idea of a closed-off system and if such a thing can ever truly exist. The fact that this book addresses so many prominent themes while still managing to be a Young Adult fantasy story that is entertaining is a marvelous accomplishment – and a rarity at that.

Below, I am going to look at three of this book’s major themes: time, technology, and the utopian environment.

Outlawed Time

“You above all, Master Sapient, understand what the iron decree of the Havana have done to us. We are rich – some of us – and live well. But we are not free. We are chained hand and foot by protocol. Enslaved to a static empty world, where men and women can’t read, where scientific advances of the ages are the preserve of the rich, where artist and poets are doomed to endless repetitions and sterile re-workings of past masterpieces. Nothing is new. New does not exist. Nothing changes, nothing grows, evolves, develops. Time has stopped. Progress is forbidden.”

The world of Incarceron, or should I say the Outside, is stuck in an eighteenth-century time period by decree of King Endor. Time no longer exists. And the ‘Era’ as they call it, is never-changing. This is an interesting idea – outlawing time, simply getting rid of time and imposing a period from the past on what is actually a futuristic premise. What would people do if high-tech gadgets that allowed for convenience existed, and then were not allowed to use them? Well, of course they would still be used illegally, which is what happens in the book. One thing I thought was interesting was when Claudia and Jared are ridding out to visit the Steel Wolf supporter and they pass by a hovel. Jared comments that only the rich enjoy comfort in this time period, which is very true. But, since everyone knows it’s a sham, why would they stand for it?

Even if a time period was superimposed upon another, you cannot keep time standing still forever. Wouldn’t the poor classes eventually ban together and rise up in rebellion? Wouldn’t commerce and capitalism and the pursuit of the betterment of one’s station overpower strict structures of time and eventually lead to change and even the burgeoning of a middle class? Or a rebellion that results in a change of power? Or any number of things that have happened in the course of human events? And after all, this is why we have change over time, why change exists at all. The world by its nature cannot be stagnant. All things change in time. So wouldn’t this decree of outlawing time and keeping the world in one perpetual state eventually become invalid simply because of the course of human events? You could write a whole book just considering that premise.

Ambition is Destruction: Technology in a Perfect World

“ “…There was no provision for the death penalty, but the prison is in charge now. It is thinking for itself.”
In the silence, Keiro said, “Did they really think it would work?”
After a moment Gildas turned the page… “It seems so. He is not clear about what went wrong. Perhaps some unplanned element entered and tipped the balance… a small act, so that the flaw in their perfect ecosystem gradually grew and destroyed it. Perhaps Incarceron itself malfunctioned, became a tyrant. That certainly happened, but was it cause or effect? And then there’s this.” He pointed out the words as he read them…
“Or is it that man contains within himself the seeds of evil. That even if he is placed in a paradise perfectly formed for him, he will poison it, slowly, with his own jealousies and desires. I fear it may be that we blame the prison for our own corruption, and I do not accept myself, for I too am one who has killed and looked only to my own gain.” ”

There are two very strong messages in the above passage that embody the other two fundamental themes of this book: technology and Utopia.

First of all, technology. The idea that machines will take over and become tyrants, that we spell our own destruction or create our own enslavement or imprisonment by our technology, is a well-worn one. But as we now live in a world where new and more advanced technology appears to surface before its predecessor leaves the factory, and our computers and cell phones become obsolete almost as soon as we purchase them, it’s an issue that is often on our minds and one that deserves serious consideration. Incarceron’s tale of how the prison’s technology overruns its makers and keeps a whole population in its grip is a warning tale (perhaps in the extreme) of what happens when our technology gets too advanced and we know too much for our own good. The fear of going too far, of pushing the boundaries to the absolute limit and then having to deal with the consequences is one that becomes more real as we become more dependent on the gadgets and machines we have invented to help us run our lives. Perhaps it is for this reason King Endor enforced a Protocol that does not include the use of technology to run daily life.

 The second theme here is one that penetrates the entire book. The purpose of Incarceron was to be a perfect environment. A closed-off, self-sustaining system that was unencumbered by the world Outside. The idea was that if Incarceron was all that existed and the people inside it were uninfluenced and unaffected by the Outside,  the paradise would be able to be sustained.  

But as we can see, Fisher proposes that even in a Utopia, will we always destroy it because we are inherently evil. This is such a biblical motif. In the Garden of Eden, man was originally placed in a paradise and because of our own sinful nature, our temptation and disobedience, we were kicked out of it and into a world full of debauchery and evil and hardship. So of course we can always change a paradise into a nightmare. I believe the idea here is that, even if we are inclined as a human race to create destruction from perfection, that there are still some redeeming qualities in us that makes us sorry for the destruction we create and want to rise above it in search of a better existence.

There is much more to be said about the ideas and themes in Incarceron. This is simply a snapshot of what can be explored. 

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Get it on Amazon: Incarceron

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