Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Green Book and the Importance of Storytelling

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve blogged before about the failure of our most imaginative creative artists—science fiction or speculative fiction writers—to anticipate in the 1980s and 1990s many of the technological developments that permeate, even dominate our daily lives in 2013. But the subject still fascinates me. I recently read a book that’s short enough to analyze in this regard. It’s what we’d now call a middle grade children’s book: The Green Book by British author Jill Paton Walsh, whom I knew and admired for her skillful and entertaining continuation of the Lord Peter Wimsey saga.

With millions of books available on my Kindle at the touch of a finger, I was desperate for something to read. I have become a very picky reader, and I didn’t want to read a book I might not care to finish. I had three new hardcovers by cherished authors on my TBR pile at home, but I wasn’t at home. On my Kindle, I’d just given up on Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel’s novel about the French revolution. I enjoy the occasional children’s book, I was predisposed to like Walsh’s work, so why not try it?

The Green Book, published in 1982, is about a family that’s part of a small group fleeing Earth in anticipation of a coming event that’s expected to destroy the planet, mentioned only as “The Disaster.” Since they’re from “an old and poorer country,” presumably England, their space ship is ill equipped. In 2013, we have libraries that are better equipped with technology. We have city buses that are better equipped.

Each voyager is allowed to take one book. No e-readers, no mobile devices, not even microfilm or any other kind of text storage to provide basic knowledge. The father of the family reluctantly leaves Shakespeare behind and takes “an ugly big volume called A Dictionary of Intermediate Technology. Several travelers take The Swiss Family Robinson, which turns out to be not much help as the new planet lacks most of the raw materials of Earth, The youngest child takes a book of blank pages with a beautiful green cover.

The space ship sounds exactly like an old-fashioned plane. “When we could undo our seatbelts and look out of the windows…[the children] “stood at a porthole all day long…And then we were flying in a wide black starry sky, where none of the stars had names.” If astronomers could identify a potentially habitable planet, surely they would have names for the stars along the way.

“Our computer was intended for exploration journeys, not for colonization. It has no spare memory; it can barely manage our minimum needs.” This passage alone demonstrates how far we have come since 1982, when Walsh couldn’t imagine today’s information highway and how quickly and exponentially our ability to increase, store, and access knowledge has grown.

By the time the ship nears its destination, the passengers’ sedentary life aboard has left them in need of fitness training: “…people began to do pushups in their cabins, and line up for a turn on the cycle machine for exercising legs.” Why aren’t they doing aerobics all along? Where are the Nautilus machines, or even the inflatable Swedish exercise balls and stretchy bands for muscle toning and cardio workouts? How about isometrics, which take neither space nor equipment? I was almost forty in 1982, but as I read this, it seemed like a long, long time ago.

By the time the colonists have figured out how to feed themselves on a planet whose soil has a crystalline structure, they are desperate for something new to read. They tell each other stories they remember, but it’s not enough, and the younger colonists, who can’t remember Earth, can’t relate to the details. The youngest child, who’s taken a lot of flak for bringing along a blank book, turns out to have been writing the entire narrative. So the community rediscovers storytelling and gets to hear their own story. The Green Book assures us, as we still need to hear in this age of rapidly expanding new ways of “delivering content,” that our hunger for stories is still as basic as our need for food and shelter.

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