Monday, June 8, 2009

Cool Devices - His Dark Materials

When the movie "The Golden Compass" was released into theaters there was a nice big stink about the movie being a gateway leading children onto the doorstep of atheism. All the fervor got my attention, and caused me to pick up the book. I didn't get around to actually reading it until recently, and found the book to be a very good adventure tale with an interesting setting and an intriguing set of fantasy ideas. It was good enough for me to pick up the second novel "The Subtle Knife" and the final book "The Amber Spyglass" and read them back to back. I'm not going to delve too much into a full blown book review here, but I will say three things. I enjoyed the series. I don't know how or why the studio thought this would make a good mainstream movie series. The books actually promote spiritual thinking but not blind following of religious doctrine.

What if found very interesting was the actual device of the golden compass, or to use it's real name, the alethiometer. According to the all powerful Wiki, alethia is the Greek word for truth. Meter means, to measure, so it follows that the alethiometer is an object that measures the truth. As a pure story telling element this becomes something that can provide not only solutions to story telling problems but can be used to create problems as well.

For example, the main character, Lyra, can now be guided by the alethiometer, by asking it what she needs to do next - instant motivation! Need to find out where something is located, ask the alethiometer. Wanna find out if someone is lying to you, no problem. Suddenly this becomes more than just a device in the story but an actual storytelling device - easy to use and easy to abuse.

Pullman avoids abusing the alethiometer, instead focusing on having the main characters figure their own way out of problems. Many times the characters are in so much peril that they forget they even have the alethiometer with them, and only have time to react to situations instinctually. In fact Pullman actually uses the alethiometer to create problems. There are a number of times when the device tells Lyra to follow a path that she is hesitant to take, or are contradicting her gut instinct. This obviously creates tension, especially when she reveals the truth according to the alethiometer to other characters. They urge her to follow its lead, instead of her own feelings. On top of that, the alethiometer is stolen or lost, and this creates instant conflict and motivation.

Finally, Pullman has another reason to include the alethiometer in his story. He manages to use the device to tie into his over arching themes. There is a reason the alethiometer tells the truth ( I won't reveal it here), and part of that has to do with the themes dealing with guidance and rules. It allows the reader to ask tough questions like - what is truth? How blindly should you follow anything (or anyone)? What are the benefits of intuition over accumulated knowledge? Pretty heady stuff for a fun fantasy novel, and that's the thing - the "His Dark Materials" trilogy attempts to speak to an audience who wants to ask questions and find out answers on their own, while weaving an exciting adventure tale at the same time.

Have you ever read a book that used actual devices in a good or bad way to move the story? Have you read "His Dark Materials"? What did you think of it? Do you think Pullman cheated by using the alethiometer?

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