Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Scarecrow and His Servant - Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman's The Scarecrow and His Servant (which was recently shortlisted for the Nestle Children's Book Prize) is a fun book that can be read on several levels. Younger readers will relish the craziness of a scarecrow that comes to life and goes off having weird and wild adventures in the company of a small boy named Jack. The adventures include scaring off a band of ruffians, appearing with a band of travelling players as a "prop", hiring out as a bird scarer (naturally), falling in love with a broomstick, encountering a travelling astrologer, joining a regiment and thus being involved in a battle, and being shipwrecked on a desert island.

Older readers will observe that the book is also an indictment against big businesses that take over land and destroy the environment, and unscrupulous lawyers and judges. Jack and the Scarecrow's final adventure involves appearing in a court case so that the Scarecrow can claim ownership of Spring Valley, the place in which he was created and first lived. The unscrupulous judge and lawyers are all related to the owners of the company that has taken over Spring Valley and are rapidly poisoning the land and drying up all the water.

There is another thought-provoking aspect to this book as well; during the course of his many adventures the Scarecrow, being mostly made of wood and straw (with a turnip for a head) loses his various extremeties, one arm is replaced by the arm of a wooden signpost, another is replaced by an umbrella, his spine is replaced by an ordinary stick, and his head by a coconut - he had already lost the pea that served as his brain, which was eaten by a blackbird after the Scarecrow dislodged it from his turnip head. During the court case, the lawyers argue that the Scarecrow isn't the original one created by the farmer, Carlo Pandolfi, who owned the farm in Spring Valley where the Scarecrow originated, because all his extremeties have been replaced since his creation. This is an interesting argument. Owing to the way modern medicine and technology are moving, it is already possible to have a realistic artificial hand that mimics a human one and can be connected to the muscles in the arm via a small processing unit and is controlled by small contractions of the muscles which move the wrist. Which means that with this hand the "owner" could clutch objects such as a ball, move the thumb out to one side and grip objects with the index finger in the way you do when opening a lock with a key, and wrap the fingers around an object in what is called the power grip - like the one you use when holding a hammer or a microphone. It won't be long before such artificial hands are common-place, and it will be a surprisingly short time before scientists and doctors create not only artificial limbs like this hand, but perhaps even artificial spines, so that paraplegics and quadraplegics can regain movement in their bodies. From there it's quite a small step to a bionic man or woman, and then it may be that the only natural thing left will be the brain... And if artificial intelligence can be developed sufficiently far enough, I can imagine that it will one day be possible to "download" one's memories and experiences into an artificial brain, so that one could live even longer. But would such a person still be a person ? If all your limbs are replaced, as the Scarecrow's were, are you the same person ? And are you the same person, still "you", if your brain is artificial too, but contains all your memories ? It's an interesting question - both for philosophers and theologians - but I doubt that I'll be around to find out the answer !


Mrs. Coulter said...

Yet another book for me to read. As much as I love His Dark Materials, I really don't want Pullman to return to it. It's a complete story already. I'm glad he's turning his talents to something else!

I still haven't managed to sit down with "The Creature in the Case," though my father-in-law read it while they were visiting (he loved Sabriel, etc.) and said it was a good set-up for a full-length sequel. Hint, hint, Garth Nix: there is still more for you to do with this universe!

Michele said...

I do hope you get to read The Creature in the Case soon ! I started The Ragwitch last night, but couldn't go on with it - far too dark for my taste.

I'm glad that Philip Pullman's writing more - although I'm disappointed that The Book of Dust won't include Will, as I really liked him.