What a unique story. The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm takes place in Zimbabwe in the year 2194 and mixes fantasy with sci-fi. The setting is unique in itself, especially considering the author, Nancy Farmer, is a white American. The novel has a lot of humor, makes references to spiritual symbols, and deals with a lot of social issues. Anything from poverty to pollution is fair game, and there's even some social critique similar to what you find in Fahrenheit 451. There's an amazing amount of content packed into this young adult book, but rather than make the story overwhelming and pedantic, Farmer tells an exciting and fun adventure that also gives the reader plenty to think about.
Tendai is the son of the feared General Matsika, who successfully rid Zimbabwe of every single gang except one, the Masks. Tendai and his younger sister, Rita, and younger brother, Kuda, live in a luxurious home with a man called the Mellower. Their daily lives are structured around school lessons and martial arts training. They are never allowed to leave the house, and instead attend their scouts meetings over the holophone. However, they want to earn their Exploring badge, but they know Father will never let them leave. Here is where the Mellower steps in. The Mellower performs what is called Praise Singing. He is able to lull his listeners into a hypnotic state of bliss by praising them. The children use him to trick Father and Mother into granting them permission to leave.
It's not very long before the children are kidnapped, by a blue baboon, no less, and their kidnappers lead them to a place far from the comfort of their home..
Father and Mother enlist the detective services of Ear, Eye, and Arm to help find their children. These three individuals were exposed to large doses of radiation while in their mothers' wombs, and as a result they have extraordinary sensitivities. Ear has super hearing, to the point he must wear ear muffs while outside or damage his hearing. Eye has super sight, so strong that he must wear special glasses while outside or damage his eyes. Arm has a sort of psychic connection with others. He can feel the emotions of those nearby, but he can't cover his powers up like his partners, and so going outdoors can be overwhelming. With these abilities, it's no wonder they went into detective services. Still, finding the three children is not so simple, as the plot takes many twists and turns and the detectives are always one step behind.
Farmer does an excellent job of creating a complex and imaginative futuristic world. Dead Man's Vliet, for example, serves to contrast the sheltered, wealthy world of the Matsikas in Mazoe. Run by a woman called the She Elephant, Dead Man's Vliet represents everything shady and unfortunate about impoverished areas: litter, enslavement, and kidnapping children for the purpose of selling them. The land is covered with plastic, which we're informed is no longer produced because of an energy crisis some time ago, but is apparently valuable because the She Elephant forces the people to mine for it. The children are brought here and forced to work, and there's the sinister threat of being sold. This is the kind of area that those who are well off choose to ignore because they have a Mellower to make them feel better and forget the world's woes. That the setting is in Africa is not a coincidence; it is a continent with many woes which those in first world countries fail to notice or care about.
Very few of the characters are fleshed out to the extent Farmer's Zimbabwe is. However, Farmer's aim is comedy more than anything. Tendai's siblings, Rita and Kuda, each have just one personality trait, but they are comically effective. Farmer, fortunately, does allow a touching scene halfway through the book between Rita and Tendai. Another major player is Trashman, a simple man who meets the children while they're in Dead Man's Vliet and instantly befriends Kuda, because the two understand one another. The Mellower, we find, has only one purpose - to please people - and Ear and Eye are hardly distinguishable except in their talents. Father and Mother are desperate to find their children, otherwise they play only a minor role.
Only Tendai and Arm are fleshed out as characters. Tendai, being the son of an accomplished General, is anxious about impressing his father, though he's only thirteen years old. He worries that none of the ancestral spirits will possess him and give him talents and that he will be an ordinary person his whole life. Throughout the course of the story he accomplishes the most character growth. We find right away that he is his father's son, as he has no lack of courage when he faces his kidnappers, and it's this courage that allows the Matsika children to survive. Arm is also given room for growth. Of the three detectives, he appears to be the leader. His powers seem less impressive than those of his partners at first, but they develop in interesting ways. Eventually he's able to look into the minds of others, and more incredible things happen, including some hilarious scenes with a baby.
The novel has a lot of intertwining themes, so many that it's difficult to keep track of them all. I'll just mention a few. There is attention given to Utopian societies, in particular one called Resthaven, which is isolated from the rest of the country so its residents can remain ignorant of the advances and practices of the outside world. Resthaven is troubling to those rare outsiders who make their way in, because of the superstitious culture and strict gender roles, but it lacks the crime of the surrounding city. The only things the residents fear are witches and bogeymen. The question Farmer poses is whether it is worthwhile to trade progress for security, and it is a question many real Utopian societies have attempted to answer.
Most of all, this book is a lot of fun. There are lots of moments that had me laughing out loud, and I admired the two main characters, Tendai and Arm. Farmer creates a very intriguing world mixed with the old and the new. In all, I think Farmer wants to say that in societies there is a system of balances. Wealth breeds poverty, good breeds bad, and sometimes those things that seem good really aren't, and those things that seem bad really aren't. As Arm points out, there are some bad people who still have a function within a society, such as the She Elephant, but there are some bad people, like the Masks, who are a destructive evil and don't belong. The trick is knowing the difference between the two and finding the right balance between them in order to keep society afloat.