Book Review: Empire, by Orson Scott Card
Does the idea of a book about a near future American civil war between conservatives and liberals sound interesting to you? Complete, of course, with a George Soros-clone turned militant leader, and mechanical robots policing New York and EMP laser weapons taking down F-16s?
Before I get into reviewing this book, let me just say that I’ve been an Orson Scott Card fan since I was 12. I’ve read almost every book he has published, even the way-far-out-there LDS material. Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books of all time.
This book, unfortunately, left a bad taste in my mouth, the same way that all of Michael Crighton’s books have since somewhere around Disclosure. It’s blunt, predictable, and seems written more for screenplay or a video game than as a full fledged novel.
There have been a lot of flame wars about this novel online, mostly from people who haven’t read the full book. Orson Scott Card has, for the past decade, developed a habit of sharing early chapters of books, for free, online, to solicit opinion and feedback from his fans. I think it’s safe to say that most science fiction fans, who skew to the left, didn’t take to kindly to a world where a “Progressive Restoration” raised its own army to “liberate” New York from the false US Government in power since 2000.
You can check out the fun at Amazon.com, in their book reviews. Liberal blogs like Lean Left skewer Card for his conservative mentality, although it turns out he’s a registered Democrat (My favorite part of that one is the fact that the author had not actually read the book. Sigh.) Here is a Podcast of an interview with Orson Scott Card. More interesting, here is an interview with Card about the state of video games on Wired.
Back to the book.
There are some redeeming elements worth noting.
First, maybe I’m just in a “Rome” state of mind these days, thanks to the HBO series, but I liked the idea that the United States of America is not currently comparable to the end days of the Roman Empire. Instead, the book posits that America today is like the last days of the Roman republic, in the immediate years before Octavian rose to power, quelled civil discontent, and established an Imperial line as Augustus Caeser.
Second, most critics haven’t read Orson Scott Card’s afterward to the novel, which really seems to make a heartfelt entreaty to move past the currrently hyper-partisan atmosphere. There is no doubt that Card skews conservative, but he states that there are dangerous extremists on both the left and the right, and that too many issues have been arbitrarily grouped together (abortion & global warming?) in order to villify and divide people as “red” or “blue”. This book is a clumsy expression of these sentiments, meant to highlight the dangers of such radical polarization, but it seems earnest.
As a side note, Card begins each chapter with quotes from one of his characters, a historian turned proto-dictator. Some of them are pretty neat:
If you always behave rationally, then reason becomes the leash by which your enemy pulls you. Yet if you knowingly make irrational decisions, have you not betrayed your own ability?
It is possible to be too much smarter than your opponent. If you give him credit for more subtlety than he has, he can achieve tactical surprise by doing the obvious.
In war planning, you must anticipate the actions of the enemy. Be careful lest your preventative measures teach the enemy which of his possible actions you most fear.
My prediction? Card uses these to write the next great trendy business leadership book, based on these pseudo-Sun-Tzu dictates…
In all seriousness, Orson Scott Card’s novels have become caricatures of his original style. Maybe it’s the price of success and insolation, maybe it’s just lowest common denominator publishing. I don’t know. I’m not unhappy that I read this book, but it felt about as deep and impactful as a reality show… within weeks I expect that I’ll have forgotten most of it.
Summary: If you like Orson Scott Card, reading this book isn’t worse than reading any of his other most recent novels. But you’d probably be better off going back and re-reading Ender’s Game again.